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Agnotology (2018-09-25)

Photograph by MichaelMaggs of the three wise monkeys at toshu-gu shrine, japan. Photograph by MichaelMaggs of the three wise monkeys at toshu-gu shrine, japan.
The three wise monkeys at toshu-gu shrine, japan. Photo courtesy of MichaelMaggs via wikimedia commons, january 2004.

When I started working on this particular thoughtpiece, it was with no expectation of stumbling on a fascinating wikipedia rabbit hole. Forgoing most of the interesting things that popped up, except for this, that the "three wise monkeys" are japanese in origin, designed as an illustration of a confucian maxim. So they are an interesting example of a visual proverb that is often presented with no sign of its actual provenance and appropriated for use to entertain children, among other tasks it may not have been related to to begin with. They are also a great example of an idea, its transmission, and reception that could be studied by "agnotologists" insofar as anyone dares call themselves that.

My first encounter with "agnotology," which according to the admirably concise wikipedia definition is "the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data." The article states the term was invented in 1995, and in many ways it corresponds to what I have written about in the two part essay For Heaven's Sake Don't Tell Them Anything, referring to it there as "anti-information" (part one | part two). I suppose agnotology has the benefit of not implying to those familiar with matter and antimatter that anti-information must destroy information. But I have to admit being caught between a sense of "this is bullshit" and "this could be useful." Useful because the aspect that people who study "agnotology" are trying to forefront is inaccurate or absent information that is culturally constructed. And it is important, critical even, to face the fact that ignorance can be imposed or actively chosen. Actively chosen ignorance is not a comfortable topic. Not that this is exactly where the author was going in the article where I learned about this field. To the contrary, George W. Colpitts was busy explaining the differences between fur trader and tourist Peter Fidler's company and personal journals. With no respect to Colpitts intended, I have to admit that this was the example that made me feel like calling bullshit on the whole thing. An exaggerated response, and obviously not too serious of one. Still, worth unpacking.

UPDATE 2018-07-26 - Mikhail Bakhtin spoke about the changing nature of what we read over time in a broader sense on page 4 of his "Response to a Question from Novy Mir," in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, University of Texas, Austin 1986.

"It seems paradoxical that... great works continue to live in the distant future. In the process of their posthumous life they are enriched with new meanings, new significance; it is as though these works outgrow what they were in the epoch of their creation. We can say that neither Shakespeare himself nor his contemporaries knew the 'great Shakespeare' whom we know now... But do we then attribute to Shakespeare's works something that was not there, do we modernize and distort them? Modernization and distortion, of course, have existed and will continue to exist. But that is not the reason why Shakespeare has grown. He has grown because of that which actually has been and continues to be found in his works, but which neither he himself nor his contemporaries could consciously perceive and evaluate in the context and culture of their epic."

You could describe my reaction as having several different interfolded layers. One fold corresponds to, "well, no kidding personal and company journals will report different things, and the differences will be defined and shaped by culture." I know, I know, just because something seems common sensical does not mean supporting evidence should not be sought. Perhaps common sense is what needs such testing most of all. Yet I can't help but wonder, is the interest here partly related to the encounter with clear evidence that a white man had a culture and adjusted his behaviour according to it, not just with respect to his clothes or how he sipped his tea, but also with respect to how he wrote up documents for his employer?

Another fold could be labelled, "honestly, how many more pseudo-fields can people who think they are white invent so they can continue staring at their navels?" A person could point out that rereading Peter Fidler's journals together in this way has revealed new things. I wouldn't deny that by any means. Rereading often repays us in this way, especially when rereading older documents from time periods and places other than our own. Each time, if we are lucky and not too tired, we notice things that had escaped us before maybe just because we were tired before, more often because we are able to bring new perspectives to what we are reading. Many "classic" novels have this quality, and a key factor in the popularity of J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien's books is that they have so much detail and secondary world building behind them that they mimic this feature of non-fictional writing like that in journals and logs.

Still another fold is a bit scrunched up. At one corner is my appreciation of linguistic inventions, and thinking that often a step towards making something approachable is to make a name for it. At the other corner is skepticism of this very habit in this case, because it seems less like a tool to think with, and more like a tool to colonize with. Somehow in that article, agnotology doesn't seem to be helping with questioning how Fidler's carefully selected elisions helped reconstruct "north america" as empty. He deleted references to Indigenous people, and reconstructed all the living beings as what in today's parlance is called "resources." That is more than the article I am citing was meant to do within its word limit, to be sure, and it is possible, even likely that that is the next step in the series it is part of. But what does slapping a new label on studying the social construction of knowledge really give us? After all, isn't that the original point of constructive post-structuralism, which also emphasizes the social construction of knowledge, meaning what people get to know and what they don't?

Then again, agnotology is just one word and seems to have a much clearer definition overall than "post-structuralism," which doesn't have a widely accepted set of definitions so much as a definitions from several different fields that apply it. They have a "family resemblance" to each other, as Wittgenstein might say, but they are not identical. On top of that, agnotology was invented by a person engaged in "science" rather than those pesky humanities where post-structuralism tends to live. Which suggests some interesting politics behind the proliferation of the term. (Top)

Electric Scooters (2018-09-18)

Patent drawing for an electric bicycle, 1897. Patent drawing for an electric bicycle, 1897.
Patent drawing for an electric bicycle, H.W. Libbet via wikimedia commons december 1897

Electric scooters and their relatives are proliferating ever faster these days. In principle they sound like they should be good things, needing less parking space, quieter, lower emissions, and there are types that charge the battery when coasting down hills and the like. There are retrofitting kits to add small electric motors to regular bicycles. In terms of making cities more livable for people rather than carefully modified paring environments for cars with internal combustion engines, this sounds pretty good. Collisions and similar between people and electric bike riders are likely to be less destructive to everyone concerned, since the vehicles in question don't consist of at least 500 kilograms of metal plus other stuff. So my sarcastic perspective on them aside, it must seem like a win-win all around. Obviously it isn't, or I wouldn't be writing this, and not too long ago it would never have occurred to me to. Alas, my mind has been changed rather firmly on the subject.

I commute primarily by foot to my places of work, and on a lovely day in midsummer I was doing just that, taking a long-way-round route because the weather was fine, but mostly because I was still a bit prone to getting lost, because I had just moved into that specific neighbourhood. Everybody knows how this goes. Walk close to the edges of yards where there is no sidewalk, as is typical of the 1960s era suburb I currently reside in. Cross safely to the next block, and then thread the path among the various buildings to my office. On this particular route, it is possible to walk the whole way on sidewalks, you know, those things people are supposed to walk on, and one significant stretch runs along the edge of a parking lot. That turns out to be a problematic stretch as I discovered. Strolling along the sidewalk, I noticed another person walking along behind me who seemed to be a bit puzzled about me, which was strange. But I was on the sidewalk, and my music wasn't up too loud, being as I was walking outside. It was a surreal experience to me to run into a person who wanted good jogging headphones, and furiously took back the set analogous to mine because he could hear traffic over his music. He was so annoyed he told me all about it when he saw mine.

Anyway, as I was about to leave the parking lot section of sidewalk behind, a person rode up to me on their electric scooter, from behind me, and proceeded to loudly berate me for walking on the sidewalk and getting in their way. To their mind, this was because I couldn't hear them. Now, that may actually be true, not because my music was up loud enough for that to be an issue, but because actually, the quietness of electric vehicles is actually a bit of a safety issue. By now, we are all used to dealing with internal combustion engines that make noise well ahead of their arrival, and that is helpful for safety purposes. I did ask this person why they were riding on the sidewalk, because I was quite surprised to see them there. As a person would be, since motorized vehicles include electric ones, are supposed to stick to the road. Nor do I know why this person saw fit to ignore the guy who was walking a couple of feet behind me. Then again, maybe he wasn't wearing headphones. Perhaps in another thoughtpiece I will chronicle the amazingly rude things people will cheerfully say if they notice you are wearing headphones and they deem you to be younger than thirty, so they feel licensed to insult you and inform everybody around you what a rude person you must be. (Irony is lost on folks inclined to make such comments, I know.)

Anyway, said scooter rider having harangued me then set off, still riding on the sidewalk, and headed off through the midst of a pedestrian intersection full of students and academic staff heading in all different directions.

Admittedly I had mostly forgotten about this. It was an annoying experience but not a hill to die on, and interestingly the local police began ticketing people who were riding their electric two wheeled vehicles that were not retrofitted bicycles rather vigorously a couple of weeks later. What brought it back to mind was beginning to stumble on articles discussing the looming clash between pedestrian rights and the rights of people riding electric bicycles and their close cousins to ride safely. I don't actually agree that there is a clash here, or if there is one, it isn't about pedestrians versus people riding motorized vehicles. Rather, it is between people who feel entitled to take over any space they like as soon as it suits them once they are riding on or inside a vehicle driven by something more than their own arms or legs.

Many of us at least know of somebody who is mild mannered and fine to be around, until they get inside their car. Inside the car they seem to enter a world in which they are soldiers perpetually hopped up on angry pills, driving a massive tank and forced to move about within a dreadful, slow-moving stream of vile horse-drawn model T fords. They rant, they swear, they threaten outrageous acts of so-called "road rage." Perhaps we originally knew this person and then hastily retreated. In any case, they seem to feel once behind the wheel, that the road belongs to them, and since they now get to most places they'd like to go in far less time than a day's walk, how dare there be anything or anyone getting in their way. I do appreciate how frustrating it is to realize that but for rush hour, you could have been wherever you were going an hour ago. I've been there more than once when commuting in larger centres by bus. But being on a motor-driven vehicle does not give anybody eminent domain over the road and any sidewalks on either side of it. I'm fairly sure this isn't taught as part of the licensing process for motor vehicles, so people must be absorbing this attitude from observations of other drivers and riders. On top of that, I suppose that the electric scooter riders may feel a special annoyance when they can't take as full advantage of the size of their vehicles as they would like by riding far closer to their workplaces for instance, and locking up at the bike rack.

All of which really is too bad, because electric scooters and similar vehicles have a lot working in their favour. But I suppose as long as there is so much by way of advertising and the behaviour of other people reinforcing the idea that pedestrians are contemptible for using their feet to get around and taking up space to do so, then it will be difficult to avoid unpleasant encounters. Even if the pedestrians in question forgo all pretence to listening to music players, walking on anything but a sidewalk, or walking anywhere near a parking lot. (Top)

Parades Versus Marches (2018-09-11)

Lesbians marching, 1980s (more information pending). Lesbians marching, 1980s (more information pending).
Lesbians marching, 1980s. Photo courtesy of the Lesbian Herstory Project, july 2018

Today's foray into the OED is all about marches and parades. After all, there are plenty of parades to go around these days, although not near so many marches. Since armies do quite different things when they march than when they are on parade, the messages of these two ways of walking around in groups are far from the same. A quick perusal gives the following paraphrased definitions: "parade, a public walk by an ordered group of people, for display, inspection, and/or celebration" and "march, walk with a regular or measured tread, which may express determination; force someone to walk somewhere quickly." "March" includes the following definition which I am quoting directly, "walk along public roads in an organized procession to protest about something." This one draws out an important detail, that parades can be in private or otherwise controlled spaces, military parades for inspection being a good example. Marches, on the other hand, are public. That's part of the point – there is little point in expressing determination by the way you walk if there is nobody there to see the act. Armies march in hopes of intimidating whoever they are being sent off to fight or abuse.

I think it is no coincidence that nowadays there are no "pride marches" by gaymen, bisexuals, and the few lesbians they allow into the procession. They are fully corporatized now, all about presenting displays, especially branded ones, and providing a venue for various types of virtue signalling by politicians, and obnoxious behaviour by mostly men claiming to be "sexual liberals." There is nothing preventing a march from including a celebratory element, but since the whole trajectory of "pride marches" has been guided by people devoted to access to the current status quo rather than changing it, it is no surprise that the notion of celebration is emphasized. That, corporate sponsorship, and merchandise, of course. Like any other standardized parade, these are hedged about by permits to walk only along specific streets during certain times, managed by all manner of volunteers expected to serve as parade marshals and make the space safe for moneymaking. Holiday parades have long been co-opted into tourism draws, and "pride parades" are far from exceptions on that point.

The photograph is of lesbians marching in new york, and I can assure you from that photograph and accounts in various books and held in archives on-line and off, that the lesbians in questions were having all manner of fun. They were celebrating working together to do something important to them, and feeling the joy of trouncing the constant pressure to be invisible and the continuous efforts to erase them from history, from any mainstream records, and frankly, from life itself. They were walking on public roads, with no concern for permission from police or city hall to do so. The whole point was at that march and in many others, to express a determination to refuse invisibility and oppose oppression. Protest was an absolutely necessary part of the process. Dyke marches are part of this phenomenon. Contrary to the current attempts to redefine them as venues for men claiming they are lesbians to walk around openly carrying weapons to attack women with in general and lesbians in particular, they were founded as and properly are marches by lesbians, adult human females whose sexual interest is in other adult human females. Especially lesbians who cannot pass as heterosexual, the sort of lesbian who today "transactivists" want to redefine as "transmen" and insist they should be taking hormones and getting surgery accordingly, or demanding that they should have sex with trans-identified men instead of actual women.

There's another important difference between marches and parades, besides political ones. There is no way to have a plausible parade without a significant number of people, enough to take up significant space. A plausible measure is whether a group of people intending to parade can fill up at least the width and length of one lane of a regular city block, so a downtown block, not one of the megablocks in an industrial area. That can still be as few as fifty people, before adding any floats or other accoutrements to take up more space and increase visibility. A march on the other hand, can be as few as five determined people with signs, if they select where and when they march with care and strategy in mind. Every avalanche starts from a few pebbles or a few rivulets of snow. (Top)

Misconceptions About Women's Suffrage (2018-09-04)

Canadian Women's Suffrage Delegation on its way to participate in a 1913 demonstration in washington, dc. Canadian Women's Suffrage Delegation on its way to participate in a 1913 demonstration in washington, dc.
Canadian Women's Suffrage Delegation via Women's Suffrage and Beyond, original in the toronto star 4 march 1913

With voter suppression so rampant in much of the world, including canada and the united states where people are encouraged to believe that sort of thing can't happen, it is hard not to spend time thinking about suffrage and its meanings. When it comes to women's suffrage in particular, I have to admit to getting more and more fed up with the misconceptions about when women won suffrage and what that has meant for women more broadly. Let me repeat, wherever women have suffrage, they won it. They weren't given it as a grand, magnanimous gesture. The right to vote can no more be given than can the right to self-determination. Which means that what women have had to win in so many places, is the enforcement of respect for their rights, in many cases re-enforcement after a recent change that blocked them from voting. This is one of the most critical misconceptions about women's suffrage. Here's another one.

I am astonished at how often other people are sure that women have had the right to vote for pretty much ever, and it is an ordinary thing. Universal women suffrage reached its 50th year in only 2010 in canada. Full federal suffrage for women in canada as long as they were white was won 24 may 1918, and that date went completely uncelebrated by the federal government, which unfortunately should surprise no one. The racial exclusions of women and men from the federal vote didn't end until 1948, and women generally remained unable to vote provincially even longer. The last provincial hold out was québec, which legally prevented women from voting until 1940. The overall point here being, just in canada, women's suffrage is literally a recent enough win that many young women just old enough to vote today have great-grandmothers who couldn't legally cast a ballot. I should also add that women were not officially "persons" in canada until 1929.

Yet another misconception about women's suffrage, regularly fallen into by women who entered the campaign for suffrage without any analysis of systemic oppression, was that once it was won, they could stop working against oppression of women and go home. If the vote by itself could be used to end structural oppression, as Emma Goldman noted, it would surely be illegal for anyone interested in ending structural oppression. Votes are important, and can be applied in strategic ways, especially if the electoral system is not corrupt with gerrymandering and voter suppression, among other problems. Voting can still be strategic even under those conditions, though what it can be applied to is not the same. The Feminists who had an analysis of structural oppression under their belts had quite a different view of suffrage campaigns. The campaigns were not an end at all in their view, but a beginning. They served as an introduction to political and social campaigning, from pamphleting and public speaking to peaceful civil disobedience and strategic property destruction. They showed that change came not all at once in a rush, but via stubborn and steady work to keep the pressure on and refuse to allow injustice to be reasserted by alternate means. A sort of "gateway issue" for that period, as activism against violence against women often is now.

Perhaps it is the fault of the tragically mixed bag that is disney's rendition of P.L. Traver's Mary Poppins, in which the Sufragettes are presented as frivolous rich women who aren't too sure what they'll do with the vote, just that they want it. It's bad enough that when upper and middle class women do take part in activism that they are often criticized for not immediately winning complete and total success in whatever they are working on, but then they are assumed to be engaged merely because the rest of the bridge club is too. Critique on the basis of not insisting on universal women suffrage is fair enough, but parroting dumbass stereotypes or presenting them with a doublebind, damned if they don't work for change because that means they are shallow and uncaring, damned if they do because they are shallow and uncaring, not committed. Unfortunately, this sort of junk is not just a feature of 1960s disney movies. In real life as we know, the people who take part in activism of any sort have all manner of commitment levels and analyses of what they are activists about. That is to be expected.

There is one more misconception I should note here, and that is the notion that women won suffrage by polite picketing, marches and a few speeches, something like multiple iterations of the activities like that in the photograph illustrating this piece. This was far from the case. The women who took part in gruelling speaking tours had to deal with hecklers, being pelted with debris which if they were lucky did not include rotten fruit or shit, attempts to prevent them from speaking by refusing to rent them halls or declaring outdoor gatherings for speechmaking temporarily illegal, and even physical assault. Civil disobedience actions, including chaining themselves to furniture and parts of the architecture of parliamentary buildings could lead to arrest, which was and is none too gentle, and subsequent fines and time in jail. Depending on the immediate circumstances, jail may be more or less dangerous. More dangerous if police are allowed to abuse prisoners with impunity, or women are deliberately locked up with imprisoned men who will be a danger to them. Or both. Readers are free to look up the english suffrage activists who went on hunger strike in prison, and were tortured by force feeding using rubber tubes forced down their throats and into their stomachs. And yes, some did indeed engage in targeted property destruction. (Top)

The Nineteenth Century Blahs (2018-08-26)

If you haven't read Berkeley Breathed's Pullitzer prize winning comic strip 'Bloom County,' you're in for a treat. If you haven't read Berkeley Breathed's Pullitzer prize winning comic strip 'Bloom County,' you're in for a treat.
Bill the Cat by Berkeley Breathed in his comic Bloom County, june 1982

Practically speaking, the nineteenth century would have a lot to answer for if it was a person, based on the way it is usually constructed in terms of general impressions. Barring the steampunk writers, who bounce between depicting it as the best century every and imagining alternate paths out of it (to my mind by far the more interesting subcategory), there seems to be a general consensus in the mainstream at least that nineteenth century was awful, and anything that came out of it was terrible. Supposedly all the things identified as "sexual hang ups" are all due to people in the nineteenth century, especially those infamous victorians. Internal combustion engines, of course, early computers, and it seems that queen Victoria's many children were on all sides of every european war in the twentieth century, having married into "royal" families all over the place. What this actually tells us about "royals" is besides the point in this way of looking at things. Certainly the origins of the engineering and managerial mindsets I have written about before could be pinned on the nineteenth century, and sometimes is, although this strikes me as a serious oversimplification. In any case, the point is, we have a particular construction of the nineteenth century that is hegemonic in at least the english-speaking world. It is apparently derived from the novels inflicted on many hapless students who have suffered through "english" classes that in origin were developed and imposed on english colonies, especially india, in effort to pretend that only english books were real books. So we have a strange, skewed image of the nineteenth century in general and victorian england in particular via Dickens, Richardson, and a few carefully curated women including Eliot, Brontë and Austen. There was may more to read and far more going on than these few could ever encompass in their books and articles.

Bearing this in mind, what things actually did come out of the nineteenth century, besides the ones just mentioned? Quite an interesting crop, to be sure not all good, but not necessarily what might be expected.

In england, women finally won the right to vote and an increase in the number of women's public washrooms, facilitating all women's participation in daily life outside the home, and especially benefiting the poorest women, who needed to work outside the home whether they wanted to or not. The slave trade officially ended, and although that was far from the end of slavery, alas, wrecking the acceptance of it as somehow okay or inevitable was an important step. The "contagious disease acts" in england, which in effect defined any woman out in public as a potential prostitute who could be arrested and imprisoned, were finally repealed. Legislation for shorter work days and an end to child labour was first enacted in this century as well, though again, it didn't promptly end child labour or unreasonable working day lengths. That was a continuing fight, but this was a century of important successful steps to better conditions. The english practice of allowing the bodies of the destitute to be turned over to anatomists for dissection without their consent rather than allowing them to be buried decently ended. All of these things happened in england, which being at the centre of a powerful empire at the time, had considerable political and cultural influence as a result. I live in an officially "former british colony" so these are among the easiest examples to find.

In the settler state of canada, things were not going so well for everybody. The nineteenth century was after all when John A. MacDonald and his patronage appointees were busy overseeing the mainly violent takeover of the rest of what today is labelled "canada" on maps. Periodic smallpox epidemics were still pulsing along the fur trade routes, although finally vaccination was travelling along them as well, and the terror of the disease began to abate as the century drew to a close. The first big canadian "tech craze" happened in this century, the advent of the bicycle, especially once it reached the shape with two same-sized wheels and soft tires originally referred to as the safety bicycle. Everyone who could was taking up bicycling, especially women, who could afford them even if they had lower class incomes, and these facilitated their ability to travel on their own and go to work and school. And let's not underplay their determination on this point, because they were successfully riding pennyfarthings in long skirts well ahead of the safety bicycle's development and sale. Before that, early cars had won many buyers among women in the middle to upper classes for similar reasons, but they didn't take off in the same way. Bicycles helped buoy up the Feminist drive for dress reform, which of course was huge across much of northwest europe and britain. It is forgotten all too often that this reform was all about making it socially acceptable for women to stop wearing clothing and shoes that were doing them active injury. The resultant simplification of their clothing actually led to further simplification of men's clothing as well, although in the end this may have had as much to do with mass production as political activism by the end of the century.

So by all means, the nineteenth century was a mixed bag in terms of what got handed on. But when we get fed lines about sexual mores or technology changes coming from it and supposedly synonymous with whatever we are supposed to not like or want, it is worth checking the facts. It isn't even hard to today in this age of widely accessible public libraries with those expert research guides, librarians, in them, who can help you get the most out of the internet on claims about the past, let alone the present. (Top)

Identity Politics Are Bullshit (2018-08-19)

There's a meme for everything, but some of the ones for this phrase were actually scary. There's a meme for everything, but some of the ones for this phrase were actually scary.
Image courtesy of oph3lia on cafepress.com, march 2015

Seriously, but not literally. If Identity politics were literally bullshit, then we could at least use them for something genuinely useful, like fertilizing the garden or other practical applications. I believe there is an ongoing project in small scale methane generation from cow dung more generally to fuel cooking fires in parts of africa where cows and people have been helping each other keep body and soul together for millennia. But here, let me clear to start with on what I mean by "identity politics." Clear and honest definitions are too rare right now (hence my perhaps quixotic fondness for the OED), but I see no reason not to set my cards clearly on the table. By "identity politics," I refer to a mode of rhetoric and hyper-liberal reasoning that is tightly focussed on individual feelings and individualized "solutions" that enable the individual in question to make peace with structural aspects of social and political life. It would be interesting to be able to point to harmless applications of "identity politics," but they seem to be extremely thin on the ground.

In other pieces on the Moonspeaker, I have referred to individualized modes of problem solving, especially as applied to handling issues raised by social and political structures, as "taking the pressure off." The trouble is, it takes the pressure off one or a very few people, while simply leaving the structure in place. There is no assessment involved here, no consideration of such questions as, "What purpose does this structure serve? Who benefits by it? What outcomes derive from it?" Not necessarily in that order, admittedly. This is not the same thing as actions that for example, help a woman escape from an abusive partner, or a political dissident escape imprisonment. Wildly diverse as these two examples may seem, the point is the difference between an action that helps a person handle a primary emergency that endangers them, and actions that are directed toward increasing comfort or some other nice to have but not necessarily challenging outcome. The funny thing about actions directed towards increasing comfort or some other nice to have but not necessarily challenging outcome, is that they are not necessarily harmless. Especially when the actions under consideration may or may not impinge on the workings of a social or political structure.

I should probably also note what a social or political structure is. First, these are not just one person things. My personal politics, or the way I run my household, do not constitute either a political structure or a social structure. A political structure is for example, the various parts and pathologies that go into representative democracy as set up in north america. So think political parties, voting procedures, voting qualifications, and so on. Structures have lots of interlocking parts. It's harder to give tidy examples of social structures because so often the people living within them are unable or unwilling to see them so long as the social structures are not troubling them in some way. That, and in fact social and political structures are not completely separate. But for the sake of illustration, the complex of ideas that construct Indigenous people as less than human and bound to go extinct any time now, plus the actions non-Indigenous people take in the expectation that these ideas are true, are part of the racist social structures at work in north america. Maybe it would be better to call these socio-political structures. Still, it is clear that these are human constructions made and enforced via a consensus of thought and action between a critical mass of people. The consensus needn't be active, it need only be effective – lack of opposition of any kind is effective consent.

There may be just or unjust, wanted or unwanted social and political structures. But because they are products of group thought and action, individualized critiques or approaches to dealing with them are pointless. All an individualized response or tweak to such structures does is create a special kind of exception for one or a few people meeting very specific criteria that uphold the status quo. This might sound like a good thing if we mistake an exception for a rule, which an exception is explicitly not. That means it can be withdrawn at any time, and the structure in question remains in place unchanged, and perhaps even stronger than ever. For structures that are just and helping make things happen that are positive, that can seem mostly okay, especially for unconscious exceptions that are unfair that people didn't realize they were making. An easy one to point to would be any change that increases democratic effectiveness and accountability, and efforts to ensure that polling stations are useable for persons living with disabilities. It's much harder when it comes to unjust structures, because they are unjust in order to benefit somebody, and that somebody is probably going to resist changes in anyway they can. Maybe that somebody actually includes people who want exceptions, because they argue that they are exceptional. Their presumed exceptionality is supposed to be an argument in favour of the exception, because the people qualifying for it will be limited and it won't change anything much.

I get it, this sounds abstract. Here are a couple specific, real life "identity politics" exception arguments. They affect and affected communities I am part of. During the 1980s and 1990s, a significant number of gay men argued that they couldn't help themselves, they were born homosexual, therefore they should not be stigmatized or punished for engaging in same sex relationships. They pointed to their stable relationships, regular jobs, and standard consumerist behaviour, and firmly insisted that bar culture and bath houses was either a fringe sort of thing or a sort of youth stage that every gay man grew out of. They were and are regular guys! Certain lesbians opted for similar tactics in the 1990s and early 2000s, although in that case it had a lot more with insisting that lesbians could look like straight women and were willing to perform standard femininity. It sounds like it should be okay to apply these arguments, and it seems everybody accepted them out there in the mainstream. Never mind that every person, gay, lesbian, or simply disinclined or unable to perform gender stereotypes got shoved firmly under the bus. But, then again, that is to be expected, right? Exceptional people are always a subset of the larger group. The people that win the exception get to be more comfortable and access more nice to haves. Meanwhile, the socio-political structures predicated on gender stereotypes, enforcing them, and limiting people's life chances based on them, remains as firmly in place as ever.

I suspect that there are people who feel that "identity politics" could ultimately yield significant changes to social and political structures by sheer mass. The number of exceptions could finally become so many that the whole thing comes crashing down, and so unjust structures are overcome once and for all, and just structures are improved. Maybe that works for just examples, if we can be sure they are just. But when it comes to entrenched unjust structures, "identity politics" are bullshit. All they do is divert energy and co-opt people who would otherwise be in a position to fiercely and effectively resist until the unjust structure had to change or be destroyed all together. "Identity politics" can persuade us to accept a bit of candy or other nice goody to shut up and go along, unless we are careful, because it seems easier, faster, more comfortable, and appeals to our feeling that the people that get tossed under the bus aren't very much like us anyway. And they have the added sting that it feels lousy to have it pointed out to us that we have allowed or even pushed somebody else under the bus. So if we have become embroiled in "identity politics," it can be very hard to get out, because it is hard to live down having done something that turned out badly for others or even ourselves. That's how complicity works.

And that, in rather more than a nutshell, is why "identity politics" are bullshit. (Top)

The Victorians Were Not Prudes (2018-08-12)

A victorian era religious official, who would usually be characterized as a 'prude.' A victorian era religious official, who would usually be characterized as a 'prude.'
A bit of clipart on supposed "prudery," june 2018

Just in case anyone is expecting this, I will not be discussing Foucault and his repression hypothesis about victorians and sexuality. I'm not wholly sympathetic to him, so it best to read his stuff for yourself. Instead, as usual I start from my ever useful OED, which reminds me of the similar etymological tracings undertaken by Feminists like Mary Daly, Jane Caputi, and Julia Penelope, who looked more deeply into the word "prude." It's an oddly shaped word, with spelling strongly indicative of a change in pronunciation that managed to get caught in english orthography. This is a vanishingly rare occurrence in the english language. Anyway, thus spake the OED, "prude, a person who is or claims to be easily shocked by matters relating to sex or nudity." It adds in the etymological section that this word is a back formation from french "prudefemme" meaning originally "worthy woman," from older french prou that simply meant "worthy." The semantic derogation of positive terms for human female beings into insults is well documented in english, even though most work on it has stopped since Julia Penelope's passing a few years ago.

Just on a basic practical level, no, the victorians, citizens of england between 1800 and 1901, were not easily shocked by matters relating to sex or nudity. How is it possible to be so sure? Have a look at the most famous "shocking events" of this period that were used to flog newspapers in an early modern iteration of yellow journalism. The murders by serial sex killer "Jack the ripper," one of several serial murderers preying on prostituted women in this period, for instance. It is easy to find reams of advertisements for devices intended to punish and prevent sexual response and coy references to so-called "female complaints." This is the same period in which Rasputin won fame as a prominent example of an antinomian christian whose charisma was as much sexual as religious. It also bears pointing out that this was an era of resurgent evangelical religion and the attendant uncomfortable reminder that religious enthusiasm and sexual enthusiasm are not separate from each other. This was also a period that includes many examples of obsessive labelling and categorizing as part of the general colonizing push of the english government and military in the period, with all the attendant anxieties about control. That meant not just military control, but social control to prevent "miscegenation" between "whites" and "lower races" and what was framed as "degeneration" but had more to do with fear that "whites" would begin to respect and sympathize with the peoples they were expected to enslave. So far, I can't find examples of people being shocked per se, or even seriously claiming to be shocked, about sexual behaviour or sexualized violence. More often than not, it seems to me they expressed shock at these being mentioned "in polite company" if they were not "lower class" people.

Oh, and there was plenty of pornography around, and various attempts to define any woman or girl found walking outside in public alone or seemingly alone as a de facto prostituted woman or girl who should be jailed and examined without her consent for disease. "Prostitution" was a major issue because a significant portion of men were obsessed with somehow locking women and girls up permanently and thereby ending such key efforts to end their power to oppress women as the campaign for the vote and separate female personhood from males. Of course many white women did manage to win the vote through the nineteenth century at least in north america and england, and brought down the so-called "contagious diseases acts" intended to lock all women in their homes too. Sex as such was not the central matter at issue. The availability of "lewd books" and similar materials that today are considered laughably tame, hardly drew the same level of concern. Victorian era claims that "the lower classes" were commonly "living in sin" rather than marrying have now been firmly debunked, and again, such claims had and indeed have more to do with a desire for increased social control among those making the claims in mainstream outlets. The key detail to check is always what the proposed solutions are, because the campaigners most amplified by the popular press primarily advocate increased surveillance and control of where people can go and what they can do with their time. And yes, as Foucault also wrote, the rhetoric in the cheap broad sheets, newspapers, and political speeches by members of parliament should not be simply conflated with or interpreted as peoples' actual feelings and behaviour in the victorian period.

All of which begs quite loudly then where this idea of victorian prudery came from anyway. From what I can tell, people living in england today do not particularly subscribe to this construction of their ancestors at all, whatever their social position and experience. In my perambulations through my reading for classes and unsystematic perusal of books of literary criticism working with literature from that era, the common themes that come up are quite different. Various writers reflect on changes in the prevalence of openly expressed and performed religion, the changing role of clothing as a marker of social status and conspicuous consumption, and the struggles people had with the changing status of women and children. I have read down to earth explanations of how yes, people in england and anyone living in a similar climate and cultural milieu did wear a lot of clothes. But this had nothing to do with sex or perceived potential sexual provocativeness, and everything to do with lack of central heating and damp, cold weather. People wore a lot of clothes if they could because otherwise they were cold. Servants couldn't openly talk about "unmentionables" around their "betters" because that was how they were expected to perform acquiescence to their supposed inferiority. Which means that whenever we read or hear of victorian era – or any era, really – shock at sex or nudity, we need to check the context. Of course there can be good reason for such a reaction, but with so much tied to expected behaviour and performances expected that would shore up the status quo, we may not be getting what we expect or think we know.

As always, there are plenty of great books and websites about the victorian era that are worth your time if you'd like to see something other than caricatures of people in that time, especially if you happen to live in a place recovering from english colonialism, which peaked in that very period. Online one of the best and most venerable sources is the Victorian Web, chock full of wonderful stuff, including sound files, images, essays in plain language, and links and references to additional sources. It is also well worth having a look at the surviving steampunk websites out there, as they often include thoughtful discussions of culture and mores in victorian england. (Top)

The Question of Efficiency (2018-08-05)

Gear image from the northjersey.com website, associated with a notion of efficiency. Gear image from the northjersey.com website, associated with a notion of efficiency.
Gear image from the northjersey.com website, associated with a notion of efficiency, circa june 2018

Here is another word exploration thoughtpiece, which I thought would end up being quite short. Except as it turns out, the insistent visual association between interlocking gears and the terms "efficient" and "efficiency" surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn't have, because of the current fetishization of fuel efficiency in machinery. Gears commonly serve as metonyms for machines, especially ones now considered rather old-fashioned because they don't have a computer shoehorned into them somehow. On the other hand, I can say honestly that my surprise reflects the fact that in my more immediate experience, "efficiency" and "efficient" are invoked in relation to human behaviour and that other new age shibboleth, "productivity." Both terms are, alas, problematic, even more so than they might otherwise be because language never stops changing because they are encoded with such powerful and destructive presuppositions. In the efficiency-efficient dyad, the definition and application of the term now depends on a demand that we accept that humans and machines not only can be made equivalent, but that it is morally right that they should be. That demand is no longer covert for anyone, although I doubt it was ever covert for anyone working in so-called blue collar and pink collar jobs.

Still, let's drop back to the information in the trusty OED, which is trusty because it is written on historical principles and that means the compilers are making an effort to reflect the real world usage of english words. "Efficient" has three senses in the standard edition of the dictionary I have, "achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense; a well-organized person; preventing the wasteful use of a particular resource." This all sounds quite dry and clinical, right? Except, wait a moment. Productivity of what? Whose effort and whose expense? How are any of those things measured? A person well-organized for what? What makes the use of a resource – whatever we may think that is – wasteful?

These aren't intended as rhetorical or disingenuous questions. Each one is intended to draw out the presuppositions in these definitions. They are certainly rooted in the late 18th century as my OED also notes, and that is the all too familiar era of early capitalist expansion based in the use of machinery to replace skilled labour and drive people out of subsistence work into the working class. I have already written in a previous thoughtpiece called Mixed Bag about one aspect of this period, the development of engineering as a profession and its pessimistic (at best) view of human nature. The engineering and management expectation that machines obey and workers ought to behave like machines truly comes from this period, even though it is also in many ways a modernized version of Aristotle's wishful thinking definition of slaves as tools that can think, but preferably not too much. If the image associations I found while looking for a bit of clip art for this thoughtpiece are any indication, this disrespectful view of human beings has been propagandized all too well.

To me at least, the question of efficiency goes right back to efficiency in what. The conglomeration of economic structures and jobs right now that practically all humans are caught up in right now is remarkably good at producing toxic waste and not much else. Lots of plastic and related hydrocarbon products, waste heat, released carbon dioxide, excessively concentrated chemicals, and all manner of pointless tchotchkes that find their way to the garbage in days if not hours. Fidget spinners are a perfect example right now, as the fad for them blows wider and they go on sale three for a dollar. Right now there are factories that are perfectly tooled to switch to producing thousands of little things of that nature because they have been caught up in a fad and so will temporarily be highly lucrative. Adult equivalents hide behind lots of fig leaves, although there is an argument for the successive waves of cell phones, phablets, tablets, and netbooks being one. I think it is fair to ask whether that is actually an expression of efficiency that we want a significant portion of human imagination and effort to go into. If stripped to its barest minimum being efficient means doing whatever activity with the least amount of energy and stuff used up possible, the possibilities for what we could be efficient at are much wider than the usual connotations of the word suggest. (Top)

Peace is Practical Work (2018-07-28)

The logo of one of the best podcasts on the web, Métis In Space, Otipêyimisiw-Iskwêwak Kihci-Kîsikohk. The logo of one of the best podcasts on the web, Métis In Space, Otipêyimisiw-Iskwêwak Kihci-Kîsikohk.
The logo of one of the best podcasts on the web, Métis In Space, Otipêyimisiw-Iskwêwak Kihci-Kîsikohk. What do you mean you haven't subscribed (itunes | stitcher | for other podcast players) to it yet?

I have mentioned the brilliant podcast Métis In Space, Otipêyimisiw-Iskwêwak Kihci-Kîsikohk in other thoughtpieces and a couple of random sites features. It comes in here as well for a more detailed reason, because Molly Swain and Chelsea Vowel have powerfully imagined an Indigenous future that is peaceful and enshrines healthy relationships between all peoples and the land, and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Part of their imagining reflects teachings they have received and cousins of those teachings I've received myself, about peace. Peace isn't easy. It doesn't conveniently fall out of everyone somehow becoming too dazed and silly to fight anymore. That it is difficult does not make it either impossible or unrealistic. I mistrust people who claim peace is hard and therefore impossible who then promptly turn around and insist that infinite energy, infinite cash, and continuous space travel for anyone who can pay for it are all possible. Two of those are definitely impossible on the basis of physics, and the other possible and obviously difficult, requiring intensive investment of time, energy, and imagination. Well, if we somehow can find time, energy, and imagination for space travel for the one percent who hope that they will finally rapture themselves away from a difficult situation once and for all, then the issue with making peace has to do with deciding where to put the time, energy, and imagination, not possibility.

Perhaps one of the issues with the way making and keeping peace is envisioned is that so often it is presented as a state that once achieved will never end again. If that is the expectation, then no form of peace we experience in our lives will be recognized as "real" because for one or another reason, so many forms of peace are temporary. Yet the expectation is nonsensical in itself, because everything changes whether or not it ends. There are many sorts of personalized peace, such as the quiet hours we may spend reading, sleeping, or whatever. Those are intended to be temporary for the most part, if only for practical reasons. But in the context of peace being hard work, this is not intended to refer to a purely personal peace, but a social peace, a state of social being. A state of social being that is characterized by lack of interpersonal violence and the ability to resolve problems and conflicts by non-violent means in a just and fair way, which generally demands a commitment to talking things out and taking the time to do it.

The social aspect is where the convenient pessimism comes in, because it is supposedly too hard to get enough people committed to acting in the ways that create and maintain peace and then doing so for extended periods. This is supposedly too hard because people are inherently bad, and "might makes right" because the bigger or less ethical will always win. Perhaps this could be true if we all believe it, since medical professionals make surprising discoveries about the wild things we can convince ourselves of to the point of meddling with our own physical responses almost every day. I find myself thinking of a well-done scene in the royalist propaganda movie The King's Speech, in which stuttering Albert stutters not at all – so long as he can't hear himself speaking.

The hard, practical work of making and keeping the peace takes time. Reading early settler records of their perceptions of Indigenous governance and peacemaking practices, the writers are forever moaning and whining about how much time everything takes. They insist that it isn't efficient, and sometimes even state bluntly that it keeps them from taking whatever they want, which makes them angry. All of which sounds amazingly similar to a badly behaved five year old, and these were typically grown men, many of whom were well-educated and considered upper class in their time. They were annoyed by any resistance to their thieving, invading ways, and they refused to acknowledge or accept that these very ways are what made it possible for them to live on Turtle Island and further south. Not their germs, not their incessant thieving and warfare. The insistence of Indigenous governments and individuals on working out peaceful ways of coexistence.

Obviously this did not and does not mean Indigenous peoples never fought back, or that at times Indigenous peoples did not opt for war instead of peace, for a whole range of reasons that we may or may not understand let alone agree with. What to do then, when there are peoples who insist on war over peace, even if that means war far away from their own homes, so they feel like war must be worth the risk. I think we can safely conclude that we resist oppression and do the practical work of peace anyway. There is no other way to survive. If no one Indigenous or non-Indigenous had done this practical work, none of us would be here. Those are the people who win a chance at life for the rest of us in the future, not the latest character claiming that bigger weapons run by robots or brand new space ships will save the chosen few. (Top)

Search Patterns (2018-07-21)

Triangle diagram generated using TeX coding by Alain Matthes. Triangle diagram generated using TeX coding by Alain Matthes.
Diagram generated using TeX by Alain Matthes, courtesy if www.texample.net june 2008

Search engines are wonderful tools, for all their now more often frustrating than hilarious flaws. Those of us who have been surfing the net since the early 1990s probably all have stories about the startling and funny results search engines could produce in those days. There is a certain irony in how much more AI-like those absurd results seemed, because of course they reflected the mistakes and simplifications made by the human programmers. Not that anyone was talking much about AI then outside of some research laboratories, because this was when reporting problems by email could spawn an email back – from a person. I know, sounds impossible, but that was a thing. And even then, in the "stone age" of the web, the search engines were already wonderful tools. As few as ten years ago, any database with a web page front online was considered part of the now infamous "dark web" because search engines were not yet programmed to deal with them. Now databases are ubiquitous, and can be broadly divided into those that require a login and those that don't, and those that don't are indexed by search engines multiple times a day. But as archivist Emily Lonie points out, research skills beyond search engine use are not taught as commonly or thoroughly as they had been.

The combination of the apparent power of search engines and the ever more overloaded school day probably isn't helping ensure students get a chance to learn much more about how to do research even with a library's electronic resources. There are still databases that can only be used on dedicated work stations, many of which have not been updated to run on newer operating systems, so they need to run in a virtual machine. That acknowledged, the main research materials students are not necessarily learning how to use effectively are the non-digital ones, the ones that haven't been digitized or are too expensive to digitize, or cannot be used effectively as a digital scan. The latter category can include plenty of digitizable flat things, especially maps and large diagrams.

Many of us interact with libraries, even public ones, primarily via a computer from which we place holds on books that we pick up rather than searching the stacks. So when a question or project comes up that draws us into the library and it turns out that we can't find what we need just from the computer stations, it can be a revelation to discover what else is available in there. For example, the vertical files (storage for materials that don't warrant call numbers), or all those tapes and films that the library often still has the equipment to play. If the library includes one or more archives or sets of personal fonds, then there may well be more than papers and books to look at. There may also be objects or object collections included in them, especially from times and places where young people, especially young women, were encouraged to put together memorabilia of special events. The current iteration of this practice is what goes mainly under the label of "travel notebook," in which the traveller has tucked tickets, wrappers, and small objects alongside their written, drawn, and stamped observations. They can be absolutely amazing, no fancy notebooks and scrapbooking supplies required. This suggests another factor in the growing interest in "the analogue."

Before the computerized library catalogue, the tool for getting started navigating the library stacks was the card catalogue, an analogue database. Once a person got used to the way the call numbers related to different topics, whether the dewey decimal system or the library of congress system adopted by most university and college libraries, the catalogue became less necessary except for new topic areas. That is, a person could internalize a virtual map of the library stacks by getting familiar with the card catalogue, and yes, they could take advantage of serendipitous search as they walked between sections. Well, that is, as long as the person in question wasn't just requesting the books be pulled for them by library staff, a service rarely available outside of special collections and institutions like the british library until the 2000s.

As Emily Lonie points out in the article linked to above, archives often have their own customized tools for searching them, including online tools that see use all too rarely, even if provided with instructional videos and tutorials. Providing useful getting started information is a difficult art because one size emphatically does not fit all. All too many people bring with them a belief that they didn't have to learn anything to use a search engine, even though they inevitably did, and have made their own choices about whether to just tolerate the search results they get or refine their queries. Ease of learning and lack of need to learn are not at all the same thing, so I suppose that could be rephrased as all too many people underestimate the research skills they have already learned, and that they did put some effort into the learning. That's a real shame. (Top)

A Reconstructive Problem (2018-07-14)

Neanderthal facial reconstruction. Image courtesy of rdos.net. Neanderthal facial reconstruction. Image courtesy of rdos.net.
Image courtesy of rdos.net.

Facial reconstruction is a remarkable development in hybrid art-science applications. It can help in the investigation of crimes and missing persons cases, and add impressive vividness to recreations of ancient peoples. Due to how oriented we humans are to watching and reading the eys of other people so long as we can see them, the visuals these reconstructions provide can make ancestors real in surprising ways. They are also often controversial. Try reading up on the presumed skull of Philip of Macedon, let alone the remains of the Ancient One found in the lands of his present-day relatives, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation. Or the so-called "Cheddar Man," whose DNA revealed much to many people who think they are white's annoyance that he was probably dark skinned, dark and curly haired, and blue eyed. Decisions about what hair, skin, and eye colour to attribute to ancient ancestral remains is non-trivial, and without additional evidence many reconstructors opt to select the most familiar options to them. There is an important element of artistic license in these reconstructions, and that can go awry if not applied thoughtfully. Indeed, the Cheddar Man case is a great example, because the naïve assumption outside of the lab at least was that he would be fair skinned, blonde, and blue eyed. This is the case even though it seems to me that the english are more often brown haired and brown eyed like most of the world, because they are genetically dominant. The evidence that skin colour changes rapidly in isolated populations in the right climate and food conditions expands nearly every day, so of course that impression is no help at all in such questions.

The extremes of emotion that reconstructions can raise are remarkable, but probably shouldn't be surprising. A personal bugbear of mine is the insistence on reconstructing ancient peoples all over the world unless they are presumed to be white-skinned, as if they never knew or invented a comb. But the issues are not that minor. They are very much about visibility, who is allowed to be seen, and whose existence in the past and the present is acknowledged. To this day, there are people in the americas who are convinced that the Indigenous peoples here massacred a supposed predecessor "white race" consisting of lost Hebrew tribes or lost Welsh sailors. Projection is an extremely nasty habit. Other versions of this execrable myth have been forced onto anywhere people who think they are white are not in the majority. Seeing non-white people in the mainstream media not in the form of a stereotype or caricature is still all too rare, even though in north america "white" people are not the visual or practical majority. It is dangerous to play into these sorts of racist nonsense, and the current media environment doesn't help, because playing up controversy increases page views or sales of the ever dwindling hard copies of newspapers and magazines.

Truth be told, the tidied versus bird's nest of hair is not minor. Hair is a key element of how we present ourselves, and to date there is no human culture out there or that we can reconstruct in the past where nobody cared a whit about their hair or that of other people. Considering our close genetic relationships to other primates that customarily groom each other as a mode of social interaction, it stands to reason we would have a persistent interest in how others present themselves. We can rationalize the interest in all manner of ways, such as a full head of clean hair indicates both physical and mental health. But hair is also used to mark social status and how we treat our hair can conform with or defy an all manner of social expectations of us based on our ethnicity, class, and sex. Africans and people of African descent deal with the racist assumption that their hair must be dirty if kept in braids, beautiful afros, or not straightened, all the time. So do Indigenous peoples of the americas, who still have to fight back against efforts to force their children, especially boys, to cut their braids. So opting to reconstruct an ancient person whose skin is presumed dark with unkempt hair is not a neutral thing to do.

I can well imagine a person wondering if there is anything that isn't fraught with social and political challenges these days. The kindest answer is to point out that the rooms of the museum and the annals of archaeological reconstruction are no refuge, they are inevitably the centre of the storm. (Top)

Queer Intimations (2018-07-07)

1820 three dollar bill issued by the bank of canada in montréal. 1820 three dollar bill issued by the bank of canada in montréal.
Royalty-free image courtesy of photographer Edonalds at dreamstime.com, june 2013

For anyone below the age of twenty who isn't sure what people did before the availability of the endless rabbit holes via search engines and the ever-uneven wikipedia, the answer is there were plenty of rabbit hole openings available via the household dictionary. Sometimes they didn't turn out well, because either the definition writers got lazy or the dictionary editors nodded, leaving frustrating loops similar to "sick - to be ill," and "ill - to be sick." Well, if a person ran around that loop enough times, they would certainly be sick and ill. Pleasantly often, especially in the case of dictionaries compiled on historical principles like the OED or open to providing etymological information to complement the definitions like the various websters, the related cross-references provided a decent rabbit hole to take fifteen minutes or so with. Others have intriguing etymological information and some striking cross-references, while leaving a mystery outstanding. This happens to be the case with my OED on the subject of the word "queer."

Originally I looked "queer" up explicitly to see its earlier meanings and its etymology in light of some reading that reminded me again of how much I like the sound and shape of the word, but have had to drop it from my working vocabulary in the present circumstances. It had so much potential to be applied in subversive ways, or at least so I thought, even if such attempted witticisms as "queer as a three dollar bill" fall flat for anyone who can find examples of real life three dollar bills that were ordinary in their time by means of a quick search engine query. Thinking back, the only reason I can give for my earlier belief that "queer" could become a useful word subversive notably of heteronormativity is that it was and is, a slur flung at gay men. This is not a very good reason. Maybe it seemed a much stronger one nearly two decades ago, and the test of time has done it in.

"Queer" is a genuinely unusual word of doubtful origin according to my OED, which adds that it may be derived from the german word quer meaning oblique or perverse. Certainly the two words seem unambiguously related. Its application to gay men waited until the early twentieth century, at least as recorded in writing. This is the tricky aspect of historical dictionary making, it is only as good as the references the contributors have found, so first occurrences of many words are revised to earlier and earlier dates all the time based on new finds in more or less obscure publications. Spoken language changes much faster than its written counterpart, and that adds to the challenges of catching examples when so much is likely never recorded anywhere even if at one point everyone was using a given word or expression. So I can't help but wonder if a wild speculative reconstruction of the origins of the word "queer" such as the following might actually stumble on a bit of the truth.

Many english speakers are familiar with the term "werewolf," which preserves an older word for an adult male human being, "wer," the germanic version of the latin equivalent, which is "vir." The analogous term for an adult female human being was "cwēn," and the generic was indeed once "man," but this only made it to old english, referred to as anglo-saxon until quite recently. Leaving aside the unpleasant political twists and turnings that rendered "man" into a pseudogeneric and the mishaps that led to the loss of useful explicit and different terms for adult human beings of different sexes, the two now lost terms in modern english seem to have an interesting coincidental resemblance to "queer." That is, make a portmanteau out of them as Lewis Carroll would write, and "cwēn" plus "wer" gives "queer" and even has the right vowel shift.

As I said, this is wild and speculative, and any plausibility it seems to have depends on the fact that it hinges on the shared linguistic heritage of english and german. There isn't any real evidence to confirm that ancient germanic language speakers who would have used the words "cwēn," "wer," and "man" lived with rigid gender stereotypes that they were expected to perform to the letter every day, or else face censure and violence. There isn't obvious evidence for the sorts of gender roles studied by nineteenth century anthropologists under the incorrect and inappropriate label "berdache" either, which seems to correlate with the existence of a word translated by europeans at least as "man-woman." Yet it is thought-provoking all the same, on one hand because language is full of instances of relationships and explanations that look convincing but no more than that, on the other because it begs the question of whether a wider range of gender roles wasn't more common in asia before the renaissance than is usually acknowledged. (Top)

History and Fiction (2018-06-30)

'Clio, the Muse of History' by painter Artemisia Gentileschi. 'Clio, the Muse of History' by painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
'Clio, the Muse of History' by painter Artemisia Gentileschi via wikimedia commons, 1632

There are several "that question/idea/whatever is for another time" asides that I made over the past couple of years, and this thoughtpiece follows up on one of them. In this case, the idea that fictional and historical narratives could be constructed as extremes of a range or perhaps in some other way. Having considered this a bit more, I think "some other way" is by far the better option. Genres and modes of writing make up a complex three-dimensional matrix of interconnected works, which makes nonsense of two-dimensional ranges. Sometimes there can be astonishing levels of realism and truth in what is ostensibly a "fictional" narrative, so in the end I think that ranges and spectra and all such metaphors do more harm than good, guiding us into trying to force quite untidy stuff into artificially defined and sealed boxes. Rather than rattle on about fiction and truth, which has already been touched on anyway in The Reality of Fiction, let's consider historical writing instead.

By "historical writing" I mean writing that attempts to recount and explain what happened in the past, as well as writing that reflects on events that happened in the past. Admittedly these aren't really separate categories either, but some historians and allied scholars are engaged more in reflection because the happenings they are concerned with are described with a relatively high degree of consensus. For example, the basic major events of the two world wars are generally agreed on. The details and more specific significance of the details remain contested in many cases, so historians of these wars spend a great deal of effort and careful thinking about them, especially wrestling with counterfactuals, those all purpose "what-if" scenarios that fuel so much speculative fiction. And indeed, that indicates that speculative fiction as well as what is more often called historical fiction both engage with and reflect on the past. Even speculative fiction that is officially about possible futures, because the future must inevitably be informed by the past. I get the impression that there is a non-trivial number of pundits and such who find the fact that we can't act as if the past never happened incredibly annoying. I have some sympathy with their frustration.

On the other hand, there are the many events where at best there seems to be good evidence they happened, but what precisely happened is unclear. Incompletely known events of this type are the siren call of historians and anyone else with the slightest amount of detective in their bodies. Some examples have a start and end that we can be reasonably sure are connected, although the potential Rube Goldberg-esque alterations that may connect them seem nearly infinite. A famous mostly solved example of this type involves a lock of Ludwig Van Beethoven's hair, with one key element of the story still left unreconstructed. (See the book by Russell Martin for details.) In many other cases we have the end of the story, so to speak, and no way to pick out its beginning or reassurance that "beginning" has meaning in the first place. Usually these cases involve ethnogenesis, or entrenched oppressive social systems. There is plenty of room in them for diverse reconstructions, interesting discussions, and furious rows that probably say more about the moment and context of the reconstruction and discussion than the past events and present results themselves.

An unsuspecting person might think that the introduction of new information that improves understanding of any past events would be greeted with delight, especially when what happened was originally difficult to do more than guess at. In light of the sneering, negative connotations usually attached to the term "revisionist history" by mainstream pundits, that unsuspecting person would experience an almighty shock at the apparent fury new information and subsequent revision can provoke. Thinking deeply about the past and updating accounts of it are not so popular, even when both are carefully shrouded in a fictional guise. Perhaps especially when the medium is historical fiction, in light of its tendency to include truths without being literally true. Here again we run into the problem of expecting absolutely separate and unambiguous categories where whether or not they can be had, the writer has eschewed them. Add to that the tendency many of us have to treat challenges to accounts we learned and internalized as children as attacks upon ourselves, and what we get is a remarkably volatile mix. No matter how loudly a person may tell you that history is boring, bunk, and unimportant to today, you can rest assured there is some historical event or aspect that will bring them to a state of outrage if contested. (Top)

Obfuscated Code (2018-06-23)

The famous camel logo indelibly associated with perl due to one of the earliest o'reiley programming books on that language. The famous camel logo indelibly associated with perl due to one of the earliest o'reiley programming books on that language.
The (in)famous perl camel, courtesy of perl.org, june 2018

I have been thinking a lot lately about obfuscated code. Obfuscated code is simply code that is written to be difficult to read and understand. Not code that has gradually become a terrible confusing morass and therefore hard to understand and debug, but deliberately made that way. It is tempting to include compiled code under the obfuscated rubric, but compilation isn't for the purpose of making it difficult for humans, rather it is for making it easier for humans to tell computers what to do. Deliberate obfuscation was the original method meant to at least discourage reuse of one programmer or company's code by someone or company else. Not that this went far, as programmers are inveterate problem solvers and often have an interest in cryptography, so obfuscation was and is not so much a deterrent as a challenge. Hence obfuscated code contests, which for some reason I tend to associate with perl even though most references online are to the venerable obfuscated C competitions. Inevitably, crackers are great fans of code obfuscation because it helps them continue their nefarious work. This isn't really the sort of code obfuscation I have been thinking about though, I have been thinking more about a type of obfuscation that is as deliberate as these examples, while having quite different motivations behind it.

This other type of obfuscation is that generated by "active" websites that are in fact front ends for databases. On one hand, it makes sense to put a more friendly front end on a database, and practically speaking, it is a necessity. Even setting up an environment where a person manipulates and views information in a database using SQL queries or something similar is still dealing with something friendlier than a pile of ordered numbers in a file. Then again, even ordering and labels is a minimal level of friendly. That makes perfect sense for a database. A database is a structured collection of data that may change over time. A website can be generally conceptualized as a structured collection of data. So take the Moonspeaker, where the categories of data could be thoughtpieces, essays, randomsites, and on a lower level the various types of media files. Redoing a site of the Moonspeaker's size as a database with an interface on top would be massive overkill. I think such an approach would also be overkill for starting a site like the Moonspeaker from scratch. Yet there are websites for which this approach seems to make sense, especially aggregator-type sites. By this I mean media sites such as newspapers, blogs with numerous contributors, archiving projects, and "service sites" that provide free blog hosting and the like. Each of these has features that lead to massive amounts of data being pulled together from different sources and presented to the visitor. The results may be more or less permanent. If the assemblage of the page you see on following a link is all done on the fly by scripts, this is no big deal as long as they are server side scripts. If they do so using scripts that run client side, then the results can be a blank page and source code full of script calls if javascript is off, or source code that reveals very little about how to put the page together because most of what happens comes out of the script.

There are a couple of layers of "easier" in play here. The one to do with handling massive amounts of data, which has more to do with the needs of a company than say, blog writers or readers, and the one that is meant to cater to blog writers and other people who want to add to the web, but don't know html or css. Hide the code to make it easier to build webpages and websites, the very same principle behind wysiwig word processing programs. Well, what's wrong with that, right? Nobody should have to learn LaTeX or TeX just to write a term paper or the various other short documents most of us need to cope with from day to day. Why should writing webpages and building websites be any different? This should sound persuasive, and perhaps it does, generally. Yet it has been bugging me. Perhaps it bugs me because the role of obfuscation here clashes with the presuppositions that go with the trope of "computer literacy."

"Literacy" in its usual context refers to learning how to read and write, then reading and writing. While cursive handwriting is taught less and less to children, the necessity that they should at least be able to print adequately remains unquestioned. With touchscreens and styli remaining too expensive, too heavy, and too slow to seriously compete with a sheet of paper and a pencil, that looks unlikely to change. I suspect that any attempt to argue that children shouldn't learn to print anymore because they can type instead would be met with considerable suspicion. Reading and writing turn into dangerous oppressive weapons when they are confined to small groups of people. To this day, teaching peasants or girls to read can be an acutely dangerous act in many parts of the world. Access to reading and writing genuinely opens up the world and helps people see beyond their present circumstances where lack of access has been rendered into a means to keep them down.

Computers and the internet are generally what I understand to be the items in question when "computer literacy" is trotted out for discussion. It is supposed to be a necessity now for children to learn how to use computers and the internet, or they will be unable to succeed and avoid being taken advantage of in a computerized world. Okay, let's suppose this is true. In which case, using computers and the internet now seems to mean knowing how to turn the computer on, and how to find, select, and start up a program. The same skills can be applied with easily learned modifications on the fly to the internet. This is actually where things go awry, because unlike in the case of books, "computer literacy" apparently does not, or no longer, include the skill to actually change and manage the software a computer runs, or in the case of the internet, contribute to it using simpler tools like basic text editors. Computer programs are set up in a way that explicitly prevents people from experimenting with them, changing them, or even applying security patches, unless they have a significant amount of training and determination. The way that contributing to the web is now presented to newcomers suggests that it is much the same. Writing web pages is presented as a difficult task for example, even though it isn't. Designing webpages in an artful way takes more practice and can be difficult, but artful design and basic getting stuff together and out there are two different things. Think the difference between a utilitarian report or grocery note and a gorgeous work of calligraphy.

This is what is bothering me about the latest code obfuscations. They are going precisely backwards. Instead of obfuscating the code that makes up the web, the web should be taken as a challenge to de-obfuscate the day to day programs everyone who uses a computer has to use. Whether a person wants to get into the code in a deeper way or not is wholly up to them, but at least applying security patches or trying out new things to make a task easier within the program shouldn't be that difficult to do. It shouldn't require a computing science degree or similar to be able to make informed evaluations of what the program is doing or to turn off or remove unwanted features for good. This is quite doable, though it demands a significant change in headset and design approach. If the notion of "computer literacy" is taken seriously, then people need a basic level of knowledge and access that makes it hard to use the computer against them, just as literacy makes it hard to use against those who can read and write. (Top)

Another Perspective on Gun Ownership (2018-06-16)

18th or early 19th century french fintlock rifle, image courtesy of christies. 18th or early 19th century french fintlock rifle, image courtesy of christies.
18th or early 19th century french fintlock rifle, image courtesy of christies, june 2018

Sometimes instructive comments turn up in surprising places as blow bys that usually get relegated to a footnote, but luckily this one did not, and it suggested some additional perspective on the mindset of americans who have become hyper-committed to gun ownership. The comment summarized part of Patrick Malone's arguments from The Skulking Way of War: Technologies and Tactics Among the New England Indians, specifically the bit where he suggests that europeans were poor shots because they were mostly agriculturalists and who could own and keep weapons was limited to "a privileged few." This is not wholly convincing in light of how many european colonists were not actually agriculturalists at all, but impoverished city dwellers who were somehow expected to spontaneously become farmers, or at least be conveniently out of the way, once dispatched to the "new world." There were opportunities to learn to farm of course, especially from local Indigenous farmers, and sometimes from already established religious communities that may or may not have welcomed them. Plus, it seems doubtful that all weapons were limited, but the expensive ones certainly were by nature of the cost, both initial and ongoing. There were plenty of knives and other cheaper weapons that remained quite accessible. All that said, the association between owning guns, expensive guns, and social status is emphatically on point if we bear in mind that who is considered a lawful gun owner by default is emphatically racialized.

Originally european men at least could not make sense of Indigenous hunting practices because in european societies hunting was restricted to the people who had parlayed various forms of violence into claims to "titles" and a supposed right to force others to support them or starve. So in the early years of the invasion of northern Turtle Island at least, european men were absolutely certain that Indigenous men who hunted were in fact the laziest of the lazy, because on one hand, hunters at home were the "nobles" who conspicuously didn't work. By the early to mid nineteenth century, the use of guns was part of a whole series of ritualized behaviours and elaborated "sporting" rules that non-Indigenous men invented to differentiate themselves from "savages" and reassert their supposedly masculinity. Part of the "sporting" rules was specifically not eating the animals they shot, which of course they wouldn't need to anyway, if they were at least wealthy enough to go shoot something large out in the bush.

Not being an american, I have what may be a misimpression that a key element in the american construction of gun ownership is that guns are somehow a necessity of survival. Never mind that Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples alike got on quite well without guns for far longer than guns have been around. Estimating very generously from chinese evidence, guns have been in existence and some sort of use since the 1100s, which makes for perhaps a thousand years of guns relative to approximately 200 000 years for "anatomically modern humans." (This odious term was invented by racists and is only slowly leaving the lexicon.) So "far longer" here is an understatement, considering the difference is 0.5% versus 99.5%. Fear of wild animals and Indigenous peoples gets trotted out regularly to rationalize gun ownership in earlier periods of colonial history on Turtle Island, but this makes little practical sense, even for getting enough to eat. Even later hunting rifles that had fewer smoke and flash problems were still best for certain types of hunting at certain times of year for certain animals. It's surprisingly easy not to get attacked by people by not attacking them or stealing their homes, but that's a story already well covered elsewhere.

Okay, maybe the issue isn't physical survival then but political survival as a separate community from the original british government that the "thirteen colonies" wanted to get economically free of at least at all costs. "The right to bear arms" as insurance policy against being colonized or otherwise oppressed by outsiders school of gun ownership. I'm not sure how strong an argument this really is in the case of those original thirteen colonies. By the time they wanted out, part of what made that time propitious was england's weakening commitment to spending hard cash and recruiting soldiers to garrison and hold less profitable overseas colonies. The full flowering of that shrinking commitment didn't happen until the american civil war, which led britain to cut the original version of canada loose in quite a hurry, while hanging onto the still lucrative "rupert's land" and "newfoundland." An interesting historical counterfactual is to try thinking through whether the "united states" would have developed anyway, even without the war the putative americans undertook against england. But after the creation of the united states, such as they were, they weren't busy fighting against other colonial states focussed on bringing down their government. Instead, they got busy in pursuing the project of stealing Indigenous lands and slaughtering Indigenous people. Right now, today, racist fearmongering aside, people who think they are white are not under siege by people of colour, the desperate poor of any ethnicity and phenotype, or their fictional stand-ins, zombies and robots.

If there are no logical reasons for the remarkable claims about gun ownership made in the states in terms of something we usually see as practical like hunting for food or self defence, then I think we can conclude the logic at hand is not practical in that sense. Instead, it is about the practicalities of maintaining and performing a certain social status. They still represent a sort of conspicuous consumption, and have developed over the past 100 years or so into a badge of particular political views. Analogous to being "a card carrying member" of the party or club. To get the card, you have to do something, pay something, or think a certain way, often all three. People don't fight and produce their most virulent rhetoric over objects or actions that lower their social status. With this in mind, it is no surprise then that people who think the are white who find themselves in socio-economically precarious circumstances may feel especially driven to acquire and hang onto a type of status building object or practice that would be difficult to take away without suffering damage. (Top)

Uncomfortable Neighbours (2018-06-09)

Beginning wasp's nest, photo by C. Osborne, may 2018. Beginning wasp's nest, photo by C. Osborne, may 2018.
Beginning wasp's nest, photo by C. Osborne, may 2018. Beginning wasp's nest, photo by C. Osborne, may 2018.
C. Osborne, may 2018

No, this is not a cryptic reference to "white anglo-saxon protestant" males. These pictures are from an actual wasp's nest under construction around the corner from my usual bus stop. On one hand it is kind of neat, in a scary way. I couldn't get the right camera settings to get an image of the eggs and larvae that are already hard at work growing in it. Alas, even the ordinary sort of wasp is pretty aggressive if subjected to any noise, so the folks who have this nest happening will have to clear this one out soon, since they do live on a street that experiences periods of heavy road traffic between the buses and everything else. It's not too often I manage to get a relatively close up photograph of this type, let alone at such a stage in an insect's life. According to the sources I have checked online they agree at least that there are twenty two species of paper wasps, that they are important pollinators, and this is the prime nesting time of year for them. It's fascinating how many pictures of to my eyes unusual wasps illustrate the articles, but perhaps this is because the writers are mainly from much further south.

This is a much better way to encounter wasps than when they are of a species that nests in convenient burrows and pieces of eavestrough left unattended. I had that highly unfortunate experience several years ago while renting an upstairs suite that landed me with lawn mowing duty. The task in itself was no big deal, though at the time I had to travel frequently for work, so keeping the grass from getting quite long between cuts could be a challenge just for that reason. Unbeknownst to me, a great many wasps had taken up residence in an eight foot length of eavestrough that the landlord had decided to reuse as a marker of the edge of the driveway, and in a series of empty rodent burrows that had probably been the source of the numerous critters captured by the previous tenants a few years before me. I was equipped with an electric lawnmower, which of course means there was a power cord to be pestered by. When the first few wasps stung me, I thought for sure I had managed to knick the cord or something and was lucky to be alive. It wasn't quite that dramatic, though wasp stings are nasty, much worse than bee stings. When I got stung by a bee, pulling the stinger and a bit of ice sorted things mostly out. The wasp stings ended up needing treatment with ice and a good dose of ibuprofen.

I'm not convinced that fake wasp's nests work. The evidence seems to be quite uneven, with lots of claims about wasp territoriality and their wonderful eyesight and the like as reason to expect them to work. But that doesn't really make sense. I've never heard of wasps duking it out for territory the way that some species of ants do. I could totally see wasps having nests near each other, in fact I just described that very thing. Anecdotal as my story is of course, my point is that what they took advantage of was opportunity, and what I now realize was a rich food source within convenient distance. If there is enough space and enough food for them all, there is no reason for the wasps to fight with each other or pick up stakes and leave, which wasps won't do once they have a nest started.

Since wasps are often excellent pollinators and they like to eat other insects we humans would rather not have around, I would be happy to let them do their waspy thing generally speaking. Unfortunately it sometimes happens that the wasps pick a neighbourhood where the neighbours are going to be a problem for them, such as this example on an intermittently very busy and noisy street. (Top)

Filling the Bit Bucket (2018-06-02)

Bitcoin logo. Bitcoin logo.
Bitcoin logo by Bitboy via wikimedia commons, march 2014

Bitcoin has been around for awhile now, and some people swear by it and find it quite valuable. Like any currency, it's imaginary, held up by the agreement to treat it as valuable. The sting in the tail is how bitcoin is made, which is apparently by wasting extraordinary amounts of electricity to run algorithms to generate its constituent numbers. The market in bitcoin is apparently as much of a gambler's dream as might be expected, and the bitcoin craze is a dream come true for computer processor makers. I have read more than one article bemoaning the poor availability of powerful graphics cards and related equipment because enthusiasts are buying them up to build so-called "bitcoin mining" rigs. I guess with marijuana being legalized in so many places, this will become the new grow-op that eats copious amounts of electricity and becomes a serious nuisance for people in doubtfully legal suites who are expected to pay a proportion of the utility bills and aren't part of the bitcoin craze. That the "miners" aren't breaking even easily is strongly suggested by the efflorescence of malware and other scams attempting to hijack other peoples' computers to do the number crunching instead. It seems to me that there is a whiff of the tulip craze around the whole process of trying to generate and keep this new digital stuff.

In my internet perambulations, I stumbled on Darin Stevenson's article Bitcoin = Death Processors, which was reblogged from medium. (For those looking for a more in depth skeptical analysis of bitcoin, last year David Gerard published Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain.) I have no idea whether titles are determined by someone other than the author on blogs like medium, so no praise or blame should be placed on Stevenson for the somewhat sensational title on that point. Perhaps some would disagree with Stevenson's description of bitcoin as "a machine contagion – a network of devices amped to their performance tolerances – machines that do nothing but reprocess every transaction that ever occurred on their network (thus achieving 'consensus') while, at the same time, 'mining' new blocks of coins (currently worth about 25 btc) by solving a purposefully cumbersome mathematical formula which doesn’t actually accomplish anything other than enforcing computational difficulty. That is: making millions of machines grind away madly at nothing." For my part, I am having trouble arguing with it. The "mining" isn't say, calculating solutions to the three-body problem or testing mathematical proofs of one or more of the remaining Hilbert problems. Or say, calculating virtual crowds running around in giant video game battles, or generating fractals to produce convincing natural patterns in movie backgrounds or something. The utility, such as it is, of "mining" bitcoin is to waste enough time and energy to calculate the number and participate in the network of calculations that the players all agree must be worth something. At least the cost of the machines and the electricity and so forth, anyway.

Try as I might, it is difficult to see bitcoin as anything but a computerized apotheosis of conspicuous consumption and waste, without the tangible and generally unintended benefits. The other examples I can think of that are pre-computer in general nature are massive monuments designed to use up a lot of stuff, be ugly, and shove the purchaser's ego in everybody's eye. There are usually other rationalizations for the monuments in question, like that the statue is of someone of world historical importance, or that the biggest tower or boat or whatever ever is important because it is big and making insanely big things represents a triumph of technology and intelligence. It all seems such a sad trade off, even in comparison to movies overloaded with special effects and hopeless attempts to calculate a theory of everything. (Top)

We Are Not Yours, Redux (2018-05-26)

I don't care how much you liked this book or that it was officially a hit. I don't care how much you liked this book or that it was officially a hit.
Avon-camelot edition cover of the misguided book, "The Indian in the Cupboard" circa early 1980s

Several years ago I answered a call for volunteers to work on an intriguing project to develop a virtual online season for a popular television show. As is typical, volunteers were asked to pitch in where there expertise or talents fit best, and they had a special need for content area experts for different historical eras, different cultures, and so on. This struck me as a neat way to pitch in and see how the whole process would work, because they were following a process that imitated the firmspace one quite closely. Writers could pitch scripts, and then the scripts selected for the current season would go into development, with the various layers that implies. For example, basic story treatment, then filling that out a bit more, blocking scenes, and building up detail. If you want to learn about one of the other areas of work where writing is done by committee, then television and its virtual counterparts aren't a bad place to start if you can find such projects to participate in. Since I was considered a raw newbie, my initial slot was content area expert in Indigenous topics. This can mean lots of questions and discussion participation, with little direct writing because they want you to get more familiar with the whole shebang first. I was up with all that, it made sense.

No, they weren't making a miniseries of Lynne Reid Banks' possibly well-meaning novel. No, the season was going to include a series of episodes exploring Indigenous issues via the series characters. Métis In Space was not yet a brilliant twinkle in Chelsea Vowel and Molly Swain's eyes, so I really had no idea what this could entail. But it couldn't be too bad, right? After all, they got themselves some volunteer content area experts, including at least one Indigenous person. They were interested in making a great show that didn't repeat horrible racist tropes without sugar coating anything. The head writer decided that the main characters, who hadn't had language issues anywhere else they went regardless of how far afield from their own home country, would only be able to communicate with the various Indigenous characters using sign language, which saved a whole lot of work on dialogue. I began to feel uneasy, but in for a dime, in for a dollar, right? Then the whole pretty picture came down with the first major question after deciding that in effect the main, white characters would speak for "the Indians." And that question was, couldn't they go ahead and use the term "squaw"? After all, it was a real word, wasn't it? Not like buck, papoose, or brave.

Still delusional about what my job was actually supposed to be, I spoke up right away, explaining that no, sorry, that is a common misconception – I was also still trying to be diplomatic – that term is not a real word, it is a vile racist slur. There were so many sensible alternatives. For example, they could actually try having the Indigenous characters speak, and then they wouldn't need weird or offensive words to help differentiate and round them out. Because you know, their own speeches and actions would. And they could speak like normal human beings for the obvious reasons, using such ordinary words as woman, man, child, and Elder for example. The stories were set in the "americas" and the "Indians" were alas, looking a lot like the fellas on the book cover above. They didn't need to gild the lily, let those eager scriptwriters get to work! Everyone was very supportive and kind. "Thank you for all your carefully thought out comments, we'll meet again tomorrow." Virtually, of course.

Tomorrow came, and my email filled up with gifts. Multiple articles intended to reassure me that "squaw" was a real word, so obviously it wasn't offensive. So they should use it. After all, wouldn't it be anachronistic if they didn't? The main white characters travelled all over the damned world magically in a sort of odd patchwork quilt of historical eras connected only by the notion that they would be cool to write an episode about. Anachronism was not seriously at issue here. Still, insisted the head writer. It was a real word. Except, no, it isn't and wasn't, because even the sounds that various rationalizers have tried to paper "squaw" over with are not standalone words. They are elements of other words from languages that are sometimes not even related and it's quite a stretch to pretend the sounds match. I pointed out that regardless, it's an offensive term and they didn't need it. Creative writers can avoid that kind of stuff without being whatever their unusual definition of "anachronism" is.

To which the answer was, "Look, we don't care what you say. Obviously you're oversensitive. This is a real word, so we're going to use it." Except, it doesn't matter what "squaw" might have meant or could have meant according to white apologists and squirming linguists. There were and are some words that the same head writer would have ripped my head off for suggesting they should use. Like a certain word that nobody with sense uses for people of african descent anymore, heedless of the fact that all it really means is "black guy," or another I can think of one for Roma that is finally leaving the lexicon even though it was supposed to be a compliment to mistake them for egyptians. Well, that's the fallback rationalization anyway. (I don't believe it either.) And I wholeheartedly agree that those terms should absolutely not be used, especially when we are not attempting to make a documentary that draws dialogue from documents written at a time when those terms were used and would carefully contextualize the use. I just happen to think that Indigenous women deserve as much respect and consideration.

Well, you already know the end of this story. I have no idea how the episodes finally turned out, and I was firmly disinvited from further participation. Sometimes being well-meaning simply isn't enough. (Top)

Terrorism is What That Is (2018-05-19)

Clip from the most popularly reproduced photograph illustrating the terrorist attack on women in toronto by a male deluded by his sense of entitlement. Clip from the most popularly reproduced photograph illustrating the terrorist attack on women in toronto by a male deluded by his sense of entitlement.
Clip from photo most reproduced after the 23 April 2018. Specific source of this clip is Feminist Current.

Many readers may recognize the source of the cropped image illustrating this thoughtpiece. I have cropped it for several specific reasons, including the fact that murderers, whether officially accused or finally convicted, should not be glorified by having their images reproduced as if they are some sort of celebrity. The attempt to frame the suspect in this case as a "nice guy" who was "socially awkward" and "nothing to do with terrorism" in literally the first twenty-four hours after his rampage has probably not turned out as originally intended. Usually this becomes part fo the process of normalizing and minimizing the behaviour of a "troubled young man" who will either be declared "mentally ill" and therefore not responsible for his actions, or else "truly sorry for what he has done" preparing the way for a minimal sentence should he be convicted. I spent some time trying to locate original photo credits for this picture rather than falling back on the secondary source, only to find that the way in which articles are relabelled on most websites seems calculated to make them difficult to find again once they are no longer on the front page, and that among the first ten search results are shrieking right wing extremist blogs. The attempted early framing has certainly not gone as planned. Instead, for a change even men are admitting that this event was a terrorist act, perpetrated against women.

That this realization is belatedly hitting at least some writers in the mainstream is a little encouraging. Read David M. Perry at pacific standard on how white american terrorists are radicalized. This is relatively mainstream coverage that actually acknowledges the racism and sexism inherent in the usual uses of the term "terrorism" which is usually deployed only against non-white men of religions other than christianity, and then only expanded to cover violence against women when those same men can be accused and convicted of it. But "terrorism" is a term that in its dictionary definition is very broad. My OED states simply that it is "the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." No reference to race, sex, or anything else. That doesn't make it simple and clearcut for the people desperate to exclude certain categories of violence and intimidation from the meanings of those words. If that means they have to destroy the meanings of the words so that they can claim that threatening someone with a barbed wire wrapped baseball bat is not intimidation, the act of causing fear in someone else, or that disagreeing with them is "literal violence" as opposed to what violence actually is, behaviour involving physical force used to cause bodily harm, then that suits them fine. People engaged in such convenient recategorizations and redefinitions so that they can claim a free license for their own terrorism are certainly not happy to see what they are up to labelled for what it is. Attempting to use intimidation and violence to force women out of public life and life itself is most emphatically a pursuit of political aims. Politics are about power, who holds it, who doesn't, who is able to hold it. Even Perry doesn't pull any punches about the accuracy of terrorism as a label here. "This latest mass murder was perpetrated by a self-declared member of an international radical group of violent ideologues. By committing murder, he sought not just to harm others but also to sow fear and spread his ideology, ideally sparking others to take similar actions. If he's not a terrorist, no one is."

Radical Feminists have been pointing out, with reams of evidence, for years, that men engaged in terrorism against women are not isolated. They are not lone wolves. Perry is among those who finally couldn't deny the truth of this anymore due to the ways in which extremist groups of all types, but now especially right wing groups with their myriad sympathies with fascism and authoritarianism, use social media. The individual men may be "lone wolves" and "socially isolated" in firmspace, but they are anything but on "social media." However, this does not depend on social media at all. The great philosopher Hannah Arendt recognized and wrote about this very type of man in The Origins of Totalitarianism. These men never actually stay alone. One way or the other, they find ways to join up together and egg each other on. Today that may mean primarily joining and participating in social media, or pursuing a career in computer science while male. In the early and mid twentieth century, it often meant joining a local militia or "men's group" of some kind, many of which were relatively informal until they could put together enough money to have uniforms and standardized weapons. All of which is in no way to deny that social media makes this sort of gathering, echo chambering, and incitement to violence far easier.

It is reasonable to ask what has led to this particular story escaping the cone of silence around systemic violence against women when women in general and Radical Feminists in particular identify and challenge it. In this case, that there have been several "van attacks" in other major cities that could be tied in some way to terrorism rationalized on a religious basis, especially because the religion in question was islam. Which turns us back to the underlying racism and sexism of the usual ways in which mainstream media deploys the terms "terrorist" and "terrorism." So the original expectation was that this was an atypical instance of a "typical" terrorist attack by somebody who must "hate our freedoms" that is becoming typical as their ability to use guns and bombs falls due to "better security." Except the suspect in this case turned out to be practically irreligious in those terms, but firmly entrenched in right wing male extremism and whose victims were primarily women. (Top)

Problematic Food (2018-05-12)

Picture of food cards from the original star trek courtesy of memory alpha. Picture of food cards from the original star trek courtesy of memory alpha.
Screen grab of food cards from the original ST episode "And the Children Shall Lead" courtesy of memory alpha, May 2018

No doubt readers have noticed that I am a fan of star trek and a fair number of its spin offs, although the current movie "reboots" have left me completely uninterested. Not everyone appreciates it, especially in its more earnest moments when the writing effort to wrestle with more difficult social and ethical questions led to awful preachy bits. Gene Roddenberry and many succeeding producers and script writers have sought to handle things that in the context of an american television program simply can't get the treatment they deserve, try as they might. Yet I think it's the quixotic effort to somehow solve the problems of american television program format and the cowardice of television executives that contributes to the rewatchability of the show and its spin offs. That, and I think the implied "fight against the man" is itself a key story trope that has broader appeal. For the moment I'm not too concerned with the more obvious topics like racism and pretending to have rules against invading "aliens" and doing it anyway. No, I'm going to spend some words on star trek's completely bizarre depiction of human relationships to food. Regular readers will recognize that this topic has come up before via the question of whether "white culture" is empty, but this time I want to focus on the food aspect in more detail.

In my experience it is the fan fiction writers who have puzzled over this the most, and gone back and forth about what the hell is going on with food in the latest era in the star trek canon, the twenty-fourth century. Some authors imagine that all meat is somehow mimicked by soy protein so nobody eats the real thing, at least if they live in space at all. The food replicators remash the stuff into something plausible, because in the future the "problem" of making soy protein somehow be everymeat is solved. If you read the latest technical manual, there is no soy involved, just a starter slurry that the replicator revises using a variant on transporter technology. There are apparently flavour issues entailed, which does make sense. In star trek many writers suggest there is an issue with foisson, a necessary essence of the food being absent despite it being nutritionally fine. For my part, I would expect flavour issues to in fact be about the flavour being too consistent. In real life food tastes different depending not only on how it was prepared, but on where it grew and whether it had a chance to eat well itself before humans harvested it to eat. This applies to plants just as much as animals, by the way. If you don't believe me, try a web search on how the vitamin and mineral content of fruits and vegetables are depleted in industrial agriculture.

The rationale for this imagined approach to food, especially on star ships, seems completely logical at first glance. Multiple-species crews living and working for extended periods on ships that can practically speaking only be so big and can't depend on just dropping by a planet any time supplies get low. For all the faults attributed to ST: Voyager, the problem of supplies is handled well and provided plenty of macguffins. If it isn't possible to store and lug around enough of the right kind of food for everybody, multispecies crews are a necessity for whatever reason, and space is at premium, then a replicator system is the perfect solution. Define one set of tanks and storage spaces for whatever basic stuff is remade into various food items, invoke perfect reclamation from sewage, have it be possible to make the food from pure energy when the ship's engines are in solid shape, and voilà. No need to think about food as such, just the energy needed to run the replicators. It's perfect, right? I know, I know, obviously a rhetorical question, and maybe an unfair one. Settlers especially often can't see what could possibly be wrong with this, except that it seems unlikely to ever happen in the real world, which is too bad.

The underlying anxiety in this idea is not about space or energy at all. It's about relationships, specifically the relationships we humans have with the animals and plants that feed us. Even if we never eat an animal, which is unlikely, we still have relationships with them. They feed us, they keep us alive. From an Indigenous perspective, from a Métis perspective specifically, that other animals and our plant cousins feed us reveals a world full of many acts of extraordinary generosity. Many terrible and cruel ones too, but first and foremost, generosity. Of course the animals and plants want to live, and they eat too. So I have learned we give back. We take responsibility for not behaving in a manner that drives the animals and plants that feed us to extinction, or destroys their ability to live in their own way. I have learned many stories that defy any bullshit settler fairy tale about the "ecological indian." Our ancestors learned the hard way, because they're human and we humans sometimes can't seem to learn any other way, but they also passed down what they learned so we could learn the easier way. Living in relationship to the animals and plants that feed us rather than just exploiting other beings as if they were a mass, unfeeling "it" is hard, because that means we are bound to sympathize, and even to wish it could be some other way.

Settler cultures, especially those that have an enshrined belief in this Earth as a prison where humans are sent to suffer, value severing relationships with the Earth, and that means the plants and animals. Which means eating is a huge problem. I had no clue how huge this could be in a settler mindset, until I read Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth. Whatever your views about her arguments, it strikes me as undeniable that she has correctly identified the central issue of refusal of relationship, of an inappropriate entanglement of sense of obligation with sense of disgust. If eating, with all its connotations of reciprocity and bodily sensation are reduced to "mere nourishment," then it is all too easy to take the notion that lack of relationship between humans and other living beings is possible seriously. After all, what could be more dissociated from relationship with others for such fundamental needs as somehow replicating food from pure energy, or at least a convenient slurry put together by ingenious chemistry in a factory? The justification is that this should reduce suffering, because then no being has to die for "us" to eat. Assuming the only other way for "us" to eat is via some form of factory farming, which does indeed torture animals, plants, the very land itself – which indeed settler cultures do. The key marker of a settler culture is the monocrop, be it a plant crop or an animal herd. And as Keith points out, the fear is not so much of their deaths as ours. If those beings die for us, eventually we die for them, to contribute food to their progeny. This is what is supposed to make the central christian story perfect, by the way. It defines only one relationship as actually meaningful, and that relationship being between two such vastly unequal parties that it really isn't one, and the death that redefines the relationship refuses the possibility of reciprocation by design.

I'm in full agreement with settlers that I don't want to leave the world sooner than my time. But it doesn't bother me to go back to the Earth I came from and give what's left of me back to the offspring of all those animals and plants that helped keep me going while I was still here. That strikes me as among the miracles we can fully believe in, that we can continue giving back in a good way beyond our own life times. (Top)

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, July 24, 2017 0:00:55