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There is No Such Thing As a Benign Dictatorship (2017-10-10)

C. Osborne, April 2014



Ethnogenesis and Its Discontents (2017-10-03)

'Back in the teapot with you, now...' not what happened in the book, but close enough for now. Back in the teapot with you, now...' not what happened in the book, but close enough for now.
Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

As is my habit when writing from a starting point on a more or less obscure word, I went straight to my OED to have a look at the meaning of "ethnogenesis" for this thoughtpiece. This led to a relatively shallow though still unexpected rabbit hole. It seems that as of 1971, not only was "ethnogenesis" not included in the OED, according to my compact edition that dates from that printing year, it wasn't a thing yet at all. The closest word to it then was "ethnogeny," referring to "that branch of ethnology which treats of the origin of races, nations, and peoples." Which of course forced me to look up ethnology, the "study of the characteristics of various peoples and the differences and relationships between them." This is something more commonly referred to as anthropology, and at least to my reading, it is not clear whether the differences and relationships are necessarily between the characteristics or the people. Both are well worth studying, after all. Then at last, in my 2010 era electronic OED, there at last is ethnogenesis proper, defined as "the formation or emergence of an ethnic group." It is no surprise actually that this word takes so long to get included in a historical dictionary, because until not so long ago, at least most mainstreamers in "the west" didn't believe such a thing happened.

Instead, apparently new peoples weren't considered new so much as degraded, degenerate remnants of "real" nations. The absurdity of this assumption is uncomfortably obvious the moment anybody tries labelling the successor polities of the former roman empire merely "degenerate groups" as opposed to, you know, french, italian, spanish and so on, all of whom have developed distinct cultures and have and are living their own histories. Not independent histories because there is no such thing in this independent world of ours. In any case, originally this actually was no big deal. New ethnic groups developed and develop all the time. There was and is no requirement that this should lead to civil war, genocide, or division of a so-called nation-state. This has a great deal to do with nation-states being a very recent and unsatisfactory invention, far more recent than the processes that lead to the development of new ethnic groups.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that there was never any disruption, difficulty, or even violence associated with ethnogenesis. Initially I was going to characterize this as evidently not true and provide a few examples. Except, it turns out this is quite difficult to do, because so many of the examples of ethnogenesis evident in the historical and archaeological record are tied to colonialism. That is, some ethnic group or other with inappropriate designs on somebody else's homeland invaded and at the minimum attempted to take over. There is considerable evidence that after fighting back, if the folks being attacked couldn't fend off the invaders, if they could, they took to their heels, sometimes becoming invaders in their own turn. Whether a given community got to stay where they were established, got forced to mix more intimately with others they hadn't planned to, or ended up in another place and making new lives there as a community apart, they would not be able to remain the same as they had been. So with that in mind, it is less surprising that people might have been a bit unimpressed with the cause of ethnogenesis even without the nation-state, especially if they were the ones affected most directly.

Even without invasions or other catastrophes that could enforce a sudden migration like severe climate change or an appalling earthquake or something, ethnogenesis is unavoidable. Communities change over time under the best of circumstances, and may spawn newer communities that develop along their own trajectory, becoming something different. The puzzler I like to bug friends of mine with to see what they say is to point out that really, people in england these days are not remotely like their ancestors in the earlier elizabethan period. On one hand, still speak the same language albeit changed by time. On the other, in terms of much of their material and immaterial culture, the distance is so great that they have to study that period almost like they would another country to understad it. So are they still english, or have they become somehow a new ethnic group? The answer might seem obvious: no. But this is just where the discontents with ethnogenesis experience the worst discomfort, because the answer is not quite so obvious as would be ideal when placed under scrutiny.

We can't easily pick out a point at which the divergence between "being english" and whatever a given community is is wide enough to require they be considered something else. But we do know via more recent examples of ethnogenesis such as that of the Métis Nation on the northern plains of north america, that new ethnic groups have some specific features that confirm their existence. First, the group in question self-identifies as a community, can recognize one another as such, and can be recognized by others via distinct cultural practices. Second, they are self-governing, making up an actual polity. Nowadays this often corresponds with them being subjected to violence by colonizing governments, giving away that they are actually governing themselves. Third, the group will typically have a distinct language or language practice that is specific to themselves. "Language practice" here can mean a sort of codeswitching, where the ethnic group uses one language to speak with outsiders, and a different one among themselves. Using these features, we could obstreperously argue that the thread connecting current englishpeople from their earlier predecessors is slender indeed, made up primarily of their sense that they are not a distinct community from their predecessors except in terms of unavoidable time. Not that this is an argument that can be made too seriously, because it isn't possible to impose ethnogenesis on a group of people. This may be the biggest source of unease for those uncomfortable with ethnogenesis as a phenomenon of all, the fact that it cannot be enforced or stopped by outsiders or insiders. (Top)

Not So Ineffective Words (2017-10-01)

Randall Munroe at xkcd.com on free speech. He noted in his tooltip text that 'I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.' Randall Munroe at xkcd.com on free speech. He noted in his tooltip text that 'I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.'
Randall Munroe at xkcd.com, October 2017

At the beginning of september, there the ongoing saga of "free speech" took another turn as an execrable publication found itself pummelled for mocking the wrong people. Much as I sometimes disagree with Glenn Greenwald, his point that tolerating speech you don't like doesn't entail or mean that you "embrace and celebrate it" is an excellent one. Yet after reading his article, and various other lengthy discussions of "free speech," I found myself wondering what the hell it is supposed to be. Greenwald's point and Cory Doctorow's on compelled attention at the least help delineate what it is not. Another key thing "free speech" is not, is some sound that is meaningless, such as white noise. But definitions by negation always leave me uneasy, because they so often mark woolly thinking if not a refusal to admit what we actually mean. In the obligatory xkcd cartoon, Randall Munroe provides welcome partial clarity, in the context of the meaning of the first amendment to the united states constitution. All the first amendment means, according to Munroe, is the american "government can't arrest you for what you say." He's american, so I am inclined to take his word for it. It is also my understanding that a big concern of the white men who wrote the american constitution was to constrain the government from interfering with their ability to make money. I suspect we can broadly agree at least about the "constrain the government" part of that sentence, and in that case the definition provided of the first amendment is consistent with that goal.

This actually reveals quite a lot about the notion of "free speech" and speech itself. If speech was meaningless noise the majority of the time, such an amendment would be pointless. At the time some white men were writing the american constitution, among their concerns was preventing a government from abusing its ability to martial force to prevent discussion and implementation of other forms of government than republicanism. When canadian lawmakers set to work on the charter of rights and freedoms, the ongoing effects of sectarian and racist violence inflamed and supported by what is now called hate speech was very much on their minds. So speech is a social act, and actions have consequences not least because we live within a social context, and that context never stays still. It is such an important mode of expression that people will go through incredible effort to speak at others. I say "at" deliberately. For better or worse, just because I speak doesn't mean the other person listens. Structures and relations of power affect what can be said, who can say it, and who, if anyone, a person will be permitted to speak to. This is why Indigenous people get so frustrated when some white person beaks off about Indigenous issues, because right now the power structures affecting white versus Indigenous speech preferentially amplifies white speech and silences Indigenous speech. About anything.

My understanding of this owes a great deal to M. Nourbese Philip and Catherine MacKinnon, among many excellent Feminist theorists. Another useful perspective is provided by Stanley Fish, in his book with a click bait title avant la lettre, There's No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It's A Good Thing Too. All of these theorists and thinkers agree that "free speech" isn't some sort of free random noise, but a form of action guided by beliefs and politics. And this is good, especially if we bear in mind the proper meaning of the word "politics," which is "activities to do with governance" (paraphrasing my trusty OED). "Politics" has been rendered a dirty word over the past twenty years or so, which is convenient for the folks who are up to no good and would prefer everyone else to leave them to their nefarious devices. If they are left to deal with politics while the rest of us never "dirty our hands" we can hardly resist detrimental policies and actions, or effectively support the positive ones.

All of which is to say, speech is a political thing, it expresses how we govern ourselves and even whether we will govern ourselves. That's not inherently bad. What the social management of speech is though, is hard. There isn't a single rule we can apply once and for all, because life is never that simple. So periodically we are going to be faced with somebody managing to say something terrible, and we'll have to figure out what to do about it. We already know, even if not all of us want to admit it all the time, that we can't brush "something terrible" off merely as something that offends you that doesn't offend me at all or as much, and so can be left to stand. I suspect what troubles many people when it comes to dealing with a given troubling speech, is that if their reaction is to fall back on the cry of "free speech" rather than discuss why they don't want to curtail that instance, is that they are nervous about interrogating their own beliefs as they relate to that specific speech act. They don't want to admit that they have specific beliefs and ideas guiding what they find acceptable, because they might change based on newer evidence and experience. I appreciate that this is uncomfortable to admit since it refuses simplicity and absolutes. However, this is a feature, not a bug. We change our minds based on new information not because we are merely fickle, but because this is how we learn and survive in a changing social world. And sometimes, we'll get it wrong, just as sometimes we will mishandle a given instance of problematic speech. But this doesn't free from our responsibility to try, or somehow make the bad slippery slope argument true. (Top)

Quixotic Columns (2017-09-03)

Newspaper Columns
Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suavest.
suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri
per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli;
sed nihil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere
edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
despicere unde queas alios passimque videre
errare atque viam palantis quaerere vitae,
certare ingenio, contendere nobilitate,
noctes atque dies niti praestante labore...
- Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book II, lines 1-12; from the Perseus Project
Parallel Columns
Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suavest.
'Tis sweet, when, down the mighty main, the winds
Roll up its waste of waters, from the land
To watch another's labouring anguish far,
Not that we joyously delight that man
Should thus be smitten, but because 'tis sweet
To mark what evils we ourselves be spared;
- Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book II, lines 1-4
Source: Perseus Project
- 1916 translation by William Ellery Leonard
Source: Perseus Project
Like many writers and scholars who work with translations and pursue the always difficult to catch "perfect notebook," I have had to deal with the problem of dual column layouts. Also like those many writers and scholars, I have dealt with the frustrations of standard word processing programs and hybridized page layout-word processing programs when trying to actually create such layouts successfully and usably. In particular, there is the problem of reasonable support for either newspaper columns, which are read from top to bottom and left to right in a language such as english, illustrated in the upper part of the diagram at right, and none for parallel columns, which present two texts in parallel, often a text and its translation. In my quest to find a reasonable solution to my need for parallel columns especially, I travelled the boards of stack overflow, the various listserves and archives for libreoffice, even the dreaded, ad-ridden and massive page sized support pages at the micro$oft website. It was a strange and frustrating experience, because the two main proposed solutions don't actually work for more than two to five pages at a time, and even then very slowly, with terrible screen and print rendering problems.

I went so far as to try the two main usual proposed solutions not only in libreoffice, but also in pages on macosx and even word in windows. I took a run at using the scribus open source desktop publishing software. Since I was specifically looking to implement parallel columns, I pored through the documentation to work out how to use floating frames with targeting. This does work, so long as you can stand it taking ever longer for the file to open as the number of pages increases in any of the programs listed here that support such frames. The most commonly repeated suggestion however, was to create parallel columns by means of a two column table that could either be extended indefinitely, or else such a table could be imposed on each page separately. The first way of using a table for this has the increasingly slow response to opening and saving, let alone editing afflicting it, which is perhaps not surprising. The second is completely unusable as a practical approach for anything beyond the five page limit.

As I researched this page layout problem, the level of vitriol hurled at people trying to get this feature implemented in any word processing and page layout program except wordperfect, which has always had it, astounded me. Those people were roundly abused for not writing an implementation themselves, in the case of libreoffice or its cousins. Since of course, we are all programmers with infinite time for such projects. Many self-proclaimed experts insisted that when they tried it that they could make useful documents of at least fifty pages or more, and no doubt they could – so long as the pages had no text on them. It is not impossible that the reason this works so poorly in my case and that of many others is simply that my computer is older and less RAM-equipped than newer models. However, this is hardly sufficient reason to replace a computer that is otherwise doing just fine for a myriad of other tasks, including in my case, heavy duty image and sound editing. Evidently implementing parallel columns is rather difficult or at minimum considered vastly unimportant even in the open source world, where especially among the *office projects the greater focus seems to be on mimicking every possible obscure feature in ms word that no one is asking for. So after this rather disheartening journey through less and less civil or useful commentary on how to implement parallel columns successfully without using a kludgy solution such as html, I spent a few more minutes considering whether it made sense to purchase wordperfect. Alas, the answer is a resounding "no" there being no version available that works on any OS that I administer.

There is in fact, an excellent solution out there, all usable via open source software that can be run on any OS you or I may select. If you can spend about 30 minutes downloading a LaTeX distribution for your system, then add the paracols package to your set up, you may happily write up parallel columns to your heart's content. Admittedly, you may need to spend and additional bit of time learning some basic LaTeX tags, but the short Introduction to LaTeX is more than sufficient for purpose. In fact, you are even welcome to download and use the stylesheet I built to start from, which pulls together all the required LaTeX calls, plus the template I generally use. (Both are just plain text files, with extensions that tell the LaTeX rendering engine what to do with them.) Overall, writing LaTeX tags is no more complicated than writing html, in fact it is often simpler, especially if you already have a stylesheet and template that you can use. The LaTeX editor I use is called TeXShop, and like its relatives in use in the *nix and windows worlds, many of the tags can be applied by using drop down menus and even the usual key commands you might use in a word processor (i.e. ctrl-i to italicize text).

For those of you wondering skeptically if the time and effort required to learn some LaTeX, set it up, and apply it to successfully writing, editing, and eventually printing parallel columned layouts can possibly be worth it compared to just using software you already have and know, I can say in all honesty that it is more than worth it. The time I spent getting this to work was ultimately far less than that required just to go through the various fora I read looking for alternate solutions in pre-existing programs. This quite apart from the email queries that I pursued in an effort to wring a usable solution out of those other programs, which more than once led to an answer of "that's too hard to do" or effectively, "huh? why would you wanna do that anyway?" Furthermore, the resulting files are far smaller than their possible equivalents even in libreoffice, which generally comes out with smaller sizes than its microsoft equivalent. In any case, here is my brief write up, and hopefully it will prove useful for others trying to solve the same problem. (Top)

Anonymity Redux (2017-08-30)

Logo of the Tor Project, which produces software for free use including the Tor Browser and the TAILS OS. Logo of the Tor Project, which produces software for free use including the Tor Browser and the TAILS OS.
Logo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons,
original source the Tor Project, File Date
June 2011

Earlier this year in Anonymity is Not The Problem, I wrote up my reasons for considering claims that online anonymity somehow made it a wild west free for all were at best bogus, at worst not in good faith. The point here is not to reassess or express altered views on the point, since based on the ongoing campaigns of online harassment let alone drive by trolling that can easily be viewed since that piece went live have made and remade my argument for me. An extraordinary number of these attacks are being carried out openly by people with their faces attached, let alone an easy connection made to their real names if they haven't done it themselves already. Instead, I want to spend a few paragraphs on the ways anonymity can and does work differently offline. There is a necessity for anonymity offline too, and not just to allow for things like safe reporting of crimes committed by governments, gangs, and the lesser scale ones committed by individuals. It is important at minimum for discussion of and opposition to propaganda as well. Yet I have run into various descriptions of anonymity as an imposed state used to dehumanize people. This strikes me as a vast oversimplification, or deliberate muddling of thought which is endemic in this age of so-called "postmodernism."

"Anonymity can be used as an element of oppression against groups of people," is I think, a true statement. An easy example is those who may find their names regularly cut off from the fruits of their life's work. The idea that one of the most prolific women authors is "Anonymous" is not just a bittersweet joke. But the namelessness is not the point of the exercise, separating the works from the persons is. That in itself does not dehumanize women. Women may be, and often are dehumanized, by not having their own names to start with. I wonder how many people realize that the "feminine" versions of numerous roman names, many still in broad circulation, were probably the exception rather than the rule. The eldest daughter might get the name "Claudia," say, and then if she had any younger sisters, they might be "Claudia" again, but "Claudia Secunda," "Claudia Tertia," or else just Secunda, Tertia, and so forth. Roman women likely did have their own names at least among themselves, but they have not often been recorded and are often misunderstood as "mere" nicknames. Keeping a moment longer with "literature," most of what has been designated "epic poetry" and "folktales" isn't "anonymously produced" at all. They are communally created and curated works that often some outsider has written down to make some form of profit from, conveniently dropping the social context those works originally rested in.

Notice again the difference between a state chosen versus a state imposed. In a word, it is power. This difference is too often ignored in discussions of woman-only space, let alone the self-sustaining ethnic communities so regularly insulted with the term "ghetto" or "slum" regardless of the facts. There can be a range of good reasons to be anonymous in a whole range of venues, especially the maintenance of privacy and personal safety. Imposed anonymity denies the affected person's existence, and is often a preparatory step before far worse oppressive acts, and a preparatory rationalization for additional, more corrosive ideas. So far, imposed anonymity is not a reality on the internet to my knowledge, let alone the web part or the strange zone of "social media" that is neither social nor media.

According to my OED, to dehumanize is to remove the "positive human qualities." In other words, here we have an infuriating circular definition. When I turn to the word "human" instead, there is, lightly paraphrased: "of, relating to or characteristic of people," "of or characteristic of people as opposed to machines or animals, especially in being susceptible to weaknesses," and "of or characteristic of people's better qualities, such as kindness or sensitivity." The last one is kind of funny in the sense of weird, since I had learned that as a definition of "humane" as opposed to "human," but in any case, this is some material to think with. It is quite remarkable how often "being human" is practically speaking being equated not with say, intelligence, or walking on two legs and having hair instead of fur, but with some sort of weakness either literal or an imposed fiction in the context of a capitalist, slave-holding patriarchy. That is actually the opposite of what the unsuspecting reader might expect. It is a happy accident, or perhaps even a bit of accidental honesty that the meanings identified by examining how the word "human" is used reveal that being dehumanized is actually considered a positive trait because it makes it easier to behave like a perfect, ruthless individual according to the nihilistic version of liberalism currently ascendant. This does not mean that this has always been the connotations and meaning actually floating around the words "human" and "dehumanize," no doubt they have changed, especially over the past 60-70 years, in which the social meaning of anonymity has itself changed so greatly. (Top)

Have Your Straw Feminist, and Burn Her Too! (2017-08-29)

The Wicked Witch of the West from the MGM film, played by Margaret Brainard Hamilton. The Wicked Witch of the West from the MGM film, played by Margaret Brainard Hamilton.
Still from Wizard of Oz, June 2013

I have been mulling over this particular thoughtpiece for quite some time, ever since I returned to the world of post-secondary education and discovered that a form of groupthink had basically eaten the campus that now serves as my academic home. Not very long afterwards, I learned that it certainly wasn't just that campus, and this particular form of groupthink had suddenly become the "social justice" flavour of the hour. Suddenly everyone has become a participant in the oppression olympics, any kind of "exclusion" for any purpose whatsoever is an evil, except for men, funny enough. Furthermore, an area of political thought and class analysis I am familiar with and subscribe to, is currently coming through a period of peak backlash. (Don't take my word for it, have a read of The New Backlash and More Radical With Age, or if you'd rather read a book, start with Susan Faludi in her original breakout book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.) But this is one remarkable backlash, in which you can have your straw Feminist and burn her too, while insisting you must be a real "feminist" because you don't exclude anyone, deny that words can have consistent meanings when they are inconvenient to what you think, and you are the feeling police because you are the only one who has the correct feelings. Furthermore, a grimly interesting number of impressively moneyed interests have joined in on this particular backlash, adding vicious manipulation of sex dysphoria and peoples', yes not just women's, resistance to and discomfort with patriarchy to line their pocket books while claiming virtue via what is currently being called "transactivism."

Well, credit where credit is due. From what I can see, this has to be one of the most incredible social manipulation jobs I have ever seen. Never have I seen so much that comes right out of Suzette Haden Elgin's analysis of verbal attacks in her series of books on The Gentle Verbal Art of Self-Defence. Tragically, these books are out of print, but they are nevertheless still often found in public libraries. Besides being a brilliant linguist, Feminist, science fiction author, and visual artist, her analysis of the verbal attack modes and how they work ought to be part of the currently rather ludicrous "career and life management classes" high school students are so often subjected to. Who knows, in the present environment, they could make sex education look uncontroversial, because Elgin took particular care to explain and help her readers learn to appropriately analyze "presuppositions." Presuppositions are the nasties that somebody who isn't speaking to you from a place of honesty and respect wants you to accept and ignore, taking the bait of something else that is overtly more provocative instead. Then while you're busy being provoked, they can claim that you agree to their presuppositions.

Now, in terms of Feminism, I am of a mindset similar to that of the blogger at Hypotaxis, who states, "I do not ascribe to 1) feminism means whatever anyone says it means (actually, it's rooted in some solid theory and that theory requires meaningful praxis) and 2) feminism is for everyone. Because at its root, it's not "for everyone" – it's for female human beings." Much as I respect and love bell hooks' work, this is my perspective. That does not deny allyship to people who are not female human beings. Of course not. What it does do is make it clear that Feminism is about freeing female human beings from oppression, and yes that means it does not focus on freeing male human beings. If you're going to work on opposing and overcoming oppression, you can't focus on everybody's oppression at once, because by nature your efforts will become so diluted that they will be useless. The key is which aspect of oppression you are going to prioritize opposing based on your capacities and the nature of your current primary emergencies, as the late, brilliant Andrea Dworkin noted. So there are times when my efforts are going to be focussed on opposing oppression of Indigenous people, because that is the primary emergency for me at the time. I don't have much time for that these days though, because my present primary emergency has to do with the fact that I am a female human being who is also a visible lesbian, in other words a dyke.

Obviously there are plenty of people out there willing to disagree with me vigorously on all points here, which is to be expected. Who agrees all the time about everything? I even manage to disagree with myself, simply because I gather more information, think through different issues with greater care and attention, and find that I need to revise my ideas. Which is how I eventually determined that despite the wonderful sound and shape of the word "queer" and all the neat things it looked like that word could be used for, I finally had to admit that not only did it not fit my reality at all as it has been developed, subscribing to the new queer ideology was doing me harm. It has become a powerful vector of liberal individualist politics, which practically speaking when the current state of the world is considered, I think effectively comes down to everybody being allowed to punch holes in the boat in their own special way with no obligations to anyone else. Yet there are a few ideas that have stood the test of time for me.

Feminism is a body of theory and analysis that recognizes women as a class of people defined by sex and placed in a hierarchy, at the bottom, where they are expected to behave according to a socially defined gender that systematically weakens and humiliates them. We usually call this "patriarchy" for short. Furthermore, Feminism is a body of theory and praxis applied to destroying that hierarchy, because it is a system of oppression. Feminism recognizes and reiterates the point that anyone defined as in or in any way similar to the sex class of women, is also oppressed at least to the degree that they are seen to be endangering the hierarchy patriarchy depends on to survive.

Name calling and creation of straw persons are always markers of dishonesty and a drive to silence discussion. You can always identify the straw person by how the person who has set them up will refuse to allow any information to be shared by anyone whom they deem to be equivalent to the straw person. The key marker is always silencing and refusal to gather new information. Merely being uncomfortable is not a reason to stop a discussion or refuse to listen, so hang in there. Being uncomfortable is not the same as being threatened. The former is feeling awkward or weird, sometimes even feeling a bit of pain like when you try on shoes that don't fit quite right. It can feel pretty strange when it's your thought patterns that start to feel like they may not be fitting quite right, and it should. But being threatened is no mere discomfort. That's when you literally feel that you are in danger. Alas, the line between the two is not absolute.

This is all far more complicated than putting together a straw Feminist and burning her, with all the connotations and invocations such a description must inevitably raise – and I don't suppose it will change the minds of those who would refuse to actually engage with what is written here. Yet it is still worth the writing, to do my little bit against the tide of groupthink. It's tough to sink the boat when a bunch of us are working together to patch it up. (Top)

An Empty Culture? An Identity Defined Only By What It Isn't? (2017-08-02)

Stock image picked up from enabledspace.wordpress.com. Stock image picked up from enabledspace.wordpress.com.
Stock image from enabledspace.wordpress.com, January 2013

My original writing prompt or jab, if you like, for this thoughtpiece, was the provocative claim that "white culture is empty." If you are a racialized person, this might sound not merely provocative but rather true. Thinking on it a little more, the statement then proceeds to spring problems and questions as quickly and variously as an air mattress does leaks. Who is white? What does being white mean? What's white culture? Is there anything like that? Does this statement actually make sense? With that in mind, I ran a quick image search online, just to see what would come up on searching on the term "empty," and was utterly fascinated by how many results were images like the one featured here, of relatively white rooms. "Emptiness" is regularly equated with blank white pages, blank white rooms, empty cardboard boxes, empty white boxes, blank white screens, and deeper into the results with images artists use in attempts to express the horrible non-sensation of depression. This was all quite eye-opening in a way that admittedly I did not expect.

The first thing it helped me realize is that the descriptor of the cultures of people who think they are white is of course, not a descriptor at all, but a deflection. Certain attempts at canadian history writing are redolent with this deflector aspect, and arguably those attempts are actually at the heart of the ongoing efforts by a very stubborn subset of canadians to claim there is only one "canadian" culture, if there is any. The two main attempts go like this. The french say, "Look, we were nicer than the english!" and the english say "Look, we were nicer than the americans!" The fed up Indigenous peoples say, "You were both horrible bastards."

In my slow way, I have been forced to the conclusion that a central value of the various implementations of culture by people who think they are white, is a refusal of reciprocity. By this I mean a refusal to share or to give back. This is extremely deep, and goes right back to a denial of the necessity of death. When we die, we effectively give back what our bodies are made of back to the Earth to contribute to the continuation of Life, the greater story that we're a small part of and absolutely essential contributor to. Personally, I think this is a pretty cool thing, even though I find the idea of dying frightening and like anyone would prefer not to go too soon, though I'm resigned to going when it's time. But to refuse to die, demands a refusal to be part of the reciprocal relations that make life, even if the rationalizations sound kind of good.

The big rationalization that the central denial hinges on in the current version of "western mainstream culture" is what can be described roughly as the ideology of "liberal individualism." This ideology includes key elements like complete independence, pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps, which is regularly referred to even though it is as impossible as perpetual motion machines. It's a sort of, "I don't like any of you, you all suck!" juvenile temper tantrum raised to a worldview in which the child remains in place in an adult body and grows up to create yet another advertising company and buy a ring of houses around their own so they can sulk without anyone seeing them without at least a helicopter and telephoto lenses. If anyone would want to see them, outside of the strange parallel universe of "celebrity tabloids."

A different rationalization that can sound much more persuasive for those yearning for an ethical approach to avoiding reciprocal relations, focuses on somehow putting an end to the reciprocal relations expressed via eating and drinking. For a searing, deeply respectful and sympathetic exposé of this, I can think of no better book than Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth. It sounds so helpful and useful to simply stop meat eating to stop the horrors being perpetrated in factory farming. Unfortunately, agribusiness monocropping is also factory farming, and the horrors of animal torture to "test" new products won't be stopped by that. I sure wish it could. But it's not that simple, because the people who came up with factory farming and monocropping are uninterested in reciprocal relations with animals and plants in the first place, which is why they don't care about using them up and annihilating the Earth while they're at it. Plants still want to live, which is why they come up with so many amazing chemicals that can make us high, make us well when we're sick, or kill us dead.

The ultimate envisioning of the end of reciprocity is not where we might expect in the very specific, though I suspect it is in the very general. It is of course, in the context of science fiction, and the example I have in mind is most famously presented as far as I know, within the Star Trek franchise. There are definitely other examples, this is one that I happen to know best, and was referenced, I kid you not, on the packaging of a brand of tempeh available in grocery stores where I live. As trek aficionados know well, in that universe (which is not so rosy even in the Roddenberry version), everybody has replicators. Those snazzy machines make whatever you like out of pure energy, food, parts to fix your ship, whatever you like, as long as you can program it and provide enough energy. All the energy comes from inanimate minerals, magical dilithium crystals in this case, perhaps some more nuclear nastiness earlier in the trek legendarium. Perfect, isn't it? No critters with eyes or voices, no plants being messed with. It doesn't make much sense in real life, but provides the peak of refusal of reciprocity. People not only don't need Earth, they don't even need to grow food or collect water, they can make it out of pure energy. Furthermore, they can recycle the trash into, you guessed it, more energy! See Do the Math for a discussion of entropy to clarify how that might come in.

I hope that it is trivially self-evident that colonialism is itself an expression of refusal of reciprocity by the colonizer. In fact, I have already written about this in a previous thoughtpiece, Refusing the Land.

Okay, so going back to the original provocative statement, the part of "white culture" or rather cultures of people who think they are white that is empty, is the part where the respect for and action according to reciprocity should be. And the deflection provided by "we're not like them" is generally "we did pretty much what they did, but we covered it up better." It's little wonder so many have not merely tried to distract those of us who are racialized from the real thing, they have been in great haste to distract themselves. (Top)

Star Wars Redux? Er, Reflux? (2017-08-26)

A quick snip from probably episode 4 of star wars -- obviously borrowed for non-profit purposes from R.S. Hunter. A quick snip from probably episode 4 of star wars -- obviously borrowed for non-profit purposes from R.S. Hunter.
Image Courtesy of R.S. Hunter, May 2014

Seriously, it's not what you think. I don't care enough about the formerly George Lucas now Disney franchise to indulge in rants on it, though I am well aware of the desperate gasps of relief in many quarters online and off when the new movie didn't turn out to be horrible or something akin to the strange version of "rebooting" being inflicted in the Star Trek franchise. (Or on Spiderman – honestly, how many freaking times can they waste money remaking that thing?) Anyway, the purpose of this thoughtpiece is to spend a little more time on the question of the robot armies and who benefits from them, because yesterday, probably hilariously late, it dawned on me that the latest proposals for the uses of drones in warfare are not new at all. It seemed to me that they sounded awfully familiar, and it took me awhile to figure out why. Then, as I got deeper into an anthology of essays and speeches by Ursula Franklin, The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism As A Map, the penny finally dropped. The latest drone proposals are an attempted, if not actual, resurrection of significant portions of the old and absurd "star wars" initiative of the regan administration in the united states.

I suspect nobody was more pissed off about the media nickname for the so-called "strategic defence initiative" as the various military planners in the u.s., because it messed with their determination to present what amounted to an attempt to create a superweapon in space to exert control over the whole damn planet from on high as something much more benign. Worse, it rendered the whole thing ludicrous sounding. (There is an envisioning of this in at least one videogame I've actually played, see the EA version of Battleship for iPad.) Attempting to invoke "strategic defence" made people think of Chewbacca and C3PO instead. Arguably, this was better for the safety and security of the world at large. The nicer version of how this initiative was described emphasized a network of satellites and bases that would act like a shield over the u.s. by intercepting and destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, which had become a greater worry than planes with people in them, at least for the u.s. military. It kind of sounds like a good idea, as long as you live in the u.s., and you don't know or fear the inevitable fall out from exploded nuclear devices or devices carrying nuclear material that would still be quite nasty even though neither nuclear fusion or fission is part of their explosive power. Neither people in the u.s. or much of the world were wholly fooled by this, even though the effort has been rerouted into a range of other projects rather than completely killed off, since nobody in the military likes diplomacy all that much and the diplomats don't have as much industrial clout.

Instead, apart from the ongoing militarization of the immediate orbital region of Earth, on top of the abuse of the internet for surveillance purposes (which unfortunately its current design does not ameliorate), we have the explosion of work on "drones." Contrary to the biologistic terminology, "drones" are of course not alive per se, although they do fit the definition of "doing no useful work but living off of others" noted in my electronic OED. The flailings by several "high tech" companies notwithstanding, "drones" are not generally useful. They are amazingly useful to military planners who are not so much unwilling to sacrifice human lives, since that has never stopped them before and they aren't too worried about non-combatants let alone whichever humans they label "enemies," as they are unwilling to suffer warfare and its fallout too close to home, including any requirement to train more than the minimum number of people to carry out the warfare. Avoiding warfare too close to home should sound familiar – this was part of the idea behind the original "blow up the icbms before they get here" logic.

To be clear, I have no argument with not having war happening in my backyard, or my neighbour's, and I would certainly prefer not to have to deal with fallout from it, most importantly the cruel displacement of millions of people, whether or not they were fighting. Once you're a refugee, it really doesn't matter whose side you were on, you have just lost the infrastructure you thought you could depend on and your situation is far more severe and longlasting. But neither drones or any other absurd recreation of the former "star wars initiative" is going to help, because it takes as given that somebody's whole world must have warfare inflicted on it, and for my part, my preference is for no one to have any warfare inflicted on them, and by that I don't just mean the stuff that comes from bombs and guns. (Top)

Sanctuary or Troy Cycle? (2017-08-10)

Snip from one of the wallpapers for download still accessible from the Wayback Machine's Archive of the sanctuaryforall.com site. Snip from one of the wallpapers for download still accessible from the Wayback Machine's Archive of the sanctuaryforall.com site.
Snip from Sanctuary wallpaper at sanctuaryforall.com via the wayback
, August 2017

The question of cultural appropriation can be a difficult one to face up to, especially in the case of greek mythology, which, as Athena Andreadis has so aptly noted, tends to be treated in mainstream western culture as Being Part of Everyone's Furniture. It seems like there should be a way around this, a way to interact with elements of other peoples' cultures, and preferably them as well, in a way that is respectful, that does not pretend to take over the story or regalia or be "more authentic" than the peoples who actually live the cultures. This can be a tough remit for people who think they are white, who have effectively been trained to treat whatever they see, let alone whatever they may find in any way pleasing, as something that they can do whatever they like with. An interesting question then, is whether the creators and writers for the television programme Sanctuary managed this, by trying to work with what looks suspiciously like one way we could characterize the plot of the Troy Cycle: what happens when a powerful, marriageable woman in a hyper-patriarchal culture has too many suitors?

Not that a tie between Helen Magnus, the central character of Sanctuary and Helen of Troy/Sparta, whose centrality to the Troy Cycle is contested, is immediately obvious. At first I thought the idea rather silly, and that I was having a bout of pattern matching on random or relatively random data, which we humans are incredibly good at. A quick websearch on the term pareidolia will turn up at minimum thousands of other examples, often hilariously mundane and associated with religious imagery. However, there is actually real evidence for Helen Magnus being a reflex of her ancient greek counterpart in the story sense, though I have never heard or read anything by the show creators that suggests this was their intention. There are eight major things that jumped out at me when I thought about the possible parallels a bit more.

  • Besides the bald partial sameness of their names, Helen Magnus is in effect "Helen the Great" and the original Helen was officially the daughter of Zeus, king of the olympian pantheon, and Leda, a mortal queen of Sparta. Well, that's one version of Leda, anyway.
  • Helen Magnus has a suitor problem. She has too many of them, courtesy of the group of brilliant but daft men she hangs out with once she makes her way to Oxford University during her original time period, the ever useful victorian-edwardian era, which constantly haunts most mainstream canadian written and visual media. On the flip side, she has only four suitors, versus Helen of Sparta who had considerably more than four.
  • The suitor Helen Magnus eventually ends up with becomes a relentless persecutor, and this comes very close to hijacking the entire storyline of the show.
  • Magnus' eventual second suitor/husband figure is relatively weak, and betrays the original husband not in this case via breaking the laws of hospitality, but by being the best friend of the original husband and stepping in in his best friend's absence.
  • The Sanctuary Network and the facility Magnus runs within it constitute a fortress that apparently the show writers determined must eventually fall, as indeed they do by the end of the fourth season. This was apparently a writerly principle for the Sanctuary universe, as they also blew up the Hollow Earth fortress city Praxis.
  • Magnus has one child by the original successful suitor, a daughter. The fate of the daughter diverges from that of Helen of Sparta's daughter Hermione, however, not least in having considerable agency of her own and actual story arc. Of course, this contrast exists in part because the number of variant versions of the Troy Cycle and associated stories that have survived to the present is small.
  • Her father is a distant, overshadowing presence who is no real help much of the time, yet seems to have put together pretty much everything in Helen's world. Gregory Magnus seems to be a brilliant and kindly guy. Except that his initial appearance on the show reveals that he was busy at one point in his career making superpowered frankenstein's monster-like abnormals (better known in comic book universes as mutants).
  • Her mother's name is barely remembered, and she is apparently long dead.

Of course, there are many more contrasts than the ones that crept into this quick list, such as:

  • Helen Magnus is a clear and present agent in the story, as opposed to her ancient counterpart whose agency is a major area of contention among classicists and quite a few others to this day. Most importantly, Magnus determines directly when and how her fortress falls.
  • When she suffers a temporal displacement that forces her to relive 113 years, a parallel to the siege of Troy, Magnus doesn't merely wait quietly. Instead, she uses the time and her greater knowledge to enable a more independent future both for the Sanctuary Network and herself.
  • Originally Magnus is still a victorian era woman living out and defending her "liberal" father's legacy, since she manages to manoeuvre him into allowing her to train as a doctor and take part in his study of abnormals.
  • In her relived time, she takes on her mother's name, and forges her own life, including a complete revisioning of the Sanctuary Network applying principles she gathers from the many great minds she meets with again.

It seems to me that this is a much better way to engage with someone else's culture in principle, even if the result was mainly accidental. It is not impossible that this engagement is more deliberate, considering the settler state of canada has been dealing with an unavoidable and growing resistance movement to appropriation of Indigenous cultures, and a growing discomfort with the federal attempts to render any "foreign" culture into food and weird clothes for the entertainment of anglo-saxons. (Keen and curious readers may want to read Franca Iacocetta's Gatekeepers, especially chapter 4.) The tough part of course, is in the application. (Top)

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, July 24, 2017 0:00:55