FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker
Indenture Versus Birth (2021-01-04)
There is a growing controversy afoot in the united states that has been causing a certain amount of growing discomfort in canada as well, although it is not discussed much in canada yet, at least so far as I can tell from my corner of it. The controversy is growing daily over the question of reparations owed to Black people subjected to slavery in the united states, meaning practically speaking an overhaul and determined undermining and destruction of the ongoing systems of oppression that keep Black people down to this day. Prominent authors such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, William A. Darity Jr., and A. Kirsten Mullen have written powerful pieces exploring arguments for reparations for slavery and what they should consist of. (See Darity and Mullen's may 2020 article at the black agenda report, for example.) Unfortunately, discussion of this question among people who think they are white tends to dissolve very quickly into arguments about whether and how other people they think of as white were and are enslaved and shouldn't they get reparations, followed by a crash into shit flinging.
Now, actually, anyone who has suffered in slavery should certainly receive reparations for that experience, and that includes their descendants if that slavery was in the past. But getting caught up in how much money this supposedly is going to cost, and how to determine who definitely qualifies or not, is simply indulging in red herrings in the most dishonest fashion. Reparations will likely include some form and amount of money so long as we use money as part of our economic transactions. But it seems clear to me that the desire for reparations is not just about a desire for "making amends" that can somehow be reduced to a cash payout. It seems to me that just as in the case of Residential School Survivors in the settler state of canada, money compensation is an important part of the process of finally enacting justice and ending oppression precisely because it helps ameliorate specific and immediate economic need created by the oppression. But even more importantly, Residential School Survivors want there to be no such schools ever again, in any shape form, or iteration. Not rebranded as so-called "child apprehension" or "child welfare" or conveniently targeted "adoption." No kidnapping children and viciously abusing them in an attempt to recreate them into a perfect and permanent underclass of cheap, disposable labour that will finally somehow die out because their capacity to parent and build and maintain community has been so disrupted. Many aspects of this fundamental purpose of the residential school system are similar if not identical to the ways in which slavery was and yes, is implemented.
There are certainly invidious and undeniable relationships between slavery intended to be a lifetime state and later creation of systems of debt peonage in the Jim Crow south of the united states. There are shared tactics and features of indentured servitude, serfdom, and slavery as well. All of these are serious wrongs against the persons suffering under any of those systems, absolutely. So why then, some people who think they are white ask, don't people who think they are white get reparations too. After all, a bunch of those people arrived locked into various types of indenture agreements, and this they argue, is a form of slavery. Never mind that to make this argument, they have to remain carefully unaware or silent about the fact that indentured servants could not be held in bondage past the length of their indentures, and their putative masters had specific obligations to refrain from physical abuse and provide room and board. Furthermore, indentured servants could challenge their putative masters in court if they could show that they were being ill-treated, and in many periods they were able to take full advantage of that. It is true that all too many could not, and that many who did did not get adequate justice. But, their descendants are not being held down specifically by embedded and accepted social beliefs about their supposed inherent inferiority. Not at all, because these are descendants who think they are white. Irish immigrants and their descendants are no longer considered "non-white" and right now many people of spanish descent from elsewhere in the americas are busy winning recategorization into "whiteness" as Jewish and Italian people have before them.
Nor does the necessity of reparations to Black people for slavery mean that nothing should or can be done about the economic injustice done to people who think they are white who find themselves in similar economic misery to their Black counterparts. They are being encouraged to believe they will be forced to pay the price for what they are not responsible for in hopes of preventing them from joining forces with Black people to help overturn a horrifically unjust socio-economic system that serves almost no one. The only "price" that those people who think they are white who are not part of the tiny community of extremely rich people have to lose is their complicity in ongoing injustice.
Many people are asking right now why all sorts of things are suddenly okay to stop doing during a pandemic, when not doing them before was labelled as tantamount to committing a felony or destroying society as we know it for the worse. Making the changes that lead to making reparations to Black people for slavery, alongside those that finally bring settlers into meaningful treaty relationships with Indigenous peoples, will impress people the same way. Indeed, from what I can see from my small corner of observing settlers work with Indigenous peoples to oppose actions that break treaties and to end systems of oppression that affect racialized people in canada, that is exactly how people respond. "Why didn't we do something this sensible and just before?" they wonder. I hope we can all share that sort of experience, and then never go back to the before. (Top)
Audience Markers (2020-12-28)
Contrary to what we are encouraged to believe by various mainstream media pundits, there is actually quite a lot we could all discuss successfully with english majors at universities and colleges. One of the topics we'd have a great time talking and critiquing with them about is the ways in which the intended audience is signalled in a particular artwork, story, novel, et cetera. Not only are there markers of the intended audience, there are markers of what the authors of the work in question expect of the audience in terms of intelligence, ability to challenge them, and capacity to remember different works over time. Everyone is aware of these markers from impressively early. Children just learning to read are very quick to notice when they are being talked or written down to, and they are not shy about letting adults and older children know how unwanted and unacceptable this is. No one likes to be talked down to, and no one likes being deliberately cut out of the intended audience when the topic is one they have an interest in. What makes it possible for us to talk about these modes even with those we are encouraged to think we can't is that the techniques of condescension and exclusion for an audience are firmly in our faces. They have to be in order to work.
Of course, not every single work is meant to appeal to every single possible person. It is quite right that there are age-graded and experience-graded readers for example, or different genres and topics. Those are useful differentiations that respect different needs and interests rather than endeavouring to pursue a dominance display and/or exert coercive control. Graded readers assist the people reading them to improve their reading skills, and are not problematic unless of course we try to foist say, grade two readers onto students at grade six level. A newspaper focussed on the latest statistics in the legalized worldwide casino that is called the stock market are not going to spend much space on explaining the basics for outsiders or mere casual lookers-in. However, if the only means any of us had to make sense of the stock market and sort out what it did and what effects it has on our societies was that newspaper, then an approach that deliberately blocks transparency would fall into that condescending and bluntly unethical mode of exclusion of audience.
I have been put in mind of audience markers in particular lately due to a number of books and articles that have recently made their way across my desk. They were quite legible, not clogged up with extremities of jargon or very long sentences. Their authors were not writing for every possible person, but they were not writing in a manner that would be impenetrable to a general person who might be interested. That person might have to look up a few words in the dictionary that are less common if they didn't bump into where they were introduced in a context to illustrate their meaning, but that is not much trouble. These works had quite valuable and relevant things to say from my perspective, and I will certainly be citing them as I write in other projects. Yet it was unmistakeable to me that I was not a member of the contemplated audience, no matter how genuinely and forthrightly the authors applied the plural first person pronoun. So what was going on, if they were not being snobby or condescending, and how could they cut a reader out of the audience without trying, even on a topic the reader had an interest in?
Let's explore an example that is quite accessible and relatable at the moment, an article published 8 may 2020 on the intercept as part of a series on the intersections between shock capitalism and the COVID-19 pandemic by Naomi Klein. She has many wonderful quotes that illustrate the subtle uses of "we" for invidious exclusionary purposes. Take for example these words quoted from Eric Schmidt, the executive with interesting beliefs about other people's privacy. "We should also accelerate the trend toward remote learning, which is being tested today as never before.... If we are to build a future economy and education system based on tele-everything, we need a fully connected population and ultrafast infrastructure...." I am deliberately sticking to the sentences where he is referring to some amorphous group as "we" in which he clearly includes himself. There are other quotes in the story of course, but the point is that here, Schmidt is referring to a very specific "we" even though he is trying to suggest that "all Americans" should be on board with these ideas. By "we" here, he means himself and his rich techbro cronies, who supposedly know better than the rest of us what we want or need. There is just enough space for the other people out there who are able to purchase and access the most up to date technology, from broadband internet to the fanciest new computers. Everyone is emphatically not invited.
Or consider Anuja Sonalker's comments, since while the preponderance of the big players in major tech companies are men, there are indeed a few women who have managed to get into the club. "There has been a distinct warming up to human-less, contactless technology... Humans are biohazards, machines are not." Well now, who has ben warming up to human-less, contactless technology? Who considers humans biohazards and is supposedly sure machines are not? Arguably she is using a much more sophisticated technique that combines misdirection and exclusion because by avoiding any references to who specifically thinks these things, by deleting the agent in other words, she is definitely not speaking to those with other ideas or perspectives. And this is also an invidious way of going about it.
Yet there are also such techniques that are not being applied for invidious purposes. In fact, they are not being consciously applied, if they are being applied per se at all. This is the toughest sort, because the authors are utterly unaware that they have accidentally at minimum annoyed at worst thoroughly alienated people they would very much like to engage. Lorenzo Veracini provides a particularly good example in his clearly written and extremely valuable 2010 short study on settler colonialism. "It is important that we focus on the settlers, on what they do, and how they think about what they do." This quote comes from right in the introduction, page 15. He is referring to the necessity of looking at historical examples of colonialism, and therefore the settlers participating in those examples, in social and historical context. This is wholly reasonable, of course. The difficulty lies elsewhere with this sentence. He works for the swinburne institute of technology in australia. He is a settler. A contemporary settler, who clearly does not expect anyone but those who do not see themselves as settlers or as having settler colonialism currently impacting them to be reading his book. This is really too bad, because he makes a number of interesting arguments about why he thinks past settlers should be considered when analyzing settler colonialism, and they are well worth talking over from multiple viewpoints. But that discussion won't go far if most people, including those in the complex position of having both been impacted by settler colonialism and having become participants in settler colonialism themselves, are not part of the conversation. This is quite apart from the lost opportunity of Veracini openly noting his own participation, however involuntary, because that in itself might cause a useful challenge to the reader's self-perceptions.
Practically speaking, this is one of the reasons that books and shows of all sorts are usually presented to test audiences and editors before being set loose on the world. It is simply impossible for us to catch all the things that can trip us of this kind, and sometimes test audiences may even express discomfort without being able to immediately point out audience markers that are going awry. (Top)
Giving Up Key Words is Always a Mistake (2020-12-21)
By now a remarkably wide range of people are certainly aware that something is going on in a big way on the question of women's rights and the problematic concept of "gender identity." They may not know or understand all the details of what is at immediate stake, and may or may not feel inclined to learn. But they have probably heard something. Meanwhile, those of us who have been following the problematic journey of "gender identity" into a new homophobic and sexist orthodoxy and its attendant extreme backlash against women's rights have been getting a whole new demonstration of bad faith rhetoric, gaslighting, and how toxic the tech bro culture has become. There were warning signs about tech bro culture literally at its start in the now late and lamented research laboratories at bell, xerox-parc, and hp. But more than a few Radical Feminists called bullshit on queer theory once enough of it had been presented to reveal a terrifying resurgence of anti-homosexual and anti-woman rhetoric carefully dressed up in supposedly human rights respecting clothes. The purveyors of queer theory had managed to appropriate key words from the Feminist and gay rights movements and theorists by applying a clever and dishonest approach of redefinition and redirection. They knew very well that they could depend upon two key factors in their favour. First, that many of their new students would be poorly read and cut off from the history of the women's and gay rights movements, because these are ignored in mainstream history and women's studies had already been sidelined and the new queer theorists themselves were busy eviscerating it. Second, not many Feminists and gay rights activists stuck to their guns and refused to allow the terminology to be taken and redefined in the manner that Orwell captured in his notion of newspeak. It helped that younger activists committed to reformist liberalism immediately turned on those they considered "old" and therefore "passé" and not to be listened to.
All of which is not to say or argue that terminology should not or may not change. But when a set of systematic and interrelated changes happens over less than twenty years, and appears to be culminating into specific changes that will render a significant portion of the human population effectively nameless, something is wrong. That is not natural language change or changes in understanding. That is a political campaign, and it should not be allowed to go forward without due and honest discussion and challenge.
Well, the situation has continued to develop, and more and more Feminist and gay activists are joining the opposition to "gender identity" ideology and its attendant attempt to tell women and girls that they are not women and girls but "cis" women and "cis" girls, whose sex-based rights are supposed to be non-existent because sex is supposedly imaginary. If that were so, it would hardly take so much social pressure including outright violence and incessant propaganda because it would have no practical effects in day to day life. So not only established Feminist and gay rights activists have been joining those challenging and opposing this ideology, others have become activists, be they Feminist, gay rights, or from some other basis. For example, some oppose it on free speech or even religious grounds of various types, although if that is the case their concern may have all but nothing to do with the rights of women, girls, or homosexuals. Such diversity makes temporary coalitions possible across otherwise divided political lines, coalitions that if pursued tend to be extraordinarily controversial. Not everyone will be willing or able to participate in them, and their reasons will be deeply felt. Disagreements on tactics between people who are generally allies are definitely upsetting, but we should not allow them to be used to drive wedges between us so that soon we're too busy fighting each other instead of fighting against the real enemy.
I have observed that one of the early bellwethers of a possible success at splitting Feminist and gay rights activists in particular is declarations by some younger Feminist activists that they are not going to use the term "Feminist" anymore, because they are so frustrated with liberal Feminism that it somehow makes the word useless to them. On one hand, I can sincerely relate to their frustration and concern. The primary reason I wound up shifting to Radical Feminism outright is because attempts to enact a reformist or liberal Feminism were so clearly inadequate and unlikely to succeed in the longrun. Yet I also understand that for many Feminists, it is necessary to try the reformist and liberal versions and see how or if they work as claimed by those devoted to them. Matilda Joslyn Gage, a brilliant nineteenth century Radical Feminist (yes, Radical, that is not an anachronistic label) noted that women's suffrage was not the end point of Feminism in the united states. No, it was the beginning in her view, because it would give willing and interested women a chance to learn how to organize work together in their own interests. Then when they saw that getting suffrage in itself did not end their oppression, they would more likely realize that to end their oppression they would need to attack it at its roots, and that their training in working to win suffrage had repaired them for this. Gage lived to see many prominent fellow Feminists opt to return to or stick with reformist or liberal Feminism despite that being what she saw as a mistake. Yet her response to that was never to give up on key terms such as woman, or Feminism.
The basic definition of Feminism in my OED is succinct: "the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality with men." I have issues with it, but in the main, the broad point is sound, Feminism is about the advocacy of women's rights. At times we may disagree mightily on tactics, but the definition of Feminism starts from advocacy of women's rights. If, based on disagreement on tactics, no matter how deeply and sincerely felt, we insist on evacuating the very term and concept of Feminism itself, then we have abandoned it to our enemies. We all know that that is what abandoning a central term or concept means when that term is "woman," "women," "girl," or "lesbian." Why suddenly do a subset of activist women suddenly lose this knowledge and retreat into a no true scotsman style bad argument over the term "Feminism"? (Top)
Food For Thought: It Wasn't Enough (2020-12-14)
Not too many of us get to read philosophical novels these days, not really. There are many reasons for that, not least how many of those novels, especially because they may include significant satirical content, are often used as the basis for terrible children's cartoons. Take for example Gulliver's Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World by Jonathan Swift. Swift was and is known primarily as a satirist, and for good or ill this book in particular lends itself to hilarious illustrations that may be rendered more or less ribald depending on the audience. But while we laugh, we are perhaps too quick to lose track of the socio-political critique in a way that Swift's eighteenth century readers would not have done. I suspect this is a major reason why Esmé Dodderidge's The New Gulliver, or The Adventures of Lemuel Gulliver Jr. In Caprovolta steers away from satire and sticks to a hard-nosed exploration of what it would be like for her protagonist in a world turned on its head. Which is not to say the reader never gets to laugh, far from it. It's just that as a reader, you can laugh all you like, but Dodderidge insists that you will think, and you will be uncomfortable more than once as you read. And that if you laugh, you have missed the point, because she is not writing a satire. I start with these two books in order to introduce It Wasn't Enough by Peg Tittle precisely because it is a philosophical novel that arguably takes up a topic often played for laughs, the ever so hackneyed "how the household falls apart when Mother is away and Father has to cope with the chores." She is not writing this novel to make you laugh. There is no satire here. She insists that you will think, and you will be uncomfortable more than once.
Tittle engages with a more specific version of this thought experiment which is so often taken as a temporary role reversal. The starting premise is: what if overnight, all the female humans, all the women and girls, just vanished. Period. All gone. No notes, no sign of what had happened. Just gone. If that happened, what would happen to human society? In fact, how Tittle sets up the premise on the first page is an excellent teaser of her hard hitting, journalistic tone throughout the novel.
One day, the women were gone.
Not like an abscessed tooth suddenly yanked out.
No, more like the keys you thought you had in your pocket.
In an eerie way, it reminds me of a few lines in Margaret Atwood's poem Variations on the Word "Sleep," in which the final stanza reads:
I would like to be the air
I suspect male readers would find this insufferably partisan of me. All of us, male, female, or confused about it are nevertheless aware of the general message about women's work in what for the majority of us are patriarchal societies. According to that messaging, that work is unutterably degrading, unskilled, and not worth much really. Hardly an absolute necessity for life. Even women's ability to gestate and give birth has the gimlet eyes of bros in "reproductive technologies" fixed on it as imminently replaceable. Nope, Tittle's description is more mercilessly to the point, isn't it? Everybody knows that car keys can easily be replaced.
But Tittle is not writing a wishful thinking novel here, she is engaging with a premise in the most determined and unflinching manner possible. Given the starting perspective and circumstances described in those stark first three lines, what is most likely to happen? No wishful thinking, what would all those men and boys be up against? It Wasn't Enough is not the first novel to be based on considerable research and careful planning, yet it is among the few that includes references. Furthermore, the consequences of all those women and girls vanishing is traced via the experiences of three major characters, and vignettes from the lives of several others. We learn nothing about the women and girls originally associated with them except for what the men think or say about them. And just to make sure as readers that we can't fob this all off as some sort of feminist hit job or merely what "awful guys like that" would say or think or do, Tittle takes care to select and flesh out three rather likeable or at least relateable major characters.
First we meet Andrew, father of two boys, ordinary middle class sort of guy. Works an office job, likes a nice beer after work, and is genuinely horrified at the sight of other fathers beating or screaming at their sons. He doesn't understand what has happened, he just knows he has to cope and does his best to manage without taking it out on his boys. Second we meet James, a smaller than average for his age middle-schooler of working class background. He has an excruciating home life, but is as quick thinking and creative as he is sensitive and hardworking. For his part, he was already in survival mode before the women and girls disappear, which doesn't keep him from taking every chance to do better and pull himself up by his own bootstraps. Third we meet Marcus, a professor of sociology and gender studies. He is a well-meaning and persistent researcher with a profound belief in men's intelligence and adaptability under stress. He doesn't understand what has happened either, and he is ready and willing to help by pitching in where he realizes the impact will be most immediate. Their stories overlap in multiple ways through to the end of the book, and it is their experiences of the day to day growing impacts of women and girls' absence the novel traces.
Even the less likeable men and boys and men in the novel reveal a few other, more subtle starting premises. For instance, that the men and boys left behind are for the most part unmalicious. Unthinking perhaps until challenged by their new circumstances, but not malicious. I read the novel just before COVID-19 developed into a pandemic and led to serious disruptions of daily routine for everyone, and so I have since seen many people struggling with habits of action and thinking that those disruptions impose every day. Enforced change to long established routine is hard for anyone. Rereading the novel with this new experience in mind, I am struck by what strikes me as the unrelenting insistence that the circumstances of the novel would be hard to live with. Of course, whether the circumstances would stay hard to live with is another question It Wasn't Enough explores. The question Tittle and her novel refuses to answer is what there isn't enough of. That arguably is for the reader to think about.
Overall I enjoyed this novel very much, even the parts that made me wince hardest, bearing in mind that those parts were not gratuitous or otherwise played up for effect. "Enjoyment" is not really the right word as an overall descriptor. Perhaps a better way to put it is, I enjoyed that It Wasn't Enough kept me thinking and has no sugar coating. The most difficult sections are satisfying nevertheless, because they explore the blunt truths of what it would mean for all that supposedly unimportant and unskilled female work and action to vanish from the world. I had some quibbles that came up primarily in the sections dealing with Marcus' adventures, where the careful maintenance of a sort of generic unplaced (and highly effective) north americanness gives way momentarily to allow canadian academic university and grant system bits to poke out with incongruous american-sounding terminology. However, I can't rule out that those are the effect of my having one foot in those academic systems myself, and being from the western part of canada where vocabulary and culture is different and we often (mis)identify eastern english canadian differences as americanisms.
It Wasn't Enough can be purchased in a variety of electronic formats from smashwords, kobo, apple, barnsandnoble, and amazon. Unlike far too few novels, this one will make you think, make you uncomfortable, and then make you reread it. (Top)
"Population," a Real Red Herring (2020-12-07)
Michael Moore has a documentary out in which he attempts to unpack greenwashing, climate change denial, and what would really be effective to stop of mitigate catastrophic global warming so that the world stays comfortable enough for humans. Those are all laudable tasks that Moore has taken up, and whatever any given person may think of his politics or arguments, I think it is fair to give him credit for helping start or at least fuel constructive discussions. Sometimes the most effective people on those scores are the ones who trigger the most disagreement where that disagreement is expressed by engaging with the arguments those people make. Alas, the challenge more often than not is to get people all focussed on the argument rather than on attacking the person who disagrees with them or engaging in a pointless screaming competition. The latter two approaches have greater ease and attention getting in their dubious favour. In any case, for my part, I find myself frustrated all over again with the way upper middle class white men get completely distracted chasing after the red herring of "population," especially claims that there are simply "too many people." I have touched a little on the politics of populations before in Thoughts on "Liberation Theology," but the notion of "too many people" didn't come into the matter as such then. It does now.
To be clear, it is obvious and true that we humans can become too numerous to be able to survive well in a given micro-environment, and that logically it must be terrifyingly possible for there to be too many of us all for the overall environment that is the Earth. It is also obvious and true to me that by themselves non-carbon or low carbon based forms of energy generation or food production are not going to do anything about the challenges we face from ongoing deliberate environmental destruction that has been underway for at least 6 000 years and has now affected the whole planet. As a matter of real world physics, there is no way to expand infinitely, whatever that expansion may be measured in, food, energy, people, or even garbage. Those aren't debatable points.
The trouble with falling back to, "so obviously there are too many of us," is that no, that isn't obvious, actually. When we do the math, there is enough food and fuel and all the rest potentially available right now to feed, clothe, and house everyone at least for a short while. Not everyone can live according to the crazed "western" system of hyperwaste because that goes to the infinity problem. But as long as a hyperconsumptive culture is treated as the only culture that must be inflicted on everyone at all costs, then all drastic reductions or even moderate reductions in population would lead to is a delay before the collapse. And the practical fact is, if "population reduction" became any kind of open policy under any number of euphemistic names, the people who will be killed or prevented from being conceived in the first place regardless of maternal choice will preferentially be racialized, poor, and female. It is trivial to find current examples of women and girls generally being referred to as "surplus" because their numbers are not in one to one proportions with "marriagable" men. It is trivial right now to find multiple declarations that anyone who is poor, let alone poor and racialized, is expendable to keep "capitalism" or "the economy" running."
The difficult kernel of the present challenges we are facing cannot be blamed on a single factor, nor will acting on a single factor fix it. The difficult kernel is a vicious way of thinking that starts from the assumption that a certain small group of people has been chosen by some deity as the pure and superior beings above all others. Those supposedly chosen and superior beings then claim that they therefore have the right to rule all the world as they see fit. Since most of them believe absolutely as shown by their actions, not by what they say, that there is no future if they can't live forever, they have also conveniently concluded that the clock must be running out on the world, otherwise they would be immortal. Furthermore, they are sure that they are in charge of the clock, and their task is to use up everything and engross all the riches to themselves, because after all, if they are the divinely chosen supreme beings, they must be entitled. This is a pernicious and sick belief that because it hijacks and feeds our worst impulses as long as we are prevented from forming healthy, ongoing relationships with one another and all the other beings in the world besides ourselves. And of course, our resistance to it is softened if not eliminated by the practices of child abuse endemic to cultures in which this belief system is embedded. There is a horrible logic in viciously punishing children for ever being born, because they embody the evidence that the whole chain of false reasoning entailed in this belief system is wrong. As radical Feminist thealogian Mary Daly reminded us, "sin" is derived from the same root as the verb "to be" as in "to exist." And those of us with even a passing acquaintance with religious systems derived from ideas about ancient hebrew writings know very well that they start from the teaching that all humans are born sinful.
No matter what steps we humans take to work together to cope with the growing challenges of being out of balance with our human and non-human kin on this Earth, they will be undermined and neutralized if we don't refuse every time the temptation to revert to acting according to the horrible belief that only a few beings of any kind have the right to live. Yes, we need to change how we live in order to return to balanced relationships, and that will include shifting to ways of meeting our needs that don't poison our relatives or need to grow infinitely to keep up. Yes, that change will ultimately include not agreeing to the demand to produce as many people as possible effectively in order to use up the Earth and drive life into death once and for all, while conveniently setting up women for bearing children and children to be blamed and tortured yet again for that result. But if we fixate on the simplistic claim that the issue is really that there are "too many people," we are simply reinforcing the sick patterns that got us in this mess in the first place. (Top)
Libraries Are Absolutely Necessary (2020-11-30)
For anyone who spends a little time reading "tech" news at the various options for that online, especially on the ones not bankrolled by disney and similar outfits, it is possible to read quite wide-ranging debates about the nature of copyright. One point that has come up several times in fora that I have read is that under present copyright laws, public libraries simply couldn't have been established. Without the carve outs and already demonstrated social value of public libraries set up, any attempt to create them would have been smothered by charges of alleged copyright violations or alleged provision of facilities to violate copyright. Setting aside the question of whether that is a plausible claim or not, this led me to think more about public libraries, including those not necessarily founded as part of a general public system but which are still publicly accessible and even interconnected with the public system. By the latter, I refer to collections held by post-secondary institutions, which nowadays are often subscribers to the provincial or even national interlibrary loan system, and in canada within each province a person may request loans from any post-secondary library on their own public library card. That means they can make the request as an interlibrary loan, or simply walk into that library and borrow the book. There are usually limits on how many books can be borrowed from those post-secondary collections, because they are smaller and their holdings are under heavy student demand. Still, this generally works quite well, and is covered with basic library card fees and taxes. In most provinces, there is no fee for library cards, and in some cases charging them would be explicitly illegal.
Access to books and therefore the knowledge, learning, and entertainment they support is core to what any public library does. It's all too easy to underestimate how much that really means for everyone in a community, especially for those who glibly insist that the internet can somehow take over all of those roles. Certainly the internet can assist with them and help manage challenges like enforced closures due to disaster or pandemic. But as the wealthy have rediscovered, the public library is not just the poor family's main means to access "culture," homework assistance, or the internet. Long before this period of acceptance of inserting coffee shops into places that sold or lent books, public libraries have been social hubs. Yes, community groups rent meeting rooms in libraries when those are available, and their events are important for supporting community learning and discussion. Yet even where a public library is too small to manage much by way of meeting space indoors, it is still a critical landmark and place for people to gather even if only to muster outside. The public library branch pictured here happens to have a beautifully designed outdoor courtyard that lends itself to impromptu music performances and allowing people to sit quietly out of the weather when they need to. It's a welcoming place and a bit of a gem half hidden among unprepossessing buildings that are standard late twentieth century blocks with uniform windows and unfortunate colour choices in wall finishings.
I have emphasized a rather abstract pubic library so far, but of course no public library is a mere building or courtyard or mass of books and other media, no matter how well arranged or designed. The beating heart of any library is the crew of librarians and shelvers who keep the materials moving and the facilities in good shape. Meanwhile, librarians, contrary to stereotypes of their supposedly conservative and retiring nature, are in fact on average among the leaders in fiercely defending our rights to learn from one another by means of sharing books and other media and by meeting and discussing controversial issues. They don't share uniform opinions about controversial issues or the role of new technologies and constant pressure to fund raise by allowing commercial encroachments on public space any more than non-librarians do. But by firmly modelling how to respectfully disagree and represent multiple points of view while keeping their libraries running, they do more to uphold genuine democracy in the best and worst of conditions than almost anyone else. In every place, they are also major preservers and sharers of the shared cultural riches of a given community. If it were otherwise, we wouldn't constantly find public libraries under siege whenever authoritarian leaning people have the most influence, and we wouldn't see them targeted for pillaging and destruction during war and major disaster.
We keep making public libraries because they are absolutely necessary. After all, they are also a key place where our living libraries in the form of our elders and highly trained experts spend a considerable amount of time either in the flesh or by somehow encapsulating aspects of their knowledge so it can be shared via the library. We came up with them to help preserve and share ideas in ways that did not and do not depend on just one or a few people, who would understandably risk being overwhelmed by such a huge responsibility. The challenge is to avoid the temptation to encapsulate the tasks librarians in public libraries do and support doing among and on them alone. (Top)
But We Need You! (2020-11-23)
I have already written a thoughtpiece about the problematic use of terms like "essential service" to hide what is in fact a claim that we should go along with super-exploitation under conditions of fundamentalist capitalism. For this one I want to unpack another one of those hiding tactics, and it is so profoundly vicious it is a sad wonder that it has ever gained traction. It isn't difficult to find people writing and talking about teachers up to secondary school and medical staff as essential, now plus all those people who have been struggling along in group homes for the elderly and disabled. Their work is widely considered necessary, but I have noticed that until the COVID-19 pandemic, this was glibly categorized effectively among necessary evils such as the system of prisons and the requisite staff needed to keep them running. If we're talking about allowing evil, the fact is we're already wrong. Yet here we are, in a situation in which the mainstream consensus is that the people responsible for upholding the health and wellbeing of people who are both most precious to us and most vulnerable are in jobs that are in effect a "necessary evil."
The not so subtle assumption underlying this bullshit is that supposedly if only women were in their properly designated patriarchal place, they would do all the work of this type for free, leaving the exciting stuff that allows a person to claim authority to men. I concede that some people decrying demands for better wages and work conditions from teachers, nurses, and all their companion support staff may not be consciously making this argument at all. But when they fall back on claiming we can't afford to pay them well and see to it that their working conditions are safe and respectful – conditions consisting of where children learn and the sick and injured receive care – while somehow we always have money for one more tax break for the rich and billions more military hardware when there is no war using that stuff on, once again I call bullshit. There is no evil in helping ensure the safety, health, and dignity of everyone including those entrusted with jobs that currently are widely sneered at as supposedly "unskilled."
Practically speaking, we can't have this both ways. We can't tell anybody doing key work that we depend on, from teachers to meat packers one minute that we need them and therefore they should keep working, and then begrudge them decent wages and safe working conditions. That's ridiculous on multiple levels. Most of "us" who make such demands would never tolerate such conditions for ourselves. Worse yet, to expect those same people to then produce such miracles as well instructed children, safe food, and excellent health outcomes whenever possible is ridiculous. But such unfair expectations divert us from looking where the real trouble lies, and that is back in the support we have been tricked into giving to those who do everything they can to squeeze as much profit as possible out of that labour. In the view of those people and their supporters, and alas far too many of us who have been tricked into identifying them, those of us who can't afford private schools and hospitals or access to fancy butchers and boutique groceries have only ourselves to blame. After all, in that mindset, wealth and success indicate someone who is by nature a better and more deserving human being.
It seems to me that we are getting a hell of a lot of undeniable empirical evidence that this equation is not merely false, it is socially destructive in an active way. It encourages us to feel justified and superior when we refuse to help someone else, while feeling totally entitled to any and all help we receive. It also has an underside, because in our guts we all know the equation is false. Those who live most firmly according to its dictates spend a lot of time feeling afraid and demanding further kowtowing to ease their unappeasable fears. Hence they constantly demand more policing, more surveillance, more gates and fences around their communities, more control over who gets to live in their communities. Over time, these are the people whom you'll see driving at speed through areas they don't know with the windows up and their car doors locked tight, peering around nervously lest one of the locals touches their vehicle. Bad conscience works on us like that.
I don't have total knowledge of all Indigenous cultures by any stretch of the imagination, and don't claim to. But I have noticed that in the Indigenous cultures I have been fortunate enough to learn about and my own so far, success, however it is measured, is not generally construed as evidence of being superior to others. Rather, it is seen as evidence of extraordinary good luck that the lucky person had better share. To do otherwise is to disrespect it, and disrespect will surely lead to loss in a pretty permanent sort of way. Instead we are encouraged to share our luck, all of us. That way, the chances of everyone having enough are maximized, and the chances of people suffering from corrosive and society destroying jealousy and greed is minimized. So far, in spite of centuries of incessant warfare against them, those Indigenous cultures are still kicking and showing themselves better able to manage general human problems and those specific to colonialism than colonial cultures, including colonialism in the form of capitalism.
But maybe this all sounds too utopian or unrealistic or something. All right. Then feel free to explain how it is possible to sneer at nurses, teachers, meatpackers, warehouse workers and so on that they have no right to decent working conditions and pay and how dare they expect them when we need them. Feel free to explain that it doesn't depend on claims that we should suffer some evil to continue and scapegoat somebody else for that evil. Feel free to explain how supposedly we need to pay more and make sure working conditions are luxurious for a small subset of athletes and other men claiming they do "real" work that has nothing to do with the work those others do that we depend on for our health and wellbeing and the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable. I'll wait. (Top)
Professional Appearances aka No Coloureds and No Ethnics (2020-11-16)
Among the stranger things that turned up among the possible images intended to illustrate a "professional" appearance, as soon as I fought my way out of an internet wormhole of get rich quick hucksters I found an ever expanding vista of snapshots of men working as professional wrestlers in mexico. On one hand, this has mostly to do with the obscure niche interests of dudebros editing wikipedia whose edits outside of their own areas tend to do more harm than good. On the other, it is quite a good example of how expanded the notion of being a professional is. Now anyone who works for a wage at something that requires some sort of training that is recognized as nontrivial is considered a professional. So whatever the activity is, it is not a hobby, and there is a broad social consensus that the person needs to have genuine skills to do the job. Evidently broad social consensus is an ass that assumes any paid work that uses "caring" skills merely takes advantage of the conveniently inborn abilities of the female and effeminate. The whole reason I started down this particular train of thought was the puzzling question of what made a website look "professional."
As usual, I did start with my stalwart electronic OED to see what "professional" meant according to actual usage over time. The OED stated that the word usually referred to a specific activity a person did for pay, or to something worthy of a professional person. That means "F" for circular definition awarded to the person who wrote that second part, who may or may not have added that the term also means competent or skillful. Then I tried checking "profession" which just repeated the paid occupation thing again, but then added that this meant particularly jobs a person needs long training and formal qualifications to work in. This was a promising lead, as the etymological section of the definition added that the root of the word refers to vows a person took in public on entering a religious order. Sure enough, a bit more digging revealed the original "professions" were "divinity," medicine, and law. So it is no surprise to learn that over time the verb profess has fallen steadily in connotation and from regular use, as now to profess means "claim openly but often falsely that one has a quality or feeling." Here we have words that tie back to three occupations in which a person is ideally expected to take a sincere interest in the wellbeing of others, but all of which are riddled with so many obvious hypocrites that at any given time figurative references to doctors, lawyers, and/or priests are ways of calling a person or place totally corrupt. Ouch. On top of that, there is plenty of potential class difference related issues, because those professions and other similar occupations require expensive training and licensing to practice. This is demanded primarily to keep them from being too easy a ticket to social mobility in an unequal society, even if by rights those things should be about maintaining the wellbeing of those who want or need the services of professionals.
Well, all that made vivid sense of why the preponderant message of people and websites on what a professional appearance consists of all agreed that it entails very specific things. At the most basic level, a professional appearance demands impecable personal hygiene, brand new clothes with no wrinkles, and shoes of a type that a person could not run in. Oh, and the clothes and shoes should be hard to maintain, as well as constraining the person's movements and covering as much skin as possible. Fascinatingly, facial hair is default not professional for anybody according to these sources, nor is long hair in men. They don't to admit that they don't think any woman who wears pants is dressed professionally, but that is what the majority of photographs and drawings show. The models are almost exclusively slender and either too young to have grey hair or committed to colouring it. The proportion of racialized to non-racialized people on an eyeball assessment was probably 2 out of 10 at best. I noticed a weird preponderance of black male models with pink or pastel coloured dress shirts and whole pages inveighing against any patterns in clothes worn for professional work. Women could get away with loose hair as long as it was shoulder length, and it looked like braids and buns were indirectly forbidden. Too dowdy, I guess, and a warning that for women, looking "professional" means dressing according to what men want to see. Any other sort of hairstyle by the way was verboten, especially the styles most practical and comfortable for people of African descent whose hair has a naturally tight curl.
All of which led me to conclude that a professional appearance means no "ethnics," and preferably no "coloureds" together with a demand that everyone should dress very much like modern day puritans. After all, what if our appearance was somehow distracting or "not neutral."
When applied to websites, that of course made sense of the particular extremes any of us can observe online, and why wordpress themes have become the website equivalent of the powerpoint template blight. "Professional" sites use an extremely limited colour palette that happens to correspond almost exactly with the accepted colours in "professional dress." They are all laid out in the same three column layout, using the same few fonts. The subjects that "professional" websites may cover is also quite narrow, though just wide enough to of course include anything considered a lawful profession. One of the intriguing and sad effects of this is that a "professional" website apparently cannot feature fiction in any way, unless of course it is a critic's site in which case their main limitation is to "literature." In line with the "neutrality" directive, creativity is muffled as much as possible.
This is such a sad development away from the more constructive things seeking to look "professional" can do. Originally it was likely all about imposing authority, and since then has become a way of finding a fool every minute, but even then the other possibilities were open and recognized. People understood that the regular working clothing of tradespeople often helped indirectly demonstrate the quality of their work. For example, a good painter would not be plastered in paint, a good carpenter would tend to wear clothes that helped keep hammers, pencils, and measuring tapes at the ready. The trouble came in when the profession was defined far more by what a person thought, and from there what they said and did and the subsequent effect fo their advice and actions. Some of the same trouble is attached to websites, which can mimic the appearance of more trustworthy examples while serving up malware or bad information. The shortcut that makes "professional" equivalent to a middle aged upper class white male of puritan-adjacent sartorial choices and websites for the sorts of businesses such men run is a far from innocuous one. (Top)
Originally I was going to open this piece by suggesting that redbaiting has had a resurgence over the past decade or two. But on further consideration, I have to admit that no it hasn't. In truth, redbaiting has never ended since it was invented as a tactic to rationalize and normalize various forms of violence intended to at minimum silence at maximum destroy dissenting voices. The technique just got turned against different groups of people challenging systems of oppression at even given time. Other terms for this technique when turned on other groups than people accused of being "communists" – an accusatory label with no content rather than a political designation – it may be called witchhunting, scapegoating, or "ad hominem" attack among many other terms. The desire to invoke unreasoning fear and then channel that into forms of social and physical violence thereby blocking the ability to think is what they share. "Thinking" is often treated as a dirty word these days, alongside such notions as rational argument and giving people with different views a fair hearing. Instead, there is widespread and heavy demand for us to conflate engaging respectfully with those we disagree with together with in fact agreeing with them, regardless of how far from the truth that is. That demand is an important hallmark of the first stage in an effort to provoke a scapegoating event.
Definitions and descriptions of scapegoating, which is now the most generalized term for this nefarious practice, often note that it is done for reasons of expediency. (The OED definition of "scapegoat" after describing its origins in the old testament is an easy access example.) "Expediency" is doing a lot of work there, covering as it does scapegoating as a means to distract attention from scandal, attempts to destroy or eliminate human rights, silence opposition, and so on. The trouble with the definitions is how often they leave out the power relations entailed in its use. Who does the scapegoating and who succeeds at it depend on power relationships, including the social power to convince others to conform. This is the terrible ghost that haunts every colonial society and every society that has or continues to flirt with fascism and other forms of authoritarianism. The core problem is not the ranting crazies who get signal boosts from the yellow press and advertising companies masquerading as publishers and "social media." The core problem is that so very many people who like to consider themselves normal are quick to claim they are treating those crazies as entertainment while in fact going along with what they demand by not opposing it. This is not passive. They are not just going with the flow. They are establishing the flow, by not only accepting the prods to fear and lashing out, but also to enacting those prods in their own lives by accepting and passing them on. Simply helping reinforce the pressure by not challenging it or insisting on getting alternate perspectives is not passive. The only ones who can claim passivity in this type of situation are those who genuinely have no idea what is going on.
By this I am not suggesting that practically everyone is evil all the time. Far from it. I think what makes scapegoating so dangerously tempting is also what makes it so potent and impossible to control once enough people have entrained into its enactment. Scapegoating is framed by some of the most powerful perverse incentives available to mess with the human brain whenever living conditions are less than optimal. "Less than optimal" need not mean an inability to get the basics of food, clothing, and shelter. To our cost, we have learned that among ourselves an encouraged and entrenched sense of entitlement and grievance because the supposed entitlement is not being provided may constitute "less than optimal" in this case. As long as the drive to scapegoat can hijack fears about the future because of difficulties making ends meet, or anger about losing presumed entitlements, then the people enacting the drive can invoke claims of right makes might. Once that rationalization is in place, no amount of trying to get someone in that frame of mind to understand that they are misdirecting their frustration and anger, and that scapegoating will not in fact solve the problems they are experiencing works. They have achieved a hermetic seal on their minds and a block on their empathy. Their capacity to recognize and understand information that may lead them to change their minds is crippled.
Now here is the worst part. If we have already accepted claims that certain people deserve to suffer because supposedly they are inferior, and trust me on this one, the chances that you or I don't have an unchallenged belief like this stuck in our heads somewhere is small, then we are made vulnerable to entraining with calls to scapegoat. And our best and greatest defence is that insistent feeling of discomfort that we often mistake for anxiety, the discomfort that is in fact a warning from our better sense that what we are being lured by a call to scapegoat. In that discomfort, we have a meaningful chance to refuse to go along with the pressure and to catch out that unfair belief we may not have realized we had, and refuse to keep it or allow it to be used against us. And make no mistake, being co-opted into serving our own oppressors and becoming oppressors ourselves is something against us, not for us. (Top)
Technical Longevity Versus Shininess (2020-11-02)
As often happens in medium to large organizations, one that I have done some website related work for has been going through a new cycle of major software purchases and customizations. These serve many useful purposes of course, in that this is a major means to apply important security updates and introduce new tools to manage changing aspects of data management in different areas of the work an organization does. Sometimes less useful but gratifying purposes like getting a fresher looking user interface or a few more helpful but not absolutely necessary features are met too. For the latter purpose, examples I can think of are things like multiple clipboards or an ability to run side queries in an extra window. Unfortunately, it is these happy and often useful extras that can decoy us into pursuing bling over keeping our eye on the real ball, which by rights is not shininess but maintaining the systems we need in a stable fashion to get our work done. I learnt the costs of losing track of the ball on this the hard way, and sympathize with anybody who gets caught by the decoy. It doesn't help that extra bling tends to cover over problems that we are also encouraged to expect the customization elements of the support contract will take care of. Would that we could depend on that!
One of the projects I have had to work on came down to a request to pull together and serve a diverse dataset for a large work group, while also ensuring that an even more diverse selection of ancillary files could be attached to that dataset. For ancillary files, read any major file format used for day to day work in an office environment, so definitely pdfs and the usual rogues' gallery of microsoft products. The dataset was so diverse that it actually didn't lend itself into being kept in the database software available at the time, and that software couldn't handle links to external files or otherwise perform a content management role. In the end what I did to build the project was create a website, with the dataset built up out of templated items that consistently labelled and structured the data. That way in due time when and if some other database-like approach turned out to be feasible, with some judicious scripting the data could be moved over. However, I also had to take into account some other details when putting together and implementing the site design that may or may not be common to such projects.
On the support side, there was no permanent maintenance team assigned to this project, nor any plans for one. That suggested that this project was supposed to be an interim solution, which made structuring the dataset all the more important. On the other hand, interim solutions in the real world often have to spend far longer in service than anybody ever dreamed, and all the indicators were that it would be a challenge to keep it resourced in terms of server space and editing software if it had to stay on a long time. That led me to do a couple of other things. First, I redesigned the site architecture twice to get that as solid as possible for the longer haul, including banishing the "Miscellaneous" folder. Second, after long and unhappy deliberation and testing, I settled on sticking with a website using structured templates that could be edited using a tool as simple as a text editor. No matter what myself and my colleagues tried, we couldn't persuade the standard database software available to us to work stably, and worse yet that software is terrible to figure out how to use. We also found out that licensing could be a real problem. If we built in a dependency on software that the organization no longer wanted to license, or that couldn't be licensed anymore because the software was no longer available or maintained, that would be a critical issue. So that meant rolling back to what could be managed with a text editor, a web browser for previewing, and nowadays, a version management system like git.
Practically speaking, this has proved to be a seriously robust approach. The website has now been chugging along for nearly twenty years. Because it is fundamentally a website, it can always be connected to other relevant systems, including setting up auto-queries and the like. Of course, if that step is taken then the challenge is to manage to keep up with those systems when they change their servers or their query forms, or have the plug pulled on them without a clear successor. But, even if that bit of flexibility goes a bit sideways because other relevant systems have their own problems, this project's core tasks are carried out independent of them, so it can stand on its own feet. While by no means perfect, the site is still doggedly doing its job and it is still being kept up to date on a rolling basis using basic tools. Alas, no git yet, which would be a truly marvellous thing to have, because then the number of editors could be easily increased. Still, that's a separate story and not a crucial one here. Of course, as you have no doubt already surmised, this old but working and stable website has a bling problem.
It hasn't got any.
It's not flashy or pretty. People complain it doesn't look like the wordpress layouts they are used to, that it doesn't have a thousand and one other bells and whistles uncontemplated in the original work order. They are frustrated that this to their eyes old-fashioned looking site has not been replaced by something glitzier that can do more things that would be of genuine use. It's just that those other things don't actually fall within the core functions of the website, and those are what have to keep working. On top of that, there is neither budget nor persons available to finally replace it, so the conservative approach to software used to build and maintain it is still necessary.
One of the fascinating things I have been learning from people responding to it who are not the primary users of the website is how for them its grittier appearance is conflated with it not being "user friendly" to them. The cause of the lack of friendliness is not its appearance but its underlying design and core functions, which were never designed to meet their needs. It makes sense that a person generally would conflate appearance with what is actually design and purpose mismatches, because people generally aren't designers and builders of websites whether large or small. Yet it also shows how we can all be so vulnerable to the shininess of bling, it is often what we fall back on when more crucial details are outside of our awareness. (Top)
The Ever Underestimated Card Catalogue (2020-10-26)
Today card catalogues are more often found as curiosities than active tools in the public areas of libraries, although older libraries often continue to maintain their catalogues because the process of digitizing them is a non-trivial task. In hunting around for a well labelled sample image of a card catalogue card, I was struck by how many webpages popped up that declared the card catalogue dead, useless, utterly superseded by electronic databases. Let alone the number of webpages featuring them as examples, even if only joking ones, of "bad" design. Then there is the whole category of pages defending the card catalogue, which is much about defending keeping one or more of them as pointing out the various types of research card catalogues support that electronic databases cannot mimic. It may seem obvious that an older technology "needs" defense from a newer one, or that a newer technology must always force older ones to be dropped, yet this doesn't hold up on taking a closer look. Quite apart from the accidental demonstration that older computer technology is outperforming newer computers so much that companies like apple are trying to prevent older machines from being refurbished, recycled, or otherwise kept in use, we see practical demonstrations every day that shoving a computer at an older task doesn't necessarily make the task easier or better completed. Try using a computer-equipped oven to discover just how much of a nuisance it now is to just turn the thing on and set the temperature, let alone solve the puzzle of the timer.
Still, it is all too easy to underestimate an analogue tool, and the card catalogue is a great example of one that was probably underestimated even when there was no other way to remotely browse a library collection. Let's start just with the fact that actually, the physical design of a card catalogue cabinet is well thought out, regardless of whether it lends itself to being made over into a stylish piece of furniture rather than a utilitarian one. Not only do these cabinets solve the problem of how to keep the cards in order over time, it is not difficult to expand the number of cabinets so much as it is difficult to find more space. An analogous structure to a card catalogue cabinet with its many drawers, each threaded with a rod (or two) to hold punched cards is the stubbornly ubiquitous three-ring binder. It may be a bit awkward at times to pull apart the rings and remove sections of sheets to reorder them, add new pages, or separate them into new binders, but it is easy and practical all the same. This is also true of card catalogues. Where they get into trouble is of course how many people can use the card catalogue at once, which is limited by how many cards it holds and the number of non-overlapping queries searchers are making. Still, this is not the end of the world, and busy libraries and library patrons alike found ways to work around these challenges.
As the exemplar card shown above illustrates, each card in the catalogue can carry an impressive amount of information. These cards used to be the main way anyone encountered metadata in daily life, and indeed this illustration is from a discussion of metadata at one of the american mathematical society's blogs. It is a very good discussion that complements the Folger library staff member Abbie Weinberg's defense of the card catalogue. Weinberg emphasizes the way the card catalogue facilitates serendipitous discovery created by the same phenomenon we experience when locating books on the shelf of finding relevant and intriguing items in proximity to the one we intended to find. A few people online have posts up that touch on the potential additional annotations to these cards, as at the library history buff. There is a gold mine of material potentially available via these corrections, added bits of new information, and redirects. Unfortunately, despite the comparatively infinite capacity for recording data in database software, it is fiercely unfriendly to managing data that cannot be wedged into a singular defined category. Of course, a card presents some of the same challenges because it has less space and someone has to make a judgement call about what should be recorded. More than one card could be assigned to an item, so in reality if we didn't have to worry about space, we could expand a physical card catalogue as much as we liked. So it really comes down to judgement calls and flexibility. There needs to be enough flexibility to allow for lateral thinking and searching, but not so much that the result is a random pile. Search engine software approaches have come no closer to solving this problem in a universal way than physical card catalogues.
Card catalogues also happen to be very good at recording information inadvertently, which is something historians and social scientists appreciate very much. The studies collected in the 1999 book by Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences included an example of a card catalogue that revealed key changes in cataloging policy through the different colours of its cards. In other words, the physics and fonts of card catalogues which reveal the shifting impacts of computers and custom printing are the least of what a long-lived working card catalogue may incidentally record. There are probably more aspects and accidentals of card catalogues that we have not taken the measure of yet, so here is hoping that at least we resist the urge to throw the baby out with the bathwater as tech boosters try to claim once again that new technology should always end use of the old, especially when the newer technology is a computer. (Top)
Essential "Service" (2020-10-19)
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic putting its stamp on this year, a topic that keeps coming up besides eugenics dressed up as complete and dishonest misunderstandings of the concept of "herd immunity" – which is already an extremely problematic notion – is that of what is an "essential job" or "essential service." This is a difficult question to answer. Not because it is simple, because it is not, whether we refer to jobs or services. It is even less simple than it might be, because under late stage capitalism and its associated varying levels of authoritarianism, we are encouraged to conflate "job" or "service" with "person" or "life." A person or life no longer connectable to wage earning labour that can be stripped by capitalists for super profits is by capitalist fundamentalist definition surplus, and therefore expendable. Under such sociopathic belief systems, elders who are no longer able to work for wages are vulnerable to being warehoused and cut off from meaningful interaction with others of their own and diverse other ages. Once warehoused, they have hard time staying healthy and with us for the time that is theirs on this Earth. The same is true for those unable to work because they are too young to work independently in any capacity or deemed too young and prevented from working for wages. The calculus is invidious, and we should refuse to be taken in by it in any of its guises. One of them is the mystifying label "essential service."
The trouble with labelling any type of work a service, is that we have been trained to view "services" as expendable. If it's a service, that means we pay somebody else to do whatever the task is for us. Therefore we can do without it. Except, those expendable services invariably turn out to be the work that women are expected to do for free, especially as soon as the going gets tough. That "service" label is our warning that we have encountered yet another manifestation of patriarchal ideology that deems certain jobs permanently required of women because they don't have penises, and that furthermore women should be barred from all public life. The public life bar is important to first of all keep women from finding out about other possibilities as much as possible, and to mystify how the work they are forced to do actually gets done, lest men who aren't sociopaths protest the unjust treatment women are receiving. In late capitalism, this means that the only truly essential paid work out there is what keeps the capitalists in charge and comfortable. And since they are quite sure in patriarchal society that they can expect women to take up the slack for free when they shut down such facilities as hospitals and schools, the capitalists and their followers are quite comfortable doing that anytime it suits them.
I should pause here to note that this is not leading up to a bizarre u-turn into claiming the COVID-19 pandemic should not have been handled by "shutting down the economy." "The economy" is nothing but an abstraction used to keep us distracted. Right now the way people access the necessities of life, including the necessity to take meaningful part in our societies is horrifically distorted so that it does nothing but expropriate more and more wealth for fewer and fewer people. And those fewer and fewer people are encouraged by their ability to engross more and more wealth to believe that most humans and any other beings they can't extract more profit from are surplus, and not a positive surplus. A negative surplus that should be removed, like trash or exhaust fumes. I think we need to face up to this and stop trying to fool ourselves that fundamentalist capitalism with its vaguely utilitarian hand waving leads to any other viewpoints in its adherents.
Anyway, let's try something. Instead of talking about essential "services," let's try out the notion of essential "jobs." Let's think about that alongside some perhaps counterintuitive information from Julie Bindel, who is one of several people I have read commenting on what it was like to live in a working welfare state system in countries that have since torn it up. True enough anecdotes are not data, yet it is striking to read about and listen to speeches from people who explain that one of the most helpful aspects of being able to access welfare was that it allowed them to do work that otherwise they couldn't in a wage labour dominated system. Yes, that means some people spent more time on the arts and that seems to drive certain people into a special rage. More often than not though, this enabled people to do important support work in their communities and families. For example, they could care for ill relatives or friends who otherwise were at risk of ending up on the street. They organized to make important social and political changes happen. In other words, more often than not people on welfare contributed to society. By accident, welfare temporarily served as a means to provide wages for this work.
Now let's push a bit harder. Let's reconsider what should be considered a valued job, leaving aside the question of wages. If we weren't worrying about wages, then I suspect many more of us would think far more about the nature of the job. We would probably begin paring away jobs that support oppression, and dump perverse incentives that distort jobs into supporting oppression. For an example of the first, I think we can agree that a torturer does a job that supports oppression, and this is wrong whether or not it worked for its ostensible purpose, which as it happens, it doesn't. (Yes, there are people employed as torturers right now.) For the second, the most common example is probably that of a school teacher. There is nothing about being entrusted with educating others, particularly children, that should lead to oppression of the children, their future selves, or their families. But education is not framed as helping children grow up into creative and constructive members of society, it is framed as training them to work for minimal wages under bad conditions. It is certainly harder to eschew what we have been encouraged to believe are necessary for our safety or survival, but the harder part is mostly resisting what we have been encouraged to believe. We've been persuaded to look away from plenty of problematic decisions about who gets paid when, because of circular reasoning. Women get saddled with a bunch of work that is poorly rated because in a patriarchal society it is relegated to women almost exclusively, and is therefore unpaid. Then we are told the work is not essential or real because it isn't paid. Certain men get saddled with work with similar properties, and then are told their work is not essential or real because it isn't paid or is badly paid. Still other people, especially men, get paid to do horrific things, and we are told those horrific things are valuable because they are paid to do them.
The truth about this is, that every person in a society is an essential person because they exist, and it is our task as members of our society to treat them as such. That includes helping them find a way to contribute positively to society without fooling ourselves into oppressing them instead. If we have developed a way of thinking about work and jobs that effectively declares them "useless mouths" then what we have is a way of thinking that is empty and vicious. When we slip into talking about "essential services" or "essential jobs," we are slipping into that way of thinking. (Top)
Academic Freedom, Maybe (2020-10-12)
I have always found it fascinating that the topics or types of work people insist are not actually important are the ones they argue about incessantly and that they all have an opinion about. No matter how contradictory it is to spend so much energy on them, they'll start by inveighing about how said topic or type of work is unimportant, then spend a great deal more time telling you why they think so and what ought to be done instead. No matter what, this type of contradiction is a great way to identify topics or types of work that are important, at least in a contingent sense. This is probably exactly why Hegel and later Marx emphasized the role of contradiction in thinking. In any case, let's take up a specific example, the concept of "academic freedom." I have just been reading an article that leaned on it a lot, yet I found myself wondering, what does this concept actually mean? Both academics and non-academics throw the term around a lot, but when they argue about it are they actually sharing a definition so that the argument can possibly get somewhere? As usual in the ways of the real world, the answer to the latter question is something like yes and no, and I had to put together a sort of synthetic and tentative answer to the former question.
Starting with developing an overt definition then, I did what most of us do these days and started with some search engine queries. Then spent some time culling opinion pieces and other newspaper articles, which in their context are meant to piss us off and get page views rather than help us make sense. Canadian universities don't like to take clear stands independently, instead channelling messages through the universities canada organization. Back in 2011, this organization released a statement on academic freedom, which includes a definition, so let's start with that, stripping out repetition. "Academic freedom is the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment... [it] includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research and scholarship.... Unlike the broader concept of freedom of speech, academic freedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities." That sounds reasonable. There is an acknowledgement, albeit a muted one, that this is not an "anything goes" sort of thing for either teaching and researching or limiting teaching and research. The canadian encyclopedia is more blunt about the issues at stake at least on the teacher and researcher side, noting that it is usually used to refer to universities, faculty, and students wanting and needing to take up controversial topics without fear of reprisal. As this article also notes, below the university level neither schools, faculty, nor students get much academic freedom to speak of. In my experience the most common examples of how academic freedom is supposed to work is when an academic with an overtly status quo challenging line of research is able to remain at work in an academic institution. They may experience critiques of all sorts and be expected to respond at least to the fair ones, but ideally they are not prevented from researching, teaching, or otherwise sharing their work.
This all sounds quite reasonable to me, and does not suggest that anybody's ox is free of risk of getting gored. For example, under this definition both scholars I disagree with get academic freedom as much as the ones I agree with under this idealized description. It also appears to fairly capture the main points set out by such organizations in the united states as the american federation of teachers (see their position) and the association of american colleges and universities (here is their position). Now the hard part is acting according to this idealized perspective in the real world. It is especially hard right now, when so many people are determined to avoid the complicating factors introduced by power dynamics. These are considered to some extent in newer sexual harassment policies at different universities, in part because it is not possible to get around them. But it seems that some people engaged in arguments about academic freedom in real situations feel it is simply impolite or not helpful to talk about power dynamics. It may be more uncomfortable to take those dynamics up head on, but if we don't then what ultimately happens from what I can see is that academic freedom is at best lost, at worst lipstick on an obvious pig.
Take the claims some non-Indigenous and even Indigenous scholars make that their academic freedom is inappropriately restricted when Indigenous communities insist that they may not study or share information about ceremony or specific objects and persons. These claims are made by people who are often positions of significant power, who are claiming they have a right to refuse to respect a community or even individual's right and need to say no. It seems to me that oppressed individuals and communities always have the right to say no. There are plenty of potential research and teaching options out there without insisting on mining them for data. When people or communities in positions of power try to say no and we can make a fair argument that they are doing so in order to evade critique, then I think we can make a genuine case for overriding that no. Yet this case almost never comes up. Instead, we immediately rush to uphold their no by pointing to such potential rationalizations as national security, or that it's the sort of thing that should not be looked into until the people who could be hurt are dead. These may even be correct rationalizations at times, but I doubt it when they effectively give a pass to oppressive behaviour or such obvious things as war crimes.
In the end the people whose perspective have been most helpful to me on this is Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Audra Simpson. They both emphasize that research and its eventual outcomes in teaching, publications, and further research are all part of relationships. So when we engage in research, we need to think about what sort of relationship we are seeking to have with whom or whatever we research and the outcomes in the real world we seek to support by that research. If we don't think this through explicitly, then we will implicitly uphold particular relationships all the same, including default going along with all manner of common sense notions that may be unethical or otherwise deeply problematic. Like it or not, it goes back to the frustratingly true saying that freedom and responsibility go together. (Top)
Reappraising Certain Biblical Notions (2020-10-05)
Practically speaking I am neither a biblical scholar nor a follower of any of the religions that have a connection however more or less tenuous to hebrew scriptures preserved via various combined written and oral traditions. Due to the combination of understandable interest from people who are followers of those religions and the unfortunate longterm co-opting of their devotions for political and military gain, the various written records associated with these scriptures get considerable scholarly attention. There's one area though that seems to have gotten far less attention for the majority of at least christianty's contradictory period of hegemonic interest, and that is the critique in some parts of both hebrew and later christian scripture of usury. In this era of economic warfare on whole countries and the freedom of every person who is not rich using manipulations of various forms of invidious debt, we might expect interest (no pun intended) would be much higher in these critiques. It is unfortunate that "secularization," which tends to actually come out to imposed christianity while not overtly invoking christian symbols and ritual, has led many people to refuse to see these ancient documents as records not only of religious ideas but also of historical conditions and thoughts on what was happening. Historians generally read an all manner of records precisely for what they record by accident while meaning to focus on other things entirely. The accidentally or preserved recorded stuff often reveals things the editors either did not want or did not care to preserve for whatever reason. So it was that economist Michael Hudson in the course of his research on elements of classical economy, especially debt and its management, he found himself looking much harder at the biblical tradition.
Hudson argues quite plausibly that there is a key layer of edits by the exiles who returned from babylon, where they learned about debt forgiveness as a way of ending invidious debts. Such debts can't be paid because either their interest rates are so high as to be impossible to pay (the overt rate is very high, or it is compound interest recalculated at high frequency), forcing the debtor into accepting a period of indentured slavery in hopes of paying it off with "his" labour. As we know, when this strategy fails and there is no cancellation or forgiveness of the debt, then the person becomes a permanent slave and the debt becomes an inherited one as a certain amount of labour owed each year to whomever holds the debtor's original agreement. We know that relationship better as feudalism, and it is not coincidental that the term "serf" is derived from the latin word for slave, "servus." As is typical under feudalism under a patriarchy, "the serf" was the male head of household, and all the rest of the family's labour was considered his to manage effectively on behalf of the lord pretending to own him. This may seem an excursus from Hudson's studies, but it actually isn't, because it helps to be able to see the analogies between what he found evidence for in the biblical texts and feudal style labour exploitation.
An excellent introduction to those findings is Hudson's recent interview on radical imagination podcast on 30 march 2020, in which the host got his preconceptions thoroughly jangled by what Hudson explained to him, and I think Hudson's ability to counter any clever interviewer efforts to pigeonhole him. In any case, the high summary points are these, starting with how this information about the critique of debt in the biblical texts:
I think part of the reason is that when they translated the Bible into English, German and the vernacular, they didn't know what many of the words originally meant, like deror (for the Jubilee Year), or how to distinguish between "sin" and "debt" as originally a reparations payment for sin. They didn't understand that most of the Bible was redacted by the returnees from the Babylonian captivity, who brought back this concept of debt cancellation, "andurarum" – Clean Slate. The Hebrew word was "deror." In the Bible, you'll have other words or terms for the Clean Slate, the Jubilee year of Leviticus 25, such as "Year of the Lord" in Jesus's first sermon.
They didn't realize that the word "gospel" was the "good news." That good news was that there was going to be a debt cancellation. They didn't realize that the Ten Commandments were very largely about debt; that "one shall not covet the neighbor's wife," that means you don't make a loan to the guy so he has to pledge his wife as a debt slave to h[im] so that you can have your way with her.
He follows this through a bit further in terms of what several of the "ten commandments" originally referred to with this context restored.
"Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain" meant that a creditor couldn't swear that so-and-so owes you money if he didn't. All of this had to do with fact that the great destabilizing factor in society in the first millennium BC was debt beyond the ability to be paid, leading to bondage of the debtor, and ultimately forfeiture of land to wealthy creditors eager to grab it and do as Isaiah accused, join plot to plot and house to house until there were no more people left in the land.
Okay, so what about the so-called "new testament"? How does Hudson explain what happened that we are mising information about debt from that?
And also the original preachings of Jesus. Leviticus 25 projected the practice all the way back to the commandments of Moses. But there's not very much documentation of Judaism after the compilation of the Jewish Bible, because the Judeans didn't write on clay tablets, they wrote on perishable materials that haven't survived. The little that did survive was the sacred library of Jerusalem, which became the Dead Sea Scrolls. When the Romans came, they took the library and they put it in pots. We now have many of these scrolls. One was a midrash, a collection of all of the biblical passages about debt cancellation, including those of the prophets.
So we know that by the time of Jesus, there was an active popular demand for another Jubilee. But meanwhile, within Judaism itself, the wealthiest families became the rabbinical school. Luke's description of Jesus in the New Testament said that the Pharisees loved money. They became the rabbinical school of Hillel. Luke said that Jesus went back to the temple in his hometown to give a sermon, and unrolled the scroll of Isaiah to read the passage about the Year of the Lord – meaning the Jubilee Year – and said, that he had come to proclaim this year. That was his destiny.
Early translators of the Bible just read "the Year of the Lord" without realizing that this meant the Jubilee Year, deror, a debt cancellation. Luke immediately says a lot of families got very angry and chased Jesus out of town. They didn't like his message. The Pharisees in particular got upset, and complained to the Roman that Jesus wanted to be King. Well, the reason they said was that they knew that Rome hated kingship. Roman tradition as written by Livy and by Dionysius and Halicarnassus described Servius as cancelling the debts, and most other kings of trying to keep the oligarchy in its place. Rome grew by making itself a haven for immigrants, whom they attracted precisely by keeping the oligarchy in its place.
Wait, the interviewer interjects, the romans had an empire. Those of us who have had to read Cicero abusing the rostrum to get Catiline driven out of rome and then killed may prick up their ears at this bit too. It may give those of us in that group pause to consider that those orations were required reading and rereading for british imperial elites and their later american immitators.
We are talking before the eighth to sixth centuries BC. But then the oligarchs took over and throughout the rest of Roman history down to the empire, the great fear was that somebody would do what the kings did: cancel the debts and redistribute the land to the poor. Julius Caesar was killed for "seeking kingship," meaning that the Senate worried that he was going to cancel the debts after decades of civil warfare over this issue and the assassination of Catiline and other advocates of debt cancellation.
...Even many rich people were behind Catiline, who led the revolt a generation before Caesar, who actually seems to have been an early sponsor of Catiline. We're talking about 62 to 64 BC; Caesar was killed in 44 BC.
So to make a long story short, what made the West "Western" was that it was the first society not to cancel the debts. It was to prevent this that oligarchies opposed a central authority. We don't find any sign of debt in Greece and Rome until about 750 B.C. It was brought by near Eastern traders, along with standardized calendrically based weights and measures, ritual and religious practices. They set up temples as trading vehicles. For thousands of years, traders had set up local temples to act as a sort of Chamber of Commerce, to negotiate trade. In Greece, and Rome at that time there were chieftainships, which began to adopt the patronage practices of extending loans to the population, and then taking the payment and labor.
These dependency relationships are what made Western civilization different from what went before. There was no palatial economy, no state authority to override the oligarchy, cancel debts, redistribute land or liberate citizens who had been reduced to bondage as a result of their debt.
...Already in Greece and Rome there was a linkage between debt and militarization. A Greek general, Tacticus in the third century BC, wrote a book of military tactics. He said that if you want to conquer a town, the way to take it over is to promise to cancel the debts. The population will come over to your side. And conversely, he said, if you're defending a town, cancel the debts and they'll support you against the attacker. So that was one of the reasons that debts tended to be canceled by one group or another. It's what Coriolanus did, and then he went back on his word in Rome. That's what Zedekiah did in Judea. Well, today it's different. Here you have the imposition of a military force – really NATO – to enforce debt collection, not only from individuals but on debt entire countries. The job of the World Bank and IMF is to impose such heavy debt service on countries, and indeed to impose it in dollars, that countries have to earn these dollars to pay their debts. They can't simply print the money to pay these debts like America can do. They have to obtain dollars by steadily lowering the price of their labor. But as yet there is no debt revolt.
I have quoted quite a bit here, and there is way more just in this interview, let alone reading the studies produced by his research group or his recent book ...and forgive them their debts. Now of course, Hudson's points here do not save the biblical texts or associated religions at all, and anyway that is not his argument here. He is arguing that social stability is not achieved by driving people into slavery or desperate rebellion by manipulation of invidious debts. The whole bullshit claim that the people who can't pay their debts are morally required to suffer for not having enough self-control or sense of responsibility to avoid getting into impossible to pay levels of debt is a rationalization of power grabbing and oppression. He points out repeatedly that business debts were not forgiven, businesspeople can sort each other out and will scratch each other's backs. But people whose debt derives from being unable to get the basics of their subsistence either directly or by wage labour are not using money outside of their subsistence needs to speculate with. They are doing their best to survive. It is wrong and unjust to suggest that they are in fact speculating by seeking not to starve to death or die of exposure by borrowing to help cover their subsistence needs. That remains true no matter what our religious ideas may be.
For those reading who consider that student loan debt is the product of unsuccessful speculation and therefore the people unable to pay them should be punished for that, again, that is bullshit. Young people learn in elementary and secondary school that it is not possible to make a living without education, and that is based not only on "common sense" but also on real data. They can see and hear the recommendations pressed on them that they should be willing to take on any level of debt burden to win a job in the current fad fields, because if they do so, they will inevitably make more than enough money to pay the debt. That this is not true, and that even tuition for degrees and certificates that do lead to paying work is in many places in north america so high that they cannot pay the loans back in less than ten years at best, is something more and students learn as they prepare to finish high school. And they are caught in a socio-economic double bind. They can't make a living without undertaking post-secondary education of some type. They can't pay for it by working part time or during semesters off, unless they remain living with their parents. They get pilloried for refusing to "grow up" if they do this, and even if they do, they may be forced to take out student loans, which cannot be discharged by bankruptcy and have usurious rates of interest. There is no part of this that is arrogant speculation, and nothing moral about effectively rendering anyone who goes into post-secondary education likely to fall into indentured servitude.
It is hardly surprising that generally these understandings and the historical context of ancient debt management are not usually highlighted, and that those of us who end up reading these documents in translation or not rarely get them in historical context. Without that context, at no moment do we get a chance to consider whether Catiline was taking advantage of a genuine social injustice for example, whether or not we agree with his choice of action as we have received it from a hostile written tradition. Why a particular man claiming to be a messiah would suddenly be so dangerous to the roman empire as to have to be executed by the roman state with the support of the religious authorities of his own community is baffling as Jesus is usually presented. As usually presented, everything Jesus says is quietism and obedience, not a challenge to rome let alone jewish religious authorities at all. This makes better sense of what happened to him, and probably a whole range of preachers and other powerful political figures arguing for empire-threatening things. How many people will give Hudson's work a genuine hearing and maybe do something constructive rather than destructive with it remains to be seen. (Top)
An Unseasonable Piece (2020-03-26)
Regular readers will have noticed already that thoughtpieces have their own publishing schedule, which has only just managed to reach the current year. Nevertheless, considering how things are going in the world at the moment, it is time to break in on the usual scheduled programming for something else. No one expects to see extreme events in their lifetime, and surprisingly few of us do, despite the world being a large place with plenty of complex interactions within the envelope of earth, air, and water we spend our lives inside, sometimes taking part in those interactions, sometimes dodging as best we can. Here we are just over a hundred years after the deadliest influenza epidemic in history recorded by europeans, the misnamed "spanish" flu, dealing with what is at minimum a dangerously close cousin. There are many capitalist fundamentalists and other people who subscribe to various prettied up forms of warfare by other means and eugenics who initially figured this was going to finally clean up the world for them. After all, pandemics supposedly clean out the weakest, and the resultant successful response of the neoliberalized world should prove once and for all the superiority of capitalism.
UPDATE 2020-04-19 - By the time this thoughtpiece appears in its seasonable place, it will have been almost a year since its original appearance. Here is hoping there will be plenty of good news to add by then.
Well, that was what they thought before it became clear that the number of COVID-19 cases even in neoliberal countries is going to overwhelm their medical systems and bring many of them to at least the terrifying brink of overt violent authoritarianism.
Now many people are suddenly discovering that a lot of things previously labelled "impossible," "unthinkable," and "heretical" are none of those things. And a lot of things once considered "common sense" and "absolutely necessary" are raising serious resistance. We already know how the story goes when capitalist fundamentalist governments insist on dumping more money into the stock market and the pockets of people who have already stolen so much money they make up random stupid shit to do to blow it on. The rest of the world gets poorer, more miserable, and less able to handle ordinary challenges and smaller scale crises, let alone pandemics and warfare disguised as "economic sanctions" and civil wars that are really proxy wars between other countries. The minority driving the worst of the general pillaging, destruction, and theft that makes billionaires are completely isolated from the real world. They really think that in the end they are going to wait the worst out in their fancy bunkers or wave goodbye on their way to their special bases on the Moon or Mars. They simply can't be reasoned with because they refuse to engage with the rest of the world. As far as they are concerned, they are the real human beings, must know better, and deserve to survive at all costs, including the world as we know it.
When it comes down to brass tacks, we are all going to be faced with what to do in our present conditions, and how to handle the lunatics who cheated, fought, and stole to get into positions of control over most means of violence and surveillance available in the present day. And what we will have to do is stick together in a good way, route around them, and cut them off. We need to stop feeding their delusions by engaging with them, stop legitimizing their game by playing it. We need to do that because it is killing us, whether it be quick or slow, whether the "us" is a group with me in it today or you in it tomorrow, or both of us the day after that. This task is hellishly scary and far from easy to do.
Ready or not, we're just going to have to get on with it. (Top)
Deviant Biography (2020-09-28)
Among other things, I have been working my way through an excellent anthology of autobiography excerpts by women who lived through the 1917 russian revolution, subsequent provisional government and civil war period, and the stalinist era of totalitarian government. In the Shadow of the Revolution, edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Yuri Slezine, published in 2000. So far the editors have demonstrated a genuine commitment to providing a wide spectrum of women, women whose experiences varied widely and whose political viewpoints are just as diverse. While both editors discuss how these autobiographical pieces differ from anglo expectations of the genre when women write in it, they do not spend much time considering the fact that the women whose segments are longest are generally emigrés. This makes me a bit nervous, because it is not clear whether that necessarily reflects what was available to select from at the time, although it may well be. Certainly Catherine Merridale's book Ivan's War came out seven years later, and Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War did not hit the english paperback stage until 2017, both books based at least as much on oral interviews of survivors as archival work. Interestingly, while the themes of Alexievich's book match well with those of In the Shadow of the Revolution, the proportion of emigrés to those who remained in russia is quite different, and they were not exploring the 1917 revolution and its immediate aftermath. All of which is to say with respect to these books that they are all well worth the time spent reading and pondering their content. In the meantime, I would like to return specifically to Fitzpatrick and Slezkine's anthology, especially Slezkine's prefatory essay, in which he comments:
Indeed, the main official reason for purging, arresting, and shooting Soviet citizens [in the Stalinist period] was the fact[sic] that their biographies were not equal to the state and party. Because evil actions stemmed from deviant biographies, the state and party had to engage in massive biographical research while Soviet citizens had to keep editing their lives. (28)
Slezkine had already explained that soviet citizens were expected to write and submit autobiographies as part of the process to maintaining and participating in working and social life in soviet russia generally, and of course stalinist russia in particular. I admit freely to having to read the overall section of the essay this quote comes from multiple times because of its uncanny resonances in contemporary life in societies ostensibly characterized by freedom and privacy, including freedom to make and live down mistakes.
Many, many people, are active on social media. Among those many people are those who in effect have deliberately written or else effectively though accidentally written, an on-line autobiography. Whether or not they have created a narrative, no advertising company running a data mining service under the label of "social media" actually deletes anything. As Bret Victor has commented, the internet has a memory problem, in that much of what is connected to and run on it forgets what it should remember and never forgets what it most should. The social media and general web footprint of a person is now regularly used against them on and offline. Bearing in mind that yes, of course, reasonable criminal investigations may include examination of cyberspace activity, that does not justify digging incessantly and as deeply as possible for arbitrary sticks to beat a person with. Any person, even those accused and found guilty of criminal acts. Ongoing or additional public beatings will not assist an investigation or deter a convicted person or others who in future may commit the same crime. Yet this is such a widespread abuse now that like soviet citizens, people are constantly editing their lives on-line. The people who are constantly editing are not primarily the convicted criminals or criminals not yet caught, who are by nature a minority. (Oh yes, a minority – it is not so easy to criminalize and keep criminalized what the majority is doing, even when the majority is doing wrong.)
No, the main people engaged in constant editing are those busily trying to stay ahead of the increasingly oppressive forces demanding absolute conformity with the latest political position of the moment. They hope to avoid the incessant attacks on even those who are not busy being political activists for or against anything, but asking sensible clarification questions about controversial issues of the day. The response to their taking the actually reasonable though rarely respectfully given suggestion that they learn about controversial issues right now is rarely respect for them actually following the advice. Based on the reactions to them, it is clear that when many people demand that others asking questions or refusing to just agree with them "educate themselves" they are in fact demanding those others shut up and go along without question. Well, we know already how badly wrong that goes. Conviction that we are right may give us a sense of "right" but for good or ill does not confirm that we are in fact right. Rather, it may give us a literally intoxicating sense that we are right, even though like all intoxications it must wear off and has no genuine content.
That I am a great skeptic of "social media" and its greater utility as framed and applied is no secret here obviously, and the way their implementation encourages acceptance and expansion of authoritarianism should trouble all of us. It is a mistake to focus only on how certain "social media" outlets have manoeuvred themselves into the appearance of being the only public square or the only way to get effective advertisement of products or mere existence at present. It is too easy for that to be dismissed as sour grapes, evidence of "not adapting to change fast enough" even though this is certainly the way those advertising and surveillance companies would like us to view them, to convince ourselves that we are dependent on them. I don't suppose they are too concerned about how they help increase the pressure on everyone to continuously edit their biographies, and thereby lie to themselves and others. (Top)
International Women's Day (2020-09-21)
No politically aware woman was surprised when corporate and men's rights activists did their utmost to co-opt international women's day in 2020. Many Feminists practically and reasonably responded with critiques of the whole notion of an international women's day in the first place, although I do feel some of the response went sideways because the history and origins of the day are little known to many of us. It is too easy for us to mistake corporate propaganda for what a particular event or activity means, even when for almost anything else we would call bullshit and demand receipts. We should demand that every time, even though yes, we are tired. We are tired and fed up with having to do that, but even if we don't to do it in the mainstream media we can't get access to anyway, we should at least do it for ourselves. We have to refuse to accept the propaganda, even when we temporarily can't quite believe that accepting the propaganda is actually harder, not easier. It's just that the harder comes a bit later, and so seems dissociated from its actual cause. Those who design and spread propaganda are viciously clever that way.
When it comes to international women's day specifically, we don't have to work very hard to find out about the actual origins of this day and the reasons for how controversial it is. Have a read of the excellent article at the Tricontinental, We Who Were Nothing and Have Become Everything Shall Construct a New and Better World. Spoiler alert, a major portion of official skepticism about it after the way it centres women is its origins in the political and social activism of socialists, especially socialists engaged in fighting the tsarist regime in russia. German Marxist Clara Zetkin led the proposal, never expecting that it would be adopted into statutory holiday calendars, because that was never the point of it. The idea being to remember the 1848 revolution in europe, a revolution often marked down by political historians as a failure. Like any historical event the facts are more complicated and the subsequent changes spreading out from it still not wholly understood. Women had particular interest in the 1848 actions that won widespread male suffrage, because they could see how men used the vote as scaffolding to achieving greater self-organization and cooperation for change. They knew what sort of action they were effectively arguing for on march 8, and why the hammer of the patriarchal state and patriarchal radical organizations fell on them from all sides. To this day many men resist accepting that they can't end every other oppression and somehow keep patriarchy. They resist accepting that they can't end oppression for good to any of their number by trying to keep women from ever working to end their own oppression. That "trying" fatally weakens and co-opts their efforts to end their own oppression. This is something that white women have been accepting as the truth when it comes to trying to have an end to patriarchy but somehow keep racism lite. It is a bittersweet realisation.
UPDATE 2020-07-30 - Now here is a lovely addition to what we should all know about international women's day, via radical feminist sources, Uprising of the 20, 000. There is an important quibble though, the implication that this uprising led to the selection of the date for International Women's Day, when in fact many of the participants clearly knew about it already because it was established in europe by labour activists like Clara Zetkin nearly 50 years before, and working class women there were well aware of this. Quoting the text from this poster, "In the first decade of the 20th century, immigrant women workers revolted against the appalling sweatshop conditions in the garment industry. Italian and Eastern European Jewish women, many of whom did not speak English, launched a series of strikes that reached from New York City to Chicago and Cleveland. In 1909 the 'Uprising of the 20, 000' spread to 500 shops in 24 hours gaining widespread report and winning almost all of the demands voiced by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Joined by women in the suffrage movement, they held a demonstration in New York on March 8, 1909 demanding better conditions, an end to child labor and the right to vote. Today, that day is celebrated as International Women's Day. Sisterhood and solidarity nourished each other as theses women wrote a vital chapter in both women's history and labor history."
Zetkin's involvement in proposing international women's day strikes me especially because she was also one of the first and most prescient people on the dangers of nazism. In fact, I am going to quote a part of what I wrote about Zetkin's work on this point in march 2018 as part of an update to the essay Is It Fascism Yet?. "Zetkin analyzed fascism's origins and pinpointed its relationship to crises in capitalist economies and dysfunction of democratic institutions. Transcriptions and translations of a part of Zetkin's writings, including her analysis of and warning against fascism at the 1923 communist international is available on the Marxist Internet Archive." That's right folks, 1923, independently of Karl Polanyi's analysis in the hefty and well worth reading tome The Great Transformation. But in our time of resurgent fascism and increased authoritarianism, it should be no surprise that any idea or event rooted in socialist activism and critique will be fiercely attacked, precisely because any such activism challenges authoritarianism and fascism. We've all been at this rodeo before, even those of us who are quite young, relative to those with such periods of attack on dissent as the so-called "red scare" and the "cold war."
But let's turn back to the article at the Tricontinental, because it indirectly illustrates a feature of constructive criticism and work towards practical moves out of our present predicament. For one thing, the author does not attempt to present all of the examples he covers as a single version of Feminism or women's socialist activism. Instead, he draws out their diversity, the diversity in their contexts both historical and social, and how there are shared elements that encourage solidarity while demanding respect for differences in tactics and priorities. This also shows how impractical (at minimum) centralized direction of movements and action to end any oppression are. The illustrations for the article include paintings, posters, and photographs. Not decorated weapons – in fact, so far I have not found examples of specially decorating weapons as a supposed "argument." These movements are indeed creative as such, producing not just materials we may or may not want to deem propaganda, although of course ideally everyone would reproduce accurate information in easy to understand formats that allow readers and listeners to make up their own minds. My bigger point at the moment though, leaving aside the question of propaganda, is that the focus of these modes of activism is not the closure of thought as expressed through such acts as book burning or refusing to allow a fair hearing to other views.
These strike me as good criteria to consider when gauging the level of good faith and constructive critique in a given movement or person or group's actions and arguments. If people making an argument can only do so by limiting or closing thought, attacking creativity, and using all manner of tactics in an effort to enforce centralized authority, then the case for declaring that argument bad news is quite a strong one. Please note that the argument that international women's day should not be about women is hedged all around with attempts to prevent and limit thought: blocking other views from access to mainstream messaging face; application of psychologically abusive tactics such as shaming, name-calling, and threats; attempts to centralize and dictate from on high what the day is supposed to mean everywhere and at all times. If nothing else, we should give Clara Zetkin a hand for proposing a form of commemoration for a time that in itself remains so instructive in terms of how so-called elites respond to it. (Top)
Sales Numbers (2020-09-14)
Due to my work in historical research and ancient languages, I have fairly regular encounters with very old books, including former denizens of primary school classrooms when ancient greek and latin were still common fare. Most of these are understandably tattered. Even before their encounters with multiple children with varying levels of interest in the subject and determination to make their marks on the books, they had a mark against them for being "service texts." That is stolid, workaday publications that just had to do the job. These sorts of books may run to nearly a century old, and garner little more than two to five dollars on the used book market unless they had passed verifiably through the hands of someone famous. It can be intriguing to read their original selling price, usually pencilled onto the upper right hand corner in the examples I have seen, having made their way through british and canadian book sellers. Sometimes the neither the publication nor printing year is clearly indicated, but a person can triangulate using which currency the price is noted in, whether it is metric or imperial, and its amount. It was while cataloguing a number of books of this type that I ended up digging a bit more into the question of "ISBNs" and why and when books would have them.
Today because ISBNs are on pretty much every book we see, including at times journals that have no text in them before somebody buys and writes in them, which I suspect is at most generous a misinterpretation of the remit of these numbers. They aren't required in the legal sense so far as I can tell, but in our currently highly computerized age it would be difficult to sell books without them because they are fundamentally sales inventory numbers. The acronym doesn't say so of course, it expands to "international standard book number" not "international sales book number" – yet the fact remains they were developed in the first place by book retailer WH Smith as they brought computers online in their sales operations. So if you have worked in a library and noted that at times english and american books of similar age are not both equipped with ISBNs, chances are that age is within the early 1960s. Since 1970 they have been standardized and applied worldwide, although how the numbers are assigned varies by country. Apparently an ISO standard is in development, and ISBNs had hit the lack of unique numbers available issue affecting internet ip addresses over a decade ago, leading to their expansion from 10 to 13 digits. (If you'd like to get even more into the details of ISBNs, a place to start is Bill Pearce's articles at ISBN Information.)
What led me to look this material up, apart from the vexed issue of needing the correct expansion of the ISBN acronym, was reflecting on how a very practical application of numbering, cataloguing, and computers has been manipulated in advertising in an attempt to fundamentally change how we view and experience books. Of course booksellers need to track inventory and sales accurately, that is a practical need. The numbers they use have to do some very different jobs than library catalogue numbers, which accordingly use the completely different library of congress and dewey decimal systems. The library needs to organize its collection consistently and cope with regular additions and removals by purchase, discard, and cycles of borrowing and lending. The call numbers have to be differentiated enough so that a combination of mnemonics and physical memory can help library staff and patrons find books. Book stores generally handle much smaller collections that may change even faster, but can potentially be kept in sight range of one to three clerks. Store owners also want to maintain the freedom to place certain books in key areas, and to shift older stock to discount piles and the like. Since many of those books are going home with individuals rather than into libraries, it makes sense for book sellers to treat library catalogue numbers as entities beyond their ken.
At the moment most of us are living in hyper-capitalistic times, and so we are under constant pressure from the media to treat everything and anything as a product to be bought and sold, preferably in an ephemeral form destroyed quickly by use. An incredible effort over the past twenty years has gone into attempts to convince us that the so-called "dead tree book" is dead, and who needs the library with its dusty stacks of them anyway, plus fearmongering about germs and such unsavoury critters as bedbugs. Emphasizing ISBNs is of a piece with this sort of thinking, because from the perspective of assigning ISBNs, every book is the same, regardless of format. So there is no friction from that perspective in switching formats and derogating anything dependent on paper or other media. There is plenty to take issue with this push to dematerialize the book, no need to appeal to sentimentality or even the epistemology embedded in claiming books are merely made of "dead trees." But I am not concerned with those points here, although interested readers may want to take a look at the intertwined essays Books are Sharks and Touch Me Not for more considerations specifically about dematerialization and why we shouldn't expect hard copy books to go anywhere or that electronic formats genuinely compete with them.
Instead, I would like to emphasize the devaluing aspect of assigning standardized numbers and counting even when the items affected are objects. It is common to dismiss biblical denunciations of census-taking as being about superstition, but when it comes to people it is has become all too obvious that census-taking combined with assigning everyone a unique number can lend itself to terrifying things. To be sure, books are not in the same league as humans. The point rather is that we humans are prone to losing sight of value, social relationships, and other deeper aspects of how we use complex creations like books precisely when we treat them as standard numbered products. The numbering is designed to elide all that, which is dangerous if we let the elision outside of its appropriate arena. In the comparatively minor arena of books and bookselling, we have practical evidence of how access to books and publishing more generally can be manipulated and the manipulation rationalized by supposedly objective numbers. This is a pretty good reminder and warning for the times we lose sight of how dangerous presumed objectivity really is. In books it is relatively minor, yet still potentially dangerous. It seems to me well worth taking the point from the relatively minor example well before things get out of hand in even worse areas. (Top)
Contradictory Justice (2020-09-07)
I have been thinking a lot about how english-descended court systems in particular work over the past several years. There are a range of prominent cases and events that have kept them in view over the past twenty years, from the debacle of a united states supreme court decision deciding which rich white male would be the next president there to the ongoing travesty of the trial of Julian Assange, let alone the facts before us indicating whistleblowers doing their duty to society cannot get a fair trial in the first place. All this before even hand waving at the issue of "trial by media" in which certain people are picked out for destruction basically because they are considered expendable in the drive to make profits. The experts in "trial by media" have an entire specialty in hijacking and co-opting important and meaningful social movements and helping replace them with individualized expressions of "identity politics" and other forms of behaviour unpleasantly reminiscent of teenagerhood in a bad high school. Courts are not supposed to work this way, considering they at least mythical associations with groups of wise elders figuring out how to handle a situation that has outstripped the capacity of less coercive forms of either mediating disputes or determining punishments for wrongdoing. I am not certain these two functions should be allowed to overlap as much as they are, even though in many english-descended court systems trials to determine guilt and sentencing are separate, the point is that the former do not actually resolve a dispute. There is no question in the case of a persecution that wrong has been done at some point, the question is who did it, and sometimes confirming what it is. Dispute resolution may be entirely unconnected. Still, let's try setting that tangle aside for the moment.
In court, especially when there are charges against a person, and that person is facing potential punishment of whatever level of severity, I understand (bearing in mind that I do not play a lawyer on television) there are two principles that are supposed to be at work at all times. First, that a person accused is to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and that an arrested person must be able to have a hearing before a judge to determine if there are real grounds to keep them in prison or not. The latter is of course the famous "habeas corpus" concept, although it seems to be awfully flexible and capable of being suspended whenever a government with sufficient coercive force available to ignore it decides to do so. That said, of course the point is that these are principles that are supposed to be at work, and ideally when we observe the principles not being observed or being blocked from application by other issues, adjustments are made to counter those issues and enforce their observation. Hence the struggles over jury and judge selection, which should be aiming for selecting as impartial a jury or judge as possible under the circumstances. It is no surprise to anybody that this is non-trivially difficult.
Suppose then, that a person is accused of a crime, and accordingly is arrested. Suppose that things run properly and police are not driven by perverse incentives as rewards for making higher arrest and charge numbers or getting early stage confessions before a lawyer is present for the person accused. Ah, that reveals a third principle that isn't acknowledged often, that an accused person has a right to a lawyer and to refuse to answer questions without one to help them understand what is going on and not be unfairly tricked into putting themselves in further jeopardy. This is true no matter how much we dislike the person or otherwise find them unsavoury. Suppose also that there is real evidence of possible wrongdoing by this person as revealed in a timely hearing before a judge, which leads to something along the lines of a bail hearing. Depending on the severity of the crime the person is accused of, then yes just as the television shows make out, the bail may be set higher. This all sounds cautiously reasonable. The trouble starts however, with charges.
Time and again we have seen that a few things can make the most egregious and even ridiculous of charges stick to a person: poverty, racialization, feminization, and politicization. Obnoxious as latinate terms of this kind are, they are of course short forms meaning that if you are poor, a person deemed "of colour," female, or deemed somehow politically questionable or dangerous, regardless of what you actually did, accusations tend to stick all the same. Even if you never get formally charged, your character has taken a dangerous hit. If you have been charged and fended off the accusations successfully in court, you remain a "person of interest" because you have a record. In other words, all these things tend to eviscerate any application of the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" and replace it with, "you must be guilty of something and we're bound to catch you out sometime." The seeming exceptions that prove the rule are the rare successful persecutions of rich white men, who often finish with minimal actual penalties apart from embarrassment that their thick pocketbooks will soon smooth over. Men near the end of relatively successful careers who have brought embarrassment on their powerful and more circumspect peers may suffer graver penalties than otherwise, but the difference lies in that relationship, not the court system or the legal system more broadly.
Specific types of charges seem to carry a special charge to attack the person making the charge as intensely and widely as possible, especially whenever a woman or girl has to bring a rape charge. Now on one hand, I get that in a patriarchy, rape charges and trials are inherently political. In reality, the woman or girl bringing the charge is treated as a criminal herself for the supposed crime of lèse-majesté. That's what political trials are actually about, and clearly english descended, patriarchal court and legal systems are very good at ensuring that lèse-majesté is identifiable and prosecutable, even if, perhaps especially if, the person in danger of being accused of it is in fact trying to bring the supposed majesté to justice.
But here's the thing. If a man accused of rape was innocent, there would be no need to character assassinate the woman or girl who accuses him anyway. It would be possible to gather practical evidence exonerating him, and indeed that has happened. By practical evidence I mean verification of where people were when, physical evidence including DNA if handled properly and so on. Not trying to lean on claims that supposedly the woman or girl made it up or regretted bad sex. I do agree with ptittle at hellyeahimafeminist, that the best way to avoid the latter risk if it is real, is to follow some quite basic steps, "So men, you don't want to be charged with rape? Don’t have sex the woman will regret: make it great sex; use a condom; and don’t consider the woman a slut because she wanted it." Nevertheless, this does not affect my own point here, that when a person who brings a charge is character assassinated, as in the case of women and girls bringing rape charges, they are suffering a political prosecution. And make no mistake, they are the ones being prosecuted, as a canadian judge who repeatedly referred to the rape victim as "the defendant" in an infamous case let slip.
All of this suggests to me that besides dealing with the problem of preventing governments from having enough coercive at their command to ignore the law and such principles as habeas corpus, innocent until proven guilty, and the right to proper legal assistance when faced with a criminal or political charge, we need to root out the pseudo-crime of lèse-majesté. It corrupts the court and legal process despite not being formally on the books. It is not necessary, because actual threats to injure or kill a famous person or far less famous official are already sensibly accounted for by other law. The difficulty always comes down to enforcement, still the point is the tools are there. But of course, to get rid of the pseudo-crime of lèse-majesté, we need to get rid of patriarchy, when it comes down to it. (Top)
You Will Be Assimilated (2020-08-31)
"You Will Be Assimilated": this is the great dream statement of the people who think of themselves as elites, the ones who think that there are no other ways to live for people outside of their narrow group but what benefits their own clique. At this point it is quite obvious that the way of life demanded by these supposed "elites" is so pathological and destructive that they must hold at least four core beliefs that allow them to justify what they are doing. I'm sure there are many ancillary beliefs, but the point is that they have to start with some quite basic points after which any other selections are as taste and convenience dictate.
The majority of this clique apparently shares an important ancillary belief in what Karl Polanyi famously described as the enforcement of a labour market, in which everyone will be free to sell their labour, though not free to do anything else. It is worth quoting his overview of this thinking, via page 171 of the 2001 beacon press edition of The Great Transformation.
To separate labour from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and replace them with a different tyoe of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one.
Such a scheme of destruction was best served by the application of the principle of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the non-contractual organization of kinship, neighbourhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiances of the individual and thus restrained his[sic] freedom. To represent this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of ingrained prejudice in favour of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy non-contracted relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous reformation.
The effect of the establishment of a labour market is conspicuously apparent in colonial regions today. The natives are forced to make a living selling their labour. To this end their traditional institutions must be destroyed, and prevented from reforming, since, as a rule, the individual in primitive[sic] society is not threatened by starvation unless the community as a whole is in a like predicament.
If the only way to get people into a contract is to give them a choice to sign or starve, the situation at hand is certainly not one of freedom or non-interference. This is the coercive force behind the assumption that everyone will just have to assimilate to what today we more often refer to as fundamentalist capitalism combined with settler colonialism or die. The people who take this position, however they pretty it up or sidestep around putting it this bluntly, are nevertheless taking precisely this position. To their minds, if people end up starving, they are either perverse, lazy, or surplus to need anyway and so should die more quickly as they shouldn't have existed in the first place. The people whose position this is would mostly never put it this bluntly, and might even deny there are ever dire consequences, either because they don't consider them dire, they start inveighing against "bleeding heart liberals" with no sense of irony, or the worst happens out of their sight. When Hannah Arendt talked about the banality of evil, a key aspect of her examination focussed on how people found ways to deny what was happening by insisting they didn't know, meaning they did not have direct knowledge. It seems to me that Karl Marx and more recently David Harvey have made related points, that economic systems can be designed to make it possible to deny knowledge of the destruction required to keep the system running.
There are many aspects to current conditions that hark back to Polanyi's analysis, and an eerie sense that now we are seeing those who saw themselves solely as colonizers forced to admit that they are colonized. Take the united states, where people across that country's political spectrum are furious that their communities are being pulverized, and people who think they are white are discovering to their rage and terror that their communities are slated for demolition too. The proof is legion that the creation of what amounts to a Hobbesian world of all against all by means of total force and constant interference by corporations, state, and their useful idiots among the clergy and teaching professions is anything but liveable in any but the very shortest term.
The real question is, are the majority of us seriously going to go along with being assimilated, that is legally murdered, by a few extremists? (Top)
Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:53:51