Something Hollywood could learn from ...?

Something Hollywood could learn from …?

This week Vox posted an article on “Japan’s blackface problem,” which aimed to give an American perspective on the practice of Japanese actors putting on black faces, and to discuss what the author calls Japan’s “bizarre, troubled relationship with race.” I wonder what Japanese people can learn about how to treat race from that sophisticated bastion of cultural critique and racial neutrality, America?

Before I look at yet another nuanced and authoritative insight into the world’s problems from a racially enlightened American, I thought I’d share an insight from this month’s print edition of The Economist magazine, which I happened to pick up in my travels. In an article on racial inequalities in access to selective public schools in New York, an American documentary maker is reported as follows:

Curtis Chin, who has been filming New York teenagers preparing for the SHSAT, adds that all some black and Hispanic families want ‘is that their kids don’t get locked up in jail. It’s hard to measure that against an aspiration of going to Harvard or working for Goldman Sachs

I can say with considerable confidence that there is no black, Hispanic or indeed non-Japanese community of any race living in Japan now who are concerned about their kids going to jail rather than university. Which makes one wonder – what does America have to say to the rest of the world about race that it shouldn’t be saying first and only to itself? Let’s see what Vox has to say.

What does blackface mean in Japan?

The article is centred on concerns about a phenomenon that has no associations with colonialism or racism in Asia. Blackface has a long history of racist associations in the USA, and probably Europe and the UK, but in Asia it has no association at all with discrimination against black people. Black people in East and south-East Asia are basically just a different colour of foreigner, and discrimination against them stems from the same well spring as discrimination against all other foreigners. In some countries (Japan, probably Korea, I don’t know about China) black skin has an ancient association with demons and evil outsiders that predates Asian knowledge about the existence of black humans, but the extent to which this figures in Japanese attitudes towards black people is hard to say. The existence of the yamanba phenomenon in Japanese youth culture suggests that deliberately darkening the skin for fashion is shocking in a similar way to dressing as a Goth in the west (with associations of death and horror), but the leap between this and discrimination against black people is pretty weak sauce – weak sauce that the Vox article applies through an “analysis” of ganguro culture. The article cites an American living in Japan as describing this and the associated “b-girl” phenomenon as “exotic othering” and suggests that it’s potentially racist even though it is specifically cited as being done in “appreciation” of black American culture. It describes hip hop being culturally appropriated by taking American hip hop and running it through a J-pop machine.

This makes me think that the author and probably the American in Japan who they quote have never been to a Japanese hip hop club, or paid attention to the music there. There is a big difference between “cultural appropriation” and performing a foreign style, and if you don’t get this difference you’re pretty clueless about the music you’re describing. It’s also funny to read concerns about cultural appropriation from an American community that has engaged in one of the most breathtaking pieces of such appropriation in history, describing people with no cultural connection to any part of Africa as “African Americans” simply because of their skin colour. Newsflash, America: Africa is not a country.

American critiques of blackface centre on the fact that your intent does not change the racism of the representative behavior that blackface performs. That is, a white person putting on blackface just so that they can do an authentic portrayal of a black character at, say, Halloween, is still being racist even if their intent is simply and honestly just to do an authentic portrayal of a black character. The Vox article wants to apply this ideal outside of America in a culture that has never had a history of lynching, segregation, slavery or colonialism in Africa. Is this going to give a useful insight into how Japanese people think about black people, or how they should behave towards them?

A “recent” history of fascism

It appears, based on the Vox article, that I left a key word out of that paragraph. I should have written about a recent history of lynching and segregation. The Vox article writes

the national government has done stunningly little to prohibit racist hate speech, particularly given Japan’s recent history of fascism

The “particulary” in this sentence is clearly intended to stress the link between Japan’s “recent” history of fascism and the government’ s intentions, but this is laughable. Japan’s fascism was precisely 70 years ago, and Japan is the only country on earth with a constitution that forbids it from going to war. America’s segregation laws ended less than 50 years ago, but this government report on Obama’s speech at Selma doesn’t refer to heroes who changed “recent” history there. The last lynching in the USA was (depending on how you look at it) in 1998 or 1951, and laws were still being passed against it in 1968. So when we discuss racial problems in the USA should we refer to their “recent history” of lynching, segregation and Jim Crow? Their “recent history” of communal violence against native Americans (Wounded Knee was in 1972)?

When was the last time you read an article on Germany and Greece that referred to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism? Even articles explicitly about the Nazi occupation of Greece and recent demands for reparations don’t refer to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism. This sentence is a really jarring reminder that Japan is held uniquely victim of its historical actions in a way that Germany and especially the USA are not.

If we are going to talk about the influence of Japanese colonial history on its attitude towards race we should make sure that a) we assess all countries by the same historical attitudes and b) we recognize that Japan has no history of aggressive colonization of black nations. This is a uniquely white, European phenomenon.

Misinterpreting Japanese legislative intent

The article notes that Japan makes no efforts to ban hate speech or control the behavior of its racial extremists. The article fails to note that Japan also took a long time to move on child pornography, that it generally has a very liberal approach towards protecting speech, and that there are many countries in the world that don’t care to pass hate speech laws. Indeed, the article manages to gloss over America’s own tortured conversation on this issue – lots of Americans see hate speech laws as an affront to their own constitution, and while disagreeing with hate speech think that it should be protected. To present the absence of a law that is contentious in your own country as proof that another country is racist is disingenuous to say the least.

The article also exaggerates the role and position of racial extremists in Japan. I once had the pleasure of standing at the Shibuya hachiko meeting point waiting for a friend while a fascist stood nearby on a black van, yelling hateful slogans about how foreigners who complain about Japan shouldn’t live here. Why was I comfortable about this? Because I know that almost every person passing that black van sees those people as crazy weirdo, and as a result they are generally excluded from public conversation, to the extent that they have to drive around towns in black vans blaring out their hate speech. The same ideas that are seen as extremist in Japan are widely disseminated in the English press by, for example, the leader of UKIP, who has a column in a Sunday newspaper. The Economist recently had to withdraw a book review of a history of slavery that complained that too many of the white characters were portrayed as immoral and too many of the black characters as victims. The kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric you hear from mainstream politicians in France, the UK, Australia and America is not usually uttered by Japanese politicians or newspapers (though it does sometimes creep in).

Any article describing Japan’s famous “racism” needs to recognize this, and give at least some time to the myriad ways in which Japan treats its foreign residents better than many white countries do. I bet, for example that my reader(s) doesn’t know that in some parts of Japan I can vote, even though I’m not even a permanent resident, and there are moves afoot to give non-citizen residents the right to vote in national elections. One-sided depictions of racial politics in Japan give a misleading impression of how strong it is here.

Misinterpreting Japanese attitudes towards multiculturalism

The article cites an associate professor from Temple University saying that

The blackface thing is emblematic of a larger problem of Japanese politics and civil society in which diversity is not recognized, or cultivated, or respected

I think this is an overly simplistic understanding of Japan’s attitude towards diversity, also based on a misunderstanding of Japan’s legislative intent. Yes, Japan doesn’t have an official policy of multiculturalism (although some towns such as Osaka do), but this is because Japan generally doesn’t have a practice of legislating cultural movements. In fact, Japanese people implement a kind of basic principle and acceptance of multiculturalism that is staggeringly simple in its open-mindedness. Japanese people naturally assume that foreigners who come to Japan will continue to live their foreign ways, speak their own language at home, and pursue their own cultural traditions, while obeying Japanese law. This is essentially multiculturalism. For example, if I am in a majority Japanese environment (e.g. kickboxing) with a single other foreigner, and we speak in Japanese, the Japanese around us will laugh and ask why we aren’t speaking our natural language, because it seems strange to them that we wouldn’t. Japanese often ask whether living in Japan is difficult, because they accept that we will be trying to continue our own traditions in a society that doesn’t necessarily accomodate them. They are remarkably forgiving of foreigners who don’t learn Japanese, and they respect that learning to read Japanese is an extremely burdensome task for adults. They assume that we will want to continue cooking our own food and accessing our own cultural goods in our own homes, and are surprised if we do Japanese things. This can sometimes appear as racism – e.g. the assumption some landlords make that foreign residents will wear shoes inside – but it also reflects a basic assumption of multiculturalism underlying the Japanese approach to foreign residents of Japan.

It’s worth noting that a lot of Japanese cultural movements are determined outside of government, through corporations and local community activities. Reporting on racial issues in Japan needs to respect this, and look beyond government legislative activities to understand how Japan is responding to major cultural issues. I would add that this is important in other areas of cultural relations too, such as Japan’s attitude towards world war 2. It is not enough to say “the Japanese government has not done enough”[1], one also needs to look at the broad groundswell of support for global engagement, maintenance of the ban on war in the constitution, and other community-level activities to draw Korea, Japan and China closer.

In general, however, foreign commentators on Japanese cultural issues don’t bother to look deep, or don’t know how, and take Japanese government actions as the sole representative of Japanese attitudes towards those issues – which is particularly ironic in this Vox article, which makes the point that Japanese people see themselves as culturally homogeneous when they’re not. Perhaps the article could start by not assuming that the actions of a few people or the absence of an American-style legislative pattern represents the homogeneous view of the whole society.

You Americans … you talk too much

In closing (and paraphrasing Monty Python), Americans need to stop lecturing the world on race until they have sorted out their own house. Combined with Vox’s generally patronizing tone, an article that misrepresents or misunderstands aspects of Japanese legislative and cultural attitudes, in discussing an issue that is of zero relevance in Japan and is not capable of reflecting a Japanese racial attitude, comes across as hectoring. Furthermore, in assuming that Japanese people should have the same view of race as Americans, and invoking a history of colonialism that is older than America’s own more recent fraught issues, and ascribing to Japanese people views that are uniquely American, the article is itself flat out racist. It might make Americans feel better in light of their own recent disturbances in places like Ferguson, the huge disparities in economic wellbeing between races in America, and the massive incarceration of a whole community on the basis of its skin colour, but it doesn’t make America look better when it lectures other countries as if their racial issues are the same as America’s. Americans should shut up about racial issues in other countries until they have sorted out their own house, and non-white Americans should recognize that they too can be racist when they present their unique cultural perspective, leveraging the unique power of America’s cultural exports, onto other countries.

I have written on this blog before about how culturally toxic I think American feminism has been for feminist movements in other countries, exporting a unique blend of conservatism and identity politics to countries that don’t need it. I think the same thing applies when people in other countries listen to America on racial issues. Yes, America has had some inspiring and powerful black figures who dragged American racial politics out of a deep, dark place. But most other countries were never in that place to start with, and in admiring those figures we should be careful not to also draw too deeply from the font of American exceptionalism and christian conservatism that they often drink from. Too often American “progressivism” is conservative by international standards and flounces about the world trying to teach others how to behave from a perspective of American exceptionalism rather than genuine intercultural respect. This Vox article is a classic entry in that ledger of American cultural exceptionalism, telling Americans nothing about race in Japan and giving Japanese nothing useful to learn about their own racial issues.

fn1: As always on this blog I would like to remind my reader(s) that Japan has repeatedly and thoroughly apologized for its wartime activities, and has paid reparations.

Heading off the beaten track...

Heading off the beaten track…

The picture above[1] shows the latest estimated volume of arctic sea ice in March, 2015. The red line is 2015, and it looks like it is heading below the 2010 maximum. This is a disturbing trend because 2014 had a very high minimum, but the March maximum may well be very low. We know that 2014 was the first or second hottest year on record, and January and February this year were very warm. Even a cursory look at the Polar Science Center website reveals the very real possibility that we are heading towards another year of very low arctic sea ice extent, which will mean more flooding in the UK and Europe, and another crazy winter in north east America.

Destructive beauty

Destructive beauty

At the same time as the sea ice is struggling to reach a decent maximum, and thinning out every year, the Pacific appears to be entering a new era of vicious storms. The picture above[2] shows four tropical storms or cyclones generating around Australia simultaneously. One is cyclone Pam, which subsequently laid waste to Vanuatu (the emergency response is underway as I write this).

Science is having trouble keeping up with the pace of change that global warming is forcing on the planet. There is no scientific consensus on the role of global warming in typhoons and hurricanes, no solid understanding of where the arctic is heading, no established climate models that can understand the huge drought that is slowly consuming California, and only suspicions about the relationship between Sao Paulo’s deep water problems and Amazonian deforestation, but the inherent conservatism of the scientific process is no reason for us lay observers not to draw the obvious conclusion: Global warming is here, and it is wreaking havoc on our planet as we stand by and watch. Where is our planet heading? Or more relevantly, where is our reckless disrespect for the planet taking us?

Ecooptimism

As these portents unfold, today I read an article at Lawyers, Guns and Money describing a new phenomenon of “ecooptimism.” Apparently Al Gore has written an article arguing that we may be turning the corner in our response to AGW, because lots of solar panels are being installed; apparently Andrew Revkin gave a talk last year where he said that everything was going to be okay. Apparently Naomi Klein thinks we are able to find a way out of the worst problems that our planet is heading towards. I guess people think that recent agreements between China and the USA, action in the USA on power station standards, and China’s independent decisions to limit its coal use, are signs that we have turned a corner.

Another strain of ecooptimism on the part of economists like Nicholas Stern, decision makers and some of the major international bodies (such as the IMF) holds that even though things are a bit ragged right now, we still have time to reverse the situation by implementing some basic policies, and we can prevent further warming above the 2C “guardrail” without causing major damage to world economic growth. Under this form of optimism, even though we have delayed up until now, moderate changes in the next few years will still be sufficient to prevent major harm to either the environment or the global economy and growth opportunities for poor countries. This view of the global warming challenge holds that it is a serious threat to human civilization, but we can avert the collapse of modern society by imposing a moderate tax regime.

Should I be an ecooptimist? I think not, because these people are deeply wrong. They are ignoring the damage we have already done, misunderstanding how we need to think about the causes, and ignoring the powerful momentum of the climate system.

Ignoring the damage done

What is happening now in the arctic is not a coincidence: global warming is already destroying our planet. The damage being done by the collapse of the arctic sea ice is profound and widespread, and goes well beyond the possibility of polar bear extinction. The ridiculously resilient ridge driving California’s drought is almost certainly related to the collapse of the ice, as are the crazy winters in the eastern USA and the extreme rains in the UK. But California’s drought is also exarcebated by higher surface temperatures, reductions in winter snowfall and the role of unseasonally warm rains in destroying the snowpack that supports summer water reserves. Further south, Sao Paulo’s extreme drought is a response to deforestation (which is also driving global warming) and increasing temperatures. These two droughts alone threaten something like 40 million people in two of the world’s biggest economies, but no one has a serious plan to reverse either. And in the case of Sao Paulo, adaptation is impossible – while Californians, if they act now, could build a desalination plant, Sao Paulo is inland and its choices have essentially already run out. Of course American politics is so stupid that California won’t build a desalination plant until its water levels are so low that it doesn’t have enough water to generate the power that the plant needs …

Optimism about our future ignores that our future has already been changed by the damage we have already done.

Misunderstanding the causes

Somewhat ironically, economists are very good at confusing budgets and flows. When discussing national debts and tax burdens, mainstream economists have a tendency to think about the total national debt and current interest rates, rather than the amount of the debt coming due at any time, and the rate of change of interest payments. When thinking about global warming, they seem to focus on the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon rather than the total amount we are allowed to emit and have emitted. Under this way of thinking, it’s sufficient to reduce the rate of increase of carbon dioxide emissions – you just need to get them lower, but not necessarily to zero or negative. But this is completely wrong: when we make any policy about mitigating future global warming, we need to think about the total allowable carbon emissions, historical and future, and the rate of emissions is only relevant in as much as it determines how quickly we need to go carbon negative. When one thinks about the carbon budget, rather than carbon emission rates, then a carbon tax is simply a temporary policy to reduce emission rates so that we can buy time to achieve our real goal, which is hitting zero carbon emissions before we hit the budget. If a policy has a limit to how much it can reduce rates of emission – as most carbon taxes have been shown to have – then they are necessarily temporary policies. But most mainstream economists think that we can achieve our goals through only a carbon tax and a bit of minor regulation. They see reducing the rate of emission as the end goal, rather than staying within a carbon budget. They never go that extra step to ask – once we have dealt with the low-hanging fruit (coal-fired power emissions) how are we going to clean up the rest of the emissions?

How are we going to clean up the rest of the emissions? Cement-making, international air travel and shipping will probably be carbon-intensive for the foreseeable future. So what are we going to do? If your response is “carbon capture and storage,” you don’t have a solution.

Ignoring the momentum in the system

We already have a certain amount of warming built into the system. Due to feedbacks and the dynamics of the climate system, warming and its effects will continue to propagate after carbon dioxide emissions stop. This means that even if we could wave a magic wand that stopped all emissions tomorrow, the effects of those emissions on the biosphere through phenomena such as glacier melt, desertification, sea ice melt and storm intensity will continue to worsen for some time to come, and the planet will continue to warm a little more. Whatever effects we are seeing now from warming are going to get worse and then linger even if we stop emissions tomorrow. What we are seeing happening now is not the worst possible outcome of our best possible policy response – it is only the beginning. Practically, even if US and Chinese policy-makers have an epiphany tomorrow it will be 10 years before we get a really effective climate policy in place, 20 years before we can get carbon zero. That means we have 20 years of worsening warming, and beyond that an unspecified period of further warming, and beyond that period a further unspecified period of time when the effects of that warming propagate. Sea level rise may lag warming by years, which means that even if we act fast to get carbon zero in 20 years, sea level rise may worsen for 10 or 20 years after that. Arctic sea ice melt is obviously very responsive to warming, but we are only seeing the start of it – the effects of warming will continue to worsen the ice melt for years after the warming stops.

The practical effects of our stupidity

What this means in practice is that the arctic ecosystem is doomed. If anyone believes that another 20 years of warming are going to leave any appreciable ice in the arctic then they are very foolish. A collapse in this system means the near-extinction of a wide range of animals including polar bears, major changes to the jet stream with potentially catastrophic effects on northern Europe and America (including possible widespread cooling), the worsening of drought in California and massive changes in the Siberian ecosystem. Even putting aside potentially fatal methane releases from the sub-arctic, this is going to lead to a world we alive today do not recognize. It may also lead to the collapse of fisheries across the Pacific and Atlantic, depending on how major fish species respond to the loss of plankton and apex predators. The Pacific islands are doomed, of course, because they will run out of fresh water long before they sink beneath the waves, and low-lying Bangladesh is going to see widespread inundation with huge human movements. Pacific storm seasons will get far worse and much of the currently-inhabited coastal property of the eastern USA will have to be abandoned. The cost in flood defense and storm protection for cities like New York will be staggering. Water and food security in the Himalayan catchments, North Africa and Australia will become precarious, and cycles of flooding and drought in places as diverse as the UK and Australia will become much more extreme.

All of this is locked in, even under the best possible policy future.

Ecofascism?

There are people born today who are going to come of age in a world where the environment is unrecognizable compared to that which most of the human species has become used to. Some 20 – 40 years from now our children and their children will grow up into a world that recognizes our generation as the greatest criminals in the history of the human species. They will look on the devastation we have wrought and their anger will be deep and powerful, especially when they see the way that so many of our generation deliberately and wilfully ignored what was coming, or even made policy decisions that would worsen it. They will look on politicians like Australia’s Tony Abbott, who abolished a carbon price while bleating about “intergenerational debt” with deep scorn, and they will look on people who voted for these criminals as selfish clowns. This generation will also face a future far more precarious than anything we can imagine, because the world will still be warming and they will have to make not only deep cuts to their carbon emissions, but difficult and dangerous decisions about how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while dealing with food insecurity and natural disasters on a scale we can’t imagine. Our generation thinks that debates about carbon pricing are difficult; our children’s children will be arguing about whether to ban air travel and the steel industry.

This generation will respond to these challenges with political movements that live up to all the worst claims that conservatives make about the modern environmental movement. For example, because of the corruption and stupidity of current politicians in America, our children’s children will face a world without effective antibiotics. They will also need to reduce carbon emissions radically. The simple solution to both of these problems will be to ban meat eating or to allow only free range organic meat, making the worst nightmare vision of conservative critics of environmentalists and hippies into a reality. Maybe by then there will be new antibiotics that aren’t affected by the stupidity of the meat industry, but it’s highly unlikely that there will be a solution to the industry’s carbon emissions, and our children’s children will not be in a position where half solutions are acceptable.

Unless we act now, this is the world we will grow old in. I see no reason for ecooptimism, and I think that the people expressing optimism on the basis of partial technological solutions, or the comfort of easy first steps like a carbon tax, are fooling themselves if they think that we as a species are going to pull through this problem with such a simple and easy response. This is no time for optimism, but for a society-wide effort, at the same level as was required in world war 2 to eliminate fascism. If we don’t make that effort now, we will all be ecofascists 20 years from now.

There will be no denialists and no ecooptimists in that future.

fn1: Taken from the Polar Science Center

fn2: Taken from the hotwhopper blog

Oh, they have a Grue...

Oh, they have a Grue…

My friend gave me a copy of Ready Player One to read on the plane back to Japan, but my airline tricked me into flying a 777 without reclining seats or accessible reading lights or wi-fi, so I didn’t get to finish it till today nor did I realize how enormously popular it is until I randomly googled it. It’s a really good book, but has some really irritating flaws, so here is my review.

The basic idea of the story is simple and powerful, and I’m surprised it took so long to be written. It’s set in a dystopian near future (where, for once, the effect of climate change is stated and assumed throughout the story), where the world economy is slowly falling apart but there is a new virtual reality internet called the OASIS, where people can spend basically their whole lives escaping the boredom and horrors of everyday life. This world is fully interactive using haptic gloves and suits, so a kind of addictive experience (fortunately the author doesn’t use this silly idea of internet addiction), but it is also huge, a kind of galaxy of many worlds where almost anything can happen. The designer of the OASIS has died, but instead of leaving a will he has left behind his fortune, plus the title to control the company that designed the OASIS, as a prize in a complex game that, when the book starts, no one has won. This idea is patently ludicrous: the OASIS is the most important technological development in human history (as an example, our lead character receives his education through the OASIS and it is clearly a superior education to any physical school) but its developer has left the deed to the thing for any random gamer dickhead to take possession of. We’ve all seen what gamers are like – would you want the world’s biggest and most important company to be controlled by them?

And it is clear from the book that it is gamers who will take the prize, since the prize is a complex series of challenges based entirely on computer games. In order to crack the puzzles one needs to be an exceptional gamer; but worse still, all the clues to the puzzles are drawn from 1980s nerd and teen pop culture, so in order to find the clues one needs to be deeply invested in such execrable crap as The Breakfast Club and Highlander. One also needs to be a genius with 1980s arcade games, possibly the worst games ever invented.

As a result of this plot device, the book is a constant pastiche of 80s references, and the characters are the kind of losers you hated in first year university, who quote Monty Python in place of social interaction, and think going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the height of cool. Worse still, the characters in this story are the worst kind of computer game winners: they may not be able to get laid or interact with actual human beings, but in the OASIS they’re unbelievably, perfectly good at everything. Worst of all is our hero Wade, who when challenged is able without any appreciable effort to get a perfect score in pacman, and wins a contest (based on a computer game) that the next best competitor took five weeks of constant striving to win. He’s also capable of hacking international corporations, quickly hacking the system to create a new identity for himself, and making leaps of intuitive faith about obscure 1980s game and video references even though he was never part of the 1980s culture and only understands these things from studying his hero. He is, of course, also stunningly good at PvP first person combat games.

In short, he (and his three colleagues) are at a Harry Potter level of unrealistic character development. Mixed with all the worst traits of the nerd world, and an urgent need to prove how smart they are. Reading about these kinds of people is annoying!

However, the challenge is also intoxicating, and the growth of the relationships between the main characters – and the challenges they face in solving the puzzle – is really compelling. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, I soon found myself really wanting them to survive and really engaged with the story. It’s a tense, tight, well-told tale with several unexpected twists and turns, and much of the setting is a range of magical or technological fantasy worlds that make it a fairly unique mix of real world and fantastic tales. The magical world much of it is set in (the OASIS) seems very unrealistic, but it’s also a stimulating and interesting vision of how the future could unfold if the technology were available. If you can put aside the constant, mostly lame, references to the 80s, and the really boring and annoying way in which the characters are almost perfect in every way relevant to their quest, it’s an exciting and enjoyable romp through a very well realized  image of the future of society’s relationship with the internet. I strongly recomend this book for gamers and those interested in visions of the future in which communication and internet technology trumps manufacturing and off-world exploration – it’s a fascinating and exciting story with an excellent ending! If you have any interest in virtual worlds, and enjoy watching ordinary people get it wrong and then somehow struggling through to get it right, then I strongly recommend this book!

 

Another perfect moment in British colonial development

Another perfect moment in British colonial development

I am in London for a week doing some research with small area analysis, and on the weekend had a brief opportunity to actually see the city. As is traditional by now on my annual trips to London, I visited the World Wildlife Photography Exhibition (which was a bit weak this year, I thought), and having a bit of time to kill wandered up the road to the Science Museum. Here I stumbled on a small and interesting exhibition entitled Churchill’s Scientists, about the people that worked with Winston Churchill before, during and after the war on various projects, and Churchill’s powerful influence on British science.

This year will see the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and you would think by now that popular culture of the victorious countries would finally have got to the point where it is able to handle a more nuanced analysis of the politics of that time than mere hagiography. It’s clear that the allied powers were uncomfortable about some of their actions during the war: the careful elision of Arthur “Bomber” Harris and his fliers from peacetime awards is an example of British squeamishness about the morality of the bomber war, but this squeamishness doesn’t seem to have manifested itself in any kind of clear critical reevaluation of the behavior of the allies at war, at least in popular culture. This silence is starting to be broken by, for example, Antony Beevor’s uncomfortable discussion of rape in Berlin, or his discussion of the treatment of collaborator women in Normandy; but it is generally absent from public discussion. Churchill’s Scientists is, sadly, another example of this careful and deliberate overlooking of the flaws of wartime leaders and their politics when presented in popular culture.

The exhibition itself is small and interesting, walking us through various aspects of the scientific endeavours of the pre-war and post-war eras. It describes the scientists who worked with Churchill, their relationship with him and the public service, and how science was conducted during the war. Churchill was very close friends with a statistician who advised him on all aspects of war endeavours, and also was very supportive of operational research, which was basically an attempt to revise wartime strategy on the basis of evidence. The achievements of these scientists given their technological limitations are quite amazing: drawing graphs by hand on graph paper to attempt to explain every aspect of the statistics and epidemiology of rationing, conducting experiments on themselves to understand the effects of low-calorie diets, and feverishly working to improve tactics and technologies that were valuable to the war. The post-war efforts were also very interesting: there is a life-size installation showing the original model of myoglobin, which was studied using x-ray crystallography and then built by hand using cane rods and beads to create the three-dimensional structure. There is a telling quote about how scientists became used to asking not “how much will it cost” but “how quickly can we get it done and what do we need?” There are also some interesting examples of how the wartime expectations of scientists translated into peacetime success: they had contacts in the ministries from their wartime work, they were used to having funds and knew how to raise money, and they had access to hugely increased resources as the ministries dumped wartime surplus in universities and research institutes. In the 1950s this translated into rapid advances in medicine, genetics, nuclear power and astronomy, all of which are documented in the exhibition.

There are, however, some political aspects that are overlooked. Currently in the UK there is an ongoing debate about whether to stop conducting the Census because it costs too much, and it is clear that since the war there has been a shift in funding priorities and a move away from the idea that science should be funded at any cost. I would have been interested to find out how this happened: did Churchill change his attitude towards funding for science or was this a post-Churchill trend? Was Churchill the last of the Great Investors? What did subsequent conservative party leaders make of his legacy and how do they talk about it? Why is it that the country that invented radar, that perfected antibiotic production, and that contributed more than any other to modern geographical statistics and demography, can no longer “afford” the census? Was the war a high point and an aberration in the history of British science funding? Did its successes distort the post-war scientific landscape and expectations? None of this is really described in the exhibition, which limits itself to Churchill’s positive legacy, and doesn’t seem to want to explore how it was undone. There is also a bit of attention paid to female scientists in Churchill’s war efforts, including women who developed X-ray crystallography and did important nutritional epidemiology research. But we know that much of the computational work done in the war and immediately after was also done by women, but they were slowly squeezed out of the industry after the war. I would have been interested in some description of what happened to all those female scientists and ancillary staff after the war – were they forced out of science the way women were forced out of factory work, or did Churchill’s support for women in science during the war permanently change the landscape for women in science? It seems clear that Watson and Crick’s work – initially sparked by x-ray images of the DNA that are shown in this exhibition – must have been built on the work of crystallography’s pioneers, who were women. But where did those women end up when the war effort wound down?

The other aspect of this exhibition that is sadly missing is a discussion of Churchill and his scientists’ darker sides. We are introduced to the exhibition through Churchill’s love of flying; the website for the exhibition quotes him talking about new technologies in aerial bombing; and the exhibition itself talks about his support for a British nuclear weapon. But nowhere in the exhibition is his enthusiasm for terror bombing discussed, nor the unsavoury way in which he developed this enthusiasm, running terror bombing campaigns against Iraqi tribespeople in the 1920s. Arthur Harris is only presented once in the exhibition, dismissing a biologist who proposed a campaign of tactical bombing of railway junctions (he “wasted his time studying the sexual proclivities of apes,” was the dismissal); but nowhere is the corollary of this position – Harris’s lust for destroying cities – mentioned, or the extensive scientific work that went into developing the best techniques for burning civilians alive. In the year that western governments will demand Japan apologize for its wartime atrocities (again!), one would think they could at least mention in an exhibition on wartime science the extensive research that went into perfecting the practice of burning Japanese civilians alive.

In case one thinks this might have been just an oversight on the part of the curators, later we see a more direct example of this careful elision, when the exhibit focuses on Britain’s post-war nuclear weapons program. Again, we have been presented with Churchill’s direct interest in blowing stuff up; here we are shown video of a nuclear test, and discussion of the research that scientists were able to do on the environmental and physical effects of the bombs. The exhibition doesn’t mention that many of these tests, conducted in Maralinga in Australia, were conducted on land that Aborigines had been expelled from and were unable to return to. It also doesn’t mention the contamination of Aboriginal customary lands, any possible harmful health effects for Aborigines living in the area, and the controversies of the Maralinga inquiries and subsequent compensation for soldiers and workers. Not even a one sentence reference.

Given that we know Churchill was a deeply racist man who supported colonialism and had no interest in the rights of non-white British, it seems hardly surprising that he might have had a slightly cavalier attitude towards ethics in research and military tactics where it was directed against Iraqi tribesmen or Australian Aborigines. It seems like 70 years after the end of the war it might be possible to start talking about this stuff honestly outside of academia, and to publicly reevaluate the legacy of men like Churchill, and many of his senior scientists, in the light of everything we know now, rather than simply portraying all their efforts through only the lens of wartime heroism. Churchill was undoubtedly a great man and a powerful leader, and the world owes him a debt of gratitude. He was also a racist and a colonialist, and some of the decisions he made before, during and after the war may not have been either right or the best decisions for the time. It also appears that despite his greatness, the legacy of his interest in science and education was soon undone, and the reasons for this are important for us to consider now. What does it say about Britain that 70 years after the end of the war it is still not possible to honestly assess Churchill’s wartime efforts but only to extol his great contribution to science; yet 70 years later his contributions to science have been so far wound back that the government is considering abolishing the Census? Does such hagiography benefit Britain, or British science? I would suggest not.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and we are going to see a lot more public discussion of the actions and contributions of the great people of that time. I fear that this discussion is going to be very shallow, and sadly empty of any attempt to critically reassess the contributions of the people involved, and how they shaped our post-war culture. This exhibition is a good example of how the war will be presented this year: stripped of moral context, all uncomfortable truths banished from discussion, and all long-term ramifications for post-war politics and culture carefully sanitized to ensure that no difficult questions are asked, or answered. Perhaps we aren’t doomed to repeat history, but I think this year at the very least we are going to be bored stiff by it.

Really? That's the only camera?

Really? That’s the only camera?

If you are going to walk on thin ice, you might as well dance

– Inuit proverb

Drew stared, blank-eyed, at the doctor. He was watching her intently, probably thinking his expression meant something to her, but to him he was just the same as all the rest. A man, not old enough to be distinguishable by the patterns of his flab and baldness, not young enough to be noticeable for his physique or style. Just a man. The same as the one she refused to speak to yesterday? She wasn’t sure. The white coat didn’t help. In any case, she had decided to speak to this one, so she needed to appear affable.

Drew put on her affable face. He spoke.

“Let’s start with your name. It isn’t actually DRU, is it?” He pronounced her name separately by each letter. Cute.

“No. That isn’t how you say it. It’s Drew.”

“But that isn’t your actual name is it? You can’t call yourself after your unit designation.”

“How do you know my unit designation?” She arched up, suspicious. How much did these people know about her?

“It was on your lapels when we found you. ‘Dedicated Retribution Unit 471.’ But that’s not your name, just your designation.”

She sniffed. “Same thing. Anyway, everyone calls me Drew.” Threw a huffy kind of shrug at him.

“Very well Drew. But that’s not your actual name. I would like an identity by which I can refer to you, something that speaks about your place in the world. So can you tell me your name?”

Clearly, Drew thought, they must be going around in circles here. Why are people so stupid? “That is my name, and I think it tells you everything you need to know about me. I’m Drew. Nice to meet you. Who are you?” She arched an eyebrow in what she hoped was a pointed manner.

“Hmm. Let’s make a deal, okay?” She recognized daddy-talk, or big-brother-talk, like he thought he was going to con her with some false authority. Did he not know what she was? She was used to authority, she carried 35 rounds of it in a bullpup-configured light assault carbine, or 10 rounds of it in a high-powered FinnArms Stalker. Not-yet-middle-aged corporate doctors did not carry authority, they carried a badge. “You tell me your name, and I’ll tell you mine.” Smug face, like he’d just pulled the biggest con of the century.

“Drew. Pleased to meet you.” Humour! Zing! She wanted to hold out her hand for effect, but the plastic zip-ties kind of threw that out the window. Also, she was getting a little sharp here, she needed to dull it down. So probably just as well. She made sure to slur her next words. “‘N who’re you?”

As usual, her sass drew a sigh. What is it with Men Of A Certain Age not being able to handle a girl who talks back? Pindicks or something. “Drew … that’s not your name. I want to know your real name, so we have something solid here, you know?”

She sighed too. “Okay Doc. I had a real name, but it died, alright? When my friend ‘Lenie died and all I had left of her was her bracelet, I took it down to the ice. You haven’t been to the ice, right? It’s there on the shore in late spring, still there but all slushy and mashing against itself, makes this kind of grating sound. I threw ‘Lenie’s bracelet into the ice and when I said goodbye, and when I did I threw my name away too. Since then I just used whatever name was useful, but when I joined the squad they all called me Drew, so Drew it is.” She turned plaintive little girls eyes on him, just for a moment. “Can you please just call me Drew?” She asked in a small voice.

“Okay … Drew.” He sat down again. “Nice to meet you.” Brotherly wink. Sure you mean it doc, sure. “So, I want to ask you some questions, first, about what happened at Tunguska.”

“I don’t know!” She blurted, almost too quickly. “I got shot. Or something.” Slumped back, huffy. What had happened?

For the first time, the doctor turned on the screen on the wall. Grainy footage appeared. He shuffled it. Angles changed, vision cleared. There was the tower she’d been sent to. She’d been inside, level 3, but the tower she could see was a mess, level 3 up was a smoking wreck. A body hanging out of the window must have been … was that Armoured Angel, their heavy weapons guy? Were her whole team dead? Maybe not, because she could see a gaggle of corporate troops at the base of the tower, in that classic huddle of squaddies getting ready to storm a room. She didn’t remember any of this…

The doctor hit play. This was drone footage so there was no sound, but she saw the guys geeing themselves up to go in, then a charge went off and the door came open. The first guy moved to enter the door, but blew back, shot maybe. Then the screen went kind of blurry and the men started falling down. The screen paused.

“How did you do that?” the doctor asked her, sounding kind of impressed. Do what?

“I’m not there,” she pointed out reasonably. “What are you talking about?”

He rewound a little. “You’re there. Can’t you see?”

“No, it’s just kind of misty.”

“That’s blood and smoke. Here, let me slow it down.” He switched to freeze frame. Moment by moment, she watched the men’s deaths unfold. First the guy who’d been barrelling for the door, blown back by a single shot in the face. Then the man on the left of the door, vision still obscured by smoke, fell back in confusion, fell over. On his other side, the demolitions guy died in a flagrant head shot. Whatever was shooting them was carrying something small but very powerful. But the third guy went down from the thigh, looked like a lot of blood from a deep cut. The fourth guy was just starting to react, maybe, and he didn’t die, went back as if he’d been tripped, and his gun ripped away. Three more of the team went down in an arc of auto fire from that guy, one of them their heavy weapons support, hit by maybe five or six bullets in the chest and head. Now that the smoke was clearing Drew could see a kind of figure moving through the dust and smoke, small and lithe, carrying that guy’s assault rifle in one hand and rippers extending from the other. It was hard to see in blurry drone footage through smoke, but there was definitely a ghost figure in there, moving through the cadre. They fell apart behind her, like a piece of ocean-caught maguro being sliced carefully open by an expert chef.

Was that … her?

Behind her, three men burst out of the empty doorway and headed away. She recognized Jesus’s slight limp, Ragged Jerry with his shotgun, and Magnum, huge and hulking but obviously badly hurt. Magnum maybe paused to look back at her but they obviously weren’t messing around, they were lighting out for the hills.

It was her. How had she done that?

“I … ” she watched in confusion.

“Let me play it again.” The doctor hit shuffle, it went back to the start, she watched herself butcher her way through the team again. This time she definitely saw herself in that small, lithe figure, but she was moving so fast.

The Russian Gear. She’d bought it in Vladivostok before the mission. Told no one. It … itched … in her for a few days, then settled down. Of course she hid the operating scars. None of her team knew about it. But they must know now, after they saw that.

“Are they alive!?” she demanded, tearing up. Magnum had dragged her out of that shelled tank back in the Indo zone, kissed her face and cried when they got on the AV in Calcutta and saw the size of their payment. Ragged Jerry always beat her at cards and sneered, but always volunteered for her team. And Jesus, always laughing and joking and looking sidelong at the future like it was just there, waiting for him to grab it and make it stand still …

“As far as we know they got away from the zone before the response was organized. You were the only captive.” The video played on behind her, a classic tableau of last-ditch defending. Taking cover, using up ammo, charging, getting knocked down … except it all happened at breathtaking speed, and finished when she fell, exhausted, to one knee, and just sat there shattered as they smashed her in the head with their rifle butts.

“I don’t know how I did that,” she said slowly. Looked at him. “Do you?” Don’t mention the Russians…

“No,” said the doctor, handing her a tissue and sitting down. “But here’s the thing, Drew … it’s not possible that you can hold the cyberware required to do that, and still be human. We’ve done the tests, and we have a clear diagnosis of cyberpsychosis.” He sat back, steepling his fingers like he thought this was something she might be scared of.

“Really?” She said in a small voice. She’d always cut it fine, but always thought she was staying the human side of … that. She wasn’t scared of cyberpsychosis, but she was definitely scared of what the corporations did about it. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, we are.” He sighed and did that Concerned Uncle voice that men did when they thought she couldn’t understand the gravity of simple words, and needed to be patronized. “So we don’t have many choices here, Drew. You know what happens to cyberpsychotics. But we have a treatment we are going to try on you. It’ll stop your psychosis, but we’ll have to remove all your cyberware.”

She didn’t react, looked at him calmly. Her affable face fell off, replaced with … nothing. Take her cyberware? Make her … meat? She wasn’t ever going to go back to … meat. ‘Lenie had been … meat. Back when Drew was … meat. She was not going back to that. Cattle, like she and ‘Lenie had been. She had gone from sheep to wolf. They weren’t sending her back to that.

She watched coldly as he stood up from behind the desk, so sure of his diagnosis and his corporate power. “We’ll talk again tomorrow Drew,” he said affably, “See what kind of agreement we can come to about removing your cyberware. You can’t go on with this much boosting and hope to stay human. We have to take it out.” He walked to the door, seemingly incapable of noticing the gravity of the cold stare Drew was giving him. “See you tomorrow.”

Drew knew all about Men Of A Certain Age and their feelings about how much say women should have over their own bodies. She had seen it all before, and vowed never to see it again. She watched him walk out of the door, watched as it slid shut behind him, and as she waited for the guards to come, she started calculating.

Time passed.

How do you count the passage of time when you are in an empty space? Drew sat in a tiny white cell, with a bed and a separate toilet, and waited to be dragged down a pristine white tiled hallway to another pristine white, tiled room. She had a small cot with white sheets, a tiny window she couldn’t reach, no books or screens or vids. All she could do was wait. And think.

Drew was not good at thinking. She had never counted thinking to be a particularly useful talent. Running, fighting, hiding, knowing when to give in – they were useful talents. Thinking just made you angry, so Drew didn’t usually think – she acted. But in this white room she very quickly realized action was not where it was at.

They were drugging her. Something in the food, she realized when they came to get her on the second day and she could barely fight them at all.

But she also realized there were no cameras in her little toilet (or maybe she assumed it). So after she ate she rushed in there and puked it up. She drank toilet water instead of what they gave her, and acted sluggish when they came for her. They’d put something on her cyberware that made her eyes fuzzy and slowed her boosting, but something was wrong with some part of it, because her rippers still worked. Just a bit – they didn’t come out fast and it was a lot of concentration, but she could get them out maybe one inch, which was enough to touch her zip-ties. She had noticed that there was maybe a two minute gap between when the guards dropped her trussed and sluggish into the doctor’s room, and when he arrived. And yesterday she noted 12 seconds – count them, 12 – between when he arrived and the door automatically locked.

She could feel that Russian ghost stirring in her. It was beyond the control of whatever they had stuck on her or in her to stop her cyberware. That Russian ghost was uncoiling, seething through her, demanding action.

She wasn’t resisting. They wanted her cyberware. They were going to get it.

It was the same formula the next day. Now was her third day without food, but what girl doesn’t go without food? Drew figured she had a few hours of action before she wore out, provided her Russian ghost didn’t sputter and die too soon. The guards came for her, assumed she was too deadbeat to resist, slapped her in zip ties and dragged her down the pristine white corridor. They dumped her in the chair – the one on her right took the time to give her a good feel, as he had done yesterday, while the one on her left, no doubt a good family man, looked the other way – and then left. This gave her two minutes to draw out her rippers and saw through the zip ties. They gave in in time, but she didn’t have confidence that she could secretly slice through her ankle shackles, and anyway the effort of pushing the rippers out against the cyberlock was really starting to drain her. So she waited, breathing calmly to recover her strength and trying to make contact with the Russian ghost.

She found it just as the doctor walked in. Twelve seconds is a lot of time for her Russian ghost, but she had no time to waste so she leapt over the desk and gouged his eyes out, then ducked into the hall. One last effort to push out the rippers and sever the leg shackles, then down the hallway looking for her captors. She found them in a room in the opposite direction from her cell, running into the hallway carrying electric batons. From behind her she could hear the faint screams of her blinded doctor, which maybe had alerted her two guards (if they hadn’t seen the CCTV). She was flat against the wall when they came out, and Family Man didn’t know what hit him. The other guy spent a little bit of time acquainting himself with exactly what had hit him, but she didn’t have time for the details, not here and now. Having done the best she could, she moved on, keys in hand, cyberlock removed.

She got out. It was fun, mostly, though she was hungry and strung out. Her one regret was that cyberpsych. She had been forced to leave him alive, but blinded. No time to go back.

The rest of his profession would have to make up for it.

She never found out who was holding her, though she assumes now it was Arasaka. They were probably looking at turning a nice profit from all her cyberware, and now that she knows what Arasaka is up to she thinks maybe she would have been an experimental prototype for the Full Body Replacement (FBR) troops parading around New Horizon now. No matter, she’s free, and she’s not going back into “treatment.” Let them try and take her …

 

Footnote1: This is the story of Drew’s transition from corporate soldier to renegade solo, after she was captured in a suicidal defense of her troop at the Tunguska intervention.

Footnote2: I have no idea if the opening proverb is actually an Inuit proverb – it’s just a google search result – but it suits the story so I’m running with it.

 

How did it come to this?

How did it come to this?

Date: 6th October, 2177

Weather: Rainy

Mood: Inconsolable. One day I will be powerful enough to come out from under these shadows, and destroy the people who have made me beg and cower. When that day comes the list of people I have to shoot will be long and detailed, and I am going to need a lot of ammunition. I am stocking up.

Outfit: I guess every cloud has a silver lining, and today I’m wearing this beautiful silk gown that the Dubious Mr. Smith gave me. It’s this beautiful pale shell colour with simple geometric patterns crushed into the fabric, I think it may have cost him more money than I have ever seen or owned, but he just tossed it to me so I wouldn’t drip on the carpet. I guess before I kill him I should thank him for the gift…

There’s something oddly calming about reading the Falcon’s war diaries. It’s not just the detailed and intelligent tactics she uses, or her clear thinking under pressure; unlike the other Dialectical Ephemeralists, who spend a lot of time talking about irrelevant philosophical and political stuff that no modern girl cares about, the Falcon burns with this white-hot and pure anger that reaches straight into the heart of any girl who has had to fight her way up. Like me. I don’t know what happened to the Falcon, though I guess like most heavily-armed chicks she died in a messy puddle, but somehow her writing reaches out to me across two oceans and some untold distance in time, and I feel like she’s sitting next to me in this bath, whispering sweet nothings in my ear. Now when I’m exhausted from the crab-bucket politics of this petty world, I find it strangely relaxing to read one of her war diaries, as if she had come alive from the chip and straight into my head to tell me it’s all gonna be okay, just like her I can rampage across a continent getting even with anyone who pushed me down, and being cool while I do it.

For example, after today’s chaos, being pushed around like a pawn in a game of Battleship (whatever that is), I needed a really long bath to let all this exhaustion seep out of me, but it’s no longer enough – I’m wired on my anger at the way I’m being pushed around by these great powers. So I open my little reading screen and pick up one of her war diaries, and like magic she has this to say about the powers she was up against over there in the Andes:

They are what we once dreamed of as gods, mythical agents of destiny, as inescapable as Death, that poor old peasant labourer, bent over his scythe, no longer is. Poor Death, no match for the mighty altered carbon technologies of data storage and retrieval arrayed against him. Once we lived in terror of his arrival. Now we flirt outrageously with his sombre dignity, and beings like these won’t even let him in the tradesman’s entrance.

Did she know I was here in this bath, close to tears because of the sheer stupid challenge of bouncing around between these people who can crush me with a word? How is it that every time I read something the Falcon has written, I feel she is speaking directly to me? I guess that’s why she’s a revolutionary hero, and I’m a battered girl in the bathtub of a repair shop in New Horizon.

That’s going to change one day, dear diary, and the events of today and going to be replayed in excruciating, painful detail on the flesh of every person who was part of them.

So today our epic fail continued. Ghost came up from his hack long enough to tell us he’d been followed by a Goliath security system and a Goliath SWAT team was inbound, then dived back into the Husk to try to lay a false trail that would give the impression we had been used as a relay for some other hacker, and were just victims of an unfortunate hack. With Goliath inbound Pops had to make himself scarce because his short temper had, as usual, pissed off some dude somewhere who can do stuff, plus we had this whole array of highly illegal weaponry that we needed to get out stat, so me and Coyote ran upstairs to pack it all into the AV while Pops set fire to all the remnants of Lima’s search that we had painstakingly laid out in one of our container rooms. Good thing we took photos. I dragged Rice with us, and my armour, and me and Coyote started packing all our illegal guns, explosives, drugs and ammunition into the van. Ragut was trying to push this enormous crate in front of the doors to ensure we could get out, while his wife was waiting outside on an AV bike, ready to go. I told Tail to shut off all power to the door and ordered Ragut to leave – why waste time on that stuff? He left in a hurry and for once Tail did his job. Then I realized things would go a lot faster if Rice helped Ghost, so I turned on his cyberdeck and let him loose with the warning that I’d blow his brains out if he betrayed us (and Goliath would probably do it first).

Of course Ghost couldn’t tell us till later, but he was in a massive Husk dive on our behalf, trying to make up for his mistake. Rice tried to help him but got promptly fried by ICE, and went unconscious on me, so I threw him in the van with the other contraband.  First Ghost laid a track to Rice’s hideout, trying to make it look like someone had used us as a relay. Unfortunately the Goliath ICE was on his tail fast, so he had to go further afield, and he decided to hit a convenience store associated with Arasaka. He got in but there was nothing there, so from there he went deeper, towards some servers. Here he alerted Arasaka ICE (he’s a real light-footed guy, our hacker), but by now Goliath had got in and so the two ICE programs started fighting each other. Ghost slipped out and broadcast the news that Goliath and Arasaka were going to war digitally, using the same bulletin board where he previously posted up his own address (why he did that I don’t know). Then he disconnected.

While all that was going on me and Coyote finished packing the van. He jumped in the van and off it went, out the door and into space before Goliath arrived, leaving me up top. Then Pops came up, covered in soot from setting fire to the Lima-relics, and moments later the building sprinkler system started spraying water all over us. I saw a chance here and called Goliath fire services, confirmed we had a valid contract with them (Ragut is a sensible man) and got them to send a unit. While I was doing this Pops revealed that he had not put his highly illegal new assault rifle in the van, and definitely could not be around when Goliath arrived.

Great. Dementia? Maybe. I put Pops on my AV bike and told him to get gone, I’ll handle it. I made sure my bike helmet was programmed to the girliest, floralist style I have before I gave it to him (Pops always insists on wearing a helmet, the old grump!) Off he went, leaving me and Ghost, who had just emerged soaking wet from down below. My plan was to do the innocent truthful thing, which would probably not work since Ghost will likely mess it up[1], but we don’t have much choice here and I am not abandoning our hideout to Goliath. Sometimes a girl has to draw a line, and the loss of my full wardrobe is where I put that line.

After a few minutes we heard the first thrum of AVs. At this point Ghost decided to jump in the whaler and strip off, though why I’m not sure. I went outside to meet the AVs, and of course it wasn’t the fire unit but a whole team of heavily armed SWAT dudes (quelle surprise, as the yanks would say). They had 3 miniguns on me instantly and I was down on my belly like a civilian protester in no time, waiting to be cuffed. Shock. Once the armoured dudes were down and onto me I managed to point out that they weren’t the fire brigade, but they weren’t listening. They soon found Ghost and dragged him out too (naked, for some reason). Then the fire brigade turned up, sowing confusion through the ranks. Everything would have worked out here, with the Goliath guys deciding it was a false alarm and just a genuine fire, except that one of them recognized me.

“Is that … the DRUID?” he asked, and two of his mates poo-pooed him but another checked me out and realized it was me.

Typical. Some thuggish trooper in the Indo zone with a rep less than mine uses it to get laid for free in every bar from here to Sao Paulo. My rep gets me entangled with Goliath. I swear, one day …

Quite reasonably, this idiot cop said “What’s the Dedicated Retribution Unit doing working as a mechanic in a repair shop down here?” They dragged us in. Waited a few minutes to call in a secure prison AV, then threw me and Ghost in the back and headed off for downtown Goliath.

We all know what waits for me in Goliath Security. Either they hand me over to Arasaka and cash in my contract (15k now!) or, more likely, they take one look at my history of cyberpsychosis and send me to one of their shadow cyberpsychosis treatment units, where I will be remade into a full body replacement, to spend the rest of my life on the verge of cyberpsychosis while I stomp around in a clumsy mecha body that’s straight out of some Oil Age Japanese nightmare.

At this point I started thinking of ways to go down hard, but also wondering if I could still talk my way out of this. But it turned out not to matter, because we were stopped en route. The back of the van opens and these dudes in suits check us out. Some forms are swapped, hands are shaken, dudish words exchanged, and then we are uncuffed and put in the back of this big expensive AV. And off we go, no words of explanation proferred. Me and Ghost are just going along with it, because what else can you do when the powers above decide that your time has come? They took us to some kind of super-expensive hotel, and then there was a long, long elevator ride, and then we were let out into this exquisite hotel suite. There were a couple of guys waiting for us here, some man who introduced himself as Mr. Smith, and then a hacker and some super-slick corporate executive. I know when my number’s up, but I’m not going down in a set of wet coveralls: when Mr. Smith asked if I wanted anything that’s when I said I wanted dry clothes and got this splendid robe. Ghost of course just flopped down and got oily water all over their amazing couch. Men!

Conversation with the Dubious Mr. Smith was short and irritable. Basically it turns out Alt wanted us out from that Goliath trap, and these guys were the only ones who could organize it in short order. But they want something in return of course, and that something is a tough challenge. Apparently some guy called Elvis was the true head of the Church of Exalta, and he was last seen in the Crash Zone with a thing called ANITA. ANITA is a computer of some kind that is powerful enough to host a shard of the lost Exalta, which makes it an enormously valuable find. Unfortunately the Crash Zone is an irradiated hell hole, and they don’t want to send their guys there on such a fickle lead. Enter Expendable Drew, stage left. They liberated me from cyberpsychosis so that I can go die of radiation poisoning.

Sounds like a deal. I checked some specifics, thanked them, and hit the street. A car took us back to Rastafari, where Pops and Coyote were waiting for us. It turns out that they had been following the Goliath AVs, and Pops was considering a straight-out raid, kill the drivers and steal the girl type stuff, but Coyote convinced him to back down and put in a call to Alt. She agreed to liberate us but wanted to do it at arm’s length, hence the involvement of the Dubious Mr. Smith.

Over beers, while we were cooling down and Ghost was telling us about his hack, he also revealed that Alt had contacted him while we were in the Goliath prison van, but he told her to call him back later.

That’s when I decided to take my bath and read some Falcon. Sometimes you have to know when to withdraw and nurse your wounds.

Dialectical ephemeralism, you can take it or leave it, it’s nonsense. The Falcon though, she speaks to me. We’re separated by time and space, and she doesn’t know mandarin or Russian, but it doesn’t matter, we speak the same language: the language of angry outsiders. These people are going to pay.

The Falcon is right about many things, but sometimes she is too fatalistic. She once wrote:

The enemy you cannot kill. You can only drive it back damaged into the depths and teach your children to watch the waves for its return.

But about this she is wrong: she never met the DRUID. When the time is right, I’m going to let Death back in through the tradesman’s door, and me and Death, we’re going to get real close, we’re going to go on a little dance through the mansions of the rich and famous, righting wrongs and repaying old debts. Then these people will know why I’m called the DRUID: Dedicated Retribution Unit (Involuntarily Demobilized).

They should have demobilized me properly when they had the chance.

fn1: Sure it’ll be Ghost who messes it up, not Drew who has Persuasion and fast talk 2, Empathy 3…

If only they'd had a blight-proof potato ... or an end to British occupation?

If only they’d had a blight-proof potato … or an end to British occupation?

Debate over the infiltration of the Republican party by anti-vaccination ideas has naturally led to the resurrection of that old Shibboleth, the idea that the left is also “anti-science” because left-wingers and environmentalists are opposed to GMOs, despite the available evidence that they are safe. I think the GMO issue is a good example of why the “anti-science” label is not a good way to approach debate on science communication. The growth of anti-GMO ideas in the environmental movement is a good example of how motivated reasoning arises from genuine political and economic concerns, and later takes on a (usually tattered) cloak of scientific justification in order to give it mainstream respectability. In this post I hope to show that the pro-GMO crowd can themselves be irrational and “anti-scientific”, and that motivated reasoning isn’t in and of itself “anti-science.”

Is Opposition to GMOs left-wing?

First though, let’s put to bed the idea that opposition to GMOs is a uniquely left-wing attribute. Dan Kahan has a blog post on this topic, in which he explores risk perception by political orientation for a variety of issues. In this post he identifies no difference in level of concern between those who we might broadly define as left-wing and right-wing. In his survey right-wingers were much more worried about fiscal policy and immigration, while left-wingers were more concerned about nuclear power, global warming and guns; but they were all equally unconcerned about GMOs.

If we go a little further, and step into the cess-pit below the line to this National Review Online editorial on GMOs and the left, we can find plenty of evidence that right-wingers distrust Monsanto and approach the GMO issue with very similar motivated reasoning to the left: distrust of big corporations, vulnerability to the plutocracy, and informed personal choice.

I think opposition to GMOs appears left-wing because it is primarily articulated (surprise!) by environmentalist organizations like Greenpeace, and community organizations that tend to have a stronger history in left-wing movements than right-wing movements. But this is just appearances, and in fact there is a strong response to issues of unrestricted corporate power, profit-making from the food chain, and tampering with “traditional” foods that crosses party political lines. This makes the GMO issue very similar to the vaccination issue: opposition is broad-based, but articulated through leftist voices because community organizing tends to be a leftist thing, environmental and consumer choice organizations are often vaguely left-wing, and (by coincidence) in the case of anti-vax ideology, the wealthy and photogenic voices tend to be California liberals. I guess Buddha would say that critics are focusing on the pointing finger, and missing all the glory of the heavens.

Motivated reasoning and opposition to GMOs

Reading the comments in the NRO piece it should be fairly obvious that, while people’s scientific concerns might be articulated through worries about effects on the food chain and human health, the real well-spring of their discontent is economic and political. Right-wing people are worried about consumer choice, about increased power of big corporations in a very important market (food), and about the damage that vertical monopolies and plutocratic cosy relationships do to free market ideals. Left-wing people are worried about unrestricted influence of big corporations on food markets and the environment, about an increase in pesticide use, and about whether GMOs will really achieve what their backers say they will given the distributional inequities in world food markets. Right-wingers want to see more market diversity and believe that food prices and production levels can be improved through economic (market) changes rather than technological magic bullets; left-wingers think that the primary reason for world hunger is mal-distribution and not weak production.

In my opinion the “frankenstein foods” stuff and health concerns, and ecological worries, are primarily a gloss over these deep-seated and real concerns about inequity and inefficiency in our food markets. But there is no way that the big agribusinesses are going to be interested in debating distributional justice in a world market whose inequities deliver them huge profits, so they and their media friends make sure the debate remains firmly focused on narrow health and scientific concerns that can be easily dismissed. This in turn forces opponents of GMO to resort to weak scientific arguments within this restricted domain, rather than the broader issues of food security and inequality, or systemic farming practices that are clearly damaging the environment and which GMO crops will not necessarily improve.

In my opinion, if GMOs were around at the time of the potato famine, their backers would be claiming that the potato famine could be solved by a blight-resistant crop. Opponents of such an extravagant move would point out (rightly) that the famine is caused by maldistribution and colonialism, but their complaints would be dismissed as Chartist rabble-rousing. So then, not able to debate on the real issue, they would be forced into debating the issue as framed by the GMO backers: as a conflict between food safety and famine. Of course, history tells us that the potato famine was a political issue, not a technological one. Given its political origins, it’s unlikely that a GMO solution would have worked.

What is different with malnutrition today?

The Underpants Gnome thinking of the pro-GMO lobby

In my view the pro-GMO crowd are infected with a type of Underpants Gnome style of thinking. This thinking goes like this:

  1. Invent technologically advanced food
  2. ?
  3. Solve world hunger

This is not how the international food system works. A good example of this style of thinking is in my old post about GMOs, where I explained in detail why Golden Rice is not the panacaea its backers claim it to be, but my interlocutor continued to argue that Golden Rice would somehow solve Vitamin A Deficiency against all the evidence.

Malnutrition in the modern world has several inter-related causes, and a lot of them have nothing to do with an absence of food. Diarrhoea and unimproved drinking water lead to stunting and malnutrition even where food is abundant, as does poor diet and insufficient breastfeeding. Many low- and middle-income countries are experiencing simultaneous epidemics of obesity and under-nutrition, primarily due to inequality within and between nations, and again often related to open defecation (in South Asia) and unimproved water. Where malnutrition is directly related to an absence of food the causes are often either war and conflict (e.g. South Sudan) or maldistribution of food. Much of the food produced in some low- and middle-income farming communities is shipped out to the rich world to feed meat crops, and many countries devote a large amount of their productive land to cash crops for export, not to food crops for local production.

None of these problems will be solved by GMOs. Availability of drought-resistant crops won’t save South Sudanese families in refugee camps due to war; Roundup Ready corn won’t reduce diarrhoea in countries of sub-Saharan Africa with polluted water sources; improving the production of plantains won’t reduce stunting if the cause of stunting is inadequate breastfeeding and poor nutritional choices in countries like Ghana or Zambia where food sources are readily available but stunting still common. Increased production of wheat in the USA for feedlots won’t help reduce poverty in Africa.

Yet solving world hunger and improving the lives of poor farmers is one of the most often cited benefits of GMOs. To me this is evidence that the pro-GMO lobby – especially the scientific leftists and moderate right wing commentators who most strongly attack the environmental movement on this – are using the same motivated reasoning as their opponents. Despite the abundant evidence that malnutrition is easily fixed through infrastructure changes and shifts in the international food economy, backers of GMOs want to focus on their magic bullet argument for solving an ages-old problem through modern technology. The “green revolution” of the past 30 years has failed to solve the problem of world hunger, but they think another 10 years of further green revolutions will make all the difference. This is not scientific thinking, any more than claiming flounder genes in tomatoes will kill you.

I have yet to see any evidence that the pro-GMO lobby have seriously taken on the real causes of malnutrition and poor nutrition in low- and middle-income nations, and I have never seen any supporter of GMO argue that they won’t improve food security in these countries, or that changes to the international food system are more important than work on GMOs. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the environmental and consumer choice movement’s silly and bogus claims about health risks. I think this is because they are suffering from the same motivated reasoning as their opponents: they are presenting the world hunger argument because the real, underlying reason for these GMOs – to improve corporate profits – is not something they can talk about. But their arguments about world hunger are woefully weak, and they have to cleave closely to Underpants Gnome logic in order to defend a technology they genuinely believe is safe and beneficial.

Is the anti-GMO movement different to the anti-AGW movement?

Often the anti-GMO movement is pointed to as the left’s AGW denialism. I think this is fundamentally flawed for two reasons: first, because the underlying issue the left is attacking, food security and global inequality, is real and serious; and second, because of the difference in origins of the movements. Anti-GMO ideas, like anti-vaccination ideas, arose largely organically in response to real concerns about the product itself. AGW denialism, on the other hand, was created by a small group of activists endowed with money from Big Tobacco and energy interests, and is maintained by these interests in order to slow down essential responses. I think this difference is important, because it speaks to the fundamental honesty of the intellectual underpinnnings of the movement. Anti-GMO and anti-vaccination groups have genuinely-held concerns about the product they are attacking, and though these may be real and serious or may be misguided and ignorant, they are intellectually honest in their assessment of these risks. On the other hand, the monied interests at the heart of the complex web of AGW denialist organizations are fundamentally dishonest – they know that the science is against them, but deploy deliberate techniques to poison the science well in order to support their interests. I don’t think you can say someone is anti-science if they are honestly misusing weak science to defend a position that might have developed from other, unspoken concerns; but I do think someone is anti-science if they are funding a movement with the specific intent of attacking science and scientists to protect their financial interests. The idea that these monied interests know the science is against them but fund attacks on it anyway might seem conspiratorial, but we know this is what Big Tobacco did for about 30 years, when they knew tobacco caused cancer but attacked any public scientific studies that showed this – and Big Tobacco was behind the original AGW deniers.

Although I’m not fully convinced by my own thesis yet, I think the anti-AGW movement is unique in the pantheon of modern “anti-science” movements (anti-nuclear, anti-vax, anti-GMO, anti-fluoridation, anti-AGW) for being a created movement, rather than one that grew organically out of real (though often misguided) concerns about the product in question. This isn’t to say that there aren’t people with a financial interest in these other movements (see e.g. Andrew Wakefield); but the anti-AGW movement is unique for the level of corporate funding it has received, and the order in which the money-making grifters and the concerned public figures arose. Regardless of whether its origins are important, I think it is distinct from those other movements in that there is no valid underlying concern that is being blown out of proportion in this movement. There is no nuclear waste issue, no side-effects issue, no global inequality issue underlying this movement that can get the fixation of some lonely blogger who starts a movement – just a need to protect the profits of a particularly dirty sector of the economy. While the motivated reasoning of an anti-vaxxer might be “I’m concerned about the side-effects of these drugs, so I’m going to minimize the danger of the diseases and write a children’s book about how great measles is,” the motivated reasoning of an anti-AGW funder is “I need to protect my industry from mitigation efforts so I’m going to fund multiple organizations to attack the science.”

Those are fundamentally different things, and confusing these movements doesn’t help us deal with either.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 60 other followers