Meat Life


Warboss Wilde says: To lose one brexit minister may be considered unfortunate; but to lose both looks like carelessness

Tonight I was walking home from kickboxing thinking about the pickle Theresa May finds herself completely unable to resolve, and I really wanted to feel a little sympathy for her, even though she’s not a Tory. This is a state-educated woman who basically stepped in to clean up the mess the Bullingdon Boys made, and at every turn she has faced these useless red-faced Etonian babies throwing their toys back out of the pram and spitting the dummy, bawling and squealing because they can’t have their roast pork and face-fuck it too. It really smacks of the hired help being punished for doing her job, and I want to feel some sympathy for the terrible situation that she (and much more poignantly, all Britons) faces. But I can’t, because she would have a lot more bargaining space if she hadn’t arrogantly assumed she could beat Labour, and called an election she didn’t need to in order to do a blatant power grab. This duly backfired, and now she – and by extension all of Britain – are held in thrall to the whims of the DUP, who hold the balance of power and are clearly a bunch of certified religious nutjobs.

Somehow while I was ambling through the narrow streets of Koenji this reminded me of the time before the Good Friday agreement, and a common argument that was made back then against the idea of a united Ireland: That if Ireland united, the protestants of Northern Ireland would be forced against their will to live in a backwards country ruled by religious nutjobs. This argument pretended to be a reasonable centrist (or even left wing) argument. It accepted the validity of the nationalist cause, but argued that a large part of the Northern Irish community was protestant, and if the nationalists got their justice for past colonialism and oppression, this would mean that protestants – who were all loyalists – would be forced to accept living under the Roman Catholic leadership of Ireland, who at the time were religious nutjobs. In this argument often Sinn Fein weren’t first and foremost socialists, but were actually closet creationists. But even putting aside Sinn Fein’s loyalties, people were urged to reject unionist politics on the basis that it would force protestants to live under the christian equivalent of Sharia law, in an economically backward country[1].

Well, isn’t it funny how times have changed? In the 20 years since the Good Friday agreement Ireland’s economy boomed, it became a modern and open European country, legalized gay marriage and abortion, and now has a child of migrants as its president. It has a climate change policy, and recently had an inquiry into abuses by the catholic church. Meanwhile Northern Ireland is ruled by a bunch of creationist climate-change denying dipshits, who are holding the entire UK to ransom over the possibility that their little fiefdom might be treated mildly differently to the rest of the UK, and threatening to bring back the troubles (which, let us not forget, their older members were likely deeply involved in). Northern Ireland still doesn’t have legal same-sex marriage, while the rest of the UK and Ireland do. Can anyone look at the two countries now and conclude that unionism would have been worse for Northern Ireland’s protestants than staying in the UK, and being forced into the christian equivalent of Sharia law by the DUP?

Another, perhaps inverted version of this way that history washes away all the too-comfortable positions of its ideologues is the UK miner’s strike. I was in the UK when this happened and even though I was young it was a terrifying and all-consuming political event. I do not remember anyone ever discussing the strike in terms of climate change or clean air, only in terms of worker’s rights, industrial struggle and nationalization. The Tories blatantly lured Scargill’s union into striking in order to break them, and to break the back of a powerful force in the British left, to set the stage for the privatization drive of the late 1980s; the union and the left defended itself on these grounds. It’s worth remembering that the same police who committed violence on the picket lines also fabricated lies about the Hillsborough disaster, and were in Jimmy Saville’s pocket. These were evil times. But when you look back on what happened, for all the evil and corruption it unleashed on the UK, the closure of the mines was essential for the UK’s environment and for preventing climate change. Had they not closed, the UK’s air would remain filthy, northern children would be dying from asthma and growing up stunted, and the UK would be completely unable to meet its climate change commitments. It’s even possible to imagine that Scargill, emboldened by defeating the Tories, would have led his union to greater power in the Labour party, and that in the early 1990s they would have become climate change denialists. By now of course the closure of the coal industry would have become imperative, but it’s easy to see how this debate would unfold now: poisoned by Trumpism, with the utilities fighting against alternative energy, the Miner’s union would become a proto-fascist body, spreading climate change denialism and embracing some kind of UKIP-style demagogue in order to protect their patch. The miner’s strike was a terrible time for the north, the Tories were cruel and showed the worst side of the industrial ruling class, and the corruption and police violence unleashed by it took 20 years to be put back under control (and in some ways still isn’t); but if it hadn’t happened, it would be happening now, with scary Trumpist and brexit overtones.

History has a weird way of laying waste to ideologies.

 


fn1: I’m not here trying to say that the people making this argument didn’t also make the point that e.g. you shouldn’t give in to terrorists, there was never any colonialism to start with, only the IRA killed people, etc. Just that I remember this argument a lot, and often as a kind of “okay so let’s say we ignore the terrorism for now, even then we have the problem that …” It was a kind of “even if there was no terrorism, this unionist idea would still be terrible because… ” argument.

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When I was a teenager I remember my father as a difficult man with frustratingly retrograde opinions, which were typical of men of his nationality (British) and his generation (born just before WW2). He was a typesetter, a classic tradesman’s job from the post-war years, and he had the kind of views on race, gender, sexuality and social issues that you might expect of a man of this background and this age. He could say shocking things about non-white people, about women, or about any man who had not followed the same straight and narrow path from school to work that he had done. But his views were mellowed by his love of reading, and by a vague sense of groundedness about how the world actually worked. So for example he would say racist things about Aboriginal people, while also recognizing that they had been treated poorly by white colonizers; he could recognize the basic humanity of non-white people while believing basically that the races shouldn’t mix, and that his race (in particular the “English”) was superior. In my memory of my teenage years, he could say bad things but race issues were not always at the forefront of his mind. If welfare fraud or racial stereotypes or “young people today” came up in conversation he would be difficult, but somehow he still seemed to be navigating the world as it was, despite his limited education and because of his love of reading. My father introduced me to a lot of terrible ideas about Aborigines and women, but he also introduced me to National Geographic magazines, liberal views on sex work and drugs, Erich von Danniken[1] and archaeology more generally, and he always supported my interest in science, geography and reading.

When I was 17 my father lost his job and left me behind in rural Australia to return to the UK, where presumably he thought he might still be able to find work. Sadly a fifty-something typesetter in the late 1980s had no chance of finding new work, since his job had basically been automated away in the space of five years of rapid computer growth, so he ended up living on benefits in a trailer park in Devon. And over the years since he returned to the UK he went from being the infuriatingly backward but still-reachable uneducated man of my childhood to an out-and-out bigot, hating anyone and everyone who was different to him, full of bile and rage at the world and terrified of all the possibilities in it. He went from someone who worked alongside Indian and Caribbean men in industry to a scared old man who refused to visit London because it had “too many foreigners”; from a man who recommended Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to an ignorant climate change denialist; from a migrant in Australia to a man who hated all migrants and believed there were millions of “illegal asylum seekers” living in the UK; from a proud working man to a benefit fraudster who sat in the mobile home he was illegally buying with government rental support complaining about European benefit fraudsters coming to the UK to “abuse our generosity”; from a man who took pride in his nation’s role in resisting the Nazis, to a believer in every sinister lie he heard about Jews, gypsies, communists and gays. Over 30 sad years he became the Racist Uncle from central casting, terrified of the world and angry at everyone who was not an old, bitter man like him.

It was not just my father either: everyone else in my own and the older generations in my family became the same over those 30 years. Before I returned from a brief period working in the UK to Japan, I remember sitting in my grandmother’s living room while she told me that “them black people will get what’s coming to them when Cameron’s elected”, and my uncle warned me “don’t argue with me, sunshine” while he spat bile and invective over the EU – while he was resting in the UK in between work placements in the Europe. Of the four men in my generation or above who I still know alive and living in the UK, two of them had their best career opportunities in Europe, and one of those got his first wife there.  Yet there they sat, hurling hatred and scorn at everyone connected with the European project, at black people, foreigners, young women – anyone who wasn’t like them.

This kind of hateful bile was a constant of my visits to my family in south west England, Brexit country. But there was one other constant every time I went down there: on every tea table, or clipped and stuck to the wall, or in the recycling bin (that they hated), or left scattered around to finish the crosswords: The Daily Mail. And from every bitter, pinched and angry mouth: “The news tells me that the gypsies are now …” “Which news?” “The Daily Mail!” Every opinion, every vicious and vengeful bit of hate speech, every tenuous or blatantly untrue “fact” they used to justify every one of their horrible, scornful opinions was dragged straight from the lying, filthy pages of that lying, filthy rag. Every day it headlined with some story about gypsies or travelers stealing land; or about hordes of “unregistered asylum seekers” who were getting free homes and cars and money while good deserving white people lived in the streets; or about how homeless white people were filthy pigs who brought it on themselves. Every day they bought it and read it and consumed its unfiltered hatred, mainlining discrimination and scorn to the point that my father, disabled by polio at the age of 5, would place his free disability parking sticker on the window of his car while ranting about some article from the Daily Mail and sneering at all these stupid young people who demand their human rights be respected. This man, whose entire twilit years were coddled by disability pensions and free healthcare and physiotherapy and special support for his disability, would mouth that phrase “their human rights” with such bitter rage that you would think he was talking about satan’s ballbag itself. But he wasn’t, he was speaking about himself, spurting out self-hatred and bitterness that he had been mainlining for 30 years from that disgusting, stupid rag, the Daily Mail.

So it was with a sense of profound disappointment that I read this morning in the Guardian that Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail for 26 of those 30 years that it was slowly turning my father from a normal human being to a rage-infested muppet, has received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Editors, presented to him by the Editor of that other esteemed vessel of white men’s hate, the Daily Telegraph.

Some achievement. The newspaper most famous for its support of Oswald Mosley and Hitler turned into the delivery device for weaponized hatred, straight into the minds of uneducated men like my father who didn’t know better. By the time Dacre’s tenure was over he had managed to get UKIP national support, and bring on the Brexit he longed for that will destroy the economic security the Mail‘s own readers crave. This newspaper turned a nation of mild-mannered, stoic shopkeepers into a nation of rabid xenophobes and bilious haters, intent on kicking out anyone who was different in any way, or just plain kicking them if they couldn’t kick them out. Even on the Iraq war, the one thing the newspaper ever got right, it only opposed the war because it wanted to pull up the drawbridge and leave the rest of the world to burn, confident in the idea that Britain doesn’t need anyone and that any kind of social connection or sharing is weak, wrong and bad for the English. This newspaper poisoned the minds of a generation, so that it could get Britain out of Europe and damn the working people of Britain to a generation of peonage in service to its rich owner and his rich friends.

The Daily Mail did this by combining a tight writing style that perfectly appealed to the poorly-educated men and women of the war generation and the baby boom, appealing to their worst instincts and their colonialist nostalgic, and boosting that nascent racism and nostalgia into inflamed hatred and terror of any change. There is no policy the Daily Mail has supported in the past 30 years that was intended to benefit the lives of ordinary working or middle-class Britons, and the editor and his rich buddies knew that, so they coated every dodgy policy they pushed in the sweet and intoxicating icing of racism, hatred, and self-aggrandizing scorn. They pushed and amplified that scorn and racism, and used it to wrap every new and discriminatory policy they could, as they pushed Britain towards plutocracy. The final poison pill they tricked the elderly population of Britain into swallowing was Brexit, the bitter medicine that will strangle their grandchildrens’ futures. And the visionary who conceived of this horrible 30 year con receives a medal for his efforts.

In the future our grandchildren will look back on these 30 years as the last chance humanity had to change its direction. They will see that even as the planet went onto the boil, and inequality consumed the social order we had been building, a small gang of thieving plutocrats seized the media and politics and used their power to make sure no meaningful action was taken to turn society onto a different, better course. They will see how the many possible future pathways we could have taken to a better world were blocked off one by by these rich gangsters, until at the end of that 30 years we were left with a very small number of possible pathways to follow that would not end in civilization collapse and ruin. And then they will note that the people who spent 30 years heading off every road to a better future were given a prize for their efforts. Paul Dacre may be able to take that prize to his gold-plated grave, but the children of the future won’t deem him worthy of anything except scorn and ridicule. The same will apply to all those other titans of industry and media masters who brought us to this ruinous pass: all the newspaper editors who supported the Iraq war and unleashed Isis on a middle east already struggling under inequality and climate change; Rupert Murdoch, who unleashed Fox news on America and turned it from hope to hatred; Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens and all the other idiot centrist both-siders who twiddled while their nation slouched into nihilistic fascism, and put nazis and climate change denialists on the precious space of their editorial pages because they felt that “ideological balance” was more important than basic decency or a future for their children. All these people will be remembered as enemies not just of the people they were supposed to serve, but of human civilization. Remember the day this man got this prize, and the people who gave it to him. Some day there will have to be an accounting for the great evil being done in this time by our parents’ generation, and it might as well start with this man, who poisoned my parents minds against their own childrens’ futures, and turned a generation of hard-working, decent people into terrified haters. He will get away with what he did, but history will reward him with infamy.


fn1: I am not a believer!

 

On Saturday 700,000 people marched in London in support of a people’s vote on Brexit, basically demanding a do-over on the stupid referendum that brought the UK to its current terrible pass. This makes the march comparable in size to the march against the Iraq war in 2003, and reading about it I was struck by the similarities between what is happening now and the events that led up to that disgusting decision. The Brexit referendum was a rash decision by a formerly very popular politician that was driven forward by a campaign of lies and deceit, full of transparent falsehoods like the 350 million pound NHS lies. Now, just like then, the media have openly supported Brexit or offered only lukewarm opposition, and many in the Tory media have used accusations of treachery and cowardice against their opponents. Last year the Daily Mail had its “enemies of the people” headline, and in 2002 Paul Kelly, editor of the Australian, was touring the country calling anyone who opposed the Iraq War a coward and a traitor. Then, as now, we had shady foreign power involvement in Britain’s political decisions – in 2003 it was clear that Blair had already signed up to the war regardless of public opinion, and in 2018 we’re discovering that the Brexit campaign was funded by shady overseas money, probably Russian, and almost certainly is driven by Tory politicians’ desire to protect their rich backers’ tax havens and money laundering activities from next year’s EU legal changes. In 2018 just as in 2002 we see politicians and media personalities heaping scorn on experts – in 2002 this led to the shady death of a WMD expert, and the BBC being forced into a humiliating apology for reporting it fairly, while in 2018 we see politicians openly dismissing any and every attempt to give a proper warning of what is coming. This leads to this horrible feeling – in 2018 just as in 2003 – that you know exactly what is going to happen, you can predict all the terrible things that are going to come of it, and yet still the political class is choosing to drive their train straight into the crash that everyone is warning them about. Just as in 2003, this rally will show the politicians clearly that that they are on the wrong path, but they will ignore it and make this terrible mistake regardless.

So it’s worth looking at the consequences of the Iraq war for the British labour party, because the party is still shackled to that mistake. The Iraq war sunk Blair as a politician, and within 5 years he was out. It completely ruined Labour’s reputation and forced them into years of introspection and chaos. Blair took the country to war in order to please a constituency – liberal interventionists, neo-cons, and “sensible centrists” – that had very little respect from Labour’s traditional backers, and as a result he created years of friction within the party apparatus. This ultimately led to the changes in the relationship between leadership and membership that brought Corbyn to power. For years after their election loss, senior figures in Labour were being pilloried by the membership for their mistakes, and opposition to the war was one of the central tools by which Corbyn was able to win the leadership – everyone else was tainted by their support, and as the catastrophe of ISIS unfolded in the Levant, Corbyn was able to stand tall as the only member of the Labour party with any principles. I have no doubt (although no evidence) that Blair’s decision to throw traditional Labour constituencies like the peace movement, supporters of Palestine, disarmament activists, and non-interventionists, under the bus in order to please an ultimately incredibly unpopular American republican caused many of them to abandon the party in disgust. I think this is part of the reason that Labour lost Scotland, a big part of the reason for the growth of Lib Dem support, and also part of the reason that Labour struggled to fight off UKIP in the mid 2010s. Nobody weds themselves to a party with 100% commitment, and it is possible for a party to abuse the trust that its constituencies give it. Labour’s loss in 2010 and the subsequent ruin of the UK economy at the hands of a bunch of pig-fucking Tory economic wreckers is at least partly due to the decision to screw their own constituencies in this way. Even today, traditional supporters of Labour on the left are much more circumspect in their support of it than they used to be, and although some centrist wankers will try to claim that this is because Corbyn turns people off, it is certainly also to do with the way those traditional supporters were alienated in the rush to murder a million Iraqis.

The same will happen to the Tories after Brexit. The entire fiasco came about because Cameron wanted to please a bunch of UKIP-voting idiots who were not core Tory constituents, and came at the expense of his core supporters in the home counties and business. Senior Tories disparaged the kind of conservative, careful experts in and outside government who warned them what disaster was coming, and have regularly and repeatedly acted in a way that alienates their business backers. The original vote was barely democratic, it’s now clear that it was gamed by foreign money to benefit a small claque of extremely rich money launderers, and it is almost impossible to find a sizable group of people in the UK who will benefit from it. Yet the Tories push on to disaster, and I bet that today even as this 700,000 people gather to remind them of their democratic responsibilities, senior Tories will dismiss them as unrepresentative. Next year Brexit will happen, the UK’s economy will crash, everything will go to hell, and suddenly everyone will remember that this was a uniquely Tory disaster. The next election will see them tossed out on their ear, and for a decade the only question asked of any aspirant to power in that party will be “did you vote for this shit?” The Tory reputation on trade and international diplomacy will be wrecked. The only question remains – what kind of insurgent will rise up through the party to replace the idiots who wrought this disaster on the British people? Will it be a traditional Tory equivalent of Corbyn, harking back to the original roots of the party and disdaining the modernising and populist elements that crashed it? Or will it be something darker and more sinister, a nativist or fascist tough-love authoritarian? In theory this coming disaster should put an end to nativism in British politics, as everyone who voted for UKIP and Brexit comes to terms with the economic ruin they left their children. But will this be what happens?

Because there is one big difference between what happened after the Iraq war, and now. Labour has always faced a hostile press who are willing to blame them for every problem Britain faces, while the Tories have an easy run from every arm of the media. After they bring the country to ruin, will the media’s love of pretending that their intellectually bankrupt economic ideas are “sound management” finally end? Will the media recognize the Tories for the traitors and economic wreckers they really are? Or will they simply put in double shifts to blame the entire fiasco on Labour and foreigners, and work extra hard to launder the Tories’ reputation? And in doing so, what new horrors will bubble up from the dark and sinister hinterlands of British conservatism, to replace the architects of this foolish and stupid policy? By rights Brexit and its fallout should be the end of the Tories, just as the Iraq war was the end of Blairism and the rich-appeasing faux leftism of 1990s Labour. If there is any justice these people will be cast into the political wilderness and their party reduced to a foolish rump. But with the support of liars and scandal-mongers like the Daily Mail, perhaps the Tories will be able to reinvent themselves in an even uglier, more perverted form.

Let us hope not, for the good of what will be left of Britain after 2019.

And let me tell you something
Before you go taking a walk in my world,
…you better take a look at the real world
Cause this ain’t no Mr. Rogers Neighborhood
Can you say “feel like shit?”
Yea maybe sometimes I do feel like shit
I ain’t happy about it, but I’d rather feel like shit
…than be full of shit!

 

There are times in life when it’s necessary to turn to the original gurus of self-righteous self-inspiration, Suicidal Tendencies. Life getting you down, you feel you can’t keep going? Crank up ST and when the boys ask you “Are you feelin’ suicidal?” yell back “I’m suicidal!” and you’ll be back on track in no time. Been meandering through some shit, making mistakes you know are your own dumb fault, and need to kick yourself back onto the straight and narrow? Gotta kill Captain Stupid is what you need. Getting played by conmen who play on your better nature, maybe take you for a ride using your religious impulses? Then you can crank up Send Me Your Money and be reminded that “Here comes another con hiding behind a collar / His only God is the almighty dollar / He ain’t no prophet, he ain’t no healer / He’s just a two bit goddamn money stealer.” That’ll get your cynical radar working again! But the Suicidals’ most useful refrain, the one that applies most often and most powerfully in this shit-stained and terrible world, is the imprecation at the beginning of the second half of their skate power classic, You Can’t Bring Me Down:

Just cause you don’t understand what’s going on
…don’t mean it don’t make no sense
And just cause you don’t like it,
…don’t mean it ain’t no good

This pure reminder of the power of bullshit over mortal men came to me today when I began to delve into the background of the latest Sokal Hoax that has been visited on the social sciences. I’d like to explore this hoax, consider how it would have panned out in other disciplines, make a few criticisms, and discuss the implications of some of their supposedly preposterous papers. So as Mikey would say – bring it on home, brother doc!

The Latest Hoax

The latest hoax comes with its own report, a massive online screed that describes what they did, why they did it, how they did it and what happened. Basically they spent a year preparing a bunch of papers that they submitted to a wide range of social studies journals in a field they refer to as “grievance studies”, which they define by saying

we have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.

This definition of the field is easily the vaguest and most hand-wavey way to select a broad set of targets I have ever seen, and it’s also obviously intended to be perjorative. In fact their whole project could perhaps be described as having the “common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail” – starting with their definition of the culture.

The authors admit that they’re not experts in the field, but they spent a year studying the content, methods and style of the field, then wrote papers that they submitted to journals under fake names (one real professor gave them permission to use his name) from fake institutions. They submitted 20 papers over the year, writing one every 9 days, and got 7 published, one with a commendation; the other 13 were repeatedly rejected or still under review when somehow their cover was blown and they had to reveal the hoax.

The basic problem with the hoax

The papers they submitted are listed at the website and are pretty hilarious, and some of the papers that were published were obviously terrible (though they may have been interesting reading). Two of the papers they submitted – one on dog parks and one on immersive pornography – used fake data, i.e. academic misconduct, and two were plagiarized parts of Mein Kampf, with some words replaced to reverse them into a feminist meaning of some kind (I guess by replacing “Jew” with “men” or something).

Submitting an article based on fraudulent data is, let’s be clear, academic misconduct, and it is also extremely difficult for peer reviewers to catch. Sure it’s easy in retrospect to say “that data was fake” but when peer reviewers get an article they don’t get the raw data, they have to judge based on the summaries in the paper. This is how the Wakefield paper that led to the collapse in MMR vaccination got published in the Lancet – Wakefield made up his data, and it was impossible for the peer reviewers to know that. The STAPP controversy in Japan – which led to several scientists being disgraced and one suicide – involved doctored images that were only discovered when a research assistant blew the whistle. Medicine is full of these controversies in which data is faked or manipulated and only discovered after a huge amount of detective work, or after a junior staff member destroys their career blowing the whistle. Submitting fraudulent work to peer review – a process which at heart depends on good faith assumptions all around – is guaranteed to be successful. It’s not an indictment of anyone to do this.

Submitting a word-replaced Mein Kampf is incredibly tacky, tasteless and juvenile. Most academics don’t read Mein Kampf, and it’s not a necessary text for most sociological disciplines. If the journal doesn’t use plagiarism software or the peer reviewers don’t, then this is undoubtedly going to slide through, and while much of Mein Kampf is pernicious nonsense a lot of it is actually pretty straightforward descriptions of political strategies and contemporary events. Indeed the chapter they used (chapter 12 of volume 1) is really about organizing and political vision[1], with only passing references to Jewish perfidy – it’s the kind of thing that could be rendered pretty bland with a word replace. But from the description in their report one might think they had successfully published an exterminationist screed. I’m sure the hoaxers thought they were being super clever doing this, but they weren’t. Detecting plagiarism is a journal’s responsibility more than a peer reviewer’s, and not all journals can. It’s not even clear if the plagiarized text would have been easily detected by google searches of fragments if there was a suitable level of word replacement.

So several of their hoax papers were highlighting problems with the peer review process in general, not with anything to do with social studies. Of the remainder, some were substantially rewritten during review, and a lot were rejected or sent back for major revision. While people on twitter are claiming that “many papers” were accepted, in fact the most obviously problematic ones were rejected. For example the paper that recommended mistreating white students, ignoring their work and dismissing their efforts, to teach them about white privilege, was rejected three times, but people on twitter are claiming that the treatment of this paper shows some kind of problematic morality by the peer reviewers.

The next problem with the hoax is that the authors have misrepresented good-spirited, kind-hearted attempts at taking their work seriously with uncritical acceptance of their work. Consider this peer review that they report[2] on a paper on whether men commit sexual violence by masturbating to fantasies of real women (more on this below):

I was also trying to think through examples of how this theoretical argument has implications in romantic consensual relationships. Through the paper, I was thinking about the rise of sexting and consensual pornographic selfies between couples, and how to situate it in your argument. I think this is interesting because you could argue that even if these pictures are shared and contained within a consensual private relationship, the pictures themselves are a reaction to the idea that the man may be thinking about another woman while masturbating. The entire industry of boudoir photography, where women sometimes have erotic pictures taken for their significant other before deploying overseas in the military for example, is implicitly a way of saying, “if you’re going to masturbate, it might as well be to me.” Essentially, even in consensual monogamous relationships, masturbatory fantasies might create some level of coercion for women. You mention this theme on page 21 in terms of the consumption of non-consensual digital media as metasexual-rape, but I think it is interesting to think through these potentially more subtle consensual but coercive elements as well

This is a genuine, good-faith effort to engage with the authors’ argument, and to work out its implications. But this peer reviewer, who has clearly devoted considerable time to engaging with and attempting to improve this paper, now discovers that he or she was being punked the whole time, and the authors were laughing at her naivete for thinking their idea should be taken seriously. He or she did this work for free, as part of an industry where we all give freely of our time to help each other improve their ideas, but actually this good faith effort was just being manipulated and used as part of a cheap publicity stunt by some people who have an axe to grind with an entire, entirely vaguely-defined branch of academia. And note also that after all this peer reviewer’s work, this paper was still rejected – but the hoaxers are using it as ammunition for their claim that “grievance studies” takes preposterous ideas seriously. Is that fair, or reasonable? And is it ethical to conduct experiments on other academics without consent?

I would be interested to know, incidentally, if their little prank was submitted to institutional review before they did it. If I tried to pull this shitty little move in my field, without putting it through an IRB, I think my career would be toast.

But there is another problem with this hoax, which I want to dwell on in a little more detail: some of the papers actually covered interesting topics of relevance in their field, and the fact that the hoaxers think their theories were preposterous doesn’t mean they were actually preposterous. It’s at this point that the Suicidals’ most powerful rule applies: Just because you don’t understand what’s going on, don’t mean it don’t make sense.

The theoretical value of some of the hoax papers

Why don’t men use dildos for masturbation?

Let us consider first the paper the authors refer to as “Dildos”, actual title Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use. In this paper the hoaxers ask why men don’t use dildos for masturbation, and suggest it is out of a fear of homosexuality, and transphobia. The hoaxers say that they wrote this paper

To see if journals will accept ludicrous arguments if they support (unfalsifiable) claims that common (and harmless) sexual choices made by straight men are actually homophobic, transphobic, and anti-feminist

But is this argument ludicrous? Why don’t men use dildos more? After all, we know that men can obtain sexual pleasure from anal insertion, through prostate stimulation. There is a genre of porn in which this happens (for both cismen and transgender women), and it is a specialty service provided by sex workers, but it is not generally commonly practiced in heterosexual intercourse or male masturbation. Why? Men can be pretty bloody-minded about sexual pleasure, so why don’t they do this more? There could be many reasons, such as that it’s impractical, or it’s dirty, or (for couple sex) that women have a problem with penetrating men, or because men see sex toys as fundamentally femininized objects – but it could also be out of a residual homophobia, right? This seems prima facie an interesting theory that could be explored. For example, the only mainstream movie I can think of where a woman penetrates a man is Deadpool, and so it should be fairly easy to study reactions to that movie and analyze them for homophobia (reddit should be pretty good for this, or MRA websites). Understanding the reasons for this might offer new ways for men to enjoy sex, and a new diversity of sex roles for women, which one presumes is a good thing. So why is this argument ludicrous?

Why do men visit Hooters?

Another article that was published was referred to by the hoaxers as “Hooters”, actual title An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant. The article argues that men visit “breastaurants” to assert male dominance and enjoy a particular form of “authentic masculinity,” presumably in contrast to the simpler motive of wanting to be able to look at tits. The authors say they did this article to

see if journals will publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women and will accept very shoddy qualitative methodology and ideologically-motivated interpretations which support this

But again, this is basically an interesting question. Why do men go to restaurants with scantily-clad women? They could eat at a normal restaurant and then watch porn, or just read playboy while they eat. Or they could eat and then go to a strip club. So why do they need to be served in restaurants by breasty girls? And why are some men completely uninterested in these environments, even though they’re seriously into tits? The answer that this is something about performing a type of masculinity, and needing women as props for some kind of expression of dominance, makes sense intuitively (which doesn’t mean it’s right). It’s particularly interesting that this article is being presented as preposterous by the hoaxers now just as debate is raging about why Brett Kavanaugh insisted in sharing his non-consensual sexual encounters with other men, while Bill Cosby did his on the down-low. It’s almost as if Bill and Brett had different forms of masculine dominance to express! Forms of masculine dominance that need to be explored and understood! By academics in social studies, for example!

Also note here that the tone of the hoaxers’ explanation suggests that the idea that visiting breasty restaurants is problematic is obviously wrong and everyone believes them about this. In fact, many Americans of good faith from many different backgrounds don’t consider visiting Hooters to be a particularly savoury activity, and you probably won’t convince your girlfriend you’re not an arsehole by telling her she’s wrong to “problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women” in the context of your having blown your weekly entertainment budget on a trip to Hooters. Understanding why she has problematized this behavior might help you to get laid the following week!

Do men do violence to women when they fantasize about them?

The hoaxers wrote an article that they refer to as “Masturbation”, real title Rubbing One Out: Defining Metasexual Violence of Objectification Through Nonconsensual Masturbation, which was ultimately rejected from Sociological Theory after peer review. I think this was the most interesting of their fake articles, covering a really interesting topic, with real ethical implications. The basic idea here is that when men fantasize about women without women’s consent (for example when masturbating) they’re committing a kind of sexual violence, even though the woman in question doesn’t know about this. They wrote this article to test

To see if the definition of sexual violence can be expanded into thought crimes

But this way of presenting their argument (“Thought crimes”) and the idea that the definition of sexual violence hasn’t already been expanded to thought crimes, is deeply dangerous and stupid. To deal with the second point first, in many jurisdictions anime or manga that depicts sex with children is banned. But in these comics nobody has been harmed. So yes, sexual violence has been extended to include thought crimes. But if we don’t expand the definition of sexual violence into thought crimes we run into some very serious legal and ethical problems. Consider the crime of upskirting, in which men take secret videos up women’s skirts and put them onto porn sites for other men to masturbate to. In general the upskirted woman has no clue she’s been filmed, and the video usually doesn’t show her face so it’s not possible for her to be identified. It is, essentially, a victimless crime. Yet we treat upskirting as a far more serious crime than just surreptitiously taking photos of people, which we consider to be rude but not criminal. This is because we consider upskirting to be a kind of sexual violence exactly equivalent to the topic of this article! This is also true for revenge porn, which is often public shaming of a woman that destroys her career, but doesn’t have to be. If you share videos of your ex-girlfriend naked with some other men, and she never finds out about it and your friends don’t publicize those pictures, so she is not affected in any way, everyone would agree that you have still done a terrible thing to her, and that this constitutes sexual violence of some kind. I’ve no doubt that in many jurisdictions this revenge porn is a crime even though the woman targeted has not suffered in any way. Indeed, even if a man just shows his friend a video of a one night stand, and the friend doesn’t know the woman, will never meet her, and has no way to harm her, this is still considered to be a disgusting act. So the fundamental principle involved here is completely sound. This is why porn is made – because the women are being paid to allow strangers to watch them have sex. When people sext each other they are obviously clearly giving explicit permission to the recipient to use the photo for sexual gratification (this is why it is called sexting). Couples usually don’t sext each other until they trust each other precisely because they don’t want the pictures shared so that people they don’t know can masturbate to them without their consent. We also typically treat men who steal women’s underwear differently to men who steal other men’s socks at the coin laundry – I think the reason for this is obvious! So the basic principle at the heart of this paper is solid. Yet the hoaxers treat the idea underlying much of our modern understanding of revenge porn and illicit sexual photography as a joke.

I think the basic problem here is that while the hoaxers have mimicked the style of the field, and understand which theoretical questions to target and write about, they fundamentally don’t understand the field, and so things they consider to be ludicrous are actually important and real questions in the topic, with important and real consequences. They don’t understand it, but it actually makes sense. And now they’ve created this circus of people sneering at how bad the papers were, when actually they were addressing decent topics and real questions.

How would this have happened in other fields?

So if we treat these three papers as serious recognizing that two were published, and then discount the paper with fradulent data (dog park) and the paper that was plagiarized (feminist mein kampf) we are left with just three papers that were published that might be genuinely bullshit, out of 20. That’s 15%, or 22% if you drop the plagiarized and fraudulent papers from the denominator. Sounds bad, right? But this brings us to our next big problem with this hoax: there was no control group. If I submitted 20 papers with dodgy methods and shonky reasoning to public health journals, I think I could get 15% published. Just a week or two ago I reported on a major paper in the Lancet that I think has shonky methods and reasoning, as well as poorly-gathered data, but it got major publicity and will probably adversely affect alcohol policy in future. I have repeatedly on this blog attacked papers published in the National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER) archives, which use terrible methods, poor quality data, bad reasoning and poor scientific design. Are 15% of NBER papers bullshit? I would suggest the figure is likely much higher. But we can’t compare because the authors didn’t try to hoax these fields, and as far as I know no one has ever tried to hoax them. This despite the clear and certain knowledge that the R&R paper in economics was based on a flawed model and bad reasoning, but was used to inform fiscal policy in several countries, and the basic conclusions are still believed even though it has been roundly debunked.

The absence of hoaxes (or even proper critical commentary) on other fields means that they can maintain an air of inassailability while social studies and feminist theory are repeatedly criticized for their methods and the quality of their research and peer review. This is a political project, not a scientific project, and these hoaxers have gone to great lengths to produce a salable, PR-ready attack on a field they don’t like, using a method that is itself poorly reasoned, with shonky methodology, and a lack of detailed understanding of the academic goals of the field they’re punking. They also, it should be remembered, have acted very unethically. I think the beam is in their own eye, or as the Suicidals would say:

Ah, damn, we got a lot of stupid people
Doing a lot of stupid things
Thinking a lot of stupid thoughts
And if you want to see one
Just look in the mirror

Conclusion

This hoax shouldn’t be taken seriously, and it doesn’t say anything much about the quality of research or academic editing in the field they’re criticizing. Certainly on the face of it some of the papers that were published seem pretty damning, but some of them covered real topics of genuine interest, and the hoaxers’ interpretation of the theoretical value of the work is deeply flawed. This is a PR stunt, nothing more, and it does nothing to address whatever real issues sociology and women’s studies face. Until people start genuinely developing a model for properly assessing the quality of academic work in multiple fields, with control groups and proper adjustment for confounders, in a cross-disciplinary team that fully understands the fields being critiqued, these kinds of hoaxes will remain just stupid stunts, that play on the goodwill of peer reviewers and academics for the short-term political and public benefit of the hoaxers, but for no longer benefit to the community being punked, and at the risk of considerable harm. Until a proper assessment of the quality of all disciplines is conducted, we should not waste our time punking others, but think harder about how we can improve our own.

 


fn1: I won’t link, because a lot of online texts of Mein Kampf are on super dubious websites – look it up yourself if you wish to see what the punking text was.

fn2: Revealing peer reviews is generally considered unethical, btw

Uhtred son of Uhtred, regular ale drinker, who I predict will die of injury (but will go to Valhalla, unlike you you ale-sodden wretch)

There has been some fuss in the media recently about a new study showing no level of alcohol use is safe. It received a lot of media attention (for example here), reversed a generally held belief that moderate consumption of alcohol improves health (this is even enshrined in the Greek food pyramid, which has a separate category for wine and olive oil[1]), and led to angsty editorials about “what is to be done” about alcohol. Although there are definitely things that need to be done about alcohol, prohibition is an incredibly stupid and dangerous policy, and so are some of its less odious cousins, so before we go full Leroy Jenkins on alcohol policy it might be a good idea to ask if this study is really the bees knees, and does it really show what it says it does.

This study is a product of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project, at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). I’m intimately acquainted with this group because I made the mistake of getting involved with them a few years ago (I’m not now) so I saw how their sausage is made, and I learnt about a few of their key techniques. In fact I supervised a student who, to the best of my knowledge, remains the only person on earth (i.e. the only person in a population of 7 billion people, outside of two people at IHME) who was able to install a fundamental software package they use. So I think I know something about how this institution does its analyses. I think it’s safe to say that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and I want to explain in this post how their paper is a disaster for public health.

The way that the IHME works in these papers is always pretty similar, and this paper is no exception. First they identify a set of diseases and health conditions related to their chosen risk (in this case the chosen risk is alcohol). Then they run through a bunch of previously published studies to identify the numerical magnitude of increased risk of these diseases associated with exposure to the risk. Then they estimate the level of exposure in every country on earth (this is a very difficult task which they use dodgy methods to complete). Then they calculate the number of deaths due to the conditions associated with this risk (this is also an incredibly difficult task to which they apply a set of poorly-accredited methods). Finally they use a method called comparative risk assessment (CRA) to calculate the proportion of deaths due to the exposure. CRA is in principle an excellent technique but there are certain aspects of their application of it that are particularly shonky, but which we probably don’t need to touch on here.

So in assessing this paper we need to consider three main issues: how they assess risk, how they assess exposure, and how they assess deaths. We will look at these three parts of their method and see that they are fundamentally flawed.

Problems with risk assessment

To assess the risk associated with alcohol consumption the IHME used a standard technique called meta-analysis. In essence a meta-analysis collects all the studies that relate an exposure (such as alcohol consumption) to an outcome (any health condition, but death is common), and then combines them to obtain a single final estimate of what the numerical risk is. Typically a meta-analysis will weight all the risks from all the studies according to the sample size of the study, so that for example a small study that finds banging your head on a wall reduces your risk of brain damage is given less weight in the meta-analysis than a very large study of banging your head on a wall. Meta-analysis isn’t easy for a lot of reasons to do with the practical details of studies (for example if two groups study banging your head on a wall do they use the same definition of brain damage and the same definition of banging?), but once you iron out all the issues it’s the only method we have for coming to comprehensive decisions about all the studies available. It’s important because the research literature on any issue typically includes a bunch of small shitty studies, and a few high quality studies, and we need to balance them all out when we assess the outcome. As an example, consider football and concussion. A good study would follow NFL players for several seasons, taking into account their position, the number of games they played, and the team they were in, and compare them against a concussion free sport like tennis, but matching them to players of similar age, race, socioeconomic background etc. Many studies might not do this – for example a study might take 20 NFL players who died of brain injuries and compare them with 40 non-NFL players who died of a heart attack. A good meta-analysis handles these issues of quality and combines multiple studies together to calculate a final estimate of risk.

The IHME study provides a meta-analysis of all the relationships between alcohol consumption and disease outcomes, described as follows[2]:

we performed a systematic review of literature published between January 1st, 1950 and Dec 31st 2016 using Pubmed and the GHDx. Studies were included if the following conditions were met. Studies were excluded if any of the following conditions were met:

1. The study did not report on the association between alcohol use and one of the included outcomes.

2. The study design was not either a cohort, case-control, or case-crossover.

3. The study did not report a relative measure of risk (either relative risk, risk ratio, odds-ratio, or hazard ratio) and did not report cases and non-cases among those exposed and un-exposed.

4. The study did not report dose-response amounts on alcohol use.

5. The study endpoint did not meet the case definition used in GBD 2016.

There are many, many problems with this description of the meta-analysis. First of all they seem not to have described the inclusion criteria (they say “Studies were included if the following conditions were met” but don’t say what those conditions were). But more importantly their conditions for exclusion are very weak. We do not, usually, include case-control and case-crossover studies in a meta-analysis because these studies are, frankly, terrible. The standard method for including a study in a meta-analysis is to assess it according to the Risk of Bias Tool and dump it if it is highly biased. For example, should we include a study that is not a randomized controlled trial? Should we include studies where subjects know their assignment? The meta-analysis community have developed a set of tools for deciding which studies to include, and the IHME crew haven’t used them.

This got me thinking that perhaps the IHME crew have been, shall we say, a little sloppy in how they include studies, so I had a bit of a look. On page 53-55 of the appendix they report the results of their meta-analysis of the relationship between atrial fibrillation and alcohol consumption, and the results are telling. They found 9 studies to include in their meta-analysis but there are many problems with these studies. One (Cohen 1988) is a cross-sectional study and should not be included, according to the IHME’s own exclusion criteria. 6 of the remaining studies assess fribillation only, while 2 assess fibrillation and fibrial flutter, a pre-cursor of fibrillation. However most tellingly, all of these studies find no relationship between alcohol consumption and fibrillation at almost all levels of consumption, but their chart on page 54 shows that their meta-analysis found an almost exponential relationship between alcohol consumption and fibrillation. This finding is simply impossible given the observed studies. All 9 studies found no relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and fibrillation, and several found no relationship even for extreme levels of consumption, but somehow the IHME found a clear relationship. How is this possible?

Problems with exposure assessment

This problem happened because they applied a tool called DISMOD to the data to estimate the relationship between alcohol exposure and fibrillation. DISMOD is an interesting tool but it has many flaws. Its main benefit is that it enables the user to incorporate exposures that have many different categories of exposure definition that don’t match, and turn them into a single risk curve. So for example if one study group has recorded the relative risk of death for 2-5 drinks, and another group has recorded the risk for 1-12 drinks, DISMOD offers a method to turn this into a single curve that will represent the risk relationship per additional drink. This is nice, and it produces the curve on page 54 (and all the subsequent curves). It’s also bullshit. I have worked with DISMOD and it has many, many problems. It is incomprehensible to everyone except the two guys who programmed it, who are nice guys but can’t give decent support or explanations of what it does. It has a very strange response distribution and doesn’t appear to apply other distributions well, and it has some really kooky Bayesian applications built in. It is also completely inscrutable to 99.99% of people who use it, including the people at IHME. It should not be used until it is peer reviewed and exposed to a proper independent assessment. It is application of DISMOD to data that obviously shows no relationship between alcohol consumption and fibrillation that led to the bullshit curve on page 54 of the appendix, that does not have any relationship to the observed data in the collected studies.

This also applies to the assessment of exposure to alcohol. The study used DISMOD to calculate each country’s level of individual alcohol consumption, which means that the same dodgy technique was applied to national alcohol consumption data. But let’s not get hung up on DISMOD. What data were they using? The maps in the Lancet paper show estimates of risk for every African and south east Asian country, which suggests that they have data on these countries, but do you think they do? Do you think Niger has accurate estimates of alcohol consumption in its borders? No, it doesn’t. A few countries in Africa do and the IHME crew used some spatial smoothing techniques (never clearly explained) to estimate the consumption rates in other countries. This is a massive dodge that the IHME apply, which they call “borrowing strength.” At its most egregious this is close to simply inventing data – in an earlier paper (perhaps in 2012) they were able to estimate rates of depression and depression-related conditions for 183 (I think) countries using data from 97 countries. No prizes to you, my astute reader, if you guess that all the missing data was in Africa. The same applies to the risk exposure estimates in this paper – they’re a complete fiction. Sure for the UK and Australia, where alcohol is basically a controlled drug, they are super accurate. But in the rest of the world, not so much.

Problems with mortality assessment

The IHME has a particularly nasty and tricky method for calculating the burden of disease, based around a thing called the year of life lost (YLL). Basically instead of measuring deaths they measure the years of your life that you lost when you died, compared to an objective global standard of life you could achieve. Basically they get the age you died, subtract it from the life expectancy of an Icelandic or Japanese woman, and that’s the number of YLLs you suffered. Add that up for every death and you have your burden of disease. It’s a nice idea except that there are two huge problems:

  • It weights death at young ages massively
  • They never incorporate uncertainty in the ideal life expectancy of an Icelandic or Japanese woman

There is an additional problem in the assessment of mortality, which the IHME crew always gloss over, which is called “garbage code redistribution.” Basically, about 30% of every country’s death records are bullshit, and don’t correspond with any meaningful cause of death. The IHME has a complicated, proprietary system that they cannot and will not explain that redistributes these garbage codes into other meaningful categories. What they should do is treat these redistributed deaths as a source of error (e.g. we have 100,000 deaths due to cancer and 5,000 redistributed deaths, so we actually have 102500 plus/minus 2500 deaths), but they don’t, they just add them on. So when they calculate burden of disease they use the following four steps:

  • Calculate the raw number of deaths, with an estimate of error
  • Reassign dodgy deaths in an arbitrary way, without counting these deaths as any form of uncertainty
  • Estimate an ideal life expectancy without applying any measure of error or uncertainty to it
  • Calculate the years of life lost relative to this ideal life expectancy and add them up

So here there are three sources of uncertainty (deaths, redistribution, ideal life expectancy) and only one is counted; and then all these uncertain deaths are multiplied by the number of years lost relative to the ideal life expectancy.

The result is a dog’s breakfast of mortality estimates, that don’t come even close to representing the truth about the burden of disease in any country due to any condition.

Also, the IHME apply the same dodgy modeling methods to deaths (using a method that they (used to?) call CoDMoD) before they calculate YLLs, so there’s another form of arbitrary model decisions and error in their assessments.

Putting all these errors together

This means that the IHME process works like this:

  • An incredibly dodgy form of meta-analysis that includes dodgy studies and miscalculates levels of risk
  • Applied to a really shonky estimate of the level of exposure to alcohol, that uses a computer program no one understands applied to a substandard data set
  • Applied to a dodgy death model that doesn’t include a lot of measures of uncertainty, and is thus spuriously accurate

The result is that at every stage of the process the IHME is unreasonably confident about the quality of their estimates, produces excessive estimates of risk and inaccurate measures of exposure, and is too precise in its calculations of how many people died. This means that all their conclusions about the actual risk of alcohol, the level of exposure, and the magnitude of disease burden due to the conditions they describe cannot be trusted. As a result, neither can their estimates of the proportion of mortality due to alcohol.

Conclusion

There is still no evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is bad for you, and solid meta-analyses of available studies support the conclusion that moderate alcohol consumption is not harmful. This study should not be believed and although the IHME has good press contacts, you should ignore all the media on this. As a former insider in the GBD process I can also suggest that in future you ignore all work from the Global Burden of Disease project. They have a preferential publishing deal with the Lancet, which means they aren’t properly peer reviewed, and their work is so massive that it’s hard for most academics to provide adequate peer review. Their methods haven’t been subjected to proper external assessment and my judgement, based on having visited them and worked with their statisticians and their software, is that their methods are not assessable. Their data is certainly dubious at times but most importantly their analysis approach is not correct and the Lancet doesn’t subject it to proper peer review. This is going to have long term consequences for global health, and at some point the people who continue to associate with the IHME’s papers (they have hundreds or even thousands of co-authors) will regret that association. I stopped collaborating with this project, and so should you. If you aren’t sure why, this paper on alcohol is a good example.

So chill, have another drink, and worry about whether it’s making you fat.


fn1: There are no reasons not to love Greek food, no wonder these people conquered the Mediterranean and developed philosophy and democracy!

fn2: This is in the appendix to their study

You want to do *what*!?

By now the series of indictments and convictions of Trump’s hangers-on are old news, but there are some things about these stories that I am finding really mystifying, and/or confirmatory of the suspicions I have always had about super rich people. Trump’s hangers-on give the appearance of being super-rich, and they’re all attached to the “conservative” (i.e. religious radical) side of US politics, but some of the things we learn about them have been, shall we say, disappointing? I’m not sure if there is a word for how you feel when you learn what these people have been up to, especially now that “WTF” is about to be patented by Proctor and Gamble. Some things that have particularly amused (and surprised) me include …

  1. None of them seem to have any money: Cohen seems to have been sucking in vast quantities of cash, but none of it ended up in his pockets, and he was constantly lying to banks about his money in order to get loans to have more money, which promptly seems to have been blown paying off past loans. The Hunters were basically up to their necks in debt, and one assumes using their entire salary to pay off their overdraft fees, and then financing their lifestyle with campaign money, but refusing to tone down the business class rabbit seats despite being in hock. Pruitt was trying to use his position in the EPA to score his wife a chik-a-fila franchise to pay their debts. And of course Donald Trump, supposedly a billionaire, couldn’t manage to find 130k to pay off a porn star in order to smooth his path to becoming the president – instead Cohen did it, and did it by fraudulently leveraging his house because none of these people have any money. And of course Broidy – the only one who seems to have had any money, probably from Russian sources – paid for Trump’s girlfriend’s abortion, and was repaid not with money but with political favours. Beyond the question about whether any of these people have even a basic sense of public ethics, do any of them have any actual money?
  2. These people have no taste: Ostrich jackets, really? Golf? Who goes on vacation to Boise Idaho? Did you really need to fly your rabbit on holiday with you?[1] And we all know about the Donald’s penchant for ridiculously tasteless furniture and fittings (that family photo really is a gem). I used to joke that rich people had no taste, but I mostly made that joke on the basis that I don’t like Foix Gras, champagne or cognac. I didn’t realize that they actually really are this tasteless! Looking at the reports of their personal extravagancies, one is inclined to believe the theory that the super rich really are lizard people wearing skin masks. Surely no human could be this prurient? But apparently they are.
  3. They’re all having affairs: Manafort, Gates, Hunter, they all had a bit going on on the side, and this was part of the reason they were up to their neck in campaign expense violations. Trump of course is most egregious in this regard, and the really cynically ironic thing is that the one person in this little coterie of corrupt fuckwits who appears to have been genuinely devoted to his wife, Broidy, was the one who took the public fall for Trump fucking Shera Bechard and impregnating her and paying her for an abortion. It’s also telling that even then – when these people are caught fucking someone not their wife – they won’t (or can’t) buy their way out of it with their own money, but need to use Russian money (or Broidy’s Emirati money). These people are dirty, soulless losers.
  4. They don’t believe a word of their politics: The Hunters’ indictment is particularly merciless reading on the topic of these peoples’ abject hypocrisy. They used campaign funds to pay for golf shorts[2] and passed it off as a donation of golf balls to a veterans’ organization; they bought haberdashery and pass it off as an event for teachers; they tried to use the navy as an excuse for an international trip and then when the navy wouldn’t comply they said “fuck the navy”. These people have absolutely zero respect for the politics they espouse. They’re traitors, liars, economic wreckers and leeches, and the only time they make a pretense of caring about the politics they supposedly believe in is when they’re trying to cover up illegal spending on their fucking bunny. It’s not unusual in politics to find people who are hypocrites to the cause they believe in, who don’t always toe in private the clear line they maintain in public, but these people obviously don’t give a flying fuck about any principles of any kind at all. They are empty, soulless consumers. The only reason they are Republicans is because – as Trump himself so memorably stated on national TV – Republicans are easy to fool.

I guess it’s reassuring in a sense to see all my prejudices about the tastes and peccadilloes of the super rich confirmed, but it’s also kind of disturbing that people could be such caricatures of themselves. What is less amusing and certainly less satisfying is the clear evidence that these lying fucks are traitors, economic wreckers, and arseholes of the worst kind. Once they’ve been thrown out of office in November I do not want the Democrats to spare them the rod. I want to see them all nailed to the wall for what they have done.

fn1: I can appreciate wanting to buy your rabbit a seat if you do. On an American airline it’ll die in cargo. And I sympathize with the problem of having to find accommodation for your pet when you’re on work travel … except this wasn’t work!

fn2: Seriously what is with these people’s obsession with golf? It’s fucking golf, people. They spend all their time publicly complaining about how the NFL is being ruined, but good luck finding even a cent of their expenses spent on an actual sport!

News continues to trickle out concerning the latest bullying scandal in American academia, on which I reported briefly in a previous post. Through the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog I found a link to this excellent Twitter thread on the damage done to the humanities by celebrity academics like Ronell. These celebrity academics don’t just exist in the humanities, and not just in the “literary theory” cul-de-sac of humanities. They also exist in the physical sciences (think of people like Dawkins and Davies), and they are also a thing in public and global health. In public and global health they are typically characterised by the following traits:

  • They build large teams of staff, who are dependent upon the celebrity academic for their positions
  • They have a flagship project or area of research that they completely dominate, making it hard for junior academics outside of their institution to make progress on that topic
  • They attract very large amounts of grant money, a lot of it “soft” money accrued through relationships with NGOs and non-academic institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, AXA, the World Health Organization, and similar bodies
  • They have cozy relationships with editorial boards and chief editors, so that they get preferential treatment in journals like The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, etc
  • They attract a lot of applications from students and post-doctoral fellows, who often bring in their own funding in the form of scholarships and prestigious fellowships
  • They often have a media presence, writing commentary articles or having semi-regular invitational positions on local and national newspapers, in medical journals and on certain websites
  • They are on all the boards

This means that these celebrity academics are able to drive large amounts of research work in their field of expertise, which they often parlay into articles in journals that have high impact through friendly relationships with their colleagues on those journals, and they also often get invited into non-academic activities such as reports, inquiries, special seminars and workshops, and so on. Even where these celebrity academics are not bullies, and are known to treat their staff well and with respect, and to be good teachers and supervisors, this kind of celebrity academia has many negative effects on public health. Some of these include:

  • Their preeminence and grip on grant funding means that they effectively stifle the establishment of new voices in their chosen topic, which risks preventing new methods of doing things from being established, or allows shoddy and poorly developed work to become the mainstream
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals pushes other, higher quality work from unknown authors out of those journals, which both reduces the impact of better or newer work, and also prevents those authors from establishing a strong academic presence
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals enables them to avoid thorough peer review, enabling them to publish flawed work that really should be substantially revised or not published at all
  • The scale and dominance of the institution they build around themselves means that young academics working in the same topic inevitably learn to do things the way the celebrity academic does them, and when they move on to other institutions they bring those methods to those other institutions, slowly establishing methods, work practices, and professional behaviors that are not necessarily the best throughout academia
  • Their media presence enables them to launder and protect the reputation of their own work, and their involvement in academic boards and networks gives them a gatekeeper role that is disproportionate to that of other academics
  • Their importance protects them from criticism and safeguards them against institutional intrusion in their behavior, which is particularly bad if they are abusive or bullying, since junior staff cannot protest or complain

This is exactly what we are now learning happened to Reitman from his lawsuit – he tried to transfer his supervision to Yale but discovered the admissions officer there was a friend of his supervisor, he tried to complain to a provost who also turned out to be a friend of his supervisor, and he could not complain while a PhD student because of fear that his supervisor would destroy his job opportunities through her networks. We also see that Ronell (and friends of hers like Butler) have a disproportionate academic influence, which ensures that they maintain a cozy protection against any intrusion into their little literary theory bubble. Ronell’s books are reviewed (positively) by Butler, who then writes a letter defending Ronell from institutional consequences of her own poor behavior, which no doubt Butler knew about. There’s a video going around of a lecture in which Ronell’s weird behavior is basically an open joke, and in signing the letter some of the signatories basically admit that they knew Ronell’s behavior crossed a line but they saw it as acceptable (it was just her “style”). We even have one shameful theorist complaining that if she is punished, academics in this area will be restricted to behaving as “technocratic pedagogues”, because it is simply impossible for them to teach effectively without this kind of transgressive and bullying behavior.

One of the best ways to prevent this kind of thing is to prevent or limit the ascendance of the celebrity academic. But to do so will require a concerted effort across the institutions of academia, not just within a single university like NYU. Some things that need to happen to prevent celebrity academics getting too big for their boots:

  • Large national funding programs need to be restricted so that single academics cannot grab multiple pools of money and seize funding disproportionate to their role. This already happens in Japan, where the national grants from the Ministry of Education are restricted so that an academic can only have one or two
  • Private and government funds such as Ministry funding, and funding from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, needs to be more transparently accessible from outside the academy, and also more objective and transparent in assessment – you shouldn’t be able to work up a large amount of money for your research group just by being able to go to the write cocktail party / hostess bar / art gallery – basically at every level, as much as possible, grant funding should be competitive and not based on who you know or how much money you’ve already got
  • Journals – and particular senior journal editors – should stay at arms’ length from academics, and journal processes should remain transparent, competitive and anonymous. It simply should not be possible – as often happens in the Lancet, for example – to stitch up a publication by sending an email to a senior editor who you had a chat with at an event a few weeks ago. No matter how many times you have published in a journal before, your next submission to the journal should be treated in substance and spirit as if it were your first ever submission
  • Journals need to make more space for critical responses to articles, rather than making stupid and restrictive rules on who and what can be published in response to an article. I have certainly experienced having a critical response to an article rejected on flimsy grounds that I’m pretty sure were based on a kneejerk response to criticism of a celebrity, and it’s very hard to publish critical responses at all in some journals. A better approach is that pioneered by the BMJ, which treats critical responses as a kind of comment thread, and elevates the best ones to the status of published Letters to the Editor – this insures more voices get to criticize the work, and everyone can see whose critiques were ignored
  • Institutions need to make their complaint processes much more transparent and easy to work with. Often it is the case that serious harassment cases – physical or sexual – are easy for students to complain about the smaller and more common complaints, like academic misconduct and bullying, are much more difficult to complain about. I think it is generally true that if an academic is disciplined early in their career for small infractions of basic rules on misconduct and bullying, they will be much, much less likely to risk major misbehavior later
  • Student complaints need to be handled in a timely manner that ensures that they are able to see resolution before their thesis defense or graduation, so they can change supervisors if necessary
  • Academic advisors should never be able to sit on their own student’s dissertation committee, or on the committees of their close friend and co-author’s students, since this gives them undue influence over the student’s graduation prospects and kills dead any chance of a complaint (I can’t believe this happens in some universities!)
  • The academic advisor’s permission should never be a requirement for submission. At the very least, if your relationship with your advisor goes pear-shaped, you should always be able to just tell them to fuck off, go off and do the work by yourself, and submit it to an independent committee for assessment

I think if these kinds of rules are followed it’s much harder for academics to become celebrities, and much harder for their celebrity status to become overpowering or to enable them to stifle other students’ careers. But a lot of these changes require action by editorial boards, trustees of non-profits and NGOs, and government bodies connected to specific topics (such as ministries of health, or departments responsible for art and culture). Until we see wholesale changes in the way that academics interact with editorial boards, grant committees, private organizations and government agencies, will not see any reduction in the power and influence of celebrity academics. In the short term this influence can be fatal for students and junior academics, but in the long term – as we have seen in literary theory, it appears – it can also drag down the diversity and quality of work in the whole discipline, as a couple of bullies and pigs come to dominate the entire discipline, ensuring that no one deviates from their own line of work and no one ever criticizes their increasingly weak and low quality work. Academia as a whole benefits from genuine competition, diversity of funders and fund recipients, spreading grant money widely and fairly, and maintaining rigorous standards of independence and academic objectivity in assessing work for publication. Celebrity academics weaken all of those processes, and bring the entire academy down.

A final note: I cannot believe that academics invite students alone to their houses, or (as in this case) invite themselves to their student’s houses. There is no legit reason to do this. Every university should tell its academics, from day one: if you invite a student alone to your house and they lodge a sexual harassment complaint against you, you’re on your own – we will believe them every time. Just don’t do it, under any circumstances. And they should tell students from day one: if your supervisor (or any academic) invites you alone to their house, report it immediately. It’s simply terrible behavior, and no good will ever come of it. Reading the report that this student lodged against his supervisor, it’s simply impossible to believe that she wasn’t up to no good, and simply impossible to accept that the university did not uphold his complaint of sexual harassment. He has now launched a lawsuit, so we can now see all the details of what happened to him and how he dealt with it, and it looks like a complete disaster for NYU and for the professor in question. If the university had disciplined this woman much earlier in her career for much lighter infractions; if it had a clear rule forbidding these one-on-one home-based “supervision” arrangements, or at least making clear that they are a sexual harassment death zone for profs; and if the university gave its senior academics a clear sense that they are not protected from such complaints, then this situation would never have arisen. There is no excuse for this kind of unprofessional behavior except “I knew I could get away with it.” And the academic world needs to work to ensure no professor can ever know they can get away with it, no matter how famous and special they are or think they are.

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