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Oppressed People Aren't Here to Make Their Oppressors Feel Better (2022-02-21)

Organization photograph of a 2006 meeting of the general assembly of the international alliance of the rings of memory in nantes, france. Image quoted from wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licenses. Organization photograph of a 2006 meeting of the general assembly of the international alliance of the rings of memory in nantes, france. Image quoted from wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licenses.
Organization photograph of a 2006 meeting of the general assembly of the international alliance of the rings of memory in nantes, france. Image quoted from wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licenses.

I have taken part in a number of different projects employers sponsored with the official end of reducing systemic racism and sexism in the workplace, thereby improving their chances of successfully hiring women and racialized people and persuading them to stay by the respectful characteristics of the workplace and the value and quality of the work. Whatever views we may or may not hold about employers in a capitalist system, these programs look and sound like they have seriously laudable goals. They should be successful at getting to some corporate-speak thing like a three hundred sixty degree win, because the boss, managers, and rank and file employees should all be getting something good out of it. Anybody could wonder what there is not to like about this. Of course, as we all know too well, racialized or not, female or not, the actual goals of such programs tend to be rather different than their official goals. Racialized people generally and women in particular can get fooled into pouring unbelievable amounts of time and energy into these projects, only to discover that this has all been diverted into the quite different goal of making the men and/or non-racialized people at the office feel better while genuinely changing nothing.

Back at university, I saw the same phenomenon going in with the various "bipoc" and/or women's caucuses, groups, and clubs. The administration generally takes serious interest in them after a particularly embarrassing incident on campus, or one off campus that makes the administration feel a dire need to be perceived as doing something. Then, suddenly they have not only time for those various groups who had already been striving to break down systems and structures of oppression at least in the classroom and on campus more widely, they have money. Of course, the time and the money come with terms, usually presented as requests intended to meet certain "needs." Suddenly, the administration perceives a "need" for sensitivity, anti-racism, and/or anti-sexism training. The money will support those activist types to line up or provide the training, of course. And those folks can go ahead and start collating, maybe even writing and filming educational materials. That would be great. And consulting with the library to improve the coverage of non-white males and their interests in the stacks and online resources. Oh, and serve on a range of different committees where their presence is needed to cover the "diversity" quota and maybe take part in some photo shoots for the publicity needed to change the university's image from all white and male to more like off white and a bit female. Never mind that the average university population now is majority female and often also majority racialized.

In other words, pretty soon, if those racialized people and women are not careful, they are fully co-opted into providing cover, plausibility, and feel goodness for the people who need to take genuine action to destroy systems and structures of oppression. Instead, they'll be run through a course meant to change them on an individual basis and give them an opportunity to confess their secular sins and get forgiveness in the form of credit for completing the course, and then go back to doing the very same thing. After all, there will be no paths from those courses to working together to make literal changes that will shake the accepted ways things are done. The publicity folders will look different of course. The updates always remind me of the way packaging for basic computer accessories changed a few years ago. First, the packaging began to feature pictures of people sitting in front of computers, sometimes even touching a mouse or keyboard, apparently on the principle of, "make it friendly by showing people using computers." The level of actual contempt for most people stuck using computers every day whether they want to or not, who don't need to be shown the computer won't bite or electrocute them is one most of us can estimate easily enough. Then apparently somebody in marketing went, "Holy! These pictures are not diverse enough, and these white men look like they are working. That will never do!" Then the packaging began to feature mostly black men in shirt sleeves and white women in skirt suits and stilettos (I'm not making this up!) in front of a computer, with their arms up in the air as if they were cheering at a sports event. No idea what this did for sales of those products, but the packaging has mostly gone back to not having pictures of people on it.

Here's the thing. Neither racialized people or women, or the groups they may create in order to help one another deal with the effects of structural and systematic oppression on them are there for the sake of their oppressors. They aren't there to absolve the sinner to go forth and sin all over again, feeling delighted and righteous immediately after they have done the equivalent of confession and saying a few prayers or doing some other small and ineffective penance. They are there to help racialized people and/or women survive an extremely hostile environment at minimum, to change that environment for good at the middle, and to contribute to total change in society at the maximum. None of those things centre oppressors. If anyone should be doing the work of training oppressors out of oppression, well that's for the oppressors who have finally decided that they are fed up with living in such an unethical way, and fed up with being complicit with holding up rotten structures and systems. Fed up, and determined to actually do something about it, not get a hit of self-righteous feel good and go home. (Top)

Automation and Online Classes (2022-02-14)

Quote of a graphic purporting to represent a robot teacher from a 6 march 2015 article at zeenewsindia. Quote of a graphic purporting to represent a robot teacher from a 6 march 2015 article at zeenewsindia.
Quote of a graphic purporting to represent a robot teacher from a 6 march 2015 article at zeenewsindia.

Due to the covid-19 pandemic, a tremendous number of classes and associated content went online, some of it staying there, some of it not. According to my sources, a few too many post-secondary instructors with full time jobs have been showing off their expensive "online teaching" rigs on various platforms. Having lots of new gear is fun, and even more fun when you have a professional development fund to pay for it with as opposed to providing the money out of your own pocket. On the other side, there is an undercurrent of disquiet because no one is quite sure what the future impact of this mass switch over will be, since unlike the great plague that sent Isaac Newton home way back in england, the universities are not properly publicly funded and so depend on being able to collect tuition to survive at all. People are quietly wondering about how students are encouraged to see themselves as consumers of education rather than learners, which in turn has corrosive effects on their attitudes and willingness to work in an unfortunate number of cases. There are rumbling demands for tuition discounts for online courses since they are certainly not simply equivalent to in person instruction and group work. If online courses are perceived as less work, regardless of whether they are, will this enforce higher teaching loads on both full-time and sessional instructors? Sessionals struggle to access teaching assistant support as it is, and universities are not prepared to loan equipment to support their provision of online instruction even if they are willing to do so. I suspect the rush to total online instruction accidentally made it very clear just how much instruction sits on the shoulders of sessionals, whose financial struggles are far from unknown to university administrations.

There are plenty of good questions to think with and worry ourselves sick over here, no question. I don't think that remote instruction will ever be the default for all universities, although there are a few that provide hybrid and completely online programs, typically to support professionals seeking to augment their certificates and designations to improve their chances of promotions or going solo. These programs have features that lend themselves to this approach, such as a lack of need for laboratory work, opportunities afforded by the workplace to gather data and develop projects that can stand as the capstone element for each student. These universities themselves are set up to start with in order to provide the infrastructure support to run the courses and ensure the program components are meaningful. The examples I am aware of tend to have many more students in their hybrid programs, in which students can and do carry out portions of their academic activities online, including group work and the like through conference software. They also have designated periods in which they work together as a cohort at the university campus, in order to learn from one another directly, network, and narrow their focus completely for that time to their program. We have been encouraged to forget that it isn't actually possible to shove focussed learning into the interstices of a full time working life. I have noticed that there is more mainstream noise on the topic of unpaid student loans than facing up to why post-secondary students and now more and more secondary students are precariously balancing more and more paid work hours in between classes. Or as I see from fellow students and the undergraduates I am lucky enough to teach, squeezing class in between their hours of paid work.

There is a particular course I am aware of that lends itself completely to being run as a student-directed, online course with little to interaction with a human instructor or teaching assistant. The course I have in mind is one thousands and thousands of students planning to enter medical and law school have taken, and many of us with a minor or major in greek and roman studies have likely taken as well. I would actually recommend it to anyone who is learning english and does not already speak a romance language or greek, too. It generally goes by a title something like "scientific and medical terminology, greek and latin roots." As that implies, a student would learn the rules for combining greek and latin roots to make up the terms they will see in medicine, and the sciences. It also provides enough to get by starting out with the latin phrases thrown around in law school, but a student seriously worried about that would probably be better served by either working through a basic latin textbook (Wheelock is the standard) or taking a regular course. The key things students need from this kind of course is help with drilling and practising the roots and unpacking the meanings of the words. This totally lends itself to autogenerated quizzes from structured databases of words and definitions and so forth. It would be quite useful to provide similar supports to regular language classes, and indeed some instructors have found ways to do this even before pandemic conditions got into the mix.

Then I think of yet another course that I attempted to work through, on Douglas Hofstadter's book Gödel Esher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. By accident of circumstances, I saw the recorded lectures after the original course run, and these were provided as part of mit's freely available course offerings of this type. Alas, they were eviscerated by the fact that when the instructor had students read out dialogues from the book, or he played Bach pieces to help illustrate the principles Hofstadter explores in his book, that was all cut out for fear of incurring copyright problems. In a live run of a course of this type, this would not be a problem because students would have paid tuition and their access would be through in this case, mit's course delivery system, not an archive. But it suggests an important limitation on just "syndicating" a pre-recorded course like this, because the recordings come from a class designed and delivered in the classroom in the first place. As an online course, I am unsure if students could even be assigned to groups to work up each of the dialogues to play for the class. Probably not, so that is the type of learning experience would likely have to be replaced.

By this point, sharp-eyed readers will be wondering why this should be an issue for online classes now. After all, most of those mit courses are from almost twenty years ago now, first of all, and using modern meeting software, students could actually perform a dialogue or section of a play or whatever during their virtual class meeting. True, so long as all the students are required to attend the class live, only missing virtual meetings by reason of illness or other emergency. Except, many universities have come to depend on inflated international student tuition fees, and if domestic students may take courses remotely with no residence requirement, then in both cases there will be a bunch of students likely unable to attend a synchronous only course. In fact, that is probably the biggest issue with any neoliberal dreams of vastly expanding remote course participation, managing the need to provide asynchronous participation and learning options. (Top)

Okay What is the Political Left Again? (2022-02-07)

Photograph of bar horse shoes at a farrier's in italy by Alex_brollo, via wikimedia commons under creative commons attribution-share alike 3.0 unported license, february 2007. Photograph of bar horse shoes at a farrier's in italy by Alex_brollo, via wikimedia commons under creative commons attribution-share alike 3.0 unported license, february 2007.
Photograph of bar horse shoes at a farrier's in italy by Alex_brollo, via wikimedia commons under creative commons attribution-share alike 3.0 unported license, february 2007.

Over the past year or so, I have read a range of highly frustrating opinion pieces and news articles. This is hardly unusual of course, it is no surprise. Even without social media in the mix, we all bump into statements and arguments that annoy or frustrate us every day. This is probably one of the most banal elements of the human condition. Nor is the source of my frustration terribly unique. However, either my reaction to it is in the outlier zone to whatever degree, or the ongoing gyre of horror in the united states is blocking out what people are saying about it apart from those who are dealing with its manifestations in that country. Truth be told, I think it has more to do with the latter, because the control of mass media most available in the anglosphere is almost exclusively in the hands of men with either united states born or purchased citizenship and a thieving practice so successful they are numbered among the one percent most wealthy men in the world. Therefore as I grow my list of alternative and sensible information sources, I will add updates to this piece to note who else is discussing the issue I have in mind here from other directions. Nevertheless, I have featured a picture of bar horseshoes here, because it can't be denied that there are many people claiming to be "left wing" who have talked themselves through a cheerful circular argument into the same position as people they inveigh against for being "right wing." I first saw it diagrammed as the more commonly known type of horseshoe, but the bar horseshoe is even better precisely because it is a closed circle.

I am put back in mind of a criticism made by many radical Feminists, and by the way also all the way back in the Communist Manifesto itself, that what right wing and most left wing men disagree about is not patriarchy. The right patriarchy supporters want women to be personal exclusive property of men, left patriarchy supporters want all women to be public non-exclusive property of men. They both agree that they want perfect sons who they can guarantee are "their own" to hand on whatever they deign to hand down after their death to, as a consolation prize if they can't figure out how not to die. How ironic is it that even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose support for Feminism had notable failures in personal practice recognized this element at least, and furthermore that the very existence of patriarchy undermines not just worker solidarity, but the very access to a decent standard of life itself, regardless of sex. In Das Kapital, Marx struggled to unpack the phenomenon of socio-political roles, striving to help his audience understand that the capitalist plays a role in capitalist economies, and there is no way to play that role differently due to the structure of that system and the pressure of the behaviour of committed capitalists. So he was sharply critical of demands for individual-based change, because a single person can't make real change happen alone. Messianism is a mug's game unfortunately.

Why this keeps getting pushed to the top of my mind is the infuriating accusations against some group of "feminists" and "leftists" for supposedly being the spearhead of demands to no-platform, cancel and otherwise silence those who disagree with them. Quite apart from the self-defeating bullshit of basically saying, "hey you know what, we deserved being abused because we did it first" when that is a gaslighting lie. Since when at any point in patriarchy in the modern world as we know it, have Feminists or women more generally actually been able to force men out of public life? Even if that person is a known criminal with receipts on that from their own mouth and their own country's legal system. This is true of people in general on the left and right in countries with different levels of authoritarianism. The original definitions of "left" and "right" were developed to describe political divisions among primarily male participants, and in the end they don't fit women and their political divisions any more than male-based definitions of social class.

UPDATE 2021-10-13 - Further to the obnoxious attempts to claim Feminism is right wing whenever it challenges and works against the oppression of women, a great takedown of this is Kathy Scarborough and Carol Hanisch's A Challenge to the (Still) Male-Dominated Left: Who's the Materialist Here at meeting ground online. They also recommend the three-part series by Zachary George, Misogyny is Revisionism, and I can second that recommendation. The parts are: On the Left's "Woman" Problem, The Masque of the "Red" Pimp, and In Defense of Feminism. (Alternate links, as it is best not to totally trust medium: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

At this point I have sat down and considered the risk that this could lead to a type of "no true scotsman" argument, which of course is a bad one. But part of what that argument is based on is a claim that a "true scotsman" wouldn't think, believe, or act in a certain way just because they are a scotsman. That's a state of being, and we can't simply conflate who and what someone is with what they will do. Solid point. Okay, that is a good reminder that the definitions of left and right, Feminism and patriarchy are not about states of being as such, but about specific political and social views and how they are enacted in real life as social relations. Hence my reference above to the right wing valourization of private property, in this case the insistence that women are rightfully defined as a form of it, and the left wing valourization of public property and their insistence that women be defined as a form of that type of property instead. Of course, people on the left wing can and do refuse that definition of women, and in fact, I freely concede, so do right wing people. The key difference here is who is considered a person interacting with their beliefs about property. If a person was convinced in the end that after all they need to change their views of property from that originally associated with the left or the right, then they have made a real move politically. This is something that can get lost when people lose sight of that yes, a person can combine conservatism in fiscal matters with a more radical view of social matters.

Here's where it gets tougher. Let's take the question of Feminism, which various men have been trying to redefine into meaninglessness. Like many women who grew into an awareness of the necessity of Feminism in their lives, I went through a patch of trying to have it both ways by refusing Feminism and claiming it should be about "humans" and therefore I was a humanist. Now, humanism is a real thing, but this was frankly, an early cop out. In the end I left it behind and made a clear decision about whether I was going to commit to Feminism or not. By definition, Feminism is about freeing women and girls from oppression, including the political position that women and girls are genuine and full featured human beings, not property. Feminism is not about men's problems and concerns or helping them escape their oppression. That does not mean that a Feminist cannot be committed to contributing to the end of other forms of oppression, evidently not. But Feminism is simply not about men, and it can't be redefined to centre them and make any sense. When I read and hear women who say they are Feminists centring men at the expense of the personhood and rights of women and girls, it is clear that they have jettisoned a basic defining principle of what Feminism is. I do get how easy it is to do, all the encouragements to do it. Women get rewarded for any hint that they are doing the slightest amount of selling out. The people, both female and male, playing at being Feminists who are centring the demands of men who insist they should be there because they like to dress in women's clothes and have some form of mental illness in the form of body dysmorphia or sexual paraphilia, are at minimum, not enacting a Feminist analysis or politics when they do so. They are certainly enacting a position of extreme neoliberal individualism, and there is growing evidence that neoliberal individualism is incompatible with anti-authoritarianism and general respect for human rights. There is growing evidence that all over again, neoliberal individualism denies that any women or any children regardless of sex can be individuals, especially if they seem in any way "feminine" and acting according to sex-based stereotypes.

The evidence, with receipts out there, is that the ability to impose silence on dissident voices does not and has not ever been in the hands of Feminists in the past forty years. Or eighty years. Or a hundred and twenty years. Or five hundred years, or... okay, okay, I know, you get it. Never in the hands of people who actually centre women and girls as real human beings and ending the structural oppression they face. Trying to retrain them to accept their oppression as somehow something they like and enjoy is not freedom or doing Feminism. That is a vicious enactment of partriarchal reversal, just as trying to persuade slaves that really, they love being slaves is a form slave master reversal. Insofar as the more general "left" has been able to silence others right out of public life, there are a couple of non-trivial things that part of the "left" has in common. Many of the enactors began their lives in a more authoritarianism questioning and openness to non-capitalism political and educational environment. Today, they are rich or associated with very rich people who have made their pile by participating in the mass exploitation system of capitalism, and are concerned to prevent any criticism of them for that, and of anyone pointing out what hypocrites they are in actual political action. They can't fob off the criticism with a no true scotsman argument for long, so they'd rather not have the argument at all. The students and activists who have suddenly found themselves at the forefront of no platforming and similar meanwhile, have been thoroughly had. University administrations and the like have been seeking ways to shut up socio-political dissent with increasing, flailing desperation ever since the first red scare. They are now gratefully using the dumbassery of immature people as cover for what otherwise they could never have gotten away with.

To be sure, there is nothing that makes women or men who consider themselves "left" or "right" politically or socially immune from taking up authoritarian tools. In her original, scintillating analysis of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt laid this out with great care. (Arendt achieved this despite her personal awful politics.) She does not unpack quite as much the role of a desire to proselytize, which fundamentally is about forcing people to enact different behaviour, which is why those who change politics or religion as a matter of faith are completely distrusted no matter how much energy they pour into performing their true allegiance. That's the worst part about using psychological and/or physical coercion to enforce a change of religion, politics, or whatever, it implants permanent doubt about everyone, those who never changed and those who did. The only way to block the question is to double down in more and more violent "acts of faith." It seems to me that this is precisely what we are observing in the form of enabling and performing "no platforming," particularly in people whose brains and understanding are still developing and who are therefore prone to extreme black and white thinking because they have so much to cope with. (Top)

Strange Obsessions (2022-01-31)

Mesoamerican toy jaguar on wheels held in the Villahermosa Museo de Antropologica in mexico. Photograph by Robin Heyworth, december 2001, quoted from the blog post on uncovered history, *mesoamerican wheeled toys* posted 9 may 2014. Mesoamerican toy jaguar on wheels held in the Villahermosa Museo de Antropologica in mexico. Photograph by Robin Heyworth, december 2001, quoted from the blog post on uncovered history, *mesoamerican wheeled toys* posted 9 may 2014.
Mesoamerican toy jaguar on wheels held in the Villahermosa Museo de Antropologica in mexico. Photograph by Robin Heyworth, december 2001, quoted from the blog post on uncovered history, mesoamerican wheeled toys posted 9 may 2014.

According to many anthropologists and people with a strong interest in anthropology, particularly those who specialize in pestering Indigenous peoples in the americas, the toy illustrating this thoughtpiece is one the most important things ever. All because it happens to prove beyond a shadow of european racist doubt that actually, Indigenous peoples including those of the city dwelling mesoamericas, knew about and understood the wheel and using them with axles. Pictures of this little thing with its missing tail are everywhere, still regularly accompanied with long declamations on how extraordinary it was that the Mayas, Aztecs, and Inkas built such amazing things in spite of their failure to properly exploit the wheel even when they knew about it. Now, for a long time european notions of superiority hinged when all else failed and it was too embarrassing to point to skin colour, on knowledge of and use of the wheel. Things got awkward again when anthropologists began pointing out that actually, not using wheels made practical sense in many places in the americas. In the area controlled by the Inkas, they were dealing with extreme topography that did not lend itself to wheeled travel. Further north, the Maya and Aztec controlled regions had major jungle growth working against wheeled travel, on top of the need to protect and keep clean water sources in the cenotes, which are basically giant water collecting sink holes. The further north you go, the more important it was not to break up the plant cover because during significant parts of the year the land was extremely arid, and without cover the soil would blow away and with it the possibility of vegetation that could help collect and hold water. Even where there was and is not vegetation, as in the case of major deserts, wheeled travel can still be a bad idea, because it breaks up desert pavements in a permanent way, and that too can lead to bad knock effects in terms of worsened sand storms.

Regardless of whether wheeled travel is a good idea or not, I am sure many readers would argue that there is a bigger question than that. Wheels aren't just about vehicles, they are about a very particular mode of european technology that starts from applying rotary motion to make it possible to move bigger loads or do work faster, such as grinding grain. From that perspective, there is no industrial revolution without the wheel, and so that must make Indigenous people rather strange for not opting to abstract their observations of rotary motion in the sky and in whirlpools and its uses for drilling, pottery making, and to make wheels for toys into labour saving technology. So long as we don't ask who labour is being saved for and why, then it can seem pretty mysterious. If the primary focus is to somehow eliminate the need for as many people to do a given type of work as possible, and to begin with in agricultural systems that was agricultural work, then wheeled machinery ended up quite useful in europe. After the great plague that killed so many people labourers could demand better wages, parsimonious employers were desperate for other options, and they looked into what was going on in monasteries. After all, the monastic orders had survived and mostly stayed wealthy, and when they couldn't as easily maintain a two-tiered system of "lay brothers" to do most of the dirty labour so the rest could study, they began developing more machines to automate the work away.

UPDATE 2022-04-15 - Here is a much more recent example of a case of the wheel being actively rejected because it was not suitable to the local conditions, covered by No Tech Magazine, The Best Invention Since the Wheel. In this case they are quoting George Basalla on the decision taken by peoples in northeast and north africa to stop using wheeled vehicles to transport goods and people because they were inefficient and slow. It took renewed imperialism to force the reuse of wheeled vehicles and the subsequent return to slow, inefficient travel, plus incessant pollution and dependence on fossil fuels. People did and do continue to resist this, and note it has literally taken incessant warfare to reimpose widespread use of wheeled vehicles. And a subset of "europeans" undertook that warfare in the teeth of evidence that should have led them to concede the better efficiency and utility of what they insisted must be replaced.

On the other hand though, I suppose that could indicate that the evidence of wheels not applied to such purposes by Indigenous peoples in the americas for the most part is actually quite significant. Even the empire builders, from peru to mexico to the mississippi valley didn't end up fixated on this particular way of trying to produce coercive social control by ever so slowly taking over the broad population's access to ways to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves. Which is not to say they didn't try other ways, it is quite clear they did, primarily via warfare and tribute systems. Yet most Indigenous peoples apparently chose not to take even this sort of path, and those known empires only spread so far and lasted so long. There seems to be quite a gut resistance to accepting social systems and practices that attempt to coerce most people into permanent effective slavery to a tiny elite in this way. So we have clear indicators that it is possible to live otherwise, including resisting attempts to impose other systems. The difficulty that Indigenous peoples faced from europeans was not, contrary to the face saving propaganda, their germs, though obviously those wreaked considerable havoc. No, the big difficulty was europeans' willingness to use unremitting and constant violence of all kinds, including spreading disease, slavery, inducing starvation which also increased vulnerability to disease, instigating warfare and feuding whenever possible, stealing children, and wholesale massacre.

I don't think by any means that we can simply equate how the wheel was applied to human wants, needs, and desires by broadly defined groups of people. That is obviously too simplistic. Yet they are obviously not insignificant either, as anything that can help people travel faster and gets used for that will probably lead to many knock on effects of unpredictable strength and scope. Huge expansion in trade networks will also expand where germs can get to and show up apparent differences in wealth and power that may inspire intense jealousy in others. Jealousy seems to be the great ill and evil to which humans are prone, so much so that humans have been so foolish as to project it onto deities. Maybe then part of the european obsession with wheels also relates to influential writers assuming that Indigenous peoples must be totally jealous of europeans who possessed them. (Top)

It's Really Too Bad (2022-01-24)

This is Mr Nuts, whose portrait taken at his home in fremont, california was shared by his human Micha4n on wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, november 2012. This is Mr Nuts, whose portrait taken at his home in fremont, california was shared by his human Micha4n on wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, november 2012.
This is Mr Nuts, whose portrait taken at his home in fremont, california was shared by his human Micha4n on wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, november 2012.

Truly, no sarcasm implied or intended here. Every time I have a terrible, soul-sucking interaction with one of the "technology support desks" in my life, and I remember the ever sparser instances of working with someone who respected me as an intelligent human being, my hopes for people turning computers to primarily positive uses fades. Sometimes, as in any complex system, it turns out that the limitations of the system mean I simply can't do what I expected to be able to do with it. Sometimes those limitations have less to do with the system of computers quite as such, and more with breakdowns elsewhere in the workaround chain. For example, working with an employer who on one hand insists we must use a set up they deem secure, while refusing to support making that system available in some form via an assigned work station. Then getting an earful from tech support about how damned awful I am for having my own older set up that they don't like mainly because it is not completely made up of microsoft products. Probably the worst is when I carefully describe the issue I am dealing with, including information that shows that before resorting to submitting a support ticket, I researched the issue on the internet and checked carefully that what I was already doing was meeting the completely reasonable security and privacy requirements. And get in response from a tech support person an answer ignoring my careful description and dropping a couple of links obviously dumped in from a web search because I recognize them from my own similar efforts.

Now, at this very moment, with the covid-19 pandemic wreaking such havoc and both blessing and damning tech support desks with more labour than anybody ever wanted at once ever, I realize that energy levels and capacity for diplomatic and subtle responses is much reduced. But this hardly justifies ignoring a person's documented efforts to help themselves duly noted so that we can skip going through that shit again and wasting one another's time to try the other approaches I imagine tech support people know that I don't. Then again, maybe too many people working tech desks these days are effectively handed a fat binder to look up "frequently asked questions" in and credentials to look up answers on the internet. Still, those members of tech support crews do come across a bit differently. They may be repeating back to you what you already looked up, but they also sound harried and may be sending another copy of an email they have already sent tens of times at least that day. I have sympathy for them, because that is a shit position to be in. For them, I generally end the interaction as soon as possible. They can't do much for me, and it will take too many rounds of misery for us both to get to somebody who is better experienced. I'm a contractor, so I have to consider the odds of whether my issue could win escalation status anyway, or if the better answer is simply to drop the original plan and fall back on what I already know works and is meeting the standards we are all in agreement absolutely need to be met.

No, the worst in my experience are the tech support people who respond to my questions or requests to help restore a function deep-sixed for cosmetic as opposed to security reasons, which I have confirmed by doing that shocking thing: reading the release notes. Those are the tech support people who give me dirty looks in person or write back the verging on aggressive emails demanding why I don't just go along with what massive corporation whatever says, because they must know better. Or what my problem is that I won't spend thousands of dollars to replace my computer system and associated software every twelve to eighteen months, specifically with whatever software the company has contracted to buy for all of its own work stations. "What the hell is the matter with you? Why don't you get with the program and do as your betters tell you?" Then no doubt, it seems like the sorts of questions and issues they have to deal with would be more constrained. From my observations in my periods of assigned workstation based employment with a preloaded, centrally managed machine, weird ass stuff still happens, and there is no question of my being able to load software or change core settings. Then again, those are jobs in which there is a longterm tech support team who have considerable familiarity with the peculiar bolted together, diverse elements within the systems of even the most microsoft fanatical employer. Weird stuff percolates out of real corners, and when a hapless employee manages to stumble on the subsequent puddle or stumble on the broken corner, more often than not in my experience, said employee gets figuratively pounced on as if they did something deliberate to cause the issue. Or they get ignored because theirs is a low priority issue, however badly it may impact them.

How terrible it is, that it seems like what we wind up in is a sort of adversarial relationship with most tech support people, who are under pressure to close tickets somehow, whatever it takes while paradoxically demanding learned helplessness from the people who call them. It is really too bad, because I think that when it comes to making computer systems work well, maintaining their security and respect for privacy, we should be a team working all together. Instead, the people who are using the computers day to day are treated as a class of adversary, of a dumbly malicious type as opposed to those who are meanly clever and busy with phishing attempts and outright cracking operations. This is how from time to time employees have been driven to finding workarounds for problems that while not strictly against the rules are not as safe or secure as they should be, or resisting reasonable efforts to forewarn and forearm them against scams. (Top)

AI Trouble (2022-01-17)

Image by Frabi reminiscent of a captcha intended to prevent crawlers and bots from using sites requiring logins, april 2005. Courtesy of wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image by Frabi reminiscent of a captcha intended to prevent crawlers and bots from using sites requiring logins, april 2005. Courtesy of wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Image by Frabi reminiscent of a captcha intended to prevent crawlers and bots from using sites requiring logins, april 2005. Courtesy of wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Late last year a young college student hit the news for accidentally and thoroughly trolling hacker news with a blog he created using the GPT-3 neural net to generate posts from carefully designed prompts. Wisely, as Karen Hao's article at technology review on the incident explains, he made this work by respecting GPT-3's known strengths and weaknesses. The result was a fake blog people took seriously, tried to subscribe to, and for which commenters voted down anyone who questioned the veracity of the posts. As it happens this college student worked around the process to access the GPT-3 algorithm because he was too impatient to wait for the vetting questionnaire he filled in to be considered and responded to. Apparently he still doesn't have his own access to GPT-3 and can't imagine why, and it did not occur to Hao to ask if the PhD student's access he used has been impacted by his use of it. After all, access to GPT-3 is specifically being blocked to prevent it from being "abused." The young man declares himself shocked at how easy it was to generate a blog using the system on productivity and self-help that people online could be fooled into taking seriously. I'm not shocked, though I do share some of the concern about this incident. That said, my concerns are not necessarily the same as those of others.

To start, it is no news at all that artificial intelligence algorithms can be programmed to produce plausible formula copy. I wrote about the use of such algorithms for exactly that purpose in Increasing Job Precarity and Hiding the Bots over two years ago. The manipulation of how easy it is to automate this type of article into an excuse for further decimating the number of journalists and daily reporters on staff is a huge issue. Instead of using the software to take over that type of writing and moving the journalists onto writing what can't be rendered formulaic, like investigative and community reporting, wealth-extracting corporations are completing the evisceration of corporatized journalism and trashing many working people in the process. That is definitely something to be concerned about. I think one of the fact that this use of GPT-3 suggests a potential danger to bloggers who make money by blogging on certain topics, or indeed perhaps accidentally outing the ones managing to use similar algorithms might be part of the worry here as well for other commenters. I suspect though that the main outfits that could be caught on that are in fact corporate managed and owned blogs, and the real fear is that GPT-3 can't be sold for as high a price for that purpose if people are alerted to it.

I am not even concerned about how this college student accidentally gamed the hacker news blog ranking algorithm. So far it doesn't look like there are plans afoot to revise that, perhaps because it is too early for them to have composed a response. Ranking algorithms do odd things all the time, and these days are often machine learning algorithms themselves, which means they share all the issues that Janelle Shane has explained so well on her blog, ai weirdness and in her book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You. The issues are not effectively sinister in this case either, they are probably related to memory limits and maybe even that machine learning programs might just find the output of other machine learning programs to be best of all. That would be an interesting meta-question to try to suss out an answer to. I find it intuitively plausible that machine learning algorithms would rank the product of other machine learning algorithms above that of humans. Of course, our intuition can lead us astray, so this is a hypothesis that needs to be seriously tested, not concluded glibly from this incident.

Nor am I perturbed that only a small number of commenters questioned the authenticity of the GPT-3 generated blog posts. I think it is statistically accurate to say that it is typical for only a few people to realize something is awry in an otherwise superficially plausible blog or other document or story. No, what perturbs me is that so many people, instead of hearing them out and considering whether they might be right, promptly voted those people's comments down. In effect a bunch of people shouted "Shut up, it's on the web, it's a blog, and hacker news rated it highly. Of course this is a real thing providing meaningful information and advice." This isn't going anywhere near the issues with the pseudo-blog's topic areas of productivity and self-help, which constitute two of the biggest snake oil condiments of the whole internet. This tells me that if nothing else, a significant number of people attracted to and sympathetic with venture capitalist outfits like y combinator, the owner of hacker news, have serious critical thinking problems. And not a few of those people are working in "tech." (Top)

Critical Concerns (2022-01-10)

A helpful cat meme courtesy of quickmeme.com. A helpful cat meme courtesy of quickmeme.com.
A helpful cat meme courtesy of quickmeme.com.

More and more people are asking hard questions about "postmodernism," "post-structuralism," and two of their children, "queer theory" and "wokeness." The people asking questions come from a range of political perspectives, from more oriented towards solving social problems by social means to those who insist that individualized solutions are best. I use this awkward description in hopes of being more clear than the current abuse of the terms "left" and "right" allow, bearing in mind that "liberals" are on average actually on the right but that this often elided right now. The great thing about human societies when they are working well and we humans are not busy freaking out sideways due to multiple crises, is that there is a lot of room for us to listen carefully to one another and engage constructively even when we disagree with each other. When we are really lucky and determined, under conditions of freaking out sideways we figure out in time that we need to apply our ability on that score more than ever. With this in mind, I have been taking extra care not to allow a label like "conservative" or "liberal" simply turn me away from reading what a person has to write or say. The latest article I have read with this care in mind is one hat tipped to me with the "conservative warning" label by Andrew Sullivan called The Origins of Wokeness. Of course I disagree with him on a number of points, but he has written a genuine, engaged article in part around the new book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose.

UPDATE 2020-08-17 - A bit more on the troubling "liberalism" word. Louise Perry explains in her article on unHerd, No One Has the "Right" to Have a Baby, that "...the political ideology of liberal individualism tells [people who seek out surrogacy services] that their freedom is to be prioritised above everything else." The perceived role of individual freedom here is a big one, because only individuals in liberal theories are understood to have freedom in the first place. That's what the "liber" part of the word refers to, the freedom of a person who is not a slave and what is worthy to that person. When certain people are treated as not actually having this freedom, they are treated as not being individuals but part of a mass resource that individuals are permitted to use. Hopefully this makes clear that the problem is not with "freedom" or even "the individual" per se, but the attempt to deny that an individual's freedom is not encapsulated because to enact any given freedom to do or not do something, we are potentially impinging on someone else's freedom to do or not do something, and that impingement may not be justified or justifiable.

UPDATE 2020-08-18 - Further to this, I have read an excellent interview on spiked. Correspondent Sean Collins interviews Joseph Bottum, who has studied and written about the "post-protestant ethic in america," in Wokeness: Old Religion in a New Bottle Bottum and Collins' discussion agrees with my own thoughts on the matter, but the greater point is the care and thoughtfulness in their discussion. They aren't just saying "looking at those crypto religious weirdos" or "twitter mob teenagers" because obviously there is something deeper going on than that. At one point Bottum explains, "...Mainline Protestantism rendered politics secondary to what it deems is most important – namely, salvation and the self." Collins reasons alongside this, pointing out, "Sin remains a preoccupation, but it has been redefined as social sin, like bigotry and racism." The entire interview is well worth rereading, and includes an indirect suggestion that a similar phenomenon may have been in operation in soviet russia, where the bolshevik party very much inserted itself in place of the orthodox church. Bottum and Collins did not pursue this, but it is a hypothesis well worth considering, because there too we can find show trials, impossible demands for perfect purity and total grovelling, shunning, and an ever increasing list of "social sins."

Sullivan puts his finger straight on the three major problems at the heart of the direction postmodern theory has developed, its bankrupt analysis of power, wrecking ball approach to language and any commitment to the idea of their being an objective truth upheld by evidence, and the subsequent fatalism and silencing of dissent it produces. To my mind this is among the worst possible abuses of critical theory that could possibly be carried out, given its origins in a desire to explain and support social transformation that leads to liberation, which Sullivan notes himself. He is not the first person I have read who argues that postmodernism has become nothing less than an attack on the enlightenment and the foundations of western culture. I am not sure about the second part to be honest, but agree that insofar as the enlightenment was about widely agreeing that humans can reason, and use that reasoning to understand the truth and improve the world, and left that optimistic perspective and the philosophies expressing it to the future, I do agree with that. The very fact we can wince at the problems in its original formulation and act to overcome them is precisely the point. The enlightenment point is that we are not effectively senseless automata driven around by our hormones and outside forces, whose main gift is for confabulating self-saving stories to hide our senselessness from ourselves. Far from it.

If we refuse to check our theories against material reality, even deny material reality's very existence, then we've dumped a core aspect of critical theory and enlightenment thought that is meant to be a check on how prone we humans can be to talk ourselves into nonsense if we only study what's inside our heads and that of a few other select people. Sullivan notes that according to postmodernism, "Just as this theory denies the individual, it also denies the universal." This is what leads to silencing of dissent and in fact any positive action. If there are no universals, we can't agree on any approach new or old or anything else to challenges we face as individuals or societies. But there are supposedly no individuals anyway, so no means for somebody to stop short and go, "Wait, something has gone wrong here!" This is a highly idealist theory or maybe anti-theory of the world. It is acutely dangerous to refuse such grounding, it is how we can lose track of respecting life and limb for the sake of the illusory perfect we can see in our mind's eye just barely in front of us. This is exactly why Karl Marx developed what we now call a historical materialist approach, because he was frustrated with utopians and their dangerously hopeless projects. Hence his wry comment that he was not a "marxist" because the "marxists" he encountered were utopians, and he specifically rejected utopianism. He wanted action to make positive change now, not worse and worse suffering all the time now in hopes of maybe feeling better later. (Whether others agree with his perspective is of course another question.)

I appreciate that Sullivan gives us a brief description of what he means by liberalism, because it doesn't have a single agreed on definition. "A moral giant like John Lewis advanced this country [the united states] not by intimidation, or re-ordering the language, or seeing the advancement of black people as some kind of reversal for white people. He engaged the liberal system with non-violence and persuasion, he emphasized the unifying force of love and forgiveness, he saw black people as having agency utterly independent of white people, and changed America with that fundamentally liberal perspective." I agree that a society that insists that balancing rights and needs in a diverse community is not a zero sum game, that favours non-violent problem solving, and holds that oppressed people still have agency is a society with a solid base. By that effective definition of liberalism, Sullivan and I are on the same page. I suspect that we both agree that free speech is important, and only properly constrained when it is being used to threaten or incite violence or cause physically dangerous conditions like stampedes (meaning the classic united states court example of not being allowed to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre). Sullivan also notes that wokeness in particular uses a rhetorical trap to push "liberals" or anyone at all who disagrees with a wokeness proponent onto the defensive. "Trap" is absolutely the right label.

I do have a nervous quibble though, and that is his early invocation of ancient Socratic understanding. It can be hard to pick on old Socrates, because the story of his trial and death provides the paradigmatic martyrdom tale for western cultures. Certainly based on what we can reconstruct about his controversial life and death, he should never have been forced to kill himself as a matter of humane ethics and honouring the importance of having someone question groupthink. (For a careful consideration of the evidence of Socrates' politics and the context of his eventual trial, I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates is good to think with and includes good references so you can check the sources yourself.) Where I get nervous is that unfortunately if you read Socratic dialogues, and I am thinking here of Plato's, you certainly get a run down of the use of questioning to unpack unconscious assumptions and test them to see if they hold up under scrutiny. The trouble is, nothing ever does hold up under Socrates' scrutiny, and he never offers any positive answers or starting points himself, except perhaps in the Symposium. Irresponsibly used, Socratic style questioning looks like an easy way to blow up a person's naive belief in agreed on universals, even provisional ones, while leaving them with no way to find something better. Much as many philosophers are sure this was not Socrates' intention, and that when and if a person uses his method this way they have either failed to understand it or are deliberately abusing it, unchecked it can lead us into the very intellectual morass that postmodernism and its children wokeness and queer theory have landed in. (Top)

Aristotle Isn't Nearly Far Enough Away (2022-01-03)

Roman marble copy of a bronze by greek sculptor Lysippos in 330 BCE, photographed at the national museum of rome by Jastrow in 2006. Image reproduced via wikimedia commons where Jastrow has made it available under public domain license. Roman marble copy of a bronze by greek sculptor Lysippos in 330 BCE, photographed at the national museum of rome by Jastrow in 2006. Image reproduced via wikimedia commons where Jastrow has made it available under public domain license.
Roman marble copy of a bronze by greek sculptor Lysippos in 330 BCE, photographed at the national museum of rome by Jastrow in 2006. Image reproduced via wikimedia commons where Jastrow has made it available under public domain license.

I can already hear my colleagues in greek and roman studies and philosophy protesting mightily. How can I possibly suggest that we should be even further from the works of the great polymath, scientist and philosopher, Aristotle? It's amazing that we have any of his work at all to read so far from his own lifetime, which is widely dated to 384-322 BCE. I agree he was obviously a huge intellectual light of his time, who massively influenced his contemporaries and many, many more ever since. But like anybody else with a wide ranging corpus of work, there are parts of his work that by now we ought to let go of, and recognize when we are unconsciously reproducing ideas once originally considered impossible to refute because he had them, that since then further observation have shown to be mistaken. I have always found his reputation for being a master observer of plants and animals sadly ironic, because he was such a pathetic observer of humans, especially women and female anatomy. The ancient greeks did not necessarily have the same heavy duty quibbles about dissection of the human body as people in much of the middle east and europe until almost the eighteenth century, when it was still controversial and considered tantamount to post-mortem punishment.

But the difficulty here is not Aristotle himself as such, he repeated the blithering nonsense considered common sense about women and their anatomy in his time. Some of it was actually on the right track, like the notion that women and men grow and develop on much the same original template, and that female and male genitalia develop in their separate directions from the same tissues earlier in fetal life. Those were excellent intuitions if not outright observations based on things like visual features such as bilateral symmetry in human genitalia and that men have nipples just as women do, even though they can not breastfeed. Things started to go badly awry when Aristotle began declaiming the idea that this indicated that women were distorted men, men who had never developed properly. This was usually blamed on the father not providing good enough sperm, making it one of the few things perceived as negative about children mothers were not blamed for in the ancient greek highly patriarchal context.

UPDATE 2022-03-28 - Maria Popova's recent post at The Marginalian, Margaret Wise Brown and the Puzzle of What Makes a Thing Itself (or You Yourself) includes an incisive and thoughtful critique of Aristotle, including an excellent definition of what "essentialism" is. Popova is a uniquely generous reader and thinker, observing about Aristotle even as she firmly critiques him and his ancient colleagues, "Even the deep-fathoming, far-seeing Aristotle fell under the spell of essentialism and, bamboozled by its dangerous implications, came to believe that women belonged lower on the social ladder than men because their essential nature was to be subordinate and slaves were enslaved because their essential nature was lacking a certain faculty of reason necessary for freedom."

The trouble is, the idea of woman as deformed or undeveloped man has continued to have a zombie sort of afterlife long after Aristotle and advances in biology and now genetics that he could never have dreamed of. We have only to read satirical magazine the onion, where this is yes, played totally for laughs in Deformed Freak Born Without Penis 13 march 2012. Now, let me clear, I do agree that this article is funny. It is funny in the bittersweet way that all humorous send ups of entrenched and ridiculous social prejudices are. It is the fact that the many, many stereotypes this piece in the onion can send up are still current, including a nod to those who might know about Aristotle's hollow argument that women are undeveloped or distorted men that makes it funny. But the fact that the piece is both funny and interpretable to us today is what indicates that we aren't anywhere near far enough from Aristotle.

In this I am not even remotely getting into the live debate over whether women or men are physically stronger, one which in many ways is meaningless. As Colette Dowling wrote in her amazing and still in print book, The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls, most women and girls are actively turned away from developing their bodies and therefore their physical strength from almost the moment they figure out how to walk. The end result is that we have no idea how strong women and girls actually are relative to men, because they are held back by lack of physical training and have been indoctrinated to believe themselves weak. It is amazing how many women and girls have successfully defied this conditioning, and we have seen how women leap ahead in sports performance in great bounds in the same sports that men are now only improving incrementally in, increments often achieved by doping. Dividing sports divisions by height and weight should probably be reintroduced in male-only sports leagues right now, in order to bring down the horrific numbers of concussions and general brain injury endemic to football and ice hockey. (Top)

Desperation Tactics (2021-12-27)

Photograph of refugees struggling to travel by train in india during partition, 1947. The original scan was posted at www.thehindu.com, then downloaded and reposted at the *Indian Routes* website compiled and maintained by professor emerita Frances W. Pritchett of columbia university. Photograph of refugees struggling to travel by train in india during partition, 1947. The original scan was posted at www.thehindu.com, then downloaded and reposted at the *Indian Routes* website compiled and maintained by professor emerita Frances W. Pritchett of columbia university.
Photograph of refugees struggling to travel by train in india during partition, 1947. The original scan was posted at www.thehindu.com, then downloaded and reposted at the Indian Routes website compiled and maintained by professor emerita Frances W. Pritchett of columbia university.

There are all too many times when people are understandably desperate. Like in this thoughtpiece's illustrating photograph, a snapshot of people struggling to get to safety after the partition of india. Fleeing due to personal danger, resorting to theft due to being pinned between poverty and starvation, trying something wild in hopes of saving an injured or endangered loved one or stranger. Those are all manifestations of desperation that whether or not we have ever felt them or would agree with the responses tied to them, they are widely understood as possible. Desperation can lead us to profoundly foolish decisions, and to extraordinary acts of bravery and creativity. I suppose as a matter of practicality, with desperation being tied so closely to fear, we should all be impressed that so often people successfully find constructive responses to it. Thinking scared is, to put it absurdly mildly, hard. Yet we seriously underestimate what sort of ridiculous conditions can lead to at best harebrained and all too often outright evil responses from people who have been sheltered from real problems their entire lives.

Take for instance the extremists who began declaring nearly forty years ago that there is no such things as society, just atomized individuals who fend for themselves as if trapped in unbreakable bubbles of paranoia. Furthermore, these extremists treated anybody who opposed this vicious claim with bullying shouts of "there is no alternative!" The other version of that being, "we can't afford that!" for very carefully limited but never defined values of "we." Consider that this was their response to structural analysis, which is so effective a means to identify how it is that a small number of people are able to rob the vast majority of everyone else blind and deny them the basic means of life in order to pile up riches so great they indulge in random behaviour to waste money. They were so desperately afraid of this type of analysis, and so horrified to discover that their old techniques of divide and conquer on the basis of sex, race, and religion no longer worked to short circuit it, that they resorted to blowing it all up. First they insisted there was no society and no structure to analyze, and no debate permitted. Then they set about doing all they could to make this terrible vision real. Now they are doubling down on the same two themes again, because as it turns out they need society to keep their mechanisms of control, but somehow they need to allow only the people who are willing to serve them to have any society.

There are eerie parallels here to the current backlash against Feminism and women's effective taking of their rights. Faced with a structural analysis that has genuine explanatory power and helped produce constructive results for women, girls, and anyone marked as "effeminate," desperation began to grow among the anti-Feminists. How were they going to save the subordination of women and girls together with the gender hierarchy that itself helps them fill their pockets with stolen gains, let alone provide them with their only sense of worth because they had never truly done anything themselves? There was only one thing left to try, and that was to deny there is any such thing as a woman. With that claim, they could then push ever harder on the claim that sex role stereotypes, now firmly dressed up as "gender" were actually liberating and fun for people, so it was okay to go back to using violence to force effeminate men and masculine women to either conform or reform by aping the appearance of the opposite sex. While they were at it, they found a unique way to help women with right wing leanings but left wing commitments to turn on other women and be praised and rewarded for it while not feeling compromised. They could return to serving men while claiming to be "feminist" and actively working against decades of Feminist gains. And if that meant in the end they destroyed the meaning of the word "Feminism" too, no doubt there are more than a few men who love the bonus.

These are desperation tactics engaged in by a money rich but morally and ethically bankrupt elite, who don't care how bad it gets for everyone else as long as the game doesn't end before they manage to get themselves immortal and raptured off the Earth. A few of these predominantly white men are adherents to fundamentalist religions in the usually understood sense. Others are busy with new religions like transhumanism in which they look forward to their final upload into machines that can always be repaired and replaced, or immortality plus colonizing space. Either way, the great demand is to leave the Earth, any prospect of death, and any chance of being anything but permanently rich, always in control, and constantly waited on hand and foot forever. They are ready to do anything, bankroll anything, to maintain their presumed route to rapture. That includes destroying the rest of society while imagining they can build themselves a bunker to wait for the finishing touches on their more permanent escape.

Honestly, I don't know how anybody is left who doesn't see how crazy and dangerous these people are. (Top)

Don't Give Me That "No Jurisdiction" Shit (2021-12-20)

Essex, england country districts map by Rcsprinter123 via wikimedia commons under creative commons attribituion 3.0 unported license, august 2020. Essex, england country districts map by Rcsprinter123 via wikimedia commons under creative commons attribituion 3.0 unported license, august 2020.
Essex, england country districts map by Rcsprinter123 via wikimedia commons under creative commons attribituion 3.0 unported license, august 2020.

In article after article, podcast after podcast and more detailing people's experience of online threats and abuse, more often than not they tell about how they get no help from the police. The police are either literally or conveniently unaware of how the internet works and how many people are required to use it to work, to complete required paperwork, and so on. Repeatedly the police insist that it's all "just words," "just guys blowing off steam," all they have to do is "turn off their computer or phone." The final fallback is "look, this guy isn't in our jurisdiction." To which my response is, oh really? Do tell! Let's take a snapshot of some instances just in august 2020 when curiously enough, police and other authorities sorted out jurisdictional challenges for crimes both on and off the internet. Here, I'll give a quick list.

I made an effort to stick to english language, relatively mainstream news outlets or blogs of well-respected journalists. There is plenty more where this came from, and of course these have something in common, when it comes to the tech related examples. The shoplifters were caught via a combination of surveillance footage, and tracking of inventory and mailing addresses. The Meng Wanzhou case was tied to an ongoing diplomatic debacle created by Donald Trump's determination to somehow save his presidency by somehow pinning everything that is going wrong on china. The twitter hack affected numerous celebrities and billionaires. But if fame is supposed to contribute to taking seriously criminal activity that makes serious use of the internet, it begs the question of why death threats against such prominent authors as Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Chris Hedges are brushed off so easily. We know that at least in the united kingdom, where academics taking controversial political positions have at least been provided bodyguards that some level of serious attention is being paid there.

How strategic it is, for police and other authorities to suddenly forget what they have long insisted on in the case of illicit drug distribution and sales, money laundering, or more petty forms of organized crime that develop without necessarily having a single kingpin. Like that national shoplifting ring, or the operations that repackage alcohol into pop cans and bottles in order to smuggle it into the far north where communities are striving to keep it out. They know it is hard to deal with cross-jurisdiction crime, but they do it all the time. Of course, the police as such are horrible shitshows in terms of their underlying principles and culture. They are in their very guts authoritarian, and they constantly move ever further in that direction. (This is not the same thing as saying they must be authoritarian, and indeed I don't think they need to be at all.) Which crimes they choose to downplay or ignore is very much politically determined. It is their decision to ignore thousands of rape kits and to actively blame victims of rape that leads to the horrific statistics for lack of charges and therefore minuscule numbers of convictions for rape. Which means the police and their prosecutorial colleagues, have rendered what is in law and in fact a crime de facto legal. That is a political choice, and they are well aware that at this time the ability of the general public to hold them to account is not as great as it should be.

The increasing levels of authoritarianism in our societies over the past forty years is certainly not new, and the weaponization of the internet is not new either. The sad fact is that the internet started out as a weapon, and the web is in part a way to try to make and keep something analogous to the so-called "peaceful atom." I think there is a genuine way forward that is not authoritarian and destructive in networking computers. Unfortunately, the internet has authoritarianism baked in at this point, and to get the "peaceful web" we need to rebuild it from scratch, and to take seriously attempts to abuse it by those with criminal intent.

What is new, and is not taken nearly seriously enough because the police of course are part of the phenomenon and see many of the participants as "on their side," is the ability violent men now have to operationalize their violence potentially across vast distances. They can now egg each other on via social media, and use search engines to facilitate another man's attack on someone else. This includes the subset who encourage other men to carry out attacks while filming themselves and putting it on the internet for the rest to gloat over. For more information on specific ways this is done to women, see Karla Mantilla's book Gendertrolling: How Misogyny Went Viral. Or start doing some web searches, preferably through a search engine other than google, on online censorship by twitter, wordpress, reddit, and youtube. This is also a form of gendertrolling, and is also expanding rapidly into censoring and encouraging attacks on people for other political views. This is something we have to take seriously. (Top)

Musical Changes (2021-12-13)

Collage of album cover snippets from two eras of four bands, fleetwood mac, xtc, pink floyd, and genesis. C. Osborne, august 2020. Collage of album cover snippets from two eras of four bands, fleetwood mac, xtc, pink floyd, and genesis. C. Osborne, august 2020.
Collage of album cover snippets from two eras of four bands, fleetwood mac, xtc, pink floyd, and genesis. C. Osborne, august 2020.

It all started when I began hunting down the proper name of the band and the album of a today relatively obscure song that was a moderately successful hit in the 1980s. This was also the heyday of music videos, back when the american mtv and canadian muchmusic networks actually played music videos and band documentaries for most of the day. This song ran for a good while on muchmusic in close association with the video for an equally obscure song by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, "Madonna of the Wasps." Said song I was originally looking for being, "Dear God" by XTC. And so I found myself down a research rabbit hole on bands that have utterly different incarnations at different parts of their careers, several of which had between twenty and forty major hits between the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. Quite a few of them already with second hand copies of their albums in my collection, but I had never recognized their earlier incarnations as such because their sound had changed that much. All of which finally explained the annoyed rant of several of my relatives and older friends about these specific groups, who had changed in ways they found objectionable. Sometimes they utterly disliked later phases, especially more pop-oriented ones, other times they found the earlier versions too pretentious, usually for groups whose careers began in the late 1960s. In this I leave aside the big arguments people did and do have about how much sense it makes for bands or individual musicians to make such heavily produced albums that they could never perform anything remotely like them live. (As we know, that phenomenon later fed the gimmick of "unplugged" and "raw" performances.)

The easy but not always clearly noted example here is the Beatles, because by 1965 their sound was changing in major ways, and not only due to psychedelic drugs. They understood that if they were going to keep performing and selling albums, they had to mature and build up their musical complexity, or watch their audience leave them behind as had happened to the Everly Brothers. I suspect they were also terribly bored with what now is rightly referred to as bubblegum pop. Bubblegum pop is not bad in itself, just so lightweight as to be a puzzle as to how anybody could find it fun to listen to on hearing it long after its flash in the pan. It's stuff to just have fun with, not listen repeatedly over time, and bubblegum pop is of course what the most cynical music sellers and distributors like best. But the Beatles, like many of their fans, actually cut their teeth on far more diverse music, much of it entirely different in intention and theme than anything that could be made into bubblegum pop. Once they got old and experienced enough to appreciate more about it, they began to aspire to match it. Still other bands made significant changes to their sound for other reasons, especially change in line up and shifts in general musical interest. Others, like XTC didn't necessarily have major line up changes to contend with, but always marched very much to their own beat, were not the sort of regular hitmakers that the other three bands whose album cover snippets are included in the collage at right were. Instead they were stuck with an exploitative contract and all the knock on effects of that. Yet they developed a major underground following and had a level of musical influence that outweighs their few major hits.

In looking up more about Fleetwood Mac, which I am most familiar with in their post Peter Green versions, of course it is Peter Green whose recent passing brought back the band's earlier blues catalogue. For an appreciation of Green himself, his guitar work and post Fleetwood Mac career, a great place to start is James Cullingham's treatment at activehistory.ca, In Praise of Peter Green(baum), published 10 august 2020. In any case, his Fleetwood Mac is an entirely different music experience, and I at least had no idea that "Black Magic Woman" came from this period or this group, despite being familiar with the song. On the other hand, it has been strange to read some commenters retcon the later Fleetwood Mac into a supposedly "idpol revised" version because all the band members were male before Peter Green left, and afterwards Christine Perfect, later McVie joined, and eventually of course Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. I am curious about the people who view Fleetwood Mac 2.0 as primarily a pop band, because to my ear this is more a feature of their late 1980s period, when they did indeed produce a string of lush pop hits that hold up precisely because of their musical complexity in spite of their paper thin lyrics. But they never went through a disco period, and I would argue that they persisted with lyrical and musical experimentation as long as they kept making studio albums. They are of course still touring with a new line up again replacing Lindsay Buckingham when pandemic conditions allow, but to my knowledge they are no longer making new records.

If I want to do something so dubious as yank one of my relative's chain very hard, I just have to make a comment about where Phil Collins has got to since leaving Genesis. This always brings on a wonderful rant about Genesis when it was really good, when Peter Gabriel was still in the band and they made way more musically interesting program records. This particular relative finds the pop version of Genesis excruciating, while he quite enjoys the post-Peter Green Fleetwood Mac. (I should ask him if he likes the blues version of Fleetwood Mac, actually.) I suspect part of the problem for Genesis in my relative's view, and I have to agree with him to a degree on this, is the loss of Peter Gabriel's distinctive voice. But I have to concede that if they were going to take off as hit makers, they couldn't follow him on the artistic paths he was pursuing and keep making program albums. I have recently had a chance to listen to the first Genesis album, which was horribly undermined by an attempted marketing gimmick gone wrong. It is genuinely interesting, and properly marketed would have probably done far better. In quality it reminds me of Collective Soul's first album, "Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid." It's a good album that rewards relistening, but the band was wise to make their second album their self-titled debut. First album awesome for getting a foot in the door and figuring out a professional studio, second album being the one to really hang your hat on. Then again, I have no idea how many bands have actually taken that route.

The tie to Pink Floyd here (don't miss their website, it is quite wonderful), besides striking change over time as a group and as musicians, is of course the difficult lives of their founders. Roger "Syd" Barret, like Peter Green, struggled with encroaching mental illness, which contributed directly to his leaving the band. I have read music reporters discussing the number of musicians whose mental illnesses were exacerbated if not brought into manifestation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unfortunately, mental illness tends to make its existence known if it hasn't already by just the age that these men were at that time, their early twenties. As we know today, pubertal development of the brain continues until up to the age of twenty-five, making it a thoroughly hazardous time to experiment with psychoactive drugs without due preparation and supervision. Drug trips certainly contributed to musical experimentation, but I suspect in the end what made an even bigger difference for bands in this period, including Pink Floyd, was the shock of losing a key founding member, and the sudden expansion of access to different musical traditions.

In the end I think the changing accessibility to other musical traditions, and the increased opportunity to work with musicians from other countries is a wholly underestimated part of how and why "western" music groups changed their sound. It seems like many rock and pop music histories spend not nearly as much time on Black musicians playing rhythm and blues, let alone honky tonk and blue grass, before rushing to extol the introduction of musicians from bangladesh, india, and pakistan. This is partly the outsize effect of the Beatles and Rolling Stones on writing up those histories, on top of the impact of the persistently segregated music industry and the ongoing denial of Black influence on what is now mostly referred to as "country" music. (Top)

Advertising Can't be Neutral (2021-12-06)

A screenshot of a section of classified advertisements on page 3 of the 28 august 1824 edition of the Montreal Herald, courtesy of canadiana online. A screenshot of a section of classified advertisements on page 3 of the 28 august 1824 edition of the Montreal Herald, courtesy of canadiana online.
A screenshot of a section of classified advertisements on page 3 of the 28 august 1824 edition of the montreal herald, courtesy of canadiana online.

Among the many odd facts that many of us have apparently forgotten is that advertising can't be neutral. By definition, advertising is supposed to persuade us to do something we otherwise would not do. So as I've written about before specifically in Consider the Source, that typically means appealing to our deepest insecurities, feeding them and entrenching them, and then convincing us that a hit of whatever the advertisers are selling will take away the issue. At least, until the hit wears off, and then we are supposed to buy again. No, I am not being sarcastic or exaggerating here. The model behind advertising is fundamentally about creating a psychological dependence. On the other hand, as I wrote about in Strange Motivations and You Can't Have it Both Ways, advertiser's desires and those of the companies and corporations that hire them are not so easily satisfied. Probably the closest anything has ever come to it is so-called "social media." Evidently this topic is rather well covered in this part of the Moonspeaker, and my purpose is not to retread that material or the ideas taken up in On the Trouble With the Web, Part One. Instead, an example of how advertising is not neutral gave me a path to think more about plausible paths out of the advertising cul de sac.

The item that percolated up to fuel my thinking in this case came via the excellent financial blog naked capitalism. The reference is to a study of advertisements from 1704-1807 used to sell slaves and hunt down their escaped compatriots published in Early American Studies. Full details are: "Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807," by Jordan E. Taylor, volume 18, number 3, 2020. I think we can all agree that these were anything but neutral advertisements, and that by accepting payment to run them the newspapers were in effect expressing support for slavery. It is also important to note that these were northern newspapers, so there is no escape hatch that way. Look at what even this snippet of less controversial eighteenth century advertising from a montréal english language newspaper tells us is socially acceptable and indeed supported by the newspaper. Here we have horse racing, just received shipments of spanish wine which in this period could easily be illicitly sourced, and of course the still widely acceptable sales and soliciting for dry goods, land sales, and jobs. My broad point here is that what is broadly acceptable will likely be reflected even more so in classified advertising, with advertising intended to bend perception being more typical elsewhere in the newspaper or other publication where it will also cost more. Which means, to yes I know, repeat what we all are accustomed to taking for granted without saying it, newspapers and similar types of publications that use advertising to fund their operations may thereby influence public opinion. Bearing in mind that widely diffused publications will at minimum influence what their audience understands to be important issues by their real content, which these days is the advertising rather than the official copy, the cul de sac is a deep one. But just as there is one way into a cul de sac, there is in fact a way out.

The first thing is to step back and rethink what is supposed to be the primary content of the publication. I am not enamoured of advertising catalogues, but they do have in their favour that they say what they are up front and don't pretend to be anything else. Of course, that foils the sort of flimflammery that hucksters like best, but that is a feature that annoys only them. Lying advertisements are the pressing need of those selling a product that is garbage and generally useless for its ostensible purpose. Maybe they feel clever finding ways to sell that shit anyway, but they would hardly have to sweat so hard and spend so much to repackage a turd if they presented it as a turd and useful for the purposes turds are useful for. Of course, companies selling the same products but for packaging are dealing with a different issue, an already saturated market and a desperate desire to suborn the very market forces they claim should rule everyone but them.

Okay, so take all that. The last time I checked though, newspapers were supposed to be about the news (the difficult question of what should be treated as news is a separate issue). Magazines published at weekly to quarterly are even biannual intervals are meant to give more meaty coverage of longer term topics. This is why there are generally far more magazines dealing with arts, crafts, areas of study and the like than news per se. That is supposed to be their major content. With this in mind, that tells us who the anticipated paying audience was likely to be in each case. For the news, at first the audience is supposed to be anyone who can pay the cost of the news sheet. Later narrower subject matter papers directed towards bankers, shippers and so on came on, and then after that magazines. All predicated on the idea that enough of the putative audience would be able to afford the publication to pay the bills for writing, producing, printing and distributing it. Publications of that type come and go, then and now with great speed, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Some rightly don't have a longterm audience by nature of the subject they are dealing with, say, covering developments in founding a school or museum. Once established, the new school or museum will likely produce its own brief newsletter instead. In any case, advertiser interest in shoving their copy under the noses of audiences who never asked for it but were presumed to have money is pretty clear. They started with publications that were not actually in trouble at all, precisely because logically there is no point trying to advertising to people who don't have any apparently "disposable" income. And no doubt, many publishers saw this as an easy way to make a guaranteed if not much larger profit.

End result, the publications could and have diverged continuously from producing the subject matter that originally drew their paying audience. After all, they could claim it didn't matter, they were pleasing the advertisers, who supposedly would never, ever make demands that would alienate the very audience they wanted to advertise to. With that bad assumption in place, the publisher could refuse to put a filter on the advertising of any kind barring the most minimal. Then claim, as subscriptions and sales fell, that there was no way to survive without advertising, especially if they were going to maintain "production standards." Yet I ask you, how many newspapers and magazines absolutely need to be published in full colour on porcelained paper? We might want to look more into where the demand for that actually came from, and whether those of us who read periodicals are getting much from those sort of prints in comparison to earlier black and white or grey scale printing. Barring art and photography magazines, where the utility and need for full four colour printing on better paper is certainly needful for the publication to have any point, we are within our rights to wonder why it has spread so far beyond those genres. We can even be obstreperous and ask about four-colour printing. The parallel structures online are of course masses and masses of javascript, hundreds of cookies, and heavy duty graphics, let alone the flight to two sentence paragraphs for fear of saying something people can actually talk and think about for more than 10 to 15 seconds.

I do appreciate of course, that in the current circumstances, a return to an earlier publication model based on winning subscribers whose subscriptions pay the bills may sound very daunting, and for some publications is probably tragically impossible. But it is certainly happening online, and there is space for it offline too. The sticking point today, as we are all too aware, is that so many people have no "disposable" income, and older practices like sharing a group subscription among a group of friends or colleagues has been nearly eliminated by forty years of neoliberal insistence that everyone is an individual and should never share. Yet on the other hand, if publication owners are serious about being able to say no to providing support however indirect for destructive social practices, then effectively turning over editorial control to advertisers is no way to go, nor is it a way to survive into the future. Unless of course, the publication owner is a billionaire and doesn't care what he spends. However, we have plenty of evidence of how destructive they are already, since most of them are the kingpin advertisers or advertising brokers. (Top)

The Question of Expiation (2021-11-29)

Illustration of dartmoor prison in england by an unrecorded artist, from the 1885-1891 *Dictionnaire encyclopédique universel illustré,* courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com. Illustration of dartmoor prison in england by an unrecorded artist, from the 1885-1891 *Dictionnaire encyclopédique universel illustré,* courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.
Illustration of dartmoor prison in england by an unrecorded artist, from the 1885-1891 Dictionnaire encyclopédique universel illustré, courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.

In the course of cleaning out some extremely dusty and overloaded shelving at the office, well before the covid-19 pandemic made its way to canada, among a range of odds and ends there turned up a couple of pocket french editions of famous novels from the nineteenth century by Victor Hugo and George Sand. The format is based on providing a series of extracts, related essays, and reading comprehension questions for the french language reader building their skill. Setting aside George Sand for the moment, the sampler for Victor Hugo of course came from Les misérables. In truth, I haven't read the whole novel even in english, so it was an interesting read, including what to a non-french reader might seem a surprising series of selections about half way through focussed on main character Jean Valjean and his ward Cosette's stay at a convent, him of course in a separate residence from where school boarders and nuns lived. The premise of the framing apparatus was that Hugo was focussed on the question of justice and expiation for crime. In the selections I have in mind, they started with a bit from Hugo's denunciation of religious cloistering in one chapter, then parts of Jean Valjean's comparison of prison and the treatment and expectations of prisoners to the convent and the treatment and expectations of nuns. Valjean at least concludes that the prisoners are supposed to be atoning for their crimes, and the nuns are doing so on behalf of others. But if we read this series of extracts or Hugo's book as a whole, maybe we aren't so sure that Hugo would share this view.

Giving the "crime and punishment" theme some thought with the notion of expiation that comes across from Hugo from what I have read and seen so far, of course I thought of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, which as it happens I haven't read. That novel postdates Les misérables by just four years in its first full russian edition. Verifying what I have heard about that book, it is a striking contrast. In Hugo's book, he is wrestling at least in part with the question of why and how people are brutalized in punishment to force them to atone for crimes that are not premeditated attempts to injure society but acts of desperation. Dostoevsky is exploring the question of what would happen if a man persuaded himself that he should murder someone who is socially pernicious, and then discovers that the act is not "self-atoning" so to speak, in part because his guilt torments him. Then I found myself thinking about yet another story that meditates on this theme, Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," in which the man who is scheduled to be tortured to death for a crime turns out to have no idea what he is supposed to have done. He ends up escaping by one of Kafka's wonderful and eerie plot twists that somehow never seem at all farfetched or contrived. All three stories can drive the reader to question who is a criminal, who is a greater criminal, whether the more terrible and pernicious crimes are not in fact left untouched while other, systemic crimes and those who enact them are left to continue. Good tough questions to ask.

On the other hand, I found myself thinking again about Hugo's description of the parallels between prison inmates on one side and convent inmates on the other. Reading it over, it seems like Valjean's conclusion about the two and what each group is atoning for and why should be pleasing. Or at least, the example of the nuns should. After all, aren't they nobly undertaking their labour in order to better society and win mercy for sinners, a value repeatedly extolled in the christian gospels? I can't help but think that Hugo wants us to question that glib explanation. As a historian, it troubles me due to external information, like my knowledge of how convents were a popular warehouse and refuge for women deemed unmarriageable for a range of reasons, including of course their own determined resistance. This puts me in uncomfortable mind of the narratives about supposedly "surplus" and by implication "useless" women, who couldn't or wouldn't be married off. The sympathy for the "couldn't" category was and to this day still is often greater, because in a patriarchal society that is associated with an officially decried shortage of eligible men or else impossible to manage dowry or bride price requirements.

Let's have a quick look at the comparison Jean Valjean makes, in english translation generously provided at the literature network, excerpted from Isabel F. Hapgood's 1887 translation (the full text can be downloaded as an ebook from project gutenberg or the internet archive, at the former most easily).

This was the second place of captivity which he had seen. In his youth, in what had been for him the beginning of his life, and later on, quite recently again, he had beheld another,-- a frightful place, a terrible place, whose severities had always appeared to him the iniquity of justice, and the crime of the law. Now, after the galleys, he saw the cloister; and when he meditated how he had formed a part of the galleys, and that he now, so to speak, was a spectator of the cloister, he confronted the two in his own mind with anxiety....

He recalled his former companions: how wretched they were; they rose at dawn, and toiled until night; hardly were they permitted to sleep; they lay on camp beds, where nothing was tolerated but mattresses two inches thick, in rooms which were heated only in the very harshest months of the year; they were clothed in frightful red blouses; they were allowed, as a great favor, linen trousers in the hottest weather, and a woollen carter's blouse on their backs when it was very cold; they drank no wine, and ate no meat, except when they went on "fatigue duty." They lived nameless, designated only by numbers, and converted, after a manner, into ciphers themselves, with downcast eyes, with lowered voices, with shorn heads, beneath the cudgel and in disgrace.

Then his mind reverted to the beings whom he had under his eyes.

These beings also lived with shorn heads, with downcast eyes, with lowered voices, not in disgrace, but amid the scoffs of the world, not with their backs bruised with the cudgel, but with their shoulders lacerated with their discipline. Their names, also, had vanished from among men; they no longer existed except under austere appellations. They never ate meat and they never drank wine; they often remained until evening without food; they were attired, not in a red blouse, but in a black shroud, of woollen, which was heavy in summer and thin in winter, without the power to add or subtract anything from it; without having even, according to the season, the resource of the linen garment or the woollen cloak; and for six months in the year they wore serge chemises which gave them fever. They dwelt, not in rooms warmed only during rigorous cold, but in cells where no fire was ever lighted; they slept, not on mattresses two inches thick, but on straw. And finally, they were not even allowed their sleep; every night, after a day of toil, they were obliged, in the weariness of their first slumber, at the moment when they were falling sound asleep and beginning to get warm, to rouse themselves, to rise and to go and pray in an ice-cold and gloomy chapel, with their knees on the stones.

On certain days each of these beings in turn had to remain for twelve successive hours in a kneeling posture, or prostrate, with face upon the pavement, and arms outstretched in the form of a cross.

The others were men; these were women.

What had those men done? They had stolen, violated, pillaged, murdered, assassinated. They were bandits, counterfeiters, poisoners, incendiaries, murderers, parricides. What had these women done? They had done nothing whatever.

There are several pages more of these comparisons, until the summing up of Valjean's thoughts begin with "This was a place of expiation, and not of punishment; and yet, it was still more austere, more gloomy, and more pitiless than the other." Funny enough, on closer read, I must correct myself. Valjean finished still unable to unable to really answer the question of why the nuns are living and working in such conditions. He isn't really very satisfied with the answer that they are doing expiation for others.

Or we could give some more uncomfortable thought to the idea that many of the convent's inmates may well have been seen as "surplus women" and that their expiation might indeed have been for themselves, indeed, for their own existence and inability or refusal to get married off and bear as many children as could be forced on them. This story is set in a catholic country after all, even if one that at the time period represented in the novel, one with the hegemony of catholicism in trouble. (Top)

Another Untimely Post (2021-11-27)

A bit of technically unseasonable snow on the westcoast. C. Osborne, february 2018. A bit of technically unseasonable snow on the westcoast. C. Osborne, february 2018.
A bit of technically unseasonable snow on the westcoast. C. Osborne, february 2018.

I did consider featuring a picture of the torn apart coquihalla highway for this out of sequence thoughtpiece, but having just read about the full impact of the recent southern bc flooding, including the almost total destruction of highway 8 and the levelling of an entire Indigenous community, well, I just can't do it. So instead here is the same picture as last year, as we face the fact that a new COVID variant is on the loose that is so different from its cousins that not only might it evade the pfizer, astrozenaeca, johnson and johnson, moderna and numerous other COVID shots, it just might be a separate critter altogether. That there was a real risk of such a variant developing because of the scary and unpleasant things virii can do in the bodies of immunocompromised people who already have far too much to deal with, the crazed one or one and a half defence layer only policies being pursued by many governments in the world is all too likely to make things worse. The best all round article pulling together the evidence about this new variant, apparently being designated "the omicron variant" after some difficulties and confusion raised by landing in the middle of the greek alphabet is at naked capitalism, Probable Vaccine-Escaping Covid Variant Sequenced in Gauteng, South Africa and Spreading Rapidly; Press Underplaying Downside Risk by Yves Smith.

Understandably because this new variant is scary and everyone wants the pandemic to be over yesterday, a bit of discussion has gone into the question of the variant naming system and how to produce the names of the greek letters. I must admit to not realizing how few people now know that scientists among many other scholars learn the greek alphabet quiet apart from any dialect of the greek language, and that the pronunciation enshrined it the transcribed names of the letters in science venues is based on reconstructed ancient greek pronunciation. Not modern greek koine, which has passed through a change in vowel sounds as far reaching as the great vowel shift in english. In the case of english, that gifted english speakers with a proliferation of diphthongs that further separated how the language is spelled from how it is pronounced. Meanwhile the greeks, far more sensibly than english speakers, ended up simplifying their vowel system, knocking down the number of diphthongs and even a couple of their simple vowel sounds too mostly into a sound roughly represented in latin transcription as "ee" when short or "eeee" when long. Not that anyone worried about greeks potentially being annoyed by the mispronunciation of their alphabet is not a reasonable concern, especially if this could interfere with accurate communication in the pandemic. It all leads me to wonder at least why the changed naming system wasn't based on numbers instead.

Anyway, here we are, potentially facing a pretty scary possibility if this variant is indeed able to evade the various vaccines intended to curb the symptoms of COVID-19. Hopefully the possibility that actualizes will not be the scariest of those available, and the recent terrible scapegoating of people who are or are presumed to be unvaccinated will be stopped immediately if not sooner. We have never had to deal with a situation like this involving a hurried roll out of new drugs of a novel type on top of confused and unhelpful misguidance about layers of protection and insistence on denying that COVID-19 spreads via aerosols even though that makes grim sense for a respiratory virus to do. We do still need to pull together, and we can do that in a good way without slipping into attacking others trying to make reasonable sense of all the options when officials have not always behaved in a manner that encourages trust. (Top)

Who Rents Gets No Respect (2021-11-22)

Sample french language for rent sign, courtesy of canadian tire, august 2020. Sample french language for rent sign, courtesy of canadian tire, august 2020.
Sample french language for rent sign, courtesy of canadian tire, august 2020.

One day in the middle of chores after moving house, my mother commented that she didn't see how people who bought houses got any further ahead under conditions where they could never pay off their mortgages. "Sometimes landlords can be pretty awful, but what landlord could be worse than a damned bank? It's not like you can get out of your mortgage as easily as a lease. I don't see any benefit in having the bank as a landlord." As can well be imagined, I found this very thought-provoking, and later on I began researching the strange highways and byways of mortgages, since having managed to land a steady job, suddenly everyone was sure I had better buy a house or condo immediately if not sooner. Never mind that under current conditions, yes, it is basically impossible for most people to ever pay off a mortgage. At one time a work around for this was available to at least some people if they could afford to buy access to land outright, then the permits to build a house on it. And it is definitely not cheap and simple to get a mortgage, and then get rid of it or exchange it for another one. Far too many people over the past twenty years in particular have discovered that the mortgage and loan system doesn't just seem to be rigged against them, it is. But the pressure to buy anyway is huge, because people who rent from another entity than the bank get basically no respect.

That probably sounds a bit strange, but the rationalizations for this are all too numerous, and many of us have bumped into them. The oldest chestnut in my experience is the claim that "buying a home" is a necessity to demonstrate adulthood. Then there is the claim that holding a mortgage builds a solid credit rating and shows personal responsibility. This is just an elaborated version of the first one, and from what people have told me, the use of the credit rating is to enable a person to borrow more money, mostly for buying a bigger home. Well, that at least sounds more practical. The other practical sounding reasons have to do with wanting to get away from the frustrations of bad landlords, difficult neighbours, and the horror of frequent moves. Now, this does not mean that I don't think that these are real reasons to try to get out of the rental market all together. Of course they are. The point is, they are regularly used rationalizations for taking a mortgage and buying a home instead, which practically speaking, may equally saddle you with dreadful neighbours and a heinous landlord. It's just that we are taught to not to think of banks as landlords. I'm somebody who has to rent, and have deep sympathy with and direct experience with these reasons, but still don't accept the rationalizations.

On the other hand, I can certainly appreciate, although I am not necessarily very sympathetic, to the people and companies more usually understood as landlords. Yes, we renters can be more than difficult to manage, we are not absolutely predictable, and we are not as sure a source of income as most landlords would like. The banks get extra advantages from government programs that leave former mortgage holders to go bankrupt while covering the irresponsible banks that lend on ridiculous levels of speculation and tiny down payments. Originally those rules may have been designed to deal more so with overextended landlords than anyone else. But now, the system is rejigged such that landlords who are both lucky and meanly clever can make fabulous profits and keep just ahead of the mortgage payments for a large number of rental properties until they sell off the homes for even more profits. Provided of course that they get in and out before a bubble pops or panic hits. But with the banks now sorted out to make tremendous profits on their side regardless of whether or not landlords, homeowners, or anybody else stays solvent, the result is that the banks become a very dangerous sort of landlord either directly or by proxy. For homeowners and landlords, they take all the risks and have to deal with taxes, repairs, and all the rest, and the bank just takes the interest on the barely touched principal of the loan.

Either way, that leads to a tendency to see renters as cash cows supposedly too improvident or dumb to get in on the real estate market – or into banking. Supposedly renters are not contributing as much as they could to the economy by refusing to enter into debt relationships that allow a person to officially claim property holder status. That of course, is the status that in fundamentalist capitalists societies that equate "the individual" with someone able to sign contracts and hold property, is the definition of genuine adulthood and citizenship. I suspect too many of us have missed that the claim we must buy a home or even a car to demonstrate adulthood is really about the hegemony of this definition of an individual. Plus, this allows society more broadly pretend not to notice the root problem that the current system for building, distributing, and keeping housing in repair is desperately broken. (Top)

Revisiting Cultural Appropriation (2021-11-15)

Illustration by Milo Winter from a 1914 edition of *The Arabian Nights Entertainment* via its project gutenberg edition. Illustration by Milo Winter from a 1914 edition of *The Arabian Nights Entertainment* via its project gutenberg edition.
Illustration by Milo Winter from a 1914 edition of The Arabian Nights Entertainment via its project gutenberg edition.

Perhaps unwisely, I didn't expect to spend anymore thoughtpieces on the issue of cultural appropriation after Cultural Appropriation is Theft, Folks. After all, I wrote it around the same time as a whole raft of pieces on the topic with widely varying views, including Helen Dale's piece on quillette, Cultural Appropriation Isn't Real. I don't agree with Dale on this point, obviously, but we do share reservations about the effects of the ways in which postmodernism has developed, which she outlined in an august 2020 piece at the critic, Reality Has Been Cancelled in the course of reviewing Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay's book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why this Harms Everybody. It's an interesting review, and the book sounds well worth reading. But what brought things back to the question of cultural appropriation again is this element of the review:

Other aspects of the crudely simplified postmodernism Pluckrose and Lindsay discuss were still forming in 1990. One of these is cultural relativism, which takes in the notion that imaginative entry to another culture for a person from a "privileged" background is impossible. When this was put to me in argument – by a postcolonial theory academic – my response was to perpetrate an enormous literary hoax to falsify the claim.

The hoax Dale refers to is associated with her first novel, which she published under the name Helen Demidenko and claimed herself to be "from a Ukrainian family with links to the Nazis" to quote her description from her article arguing cultural appropriation isn't real. She considers this an epic trolling of the literary establishment, and I suppose she is right.

It's just that I also think that this hoax does not prove the claim she is making about cultural appropriation. Nor does her, Pluckrose, and Lindsay's identification of cynical, yes – appropriation – and abuse of the concept of cultural relativism. Yet I do agree with them that yes, absolutely, authors may write effective and respectful renditions of people from other cultures, and those renditions are not required to be positive. I think it is hard for criticisms of depictions of characters from other cultures who are less than heroic to stick though, if the characters are not two-dimensional, they have a real story, and the author has done their homework. The rub is in the homework of course, because it can be easy as a writer to slip into imagining you can simply imagine yourself completely accurately into another culture and time by drawing up the odds and ends you have in your brain already. As a writer, I totally understand this, and my thankfully lost juvenalia featured more of this than it should have mostly by imitation. Of course what we think up strikes us as plausible, because that's the way confabulation works. It's the same ability that in many people becomes a route into paralyzing anxiety.

Let's go back to Athena Andreadis, whose wonderful essay, Being Part of Everyone's Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away! ought to be required reading on this subject. She is a scientist and practising speculative fiction writer and editor. Among the many books and short stories in the growing catalogue of her press Candlemark and Gleam are those by people writing cross-culturally as well as many people who are writing from a base in other cultures. So her specific example of cultural appropriation in a writing context illustrates what it actually is very well. As I hope her name already has made obvious, she is a Hellene or in western anglophone terms, Greek.

At the same time, Westerners are convinced that they "know" my tradition by hazy general familiarity, as I had the dubious privilege to discover. Everyone mispronounces my name even after repeated corrections. In my chosen research domain of alternative splicing, the established terminology of exons and introns betrays the namer's ignorance of Hellenic: exons stay in, introns are spliced out to form the final RNA. And in a concrete example from another realm, my submission to the Viable Paradise SF workshop contained scenes of contemporary young Hellene men teasing each other. The participants who critiqued the work were American or Canadian; none had ever been to Hellás. Yet they insisted that "only gay people talk like this." They took it for granted that they knew better than a native how Cretans behave and that their stereotyped assumptions trumped my first hand experience (so much for diversity and cosmopolitanism in SF).

I always read this section with a pang, because it is such an obvious opportunity missed for the american and canadian participants, who could not accept that Andreadis knows her own culture and how her own compatriots in Greece behave. This is probably the best give away of cultural appropriation I know, to insist in the face of evidence and feedback that you know better than a person from the culture. It reminds me of two different occasions where other people cut across what I was saying about my own thoughts to inform me, "What you really want/mean is..." When someone pulls that kind of verbal stunt, we all get that it is wrong. Yet somehow as soon as somebody is "western" and often also of the view that they are white, that stunt becomes right.

But let's go back a bit. Dale is talking about the misshapen eventual form of "cultural relativism." I learnt about this originally in anthropology, where it referred to the fact that people from different cultures apply different models of the world and so we can't simply assume we understand what they mean or what their cultural practices mean without learning from them, in their own language, under non-coercive conditions first. This is of course, very much an early version, before postmodernism began to go into the strange trajectory it has since taken. The whole point I thought, is that while there are certainly overlaps between cultures, and we can use those to help with cross-cultural understanding, we can't just do a superficial checklist run down or something of that nature, then declare we know all about it forever and ever. On this understanding of cultural relativism, then yes, cultural appropriation is possible, and indeed it is meant to be a term for the improved conceptualization that can help anthropologists and hopefully anyone to avoid perpetrating it. If we take the later, purloined version of "cultural relativism" as the definition, as Dale is doing, which starts from an insistence that avoiding cultural appropriation is impossible for certain "privileged" people, then it is easy to see why Dale is so determined that cultural appropriation can't exist.

After all, that would be the only way to break loose from the postmodernist definition, having already accepted it.

I must confess to not having researched the original scandal Dale engaged in to learn whether part of it included a strong critique of her depictions of ukrainians, or germans for that matter, in her first novel. Those I think could potentially be strong critiques. One question I will look into when in need of a fresh web search rabbit hole topic, is whether, if she was critiqued for cultural appropriation, that had to do with the novel, or with pretending to be someone she wasn't. It seems to me that presenting yourself as someone you are not, whatever your professed reasons, can look very differently when it seems like a possible tactic for adding artificially to the credibility of whatever work you have done that has won awards or otherwise garnered fame. This is often exactly why people who actively and knowingly engage in cultural appropriation do it, from Forrest Carter "Little Tree" to Archie Belaney "Grey Owl" among many, many others. (Top)

Misconstruing De Beauvoir (2021-11-08)

Widely reproduced photo of existentialist philosopher and Feminist Simone de Beauvoir. Widely reproduced photo of existentialist philosopher and Feminist Simone de Beauvoir.
Widely reproduced photo of existentialist philosopher and Feminist Simone de Beauvoir.

There is a current and ongoing fashion for misconstruing aspects of the existentialist philosopher and Feminist Simone de Beauvoir, unfortunately usually for not so honest reasons. I have observed that different online sources repeat that Beauvoir never claimed to be a philosopher, but am left wondering where this came from. If she ever said it, was she being ironic? Having read her in english and a bit in french, it seems to me quite possible. Still, it is important to bear in mind her philosophical ideas, because she developed them and enacted them in her life. The usual places online I check for basic outlines of a given area of philosophy or the ideas of a specific philosopher are the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Simone de Beauvoir and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). But perhaps I had better pause here to problematize that glib description of Beauvoir as an existentialist and Feminist philosopher, and not because she came to Feminism late. That is common among women, who are generally brought up being taught their oppression is natural and inevitable, so it can take awhile for them to realize they have been fooled.

The starting point is clear enough, Beauvoir is now commonly recognized as a leading figure in the development of existentialism. My OED provide defines it as "a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will." Sharp eyed readers with a penchant for world war two history may feel a bit worried at the reference to acts of the will, and that is a reasonable caution to take. The other most recognized existentialist philosophers, besides of course, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, is Martin Heidigger whose ties and sympathies with nazism are impossible to ignore. The OED adds that the origins of this theory or approach lie with Søren Kierkegaard and Freidrich Nietzsche. All of which reiterates how powerful and double edged existentialism is, like any other powerful concept. Beauvoir remained committed to this line of thought, striving to develop an existentialism ethics and so on. Feminism puts a bit of a dent in the more simplistic versions of an individual free and responsible agent though, because Feminist theory unpacks how women struggle to act in conditions of constrained agency, conditions in which they may be discouraged from realizing they have any agency or individuality at all. Lots of great stuff for a prepared philosopher to get their teeth into, and Beauvoir certainly did.

What may be Beauvoir's most famous aphorism comes from her book Le deuxième sexe, originally published in two volumes in french in 1949. The first english translation, poorly translated and edited in crucial ways that eviscerated its historical content, was released in 1953. A full and better documented english translation finally reached the public in 2009. Right at the beginning of what in french was the second volume, in the first lines of the first chapter, titled "Enfance," translated famously into english as "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." This statement was a truth bomb of its time. It was a shock to see it said outright that women don't spontaneously sprout into sex role stereotype embodying people who supposedly adore and accept their subordinate status. No, they had to be taught and transformed into embodying the stereotypes, and in time, if they were lucky, women would realize what was going on and make a decision whether or not to continue as they were or refuse. Or refuse selected parts of the stereotypes even. The original french is just as striking, "On ne naît pas femme: on la devient." Perhaps it is more striking, without a word to smooth over the juxtaposition.

Now, I have actually read the newer english translation to The Second Sex, and worked my way through parts of the original french as my french reading skills improve. That sentence has always given me pause for another reason than those I have seen so often, because most people discuss the sex role stereotype aspect, which is certainly right to do. Yet I find myself irresistibly drawn, at least for the sake of thinking, to an alternate translation, and its echoes must be far clearer to a native french speaker's ears than mine. "One is not born a wife: one becomes one." Or being less literal and so improving the flow in line with more experienced and skilled translators, "One is not born, but becomes a wife." This one has less oomph, and yet, I can't help but wonder if in english anyway, this translation doesn't reflect better the point about sex role stereotypes. It provides a different perspective on Beauvoir's "open relationship" with Sartre and her decision not to marry him, and I think deepens how the reader understands how that relates to existentialism. I don't know that anyone has seriously engaged with the woman/wife meanings in the french word "femme" yet, which in itself indicates how conflated "woman" and "wife" are even in english. (Top)

Helping Students Hand and Foot (2021-11-01)

Snippet of a horizontal arrangment of playig cards, quoted from card game info, 2 june 2019. Snippet of a horizontal arrangment of playig cards, quoted from card game info, 2 june 2019.
Snippet of a horizontal arrangment of playig cards, quoted from card game info, 2 june 2019.

For better or worse, one of the things that the covid-19 pandemic has reinforced is the often corporate-centred push to put education "online." There are some interesting questions nobody seems to be talking about much yet, besides the privacy challenges that entails, including whether it should be allowed to stand as the core approach to managing covid-19 exposure risk in the classroom context. I love more relaxed summers as much as anyone, but maybe we need to seriously think about changing the school year so that outdoor classes and open air classrooms can become the norm not just for the pandemic, but into the future. Having returned to university for a graduate degree, I have had to relearn the cruel plague cycle of the academic year. First the terrible flu and cold virii fell students and instructors in all directions from at least mid-october to late november, as everyone suffers weakened immune systems due to exhaustion as deadlines and exams come due. Second, the ricochet of those virii after the new year that seems to vanish at february reading break, but only because everyone is out of class anyway. If we are very lucky, we only get caught in one part of the cycle. Oh, that's a second question nobody is talking about much, the social pressure to go to class or work ill, and the necessity of rooting that out. Those are worth considering but so far nobody is doing that. Instead, the focus is on shovelling as much instruction online as possible, and somehow persuading students that everything will be fine. The preferred method for doing the second thing seems to be writing, recording, and filming hundreds and thousands of "how-tos" and other types of directions for students. It's hard to know what to make of a great many of these.

UPDATE 2022-07-23 - Independent game developer Cliff Harris recently posted about excessive technical helpfulness on his blog. In Modern Technology: Please Stop Trying to be Helpful he provides an overview of how so many computer-based attempts to be "helpful" are in fact actively preventing people from doing what we might expect the software makers to want, or strive to infantilize them. The managers pressing for so-called modern technology with these misfeatures and the developers who go along with it definitely don't think much of anyone who has to actually try to use the resulting software. Sometimes I wonder if recommendation algorithms are actively made worse in order to pressure people into giving up more personal data in hopes of improving the performance. But I don't wonder this too seriously, because it gives more credit for strategy than the managers and developers in question deserve.

Carl Svensson at datagubbe has written a post that nicely encapsulates the difference between supposed "digital natives" and those who grew up in the time spanning the before and after of home computer availability. In The Home Computer Generation: On Experiences Lost in User-Friendliness, he also draws out some details that lead me to question how the notion of "user-friendliness" has been twisted even more than before.

After nearly twenty years of non-stop media lines about young people growing up as "digital natives" who have grown up with cell phones attached to their hands and typing more than writing by hand, many educators are emphatically not convinced. Otherwise there would hardly be any reason for them to work so hard on explaining what podcasts are, including detailed directions on how to listen to them. Or the endless tutorials on how to use whatever "learning management system" is their institution's choice. These systems have been around for a long time, and they have basically standardized on basically the same user interface for both students and instructors. Furthermore, they are web-based, in other words, they are websites. The things "digital natives" have been exploring and figuring out how to use for their whole lives. Or at least, that is what until yesterday everyone was supposed to believe. Then again, maybe what many educators are struggling with is that the marketing hype says these various systems and online ways of learning should require no effort or exploration to use, but it turns out that they do need some. So they are working on hasty bridges. On one hand, I wholeheartedly agree, good introductory tutorials are a huge help, and are best when developed with students actually trying to learn how to use the software or whatever. Otherwise they are much like "frequently asked question" documents written entirely in house: they reflect what the writers wish people would ask, not what they do. On the other hand, I think a great deal of this work is at best unproductive, and worst actively counter-productive.

We aren't helping our students by effectively taking away their opportunities to learn on their own and determine which ways of learning suit them, at any age. I know that "preferred learning modes" are just that, preferences, but they are important for students to take advantage of when starting work with something new or refreshing their memories of something they haven't worked on or with for awhile. A mix of audio, visual, and when we can manage it kinesthetic presentation and work is important because the student body will be mixed in terms of their preferences. Everyone needs to develop all those ways of learning, and not just for class. Some things are tougher to get the hang of than others, and it is not a bad thing to struggle a bit. Just because a student is frustrated and maybe a bit angry to have to fight with the learning website or a particular concept doesn't mean either the website or the mode of teaching the concept are bad. It means that student may need some additional assistance, and as instructors part of our job is to provide that when they ask for it. That is why we invite questions. Students don't often just throw up their hands and walk away when they have a problem, unless for some reason they are certain the problem can't be solved. And frankly, that is an attitude issue that instructors can't solve for them. But if we feed into a perception that unless students understand everything instantly without struggle of any kind, then we will be helping instill that attitude in students, and they will take that into the rest of their lives.

There have been repeated studies showing that the expectations we bring of students influences how students actually perform, with the strongest effects when they are at their youngest and when they are shifting into independent adulthood. On top of that, if we get into the habit of providing lots of intellectual cotton wool and crutches regardless of whether it is even requested, let alone needed, we produce an untenable, ever-increasing labour demand. What students need will inevitably vary from year to year, and the best way to handle that is to default to a sensible base level of pre-populated materials, including yes, introductory tutorials, and then responding to the questions and concerns raised by that class. We simply can't cover every possibility, and sometimes the best people to help with a learning difficulty is fellow students. That is probably the toughest challenge we are all facing right now, helping support students help each other in a way that is safe and academically sound under adverse conditions. (Top)

Illiteracy is Not a Synonym for Ignorance (2021-10-25)

One side of the Phaistos disk, found on Crete 1908, image from www.ancient.eu, 9 august 2020. One side of the Phaistos disk, found on Crete 1908, image from www.ancient.eu, 9 august 2020.
One side of the Phaistos disk, found on Crete 1908, image from www.ancient.eu, 9 august 2020.

The thoughtpiece title here directly contradicts the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus in its second edition. Apparently established usage is quite insistent that these two words and parallel pairs of different related forms like illiterate-ignorant are indeed synonyms. Indeed, that is certainly how I have seen and read these words used, and it seems quite uncontroversial. There are historic reasons that they have come to have overlapping connotations, even though they are not literally equivalent. Some might even insist that since "ignorant" means by its roots "not knowing" and "illiterate" is simply more specific, "not knowing how to read" there is nothing to see here. Nothing else to write or say. Not too long ago, I would have been inclined to agree, even in my most disagreeable moments on top of knocking heads with one of the very few people whom alas I find it difficult to get along with. Yet some recent reading gave me a very different perspective on the simplistic conflation of the meanings and connotations of these words.

By happy accident, I have had the opportunity to read one of Lin Yutang's first books in english, My Country and My People, originally published in 1936. Interested readers can read a scan of this edition at the internet archive. There is no lack of material to think with in this book, between his observations of China at one of many important times in its history, and many passages that can leave the reader wondering if maybe, just maybe, he is ever so persistently pulling their leg. It isn't one of these passages that I have in mind here though, but one of the few highly autobiographical sections in which he briefly discusses Chinese theatre and the subjects and contents of the plays, ancient Chinese history. Since he was the son of a Chinese presbyterian minister, he grew up strictly forbidden to go to the theatre, therefore he did not grow up watching those plays. His comments on what this meant for him and his knowledge of Chinese history are thought provoking indeed.

Through its immense popularity the theatre has achieved a place in the national Chinese life very nearly corresponding to its logical place in an ideal republic. Apart from teaching the people an intense love of music, it has taught the Chinese people, over ninety per cent of whom are illiterate, a knowledge of history truly amazing, crystallizing, as it were, the folklore and entire historical and literary tradition in plays of characters' that have captured the heart and imagination of the common men and women.... Before my teens I knew Joshua's trumpets blew down the walls of Jericho, but I did not know until I was about thirty that when Mengchiangnii cried over the bones of her husband who had died building the Great Wall in conscript labour, the torrent of her tears washed away a section of the Great Wall. This is a type of ignorance that cannot be found among the illiterate Chinese. (251-252)

It is hardly news that people can and do learn all manner of information from media other than that in books or other printed material. In fact, the ongoing pandemic has spawned a new rush to make videos and podcasts to support online learning, and not a little of that learning is directed at students too young to know how to read yet or at students learning new languages, and therefore functionally illiterate in them. But there is considerably more packed into this brief selection.

In order to build his knowledge of Chinese history, Lin had to read books, and those dealing with Chinese history were outside his purview until he reached an age to make independent decisions about what he read. He could easily have chosen never to learn Chinese history. As it was, he did not have the same knowledge and comfort with Chinese history that his elders did, creating a wider than usual generation gap. This provokes me to wonder about the common missionary animus against Indigenous theatrical and ritual forms that encode and transmit Indigenous history, culture, and ways of living. After all, for many missionaries, their desire and ambition was to destroy Indigenous ways and replace them with theirs, because they worked and work in the belief that theirs is the only right way. This suggests a whole different way to consider episodes of theatre closures and bans in different countries, including england itself. Closures and censoring of theatres and the plays they showed had both religious and political components. Plays could challenge the messages and ideas that authorities and missionaries wanted to spread and reinforce. They had no doubt that going to theatre could be far more than just a pleasant night out.

In turn then, treating illiteracy and ignorance as synonyms unavoidably carries some political baggage. It is no coincidence that the common stereotype of an illiterate person is poor, often rural, and lacking in formal education above the most elementary level. At one time that could mean not knowing how to read and write your name, let alone not knowing what to do with the complex dinner place settings making up part of elite conspicuous consumption practices. What counts as ignorance is not constant, as we should expect, and there is of course nothing that makes it necessary for it to have any political or social connotations at all. But for good or ill, those connotations are there. (Top)

Women and History (2021-10-18)

Imperial roman mosaic (3rd-4th century CE) depiciting the nine Muses, held at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, via theoi.com 9 august 2020. Annotations added. Imperial roman mosaic (3rd-4th century CE) depiciting the nine Muses, held at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, via theoi.com 9 august 2020. Annotations added.
Imperial roman mosaic (3rd-4th century CE) depiciting the nine Muses, held at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, via theoi.com 9 august 2020. Annotations added.

Among many other tasks and loose ends I have been sorting out during this strange summer-fall, is a sort of "kernel" project. Not in the software or computer system sense of course, but more in the way of bundling and shaping a set of materials to feed another project that I don't have a clear bead on yet, but is definitely there. The thing about studying history, including seriously reading Karl Marx's work in order to get a genuine understanding of what different people claim "marxist history" is and how it does or doesn't relate to what he actually wrote, is that in time everyone does have to make a choice. It is necessary to decide whether how you see and understand the field is grounded in material reality and social analysis, or leans toward the assumption that everything is ideas and therefore analysis should primarily be about discourse. While I do think that discourse analysis is important and useful, like many, many other historians in training and fully trained up, I am not in a position to deny that material reality often does a serious number on my and every one else's carefully constructed ideas. If we could individually just think ourselves out of messes, well, we'd all lack any problems or challenges whatsoever and nothing and no one could ever change that. As a woman, I have repeatedly observed women's fraught relationship with history and read about it in the archives. When it comes to history, women are given one more set of absurd and contradictory demands by men: be absent from history, but maintain historical memory. No need to take my word alone on this. Silvia Federici describes an expression of this doublebind very well, in her recent book Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women (2018, PM Press).

In many parts of the world, women have historically been seen as the weavers of memory – those who keep alive the voice of the past and the histories of the communities, who transmit them to future generations and, in so doing, create a collective identity and profound sense of cohesion. They are also those who hand down required knowledges and wisdoms – concerning medical remedies, the problems of the heart, and the understanding of human behaviour, starting with that of men. Labelling all this production of knowledge "gossip" is part of the degradation of women – it is a continuation of the demonologists' construction of the stereotypical woman as prone to malignity, envious of other people's wealth and power, and ready to lend an ear to the devil. (41-42)

I suspect many women would be surprised to hear that they are maintaining historical memory in western societies, regardless of whether they are trained as historians or end up working on writing explicitly historical narratives for some professional reason. Yet they do. For most of us in northern north america, the people who keep track of all the relatives, including the archive of photographs, birthday and holiday cards, and the various other pieces that make up a family's physically encoded sense of itself, are the women. They curate this material, and if they don't explicitly write it up or put it in labelled boxes, one or more grandmothers or aunties are the ones we sit with who tell the family stories and maybe pull out photos or other objects and tell stories as they show them. In the Indigenous communities I am connected to, it is the women who remember huge swathes of our geography, the places on the land with whom we have ongoing relationships, when we are supposed to visit and what to do at each place. That's who makes sure we know who we are and what we need to do to live in a good way. It's a big job spread among a number of women, otherwise it would be too fragile a system to work. And of course, this task and the techniques used to carry it out are regularly derogated as "gossip" and "old wives' tales." Yet if women's role as historians was not powerful and important, the effort to control them and insult their labour in this area wouldn't happen. As one of my colleagues wisely noted one day, we don't make a rule or act to stop or change how people act in other ways unless someone has done something we consider wrong in some way.

Let's consider a bit more on this topic from Federici. This quote is drawn from her essay "Marxism, Feminism, and the Commons," in Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, also published with PM Press.

Recognizing that social subordination is a historical product rooted in a specific organization of work has had a liberating effect on women. It has denaturalized the sexual division of labour and the identities built upon it, projecting gender categories not only as social constructs but as concepts whose content is constantly redefined, infinitely mobile, open-ended, and always politically charged. Indeed, many feminist debates on the validty of "women" as an analytic and political category could be more easily resolved if this method were applied, for it teaches us that it is possible to express a common interest without ascribing fixed and uniform forms of behaviour and social conditions. (154)

By now it is more than evident that Federici is a scholar committed to a social and historical materialist analysis herself. I am fond of this snippet in part because it draws out the inherent positivity of this sort of approach. If we are willing and able to see things like the sexual division of labour as not only changeable, but positively changeable by us, then we are not doomed to helplessly repeat self-destructive and socially destructive patterns. (Top)

Power and Helplessness in the Malestream (2021-10-11)

*The Queen's Dwarf,* an illustration by Paul Gavani from an 1800 edition of a french translation of Jonathan Swift's *Gulliver's Travels.* Image courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com. *The Queen's Dwarf,* an illustration by Paul Gavani from an 1800 edition of a french translation of Jonathan Swift's *Gulliver's Travels.* Image courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.
"The Queen's Dwarf," an illustration by Paul Gavani from an 1800 edition of a french translation of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Image courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.

Full disclosure, and this will surprise no one who has read more than one item on this website, I am cynical and skeptical of claims about human superiority in general and male superiority in particular. Both claims are absurd on their faces in a massively complex world from which historical and archaeological evidence keeps showing how very not superior to all other creatures and ways of living humans and males in particular are. Nevertheless, sometimes it takes awhile for the more contradictory parts of the nonsense claims to become unavoidably obvious. In this case, I finally heard enough to make me go, "wait a minute, you supposedly all-powerful men are awfully powerless at the most curious times." Yes, queue sarcastic tone here, but the times where this jumped out at me are not the ones that might be expected. After all, if men claim to be completely unable to help improve the terrible conditions of violence and oppression women face, well, I am not surprised. Most men benefit by women's suffering, and have all manner of ways open to them to claim it wasn't them specifically who did the oppressing, so it is hardly their fault and they are innocent and why shouldn't they get the goodies anyway. Nobody is fooled by this when some jerk tries to play that card about benefitting from slavery or the Holocaust, but anyway, that is a separate issue. No, it is quite different times that caught my notice.

One is the ongoing debacle of various male officials in the united states insisting that there is simply no possible way they could ever enforce mask wearing as part of an effort to curb the spread of covid-19. This includes school principals officially in a position in loco parentis to students while they are on campus. These are the same people, who many bemused commenters have noted will impose dress codes with no hesitation, including persecuting girls for supposedly wearing the wrong kind of bra and demanding that any student not wear a t-shirt with liquor branding on it. The same people who feel it is somehow their right to prevent students from discussing the state of their schools anywhere, but especially social media. Suddenly those male principals in particular discover their generally presumed patriarchal authority is helpless. Utterly helpless in the face of teenage boys who are busy trolling the system and sexually harassing girls by insisting they are "trans" and must be allowed to use the girls' facilities or else they'll die. The adult versions of this are applied constantly in universities and colleges and all sorts of other places not focussed on education. Nevertheless, I started with these precisely because they are spaces where some version of overt authoritarian patriarchal authority is still accepted. Female administrators have entirely different issues to deal with, and if they can't seem to uphold the rules, we all know how that will be explained away.

There is another set of examples, again in a context where authoritarian forms of power held and applied especially by males are considered normal. (That this is based in part on sex-based stereotypes is absolutely the case, but not relevant to the specific point of this thoughtpiece.) These ones come from jails and prisons, where certain men are definitely in serious danger from other inmates. This may be for a whole range of reasons, from being perceived as "too effeminate" and therefore prey for rapists and torturers in the prison population, or as "too Black," among many other dangerous states that may push an inmate down the prison hierarchy. Okay, this is in a situation where these men are under constant surveillance, their environment is regulated and all the rest of it. They are within an extremely male-dominated environment, within which they all understand the rules or else learn them very fast, from guards to prisoners. Yet the guards and other staff, predominantly male remember, are powerless to come up with other ways to manage the danger men pose to one another by doing anything except torturing them with solitary confinement, or endangering primarily non-violent women offendors instead by moving vulnerable men or men merely claiming to be vunerable to a women's estate on pretext of gender identity. The supposedly authoritative, rational men can only come up with these sorts of non-solutions, even when among the people they would be protecting are the prison guards and authorities themselves.

Well, what about that other supposedly quintessentially male establishment regardless of it now officially being mixed sex, the various branches of the military. Well, it doesn't take much effort to find appalling examples of horrible plane crashes or ship collisions due to badly designed controls, or terrible coronavirus outbreaks on warships at sea. Death and injury in basic training seem less common, especially deaths, but so-called "friendly fire" incidents seem to be on the rise. These can't be explained away by pointing a finger or two at female soldiers or officers either, and they are not new. Nor do things seem to be improving. In fact, from the look of it, the vast overextension especially of imperial militaries and their hangers-on (yes, canada is among the hangers-on) on top of pressure to "contract out" is correlating nastily with increasing incidents of military brutalization of populations they are supposed to be "protecting," including people "at home." No matter how often a woman can be found to shove on the front of these incidents, the fact remains that they are primarily male-driven and male enacted. The growing numbers of these incidents and other reports indicate that morale is collapsing and discipline harder to maintain, which is dangerous to everyone, military or not, high ranking or not.

I don't believe for a second that men are inevitably violent or destructive. Everything I have learned about the society I live in and of many others indicates that male children are indoctrinated into violence and destruction from an appallingly young age, starting with violence against small animals and the destruction of other children's toys. As we are all too aware, resisting indoctrination when we are vulnerable children with developing brains is non-trivially difficult, and probably impossible without at least some adult support of some positive kind. The point here is not to suggest otherwise. Men and boys could certainly be different. In fact, the various versions of patriarchal ideology insist that men especially are rational, able to change, and always seeking to progress. The various liberal versions insist that men are the best individualists because they actually are the only real individuals (this is not usually stated so bluntly), so they will always maximize what benefits them. From what I can tell, at one point or another the theories arguing this take as given that personal safety, riches, and power are all benefits men always want to maximize. Admittedly these terms are vague, because their measures are not widely agreed on. For example, one theorist will insist that it is all about property, another about having a maximum number of sons, and so on. Luckily that doesn't have to factor in here.

Instead, starting from the idea that men are entirely capable of doing differently and have the social wherewithal to do new things in our current circumstances, including ways of joining together to impose what they want, what is going on? Let's turn away from total or near-total systems and consider just the general economy instead. No matter what, men can't even figure out how to ensure that they at least are all able to make a living on an individual basis, having discovered repeatedly that ruthlessly enslaving women and children doesn't work for this, nor can rent seeking be something every possible man does. They keep trying all these things to uphold patriarchy and its variants in every way, and no matter what falls apart and how it ricochets back at them, they are always unable to do anything about it. The excuse one day is "markets," the next "God said so," then "those guys over there wouldn't do the unreasonable thing we proposed knowing they'd never accept it." Obviously there is nothing rational about this. So we have a variety of conditions and circumstances under which men are absolutely insistent that they are powerless and helpless, despite having multiple levers at their disposal, both authoritarian and democratic, to do something about conditions that negatively impact them directly or negatively impact other men at least some of whom they claim to have solidarity with.

What else can we conclude then, than that this is what they want, and their solidarity, such as it is, is in fact specious? (Top)

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Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:53:52