UPDATE: Dr. Monnat has left a comment pointing out that I made a major error in reading her methods (I assumed she used non-standardized rates but in the methods she specifies that she did). So I have removed one criticism of her paper and modified another about regression. This doesn’t change the thrust of my argument (though if Dr. Monnat is patient enough to engage with more of my criticisms, maybe it will!)

Since late 2016 a theory has been circulating that Donald Trump’s election victory can be related to the opioid epidemic in rust belt America. Under this theory, parts of mid-West America with high levels of unemployment and economic dislocation that are experiencing high levels of opioid addiction switched votes from Democrat to Republican and elected Trump. This is part of a broader idea that America is suffering an epidemic of “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioids, suicide and alcohol abuse – that are part of a newfound social problem primarily afflicting working class white people, and the recent rapid growth in the rate of these “deaths of despair” drove a rebellion against the Democrats, and towards Trump.

This theory is bullshit, for a lot of reasons, and in this post I want to talk about why. To be clear, it’s not just a bit wrong: it’s wrong in all of its particulars. The data doesn’t support the idea of a growing death rate amongst white working class people; the data does not support a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting; there is no such thing as a “death of despair”; and there is no viable explanation for why an epidemic of “deaths of despair” should drive votes for Trump. The theory is attractive to a certain kind of theorist because it enables them to pretend that the Trump phenomenon doesn’t represent a deep problem of racism in American society, but it doesn’t work. Let’s look at why.

The myth of rising white mortality

First let’s consider the central framework of this story, which is the idea that mortality rates have been rising rapidly among middle-aged whites in America over the past 20 years, popularized by two economists (Case and Deaton) in a paper in PNAS. This paper is deeply flawed because it does not adjust for age, which has been increasing rapidly among white Americans but not non-white Americans (due to differential birth and migration patterns in earlier eras). Case and Deaton studied mortality in 45-54 year old Americans, differentiating by race, but failed to adjust for age. This is important for surprising reasons, which perhaps only epidemiologists understand, and we’re only figuring this out recently and slowly: ageing is happening so fast in high-income countries that even when we look at relatively narrow age categories we need to take into account the possibility that the older parts of the age category have a lot more people than the younger parts, and this means that even the small differences in mortality between say 53 year olds and 45 year olds can make a difference to mortality rates in the age category as a whole. If this seems shocking, consider the case of Japan, where ageing is so advanced that even five year age categories (the finest band of age that most statistical organizations will present publicly) are vulnerable to differences in the population. In Japan, the difference in the size of the 84 year old population to the 80 year old population is so great that we may need to adjust for age even when looking at narrow age categories like 80-84 years. This problem is a new challenge for epidemiologists – we used to assume that if you reduce an analysis to a 10 or 15 year age category you don’t need to standardize, because the population within such a band is relatively stable, but this is no longer true.

In the case of the Case and Deaton study the effect of ageing in non-hispanic white populations is so great that failure to adjust for it completely biases their results. Andrew Gelman describes the problem  on his blog and presents age-adjusted data and data for individual years of age, showing fairly convincingly that the entire driver of the “problem” identified by Case and Deaton is age, not ill health. After adjustment it does appear that some categories of white women are seeing an increasing mortality rate, but this is a) likely due to the recent growth of smoking in this population and b) not a likely explanation for Trump’s success, since he was more popular with men than women.

White people are dying more in America because they’re getting older, not because they have a problem. I happen to think that getting older is a problem, but it’s not a problem that Trump or anyone else can fix.

The myth of “deaths of despair” and Trump voting

Case and Deaton followed up their paper on white mortality with further research on “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioid abuse, suicide and alcohol use that are supposedly due to “despair”. This paper is a better, more exhaustive analysis of the problem but it is vulnerable to a lot of basic epidemiological errors, and the overall theory is ignorant of basic principles in drug and alcohol theory and suicide research. This new research does not properly adjust for age in narrow age groups, and it does not take into account socioeconomic influences on mortality due to these conditions. But on this topic Case and Deaton are not the main offenders – they did not posit a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting, which was added by a researcher called Shannon Monnat at Pennsylvania State University in late 2016. In her paper, Monnat argues for a direct link between rates of “deaths of despair” and voting for Trump at the county level, suggesting that voting for Trump was somehow a response to the specific pressures affecting white Americans. There are huge flaws in this paper, which I list here, approximately in their order of importance.

  • It includes suicide: Obviously a county with high suicide mortality is in a horrible situation, which should be dealt with, but there is a big problem with using suicide as a predictor of Trump voting. This problem is guns. Uniquely among rich countries, the US has a very high prevalence of gun ownership and guns account for a much larger proportion of suicides in America than elsewhere – more than half, according to reputable studies. And unfortunately for rural Americans, the single biggest determinant of whether you commit suicide by gun is owning a gun – and gun ownership rates are much higher in counties that vote Republican. In America suicide is a proxy for gun ownership, not “despair”, and because gun-related suicide depends heavily on rates of gun ownership, inclusion of this mortality rate in the study heavily biases the total mortality rate being used towards a measure of gun ownership rather than despair.
  • It uses voting changes rather than voting odds: Like most studies of voting rates, Monnat compared the percentage voting for Trump with the percentage voting for Romney in 2012. This is a big flaw, because percentages do not vary evenly across their range. In Monnat’s study a county that increased its Republican voting proportion from 1% to 2% is treated exactly the same as a county that went from 50% to 51%. In one of these counties the vote doubled and Trump didn’t get elected; in the other it increased by 2% but Trump got elected. It’s important to account for this non linearity in analysis, but Monnat did not. Which leads to another problem …
  • It did not measure Trump’s success directly: In a first past the post electoral system, who wins is more important than by how much. Monnat used an ordinary least squares model of proportions voting Trump rather than a binomial model of Trump winning or losing, which means that meaningless small gains in “blue” states[1] had the same importance as small gains in “red” states that flipped them “blue”. This might not be important except that we know Trump lost the popular vote (which differences in proportions measure) but won the electoral college (which more closely resembles binary measures of win/lose). Not analyzing binary outcomes in a binomial model suggests you don’t understand the relationship between statistics and the political system you live in, i.e. your analysis is wrong.
  • It did not incorporate turnout: A 52% win for Trump can reflect two things – a change in attitude by 2% of the voters, or a non-proportionate increase in the number of people who chose to turn out and vote. If you analyze proportions (or differences in proportions) you don’t account for this problem. In addition, you don’t adjust for the overall size of the electorate. If you analyze proportions, an electorate where 52 people voted Trump and 48 people voted Clinton is given the same weight as an electorate where 5200 people voted Clinton and 4800 people voted Trump. If you use a proper binomial model, however, the latter electorate gets more weight and is implicitly treated as more meaningful in the assessment of results. A reminder of what is fast becoming a faustusnotes rule: the cool kids do not use ordinary least squares regression to analyze probabilities, we always use logistic regression.
  • It did not present the regression results: Although Monnat reports regression results in a footnote, the main results in the text are all unadjusted, even though in at least some states the impact of economic factors appears to eliminate the relationship with mortality rates. Given that people who own guns are much much more likely to vote Republican, and the main predictor variable here incorporated suicide, adjustment for gun ownership might have eliminated the effect of “deaths of despair” entirely. But it wasn’t done as far as I can tell, and wasn’t shown.
  • It did not adjust for trends: Monnat openly states in the beginning of the paper that “deaths of despair” have been rising over time but when she conducts the analysis she uses the average rate for the period 2006-2014. This means that she does not consider the possibility that mortality has been dropping in some counties and rising in others. A mortality rate of 100 per 100,000 could reflect a decline over the period 2006-2014 from 150 to 50 (a huge decrease) or an increase from 25 to 175. We don’t know, but it seems likely that if “deaths of despair” is an issue, it will have had more influence on electoral decisions in 2016 in counties where the rate has risen over that time than where it has declined. There are lots of policy reasons why the death rate might have increased or decreased, but whether these reflect issues relevant to Republican or Democrat policy is impossible to know without seeing the distribution of trends – which Monnat did not analyze[2].

So in summary the study that found this “relationship” between “deaths of despair” and voting Trump was deeply flawed. There is no such relationship in the data[3].

There is no such thing as a “death of despair”

This study has got a fair bit of attention on the internet, as have the prior Case and Deaton studies. For example here we see a Medium report on the “Oxy electorate” that repeats all these sour talking points, and in this blog post some dude who fancies himself a spokesperson for ordinary America talks up the same issue. The latter blog post has some comments by people taking oxycontin for pain relief, who make some important points that the “deaths of despair” crew have overlooked. To quote one commenter[4]:

I too am a long time chronic pain sufferer and until I was put on opiate medications my quality of life was ZERO. I’ve heard horror stories of people actually being suicidal because they can no longer deal with the constant pain. It took me two years before I realized I could no longer work as an account manager with a major telecom company. I was making decent money but leaving work everyday in pain. I finally started going to a pain management doctor who diagnosed me with degenerative disc disease. I had to go on medical leave and now am on SSDI. My doctor prescribed me opiates in the fall of 2006 and I’ve been on them ever since. I have to say, I totally AGREE with you. I don’t know how I would be able to manage without these medications. At least I’m able to clean my house now and now without being in horrible pain. I don’t know what I would do if suddenly I was told I could no longer be prescribed opiates.
Who is someone that will champion those of us who legitametly need these medications? Do we write to our senators?? I sure hope Trump takes into consideration our cases before kicking us all to the curb!

This person (and others) make the valid point that they are taking pain medication for a reason, and that they were in despair before they got hooked on opioids, not after. Unfortunately for these commenters, we now have fairly good evidence that opioids are not the best treatment for chronic pain and that they are very, very dangerous, but regardless of whether this treatment is exactly the best one for these patients they make the valid point that it is the treatment they got and it works for them. To use an Americanism, you can take the opioids from their cold dead hands. In stark contrast to other countries, a very large proportion of America’s opioid deaths are due to prescription drugs, not heroin, reflecting an epidemic of overdose due to legally accessible painkillers. It’s my suspicion that these painkillers were prescribed to people like the above commenter because they could not afford the treatment for the underlying cause of their pain, because America’s healthcare system sucks, and these people then became addicted to a very dangerous substance – but in the absence of proper health insurance these people cannot get the specialist opioid management they deserve. America’s opioid epidemic is a consequence of poor health system access, not “despair”, and if Americans had the same health system as, say, Frenchies or Britons they would not be taking these drugs for more than 6 months, because the underlying cause of their condition would have been treated – and for that small minority of pain patients with chronic pain, in any other rich country they would have regular affordable access to a specialist who could calibrate their dose and manage their risks.

The opioid death problem in America is a problem of access to healthcare, which should have been fixed by Obamacare. Which brings us to the last issue …

There is no theory linking opioid addiction to voting Trump

What exactly is the theory by which people hooked on oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump? On its face there are only two realistic explanations for this theory: 1) the areas where oxycontin is a huge problem are facing social devastation with no solution in sight, so vote for change (even Trump!) in hopes of a solution; or 2) people who use drugs are arseholes and losers. Putting aside the obvious ecological fallacy in Monnat’s study (it could be that everyone in the area who votes for Trump is a non-opiate user, and they voted Trump in hopes of getting the druggies killed Duterte-style, but the data doesn’t tell us who voted Trump, just what proportion of each area did), there are big problems with these two explanations even at the individual level. Let’s deal with each in turn.

If areas facing social devastation due to oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump, why didn’t they also vote Romney? Some of these areas were stronger Obama voters in 2012, according to Monnat’s data, but opioid use has been skyrocketing in these areas since 2006 (remember Monnat used averages from 2006-2014). The mortality data covers two election cycles where they voted Obama even though opioid deaths were rising, and suddenly they voted Trump? Why now? Why Trump and not Romney, or McCain? It’s as if there is something else about Trump …

Of course it’s possible that oxycontin users are racist arseholes – I have certainly seen this in my time working in clinics providing healthcare to injecting drug users – but even if we accept such a bleak view of drug users (and it’s not true!) the problem with this theory is that even as opioid use increases, it remains a tiny proportion of the total population of these areas. The opioid users directly cannot swing the election – it has to be their neighbours, friends and family. Now it’s possible that a high prevalence of opioid use and suicide drives people seeing this phenomenon to vote Trump but this is a strange outcome – in general people vote for Democrats/Labour in times of social catastrophe, which is why they voted Obama to start with – because he promised to fix the financial crisis and health care. There has to be some other explanation for why non-opioid using people switched vote in droves to Trump but not Romney. I wonder what it could be?

American liberals’ desperate desire to believe their country is not deeply racist

The problem is, of course, that Trump had a single distinguishing feature that no one before him in the GOP had – he was uniquely, floridly racist. Since the election this has become abundantly clear, but for Donnat writing in late 2016 I guess it still seemed vaguely plausibly deniable. But the reality is that his single distinction from all other GOP candidates was his florid racism. Lots of people in America want to believe that the country they live in – the country that just 150 years ago went to war over slavery, and just 50 years ago had explicit laws to drive black people out of the economic life of the nation – is not racist. I have even recently seen news reports that America is “losing its leadership in the movement for racial equality.” No, dudes, you never showed any leadership on that front. America is a deeply racist nation. It’s racist in a way that other countries can’t even begin to understand. The reason Trump won is that he energized a racist base, and the reason his approval remains greater than 30% despite the shitshow he is presiding over is that a large number of Americans are out-and-out fascists, for whom trolling “liberals” and crushing non-whites is a good thing. That’s why rural, gun-owning Americans voted for Trump, and if the data were analyzed properly that fact would be very clear. Lots of people in America want to believe second- or third-order causes like the rustbelt or opioids, but the reality is staring them in the face: it’s racism. Don’t blame people with chronic pain, blame people with chronic racism. And fix it, before the entire world has to pay for the vainglorious passions of a narrow swathe of white America.

fn1: I refuse to take the American use of “blue” and “red” seriously – they get scare quotes until they decide that Republicans are blue and Democrats are red. Sorry, but you guys need to sort your shit out. Get proper political colours and get rid of American Football, then you’ll be taken seriously on the world stage. Also learn to spell color with a “u”.

fn2: I’m joshing you here. Everyone knows that Republicans don’t give a flying fuck if an electorate is dying of opioid overdoses at a skyrocketing rate, and everyone knows that the idea that Republicans would offer people dying of “deaths of despair” any policy solutions to their problem except “be born rich” is a hilarious joke. The only possible policy intervention that could have helped counties seeing an increasing opioid death rate was Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and we know republicans rejected that in states they controlled because they’re evil.

fn3: Well, there might be, but no one has shown it with a robust method.

fn4: I’m such a cynic about everything American that I really hope this commenter isn’t a drug company plant…


I curate my Facebook feed very carefully so that it contains only nice things. It’s possible that my Facebook feed is the only one remaining on planet earth that still regularly gets cute cat videos in it. I prune my content regularly, and in particular I make sure that I hide or defriend people who regularly clog my wall with nastiness, internecine spats, or heavy quantities of political material (of any persuasion). One of my key considerations for whether to hide/defriend is whether the content a friend puts up regularly shocks me or creates a sudden feeling of discomfort when I see it. I guess, if it triggers me. Usually this is things like people putting up political material that features torture or animal cruelty, people who spam my feed with inspirational pictures, and people who regularly say or upload things that heap scorn on others. By ferociously following this principle, I manage to make sure that my Facebook is a world of happiness and light. But sometimes things still slip through that shock me or make me uncomfortable, and one regular occasional event on my Facebook feed is one of my female friends approvingly posting a Celeste Barber picture.

If you aren’t familiar with Celeste Barber’s work you can read about it in this Guardian profile, and you can see some more pictures here. Basically, she’s a frumpy 30-something (?) woman who takes “real-life” versions of models’ PR pictures and posts them alongside the original pictures on Instagram. For example, a model might take a carefully posed shot of herself “falling” out of bed, and Celeste will take an equivalent shot intended to show her “ordinary” equivalent of this posed shot. Some of these are cute, like the one where she mimics a model sitting in her underwear holding grapes, but Celeste is holding a wine bottle – this makes a nice juxtaposition between the perfect and the everyday. Others rightly take the piss out of some of the extremely silly poses that these Instagram models take (the model falling out of bed, for example). But a lot of them just seem to be making fun of these models simply for making a living by being models, or in some way mocking them for being prettier and more posed than real women.

It’s not clear to me what Barber is actually trying to achieve with these pictures. For example, when she takes a picture of herself in a wet t-shirt and juxtaposes it with a picture of a model in a wet t-shirt, what is she trying to say? Sure, her picture looks slightly silly and stupid and reminds us that standing around in wet t-shirts looking sultry is not what women normally do during their day. But the point of a model’s Instagram feed is that it is not normal – that they are presenting an image of perfection and of things outside the everyday, that we admire and look up to. The point of models is that they don’t look like us, and the idea of a model’s Instagram feed is to showcase her beauty and the best photographs depicting it. Most model’s Instagram feeds are feeds of professional shots, that they may have taken a long time setting up and preparing for – this is why they’re models. If the point of Barber’s photos is to show that models take posed photos that aren’t natural, it’s kind of vapid. We all know that.

But I don’t think this is the point of Barber’s project. I think she aims to mock the standards of beauty that these models represent and embody, more than the silly poses they are adopting. This is why actually many of her photos are piss-takes of relatively unposed pictures of models – that is, the model’s picture is obviously from a photoshoot, but she’s not doing anything super weird or super silly, she’s just being pretty in a picture. Some (like the Zayn Malik lover shot or the doorway yoga thing) could be construed as making fun of the extreme lengths that people go to get a good shot on Instagram[1], but many can only be interpreted as mocking the models themselves. They attempt to show that the models are doing something wrong by contrasting them with what an ordinary person looks like in the same position. She herself says

I get a little miffed with fashionista people thinking that they are much better than other people because they are very slim and have architect husbands and get to wear free stuff

But is this all she’s doing, popping the bubbles of these “fashionista people”? I think this statement artificially conflates being beautiful with being better, which models and fashion people don’t necessarily agree with (I’m friends with one or two models who don’t think like this at all, though I’m friends with one who probably does). She also says she’s campaigning against how the media presents images of women. But is this what she’s doing? Because what she appears to actually be campaigning against is how models present images of models. Is she saying that she herself should be considered as beautiful as these women? If so, how come she uses her photos of herself to mock these women?

I think what Celeste Barber is actually trying to say here is that feminine beauty – or the aspiration to feminine beauty – is wrong, and that it is not possible for ordinary people to be feminine and beautiful. I think she is mocking the ideal of femininity itself. This is why her photos only target female models – she doesn’t, for example, take aim at the ludicrous poses male underwear models carefully adopt, or at the over the top presentation of masculinity and machismo in many male sports and film stars. She isn’t alone in this – our society has a strong undercurrent of scorn for femininity and feminine beauty, presenting it as something that can’t be trusted, a mask or veil over who a woman really is. I think Barber is expressing this undercurrent of hatred. She’s saying that real women, in the privacy of their own homes, in their underwear, are not feminine at all, that femininity is just a mask they pull on to impress others, and that it’s not real or valid, and these models’ instagram feeds full of perfect images of femininity need to be torn down in this way because femininity itself is a problem. If she were trying to present a model of accessible feminine beauty she wouldn’t be mocking these feeds, but trying to reinterpret them in some more viable way. But she’s not – she’s laughing at them.

I think this is an example of how some feminists have internalized a deeply misogynistic undercurrent in our society. There is a valid critique to be made of unrealistic representations of and expectations of women and women’s beauty, but this critique doesn’t have to throw femininity and feminine beauty out entirely. But this is what people like Barber do. This is why she doesn’t mock firemen’s nude calendars, or bodybuilder’s poses, which are just as ludicrously set up and unrealistic. These are okay, because masculinity and masculine beauty is considered to be healthy and real in our society. This is why we have a special qualifier for masculinity that has gone off the rails (“toxic masculinity”) but “feminine” is itself the special qualifier for ordinary social practices gone wrong (“feminine wiles”). Femininity is seen as an entirely negative thing, which if it is a deep-seated part of a woman’s character is purely a flaw – weak, diffident, vain and shallow – while if it is surface deep, is deceptive and untrustworthy. There is no model of femininity in mainstream society that is considered to be healthy, acceptable and good for a woman to adopt. We don’t talk about “toxic” femininity, because our society sees all femininity as poisonous. This is why feminists will share Barber’s mocking pictures on Facebook – because they think they’re saying something real about the way the media depicts women, when actually what they’re doing is channeling an age-old hatred of how women present themselves and who women really are.

Obviously someone like Barber isn’t going to have much effect on the adult feminists who share her pictures on my feed. But I wonder what impact this kind of material has on young women and girls growing up in our increasingly macho and competitive society. They’re told from all sides that being feminine is wrong, and presented with a world where the only valid form of beauty is masculine beauty, preferably achieved as a by-product of some serious activity (like sports, or soldiering, or firefighting), that beauty as an end in itself is wrong and that feminine beauty is bad for them and femininity is bad. But many women and girls want to be feminine and want to express their femininity through the kind of models of beauty that we see in these Instagram feeds (this is why these feeds are so popular – they aren’t getting all those followers from men). Then their feminist role models – the women who tell them it’s okay to want to work, that you can be anything you want to be, that no one can stop a girl chasing her dreams – put up pictures telling them that any aspiration to feminine beauty or any kind of construction of beauty at all (posing, make up, dream images) is wrong, and sexist. I think this must be hard on young women and I think that feminists watching Barber and reading this kind of thing need to consider the impact they’re having on young women and what space of beauty they leave open for young women to explore. I think that feminists should also consider whether their reaction to models of feminine beauty is first and foremost about whether they’re bad for women, or whether it’s a kneejerk, visceral response in a misogynist christian culture to the very concept of femininity itself. And is this a good thing?

I’ve been in Asia for 11 years now and one thing I have noticed since I left the Christian world and moved to a pagan country is that Asians have different expectations and views of both masculinity and femininity. In particular, they have no cultural attachment to the story of the fall, of the deceptive serpent and the woman who lures the man into sexual knowledge. As a result both masculine and feminine appearance and manners are seen as a much more natural and uncomplicated part of who humans are, and in my experience people in Asia have a much more comfortable relationship with women’s beauty and feminine behavior. I think this is something western people could learn from, and I think in particular western feminism could learn that instead of rejecting femininity and feminine beauty and reacting against it as a terrible expression of female repression, it should be seen as a natural part of who women are, and just as valid a form of expression of gender difference as anything else. It’s clear that many women in the west want to be like the models they idealize, but they grow up in a world where they’re told in no uncertain terms that they’re wrong, shallow, or even self-hating to feel this way. But these women’s desires and ideals are not a construction – they’re a real and deep part of who these women are. The kind of mocking that Barber is performing, and the general social acceptance it has in the west, does not help young women to grow up into a stronger model of beauty and better gender relations. It just puts them down. Western feminism needs a better relationship with female beauty if it wants to reform this aspect of gender relations in a way that ordinary women are actually comfortable with, and western feminism needs a more critical understanding of its own assumptions and the role of Christian misogyny in constructing modern feminist attitudes, if it really wants to make a better world for western women. Which could start with not mocking girls who want to be pretty!

fn1: Which, btw, what’s wrong with this and what is up with the constant negative carping about how “fake” Instagram is. Instagram is a site exclusively for sharing photographs. Why would you not go to great lengths to take a good photograph for Instagram?

Who doesn’t want to be this guy?!

Trigger warning: Long rant; gender and racial theory; I may use the qualifier “cis-” in a non-ironic way[1]; Since saying “male genitalia” or “female genitalia” is apparently bad, I may use the words “cunt” and “cock” to refer to the things they refer to; Aussie pride; excessive footnotes[2]; dead naming of dead dudes[3]; anti-Americanism; as always, sex positivity, along with a healthy dose of trans positivity (I hope, though maybe 800 people will judge me a bastard) and my usual disdain for radical feminism; insufficient or excessive trigger warnings

TLDR: WTF is going on with feminist philosophy?! Also, if you think that transgender people are serious and real and should be given full rights and respect, you probably also need to accept that transracialism is cool; but unless you’re American you probably already did, without even thinking that it was A Thing.

I just discovered a horrific conflagration overtaking the world of feminist philosophy, which has got me thinking about a concept that I didn’t even really know existed, but which is apparently A Thing: Transracialism. Transracialism is the practice of people of one race adopting the identity of another and living that identity even if they hadn’t been born into or raised with that identity, so superficially it has this transition process in common with being transgender. I’ve obviously been out of touch with left wing radical social ideals for a while, because I didn’t know that transracialism was A Thing, and that it is Bad while being transgender[4] is Good. In this post I want to talk about transracialism and the stultifying consequence of Americans hogging the debate about sex and race, and also about the disastrous state of modern leftist discourse[5] about so many things.

The controversy concerns an interesting paper in the philosophy journal Hypatia, discussing some of the logical consequences of accepting transgender as a real and serious issue[6]. The article, In Defense of Transracialism, examined the similarities between transitioning to a new gender and transitioning to a new race, and argued that logically if you accept one you really run onto rocky ground if you don’t accept the other. For case studies (and not, apparently, as the fundamental logical basis of the argument) the paper presented the case of Caitlyn Jenner as a transgender, and Rachel Dolezal as a transracial person (“transracer”?) As we know, Jenner got widespread public acceptance for her decision, while Dolezal received widespread public scorn. The article argues in what, to me at least, appears to be a quite tightly reasoned and accessible style, that it’s hard logically to accept one and reject the other, and maybe that means transracialism is actually okay.

The paper was published in March but recently a bunch of Associate Editors connected to the journal published an open letter demanding that the paper be retracted because its publication caused many “harms” to transgender people, and because it was academically poor. The outline of the case, and a solid takedown of the public letter, can be read at this New York Magazine post. It should be noted that the author of the paper is a non-tenured Assistant Professor, a woman, who is therefore quite vulnerable in a highly competitive field dominated by men, and that some of the signatories to the open letter were on the author’s dissertation assessment committee, which makes their signing the letter an extremely vicious act of treachery, from an academic standpoint. For more background on the viciousness of the letter and its implications for the author’s career and for the concept of academic freedom, see Leiter Reports, a well known philosophy blog (e.g. here) or the Daily Nous (e.g. here). It appears that the author has a strong case for defamation, and that many of the leading lights of feminist philosophy have really made themselves look very bad in this affair. (In case you haven’t gathered, I am fully supportive of the author’s right to publish this article and I think the open letter, demand for retraction, and pile-on by senior academics to an Assistant Professor near the beginning of her career is a vicious over-reaction of which they should all be deeply ashamed).

Beyond the obvious bullying and the ridiculous grandstanding and academic dishonesty involved in this attack on the author[7], I am disappointed in this whole issue because it is such a clear example of how Americans can dominate feminist (and broader social justice) debate in a really toxic way. I’ve discussed this before in regards to the issue of sex work and radical feminism, and I think it needs to be said again and again: American influence on left wing social debates is toxic, and needs to be contained. Just look at the list of signatories to this attack on this junior academic – they’re almost all American, and this is yet another example of how America’s conservatism, it’s religious puritanism, its lust for power, and its distorted republican politics, combined with its huge cultural output, is a negative influence on left wing politics globally.

I’m also really interested in this paper because I think it shows not just that transracialism may actually be an okay idea, but when I thought about the implications, I realized that I think most people on the planet already accept transracialism, and if Rachel Dolezal had occurred in any other country we would probably just have shrugged and got on with our lives. So in this post I’d like to discuss what Americans can learn from other countries’ approach to race.

Transracialism in Australia

Just to clarify, I was born in New Zealand to British parents and moved to Australia aged 13, taking Australian citizenship when I was 21. My grandfather was a Spanish war hero, a proud soldier in the losing side of the civil war and a man who spent nine years fighting fascism, and I was raised by him and my (deeply racist, white) British grandmother for two years as a child. So actually I’m a quarter Spanish, and so in theory I could have been raised Spanish but wasn’t, and don’t know anything about my birth race, which at various times in history has been defined as a separate race or just a culture. This makes me probably really normal in Australia, because Australia is a nation of immigrants making a new life in a land swept clean by genocide. It’s my guess that if you grew up in Australia you know a lot of mixed-race people, and if you paid any attention to the discussion of the Stolen Generations in the 2000s you’re aware that race is a very contested and contestable concept, and that Australian government policy has always assumed that race is a mutable concept subsidiary to culture. I think it’s likely that if you grew up in Australia you will know at least one of the following stereotypes:

  • An Aboriginal person who doesn’t “look” Aboriginal, and who maybe has no connection to their Aboriginal culture; you may even not be sure if they are Aboriginal, suspect they are but don’t know how to ask
  • A young Asian Australian who looks completely Asian, acts in ways that are stereotypically associated with Asian Australians (e.g. the guy holds his girlfriends bag for her, the girl is a complete flake in a very Asian Australian way) but is in every other way completely and utterly unconnected from their Asian heritage and is thoroughly through-and-through “whitebread” Australian
  • A completely Australian guy who speaks fluent Greek and goes back to Greece to “be with his family” every year
  • A person who has discovered that they have an ethnic heritage of some kind and is trying to recover that heritage in some way that might inform them about their own past, even though they are effectively completely disconnected from it, but they are clearly serious about rediscovering their heritage and all their friends and family support this apparent madness
  • A black or dark-skinned Australian who literally knows nothing about the culture of whatever race gave them their skin colour

If you’re a little older, like me, or know a wide range of older Australians, you may also have encountered an Aboriginal Australian who was stolen from their family at an early age and raised white but is on a bittersweet quest to recover the heritage they never had – and may have found that that heritage was extinguished before they could be led back to it. When I was 20 I was paid to provide maths tutoring to a bunch of 50-something women who were training to be Aboriginal Teaching Assistants – a kind of auxiliary teacher who will assist fully qualified teachers in remote Aboriginal communities – and some of them couldn’t even do fractions. When I asked how they missed such an early stage of education they told me they were taken to “the mission” when they were young, and didn’t get a proper education. I was young and this kind of issue wasn’t discussed then but now I understand that they were from the Stolen Generation, and were at various stages of understanding of their own racial heritage. They were going back to help their community, and recovering their own heritage, not just to settle the question of their own background but also to right wrongs done and change society[8]. These kinds of people are a normal thing in Australian cultural life. But can you look at that list of archetypes and say they aren’t all in their own way transracial? Indeed the underlying philosophy of the Stolen Generations was that you can eliminate racial traits of Aboriginality in half-Aboriginal people simply by raising them white; and the underlying principle of Multiculturalism is that culture transcends race, and we can all get along. Also in Australia there is a lot of tacit recognition of the problems second and third generation migrant children go through as they “transition” from the cultural heritage of their parents to that of their born country, where although racially they’re distinct from the majority they are clearly culturally more similar to the majority than to their parents. In the 1990s this was happening with Greek and Italian kids, in the 2000s with Vietnamese kids, and in the 2010s with Lebanese kids. Everyone in Australia knows that this happens, which surely means that everyone in Australia sees transracialism as a common pattern of multiculturalism.

Since I’ve moved to Japan I’ve seen this confirmed in many ways, but the best I can think of is a child I knew in a rural country town. His parents were both white New Zealanders but he had been brought to Japan at the age of 3 and raised in rural Japan, and when I met him at 17 he was thoroughly and completely Japanese. He didn’t speak English, communicating with his parents in a mixture of Japanese, really really bad English, and typical adolescent boy grunts. He hadn’t experienced much racism in Japan and had been sheltered in a very nice and welcoming rural environment, had a good group of close Japanese friends, communicated in the (ridiculously incomprehensible) local dialect, and was a typical cloistered Japanese boy. But he was also a big, white lump in his Japanese world, standing out like dogs balls. His race was irrelevant to his cultural background, except that he knew he was “white” and that therefore every Japanese person who ever meets him will engage in a boring conversation about why he is so. Fucking. Japanese. How is this not transracialism? Sure, a lot of transracial experience is not a choice per se, but whether it is a choice is surely irrelevant to the fact that it is completely possible and that for some of us – probably only a small proportion – changing “race” is a choice we feel compelled to make. I.e. not a choice. Rachel Dolezal might be a bad example, but whatever her motives might be, is her ability to do it under question? I would suggest that from an average Australian perspective, it is a completely ordinary concept. The only thing at issue is “why?” But since most well-meaning people don’t impugn the motives of strangers, who gives a fuck?

Race is a social construct

The possibility of transracialism becomes even clearer when you recognize that race is a social construct. This doesn’t mean race doesn’t exist – it clearly does – but that it is an invention of humanity structured around clear physical lines, not a real thing. While there is a clear difference between black and white people, there is no boundary at which this difference can be defined, and no genetic markers that clearly distinguish between one and the other. This isn’t some weird fringe idea popular only amongst Black Panthers, but a fundamental plank of modern science, reasonably well accepted at least in the biological sciences and anthropology. When we talk about races what we really are referring to is distinct cultural identities that can be mostly distinguished by noticeable visual cues (e.g. Nigerians are black, and stress the first syllable of every word in a cool way). This also means that race has very little influence on the culture you can actually adopt, which is why although I’m a quarter Spanish I’m completely white, while there are Aboriginal or Maori people who are one quarter Aboriginal but completely wedded to the culture of that quarter.

In comparison, sex is an absolute category that is definable and distinct. It has a chromosomal origin, and multiple definable, distinct characteristics. It is also clear across cultures that men and women tend to be different in many physical and personality characteristics, though these aren’t always the same in every culture and there can be lots of differences between people of a single sex between and within cultures. But sex is a clear, binary concept that, for all its massive cultural baggage, is not independent of its biological underpinnings. This, by the way, is not an idea anathematic to feminism – lots of feminists accept that the sexes are fundamentally different, and although there may be argument about to what extent these differences are biological vs. cultural, there is a large body of feminist work that assumes these differences are real and important.

And yet still people can want to change sex. Really want to change sex! And this phenomenon is common across almost every culture, though it receives higher levels of acceptance in some cultures (e.g. some Asian and Indigenous cultures) than others (e.g. modern USA). It’s also clear that you can’t force someone to change sex the way you can race. You might be able to “breed out the colour” of “half-caste” Aboriginal people by stealing them from their parents and raising them in a white family, but you can’t breed out the pink by forcing a girl to grow up as a boy – she’ll still know that she’s a girl. The same is true of sexuality of course – most people can define their sexuality clearly by the gender of the people they fuck, but we have no evidence that you can change that, no matter how hard you try. We know in fact that down that road lies tragedy. And so most of us take people’s sexuality – and the right to express it freely – very seriously. Yet most of us also accept that the right to change sex, to express a desire to be the opposite sex to our birth sex or even to be a third sex, very seriously as well.

So why not race? It’s way more fluid than gender, it has no biological basis, and we have huge amounts of evidence that people do it by accident all the time. Yet when Rachel Dolezal was outed as white she attracted general derision across the political spectrum; and Trump trades on the Pocahontas slur for Elizabeth Warren, whose sole crime apparently is to have been raised thinking she might have Native American heritage. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture, especially if like me you grew up in a race-fluid environment. Why is it so wrong to be transracial?

The toxic American influence on sex and race debates

Of course in America race is not a simple issue, because of slavery. America has a complex, toxic and quite unique racial environment which makes it very hard for Americans to react reasonably to these debates. Just consider the “politically correct” term for black Americans – African American. How is this not a transracial identity? Africa is neither a country, nor a culture, nor a race. Being “African American” is a completely concocted identity, a race that didn’t exist until the 1970s and the advent of pan-Africanism. Nothing wrong with that per se, obviously, but it leads to strange contortions in which, for example, the previous president[9] was dismissed as not “African American” enough by some of his critics even though his dad was Kenyan. We also see unedifying moments like this, where we discover that one of Dolezal’s trenchant critics was raised in a white household from the age of 2, and has clearly made a conscious choice to be black – but rejects Dolezal’s choice on clearly spurious racial grounds.

I think the problem here is simply that Americans need to come to terms with their own racist history, and simultaneously with their role as centre of empire and cultural hegemon. It’s not just that white Americans are beneficiaries of a long history of slavery, or that a sizable portion of white Americans can’t even yet accept that slavery was really wrong, or that treason in defense of slavery was really bad. It’s also the case that black Americans are simultaneously deprived in their own country but hyper-privileged globally, benefiting from many of the profits of empire just as their white compatriots do. This is why, for example, in response to the water poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan we heard so much about how this was happening “even in a developed country” – black Americans are used to certain basic things that many of the people in America’s tributary nations don’t get. Similarly, black Americans can talk about pan-Africanism while black Americans are bombing Libyans. This is a complex, messed up problem that Americans have to come to terms with before they preach to the rest of us about transracialism. Combine this with America’s well-established puritanism and religious extremism, and you have a perfect storm of stupid. It makes you wonder why they even bother doing philosophy.

It also makes me think that they don’t really have a proper grip on some of these issues. Instead of talking about their own race issues, I think a lot of American feminists could stand to look around the world and learn from others. Australia has a unique culture of multiculturalism and acceptance that, while far from perfect, offers important lessons on how to negotiate racial conflict. We also have a history of genocide and responding to genocide that is deeply entangled with old fashioned racial theories that still seem to have some influence on both the left and right of American politics. But as an Australian I think we have learnt a lot and grown a lot, both about sex and race, in ways that Americans need to learn from. Instead, however, these American philosophers seem to think that their experience of race is unique and universal. I even recently stumbled across a tweet by a “key” philosopher of transgender issues (American) who claimed that transracialism had never been practiced anywhere except by one person (Rachel Dolezal). What a joke! This shows deep ignorance of broader issues of race and culture and a kind of infantile understanding of what the rest of the world is doing. I bet right now there are huge debates going on in China in Chinese about people faking ethnic minority identity (or vice versa) that no American philosopher of race even knows about, let alone can turn into a lesson for American philosophical dialogue.

I think it’s time Americans learnt some humility. America is a nation of religious extremists with a history of slavery that just elected an orange shitgibbon for president. Some humility would be in order.

And a little less bullying too! So if, like me, you think that this article might have pointed you to a phenomenon that is more common than you think, that you didn’t even know existed, maybe you should read it. And then reconsider whatever passing judgement you might have made of Rachel Dolezal, and ask yourself how easily the media are fooled by ugly narratives, and what that says about their quality.

And then, I guess, be whatever race you want to be!

fn1: Google it!

fn2: Including but not limited to references to Aussie pride

fn3: Until today I didn’t know that this term existed, though I think that I probably tried to avoid doing what it refers to. Google it!

fn4: You’ll note that I am writing “transracialism” but not writing “transgenderism”. This is because apparently the latter term is offensive while the former is not; and this has nothing to say! Nothing at all! About how one of these processes is accepted by those who police our language in the name of social justice, while another is not.

fn5: Add “will non-ironically say ‘discourse'” to the trigger warnings! Too late!? Too bad!

fn6: Because for arbitrary and stupid reasons I can’t say “transgenderism”, every sentence where I want to refer to the process or state of being a person who is transgender is going to involve these slight awkwardnesses of English language. I’m going to stick to the politically correct phrasing here, but I hope that everyone sees how awkward this is, and how telling the acceptability of one -ism but not another -ism is.

fn7: I’m making a decision not to name the author because I suspect that if things go badly for her and the paper is retracted she is going to want her name not to be associated with the paper that she struggled over; I know that my actions won’t make a difference to the google search results, but I choose not to add to them. Nonetheless I think this is work she should be proud of and I hope she doesn’t have to retract or disavow it. Also what kind of budding philosopher wants their name turning up on a disreputable blog like this, associated with fantasy gaming and sex positivity?!

fn8: And they were being taught fractions by an ignorant white dude half their age. Can you imagine the indignity!? But they were very nice to me, and I think I did a good job of the teaching. But teaching fractions is HARD.

fn9: Please come back!

An old Jedi mind trick

An old Jedi mind trick

Our guardians in the press are up in arms and all a-fluster in shock that Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway has decided to start referring to blatant lies as “alternative facts.” She was defending the Comical Ali press conference by Trump’s spokesperson, Spicer, which apparently lit up Twitter because of its obvious stupidity, and his blatant yelling attempts to pretend that the Trump inauguration had a greater audience than the 2009 Obama inauguration was presented as “alternative facts” rather than bald-faced bullshit. Spicer even claimed that Trump’s inauguration had the most people ever or something; and this after Trump apparently attempted to get a military parade organized, with tanks and missiles. He also apparently pressured the head of the National Parks Service to find flattering photos that would confirm what he and his crew already knew to be “fact” – that he had a bigger audience than the Kenyan Socialist, even though he obviously, clearly didn’t. It’s telling that having gone looking for evidence to support their view, and having found none, instead of making excuses they simply decided to front up and lie.

The media are shocked and pearl-clutching about how blatantly Trump is rejecting reality. I’m not sure why they’re surprised. The only surprising thing about the whole sordid affair is that Conway was smart enough to come up with a new term for what the Republican party has been doing for years – making up its own facts and expecting the media to swallow them whole, or at least take them seriously. The most obvious example of this is their ongoing project of blatant climate denialism, which the media have abetted for years by allowing the liars, con-artists, grifters and spooks of the GOP denialist wing and all its “think tanks” to come on to shows discussing science and present their bullshit denialism as “balance.” Since the GOP have been coddled for years into believing that complete lies need to be given airtime for reasons of “balance,” why would they not expect the media to give Trump’s view of the inauguration just as much weight as the photographic evidence? The GOP have been denying the temperature curve for years, and sure some of them have gone for a more sophisticated “humans aren’t causing it” line but a large part of the denialism has focused around denying that temperature exists, denying that the curve is rising, slicing the curve up into small parts and claiming cooling, using a different curve (see e.g. Breitbart with its recent attempt to claim the globe is cooling), using a curve that doesn’t measure the earth’s surface, or claiming that the data is all fraudulent. These are surely just as much “alternative facts” as disputing exactly how many people are in two separate photographs of the national mall.

If the media blessed the last 15 years of abject denialist bullshit with the halo of truthiness, why would they expect the GOP to stop there? And it’s not just on matters of policy that they know the GOP lies: Paul Ryan – who the media insist on pretending is a serious policy thinker – has been caught out lying flagrantly about his own marathon times, no doubt in order to burnish his manly credentials for his far right base and to keep the media hanging onto his strange, blank-eyed granny-starving charm so they can keep pretending he’s not just another shallow tax fetishist. The GOP were also pretty good at pretending that the national debt Clinton inherited was not Bush’s fault, and that the national debt Obama inherited was not Bush’s fault – and the media pretty much let them have that as well. Which has also enabled the GOP to keep up their image as the party of serious deficit reduction and concern about “inter-generational equity” when in fact they are the biggest culprits for the ballooning federal debt, and only ever take deficits seriously when a Democrat is in charge. And wasn’t it the PNAC that said that the only limits to American power were their imagination, just before they fucked up and invaded Iraq?

The GOP and the rarified “thinkers” in “think” tanks like the Heritage foundation associated with this clan of grifters have pushed a whole bunch of other lies and deceptions over the years that are easily just as blatant as Spicer’s recent “alternative facts”: more guns means less crime, the Clean Air Act didn’t work, Barack Obama was born in Kenya, the Laffer curve, abstinence only sex education works, the Empire were the good guys (seriously there is a dude at National Review who runs with this particular shtick). They also peddle in a sideline of hypocrisy that would get a Democrat sunk in a moment – most obviously the wide array of “family values” candidates like Gingrich and Trump who’re onto their third marriage, and the rogue’s gallery of anti-gay lawmakers who have been caught adopting a “wide stance” in public toilets. They’ve been able to get away with this mixture of blatant denialism, straight-up lies, prevarications and half truths, and rank hypocrisy for the past 30 years because the media have been noticable lax about confronting them on the obvious con they’re running. Now the media have a president who really genuinely hates them and they’re suddenly starting to notice that taking facts seriously matters. But they’ve done the GOP’s work for them, allowing every single important issue of the past 30 years to be turned into a matter of opinion and “balance”, making every single basic fact underlying public policy into a debatable issue, and now Trump and his team of rich ingrates have decided they don’t need to pay lip service to the truth anymore. Having shown themselves to be willing enablers of GOP lies for 30 years, it’s going to be a little difficult for the media to back away and start pretending that facts matter.

I’ve been saying for a long time now that the GOP cannot behave like a serious political party while it denies global warming, and that the effort required to deny global warming has corrupted the entire intellectual structure of American conservatism. This is why now the GOP has become the home of vaccine denialism, with Trump considering appointing an open denialist to the vaccine safety committee, and why the GOP cannot come up with a health care policy or a strategy to contain gun violence: The effort of denying the facts of global warming has required such a complete and overwhelming rejection of the basic tenets of modern intellectual activity that they have had to walk away from reality to manage it. Just as the torturer in 1984 forced Winston to lie about the most basic things in order to rebuild his ideology, so the GOP have developed in themselves the ability to lie to themselves about anything, no matter how obvious and simple, and now it’s easy for them to believe anything they want to believe. To convince a Republican of the wrongness of vaccination policy or the fact that homeopathy can cure AIDS you don’t need to sell them on pseudo-scientific waffle – you just need to show them how it matches their ideology, and they’ll automatically believe the rest. This is what happened with anti-vaccination ideology, and it happens by default with any environmental issue. In time it will happen with everything else, because the GOP is intellectually rudderless, has built an entire intellectual structure on no foundations.

Over the term of this presidency that means that the president, all his sycophants, and most of the GOP congress are going to present us a range of ridiculous ideas that are clearly wrong, and yet believe them wholeheartedly: Trump will be “ever more popular” even as his popularity plummets; their Obamacare replacement will be enormously successful even though it is a dismal failure; crime will plummet even if it goes up; the economy will be going great even as inflation and unemployment rise. They have finally and completely severed themselves from reality and even though the rest of us have seen this coming for 30 years, their compliant operatives in the media have just noticed just how far gone the whole screaming mad mob are. But by the time they try to start dealing with it, Trump will have cut them off completely and withdrawn into his Fox news bubble. After all, once you completely reject all facts, you don’t need the media to report anything, do you? You can just make proclamations of the truth, and the more pesky fact-checkers you cut out of the process the easier it is to promulgate the truth.

This day has been coming for 30 years, and we scientists have been warning of it for a long time. I fear it is going to be a long time before America can drag itself back from this state, and that it will do a lot of damage to itself and the rest of the world before it finally recovers. Let’s hope the damage isn’t fatal …

The World's Only Undead Con Artist

The World’s Only Undead Con Artist

In late night wanderings through my TV subscription I regularly stumble on WWE Raw, which is the latest incarnation of World Wrestling, the phenomenon that gave us Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura. I have a vague affection for WWE, because it is so over the top, so ridiculous, and so dramatic that I can’t help but watch it – for about 10 minutes. Then the constant drama wears me out. Tonight I stumbled on a strange combination of scenes in which first some dude called Raynes was kicking the living daylights out of some other dude, chasing him into the broadcasting area and then backstage and smashing him with a television in scenes reminiscent of the great Rowdy Roddy Piper/Paul Orndorff blow up. Following this the head of the WWE corporation came on stage to talk about how he was going to employ the Undertaker to destroy his own son (because in American entertainment Daddy Issues are the big plotline), Shane McMahon, in the “Hell in a Cell” at Wrestlemania, until his son came on to, well, I’m not sure what his intention was but he ended up having the shit kicked out of him by the Undertaker, who is perhaps 60 years old if he’s a day, like Carl McCoy on a potent mixture of steroids, toxoplasmosis and pork fat.

I’m always surprised when I see this because it’s such a transparent mirror of major trends in American popular culture, and it’s such obvious fraud, but the crowd so obviously go wild for it. I can’t understand how people can go crazy for such a fake thing when there is perfectly good real fighting out there, and I can’t understand how people get fired up to support a bunch of people who are, mostly, bullies and savage arseholes.

And that got me thinking about Trump rallies. And wondering if we can get some insight into what’s going on in the Trump movement through the insanity of WWE. Consider the following aspects of WWE…

  • It’s all about breaking the rules: In a typical WWE fight there are rules and a referee, but everyone involved breaks the rules from the start, and the referees stand around yelling and protesting but the wrestlers ignore them, but in the end someone wins according to the rules. The rules basically exist only to confirm the superiority of the victor
  • It’s all about clashes of cultures: In WWE every wrestler serves as a representative of a sub culture, and they are pitted against each other in a vicious battle for superiority. There are goths (the undertaker), migrants (people like Roman Raynes), rich kids (Shane McMahon), hillbillies (the Wyatt family), etc. And they all fight each other according to their own code and culture.
  • The winners are almost always vicious bullies: Typically, within the framework of the rules that they are breaking, the victors win by ganging up on a member of another team (i.e. a subculture) and beating the shit out of them, or by cheating through the help of their friends and viciously hurting a lone victim, but still being declared the winner. Curb-stomping is the norm in WWE.
  • The whole thing is an obvious fraud: The fans all know that what they’re being shown is not the truth, but they lap it up anyway.
  • The corporation is all: All the actors in WWE are supposedly wrestlers for the same corporation, and some of the ongoing threads of drama concern the ownership and direction of the corporation. Given that the wrestlers are teams representing the different American subcultures, the corporation itself serves as a metaphor for America – America as a corporate entity where power is wrested from the current leader through violence and skullduggery

That sounds like the fundamental elements of the movement Trump is building, to me. A movement of bullying power-hungry maniacs who only care about the rules when it suits them, supported by people who know that what they’re being shown is a fraud, but don’t care because the bloodlust and the excitement thrills them, and they know they won’t be the ones in the ring. Obviously WWE didn’t make these things, but maybe WWE – an enduring phenomenon of American pop culture that grew up in Reagan’s America – exemplifies the cultural movements that have been building up to Trump. A popular cultural movement increasingly divorced from the basic rules of polite society as they might be exemplified in sports like American Football, getting increasingly trashy and outrageous, and where the rules present more a set of guidelines to be used to your own advantage than an actual set of restrictions on what you can do.

And in a remarkable coincidence, Hulk Hogan wins a 115 million dollar settlement from one of Trump’s implacable enemies over a 9 second sex tape at the same time that Trump is promising to unleash libel laws on the media…

If, as I have, you have been aware of and occasionally watching WWE in its various forms over the last three decades you will have noticed how it has become unmoored from its origins, increasingly glitzy, increasingly violent, and increasingly savage, at the same time as it has become more popular and more sophisticated, and obviously more fake. This is Trump in a nutshell – the unhinging of American popular culture, and the incursion of its savage and violent underbelly into politics. Even the wives are involved, a common trope in WWE. All those insecurities and violent clashes in the substrate of American culture, that are played out so apparently hilariously in world wrestling, have finally bubbled up into politics too. And this Republican primary season is going to be the Summer Slam of American politics, its final descent into the nadir of this toxic trajectory.

I have always had a vague affection for world wrestling. It’s going to be fascinating to see the culture of WWE get control of the nuclear codes…



Let's be good to each other this year, too!

Let’s be good to each other this year, too!

Another year has come to a close, and as I relax on the laziest day of the Japanese year, I naturally think about all the great gaming I have done over the past year, and my plans for next year. Although I only have one gaming group, which we loosely refer to as Team WTF, and this year our gaming group’s cohesion has been compromised by life commitments, it’s been a pretty great year. Here’s a brief review of our main campaigns and the one-offs I have enjoyed in this year of gaming.

New Horizon Campaign

Our regular, ongoing campaign has been our Cyberpunk campaign, set in the fantastic multi-tiered city of New Horizon and GM’d by the Fantastic Mr. E (not me). This campaign started in 2014, and we’re up to the 16th or 17th session, all of which I have recorded here. Most of my campaign reports are written in the voice of my character, Dedicated Retribution Unit 471 (Involuntarily Demobilized), aka The Druid or Drew. Drew is a 19 year old girl with pscyhopathic tendencies who is good at only one thing: shooting people. She is also very poorly educated and not so bright, and playing her is really fun – she’s been one of the most entertaining characters I ever played, and an excellent evolution from a similar girl I played in a Feng Shui campaign some years ago.

This cyberpunk campaign has been a GMing revelation. Our GM has put so much effort into the world and the plot, and produced such a convincing world and adventure, that even though we all agree the system sucks (seriously, Cyberpunk 2020 is bad news), we have been completely immersed in our world and really enjoying every aspect of what has been a very tough campaign so far. This campaign will probably end sometime around March, which means it will be up around 20-22 sessions and have lasted 18 months, a pretty sterling effort for a group of working adults. It will be, I think, one of the most memorable campaigns I have ever played in.

After the Flood mini-campaign

I managed to GM a short campaign called After the Flood, set in a post-apocalyptic ocean world based on the books by Stephen Baxter. This world has been flooded by some geological catastrophe (not global warming) and all the land but for a small patch of the Himalayas has been drowned. Set about 70 years after the catastrophe, the campaign followed the adventures of a small group of operatives for an ocean community called the Gyre, as they first tried to recover some vital information on lost resources, and then explored a possible lost community in the Arctic. This campaign was run using the Cyberpunk rules as well, because they seemed suited to the low-tech and basic nature of the world, and although it was only six or seven sessions long it was a really enjoyable world to game in. The game reports are on this blog, along with a bunch of background material, but I wrote the whole thing into a book that you can download in pdf form.

GMing this campaign was a lot of fun, even though it had no magic and was very rules-lite. I intend to revisit this again sometime in the next year, but to run it using a Fate-type system that is a bit more freeform and a little less punishingly stupid than the Cyberpunk system.

Spiral Confederacy Campaign

I also started GMing a Traveler campaign in a post-scarcity space opera setting called the Spiral Confederacy. We’ve only played four sessions so far with a reduced crew, on off-sessions, but it has run well and I’m enjoying it, though rumours have reached my ears that some of my players find the system itself boring. The settings so far have been great – an exploding space station over a blockaded desert world, an encounter with a huge and super-powerful space ship, and an ice planet with strange spiders and behemoths – and the PCs seem to have been caught up in some kind of human trafficking mystery by their own stupidity.

I’m really excited by the possibility of a big campaign arc for this setting, with a lot of mystery and conflict along the way, and hoping that in 2016 this can become our main campaign commitment once Cyberpunk finishes. It’ll be my first Traveler campaign in 20 years and hopefully will involve wide exploration of a galaxy that is part Culture, part Firefly and part Star Wars. I’m hoping we can achieve big things in the gulf between the stars this year!

One-off adventures

In 2015 I also joined a couple of one-offs, though my work schedule prevented me from enjoying all the games our group played. I GMd two sessions of Warhammer 3, running an old Warhammer 2 adventure, Slaves of Destiny, for two stupendously strong Dwarf PCs, which the players say they want to continue with more players in 2016. At the beginning of the year I joined an entertaining Dark Heresy adventure set in the Hive Desoleum, playing a fanatical voidborn seeker called Suleiman the Lost. Playing Dark Heresy is fun because it is so comically grim, and you can really let out all your inner demons in a world where no one is innocent and no measures too extreme. The adventure I joined was finished in a subsequent session, with a lot of heretic-burning and sacrifice before the chaos was hunted out and destroyed, but I wasn’t there for that, unfortunately. I don’t really like the Dark Heresy system, which is a shame because the universe is a lot of fun. One of our members, Tall B, objects to Dark Heresy as a campaign setting on the grounds that it is too grim, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing a lot more of this.

We also played a session of Seventh Sea, which I never got a chance to write up, in which I played a hilarious little arsehole called Tom Fumb, a tiny thief who “goes where ‘e’s gotta go, to do wot’s gotta get dun.” The Seventh Sea system is entertaining and it held a lot of promise but the session got drawn out and exhausting in a duel that no one could win (broken combat rules, I think). One of Team WTF’s members, Grim D, wants to run more of this, so I think we’ll be revisiting it sometime this year. More Tom Fumb will be awesome.

Finally I got to sample a brief End of the World adventure just before Christmas, my first ever attempt at playing in a zombie setting, and it was fun but not as satisfying as I expected. I missed out on Dragon Age, which the group ran as a 2-3 session mini-campaign, so I think in total this year I missed one Dark Heresy, a couple of Dragon Age and one Cyberpunk session.

Experimental writing

I also tried my hand at writing a few short stories for this blog in 2015, something I might try and do a little bit more of in 2016. I wrote a brief cyberpunk story, Naming Rites, about the past of one of the campaign characters, that got linked to on Reddit and attracted a tiny bit of attention. Along the same theme I wrote a bit of background for my cyberpunk character, Drew, called Russian Ghosts, and she also tried her hand at travel writing in A Siberian Druid in Venice, in which she takes a brief trip to Venice after killing the Pope. I wrote that while I was in Venice, as my attempt at offering a critique of some of the museum-like aspects of that strange town. I tried out a few other voices too, for example Gael the Plague Doctor in the Loser’s Vignette, my report of a Darkest Dungeon (computer) gaming session that didn’t work out. A lot of my writing is based on game reports, for example the attempt at fragmentary stories for Cyberpunk session 16 (Chaos Vignettes), but this year I aim to try my hand at a little more writing from outside of the games. I have also written a few personal posts this year, about growing up in the UK and Australia, and dealing with family, and I might put a little more of that on the blog too this year – I have things I want to say about growing up poor, and maybe some more historical gaming experiences to talk about. If I can find the time …

Gaming plans for 2016

In total this year I think I played or GM’d on average every fortnight, and our group met slightly more frequently than that, though we weren’t all present at every session. That’s a really excellent level of gaming for a group of adults in their 20s to 40s, with all the life commitments that adults have. I’m hoping that in 2016 we can maintain the pace. We lost one member, Killkat, to a different country, so we need to recruit new members. For 2016 I aim to explore other groups a bit, to see what else other people are doing and look for new members, but my main gaming goal for 2016 is to run a full-blown Spiral Confederacy campaign with Team WTF, and to see what fantastic adventures they can take me to in that universe. Let’s enjoy gaming together in 2016!

Evolution of a New Atheist

Evolution of a New Atheist

Recent events in global politics seem to have brought the spit-flecked anti-Islamic radicalism of the New Atheists out into the open. Dawkins has had a bit of a thing about Ahmed Mohamed that is perhaps a little strange, but his most recent tweet drawing some kind of weird parallel between Mohamed and some poor child in Syria who was forced/brainwashed into beheading a soldier is really kind of off. Meanwhile in a podcast Sam Harris announced that he would rather vote for Ben Carson than Noam Chomsky because Ben Carson understands more about the Middle East.

Vicious, slightly unhinged attacks on children, and voting for a religious madman because he would keep out religious madmen seem like prima facie evidence for some kind of fevered new level of anger, so is it the case that the New Atheists are finally letting the mask slip, and revealing their prejudices in their full, naked glory? Harris is apparently an atheist but he would vote for an avowed born again christian who is completely immune to facts and probably wants to force the end of separation of church and state: when you vote for someone who is anathema to all your fundamental beliefs because of one specific policy you are signalling your policy preferences very clearly. Meanwhile, Dawkins is just … whatever he was trying to say with that tweet, it wasn’t pretty. Have recent events finally caused them to lose it?

Just recently I wrote an angry post about the Church of England trying to invade my leisure time, so in the interests of balance I think it’s only fair that I have a go at the New Atheists, who I find just as annoying in their own special way, though ultimately I think they’ll be far less influential than the current Archbishop of Canterbury. By the New Atheists I mean that crew of sciency types who publish books about how terrible religion is and affect to be experts on all things religious: people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers. Although I don’t doubt their atheism, I think they aren’t really acting first and foremost as atheists. Rather, I think they’re establishment scientists reacting in a particularly atavistic way to two kinds of insurrection that really make them feel threatened: the American vulgarist insurrection against science, which is primarily (but not only) driven by fundamentalist Christianity; and the Middle Eastern reaction against colonialism and imperialism, which has sadly shifted from a politically nationalist framework to an avowedly religious framework. The former threatens them intellectually and the latter threatens their identity, so they react viscerally. But in their visceral reaction I don’t think they’re acting against religion generally, and I think their visceral reaction is not a good thing for atheism. Even if they weren’t straight up reactionaries, I think they make poor spokespeople for atheism (to the extent that atheism is a movement of any kind). Here I would like to give a few reasons why.

The New Atheists will never change anything

In attacking Islam so vociferously, the New Atheists have chosen an easy target, but they aren’t going to change anything in Islam, and in any case they can’t even change Christianity. They don’t live in majority Islamic countries, so they’re in no position to make any changes to Islam; and by aligning themselves so closely with the Islamophobia of the religious/militarist right in the USA they instantly render any serious critique they have of Islam inaudible. In any case, Islam is not a monolithic entity like the Catholic church, it has no central leaders or doctrines, so there is no single force they can bend to their prodigious will. But even within their own Christian countries they’ll never effect any change because they’re going about it completely the wrong way. Religions can be institutionally monolithic, like the Catholic church or the Church of England, but they’re also diffuse and incredibly culturally resilient. You can’t change a religion by standing outside it yelling at it, because a strong religion is composed of both a powerful religious institution and a plurality of supporters, who are in a constant cultural tension with that leadership but identify strongly with what that leadership represents. Religions don’t change because people yell at them because changing a religion requires simultaneously changing its intellectual leadership and its adherents.  The best way to change a religion is to slowly move all of society forward, through technological, scientific and cultural advances, and then watch the religion catch up. It’s slow, hard, dirty work, the kind of work you don’t get accolades for and can’t distill into self-aggrandizing tweets, but that’s how religions change. Perhaps the best secular example of this is the relationship between labour unions and labour parties in the early part of the last century in countries like Australia and the UK. To change policy in those environments you had to be active in the union, working at the grassroots, but also active in the elite system of the unions and its associated mass politics. People like Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam emerged from that environment and they were formidable intellectuals with a very practical understanding of both the levers and the limits of power. Of course, the New Atheists aren’t going to have much of a sense of class politics, so they probably don’t have a clue about the secular equivalents of what they’re dealing with, either.

Furthermore, it’s often the case that the leading agents of change are people within the religion – your Martin Luthers and Gandhis – not angry outsiders. One hundred years from now, when Islam has moved forward to wherever it’s going, people will look back and say “look at that Turkish dude who reformed education in the 21st century” and “how about that Sudanese chick who campaigned against genital mutilation”. No one will be thanking Richard Dawkins for tweeting a picture of an ISIS child soldier brutalizing and being brutalized[1]. These people will never change anything.

Scientists are not good Atheists

There’s a kind of intellectual arrogance in the “elite” branches of science – physics, biochemistry, some parts of evolutionary biology – in which they believe that they can enter any other field of human endeavour and just pwn it with their superb intellectual skills. This is visible at its most nakedly ugly in the behavior of those cosmologists who think they are going to disprove (or discover!) god, and those terrible nuclear bomb makers who turned the whole thing into a sick parody of childbirth. But in this case it means that scientists are entering a world that is very unscientific, that has a completely different language and culture, and trying to understand it in terms that make sense to scientists, and thinking they can. This is why they seem to think that religions are anti-science because their books are kooky, and they think they can effect change through logical debate built on attacking the principles of those books. In science you look at founding principles and build arguments on them; in religion you play fast and loose with founding principles in pursuit of a story (or something; I’m not really au fait with how this stuff works). Yelling at people and claiming to be able to understand the way their religion works because you’re used to logical thinking is not going to get you very far. Laughing at silly origin stories (7 days! ha!) doesn’t get you very far because – newflash – most people don’t give a fuck about how smart you are until they need you to fix their TV and then they’re all like “what do you mean you study geckos?” When you engage with people outside of your field of expertise you need to set aside your field of expertise, or find a way to bring it to the engagement that doesn’t appear arrogant and out of touch. Which brings us to …

The New Atheists are poor scholars

Every field of intellectual inquiry has its own rules, its own language and its own disciplines. You can’t just go into another field of inquiry and start talking about it with the language and discipline of your own field – you’ll misunderstand and get confused. If you talk statistics with a statistician, you need to understand what “consistency” means; if you discuss economics at some point you need to come to terms with their weird and stupid definition of “efficiency”. Believe it or not, religions have their own language and disciplines, and the study of religion is a long-standing and well-respected intellectual field, connected with cultural studies, social science and art theory/history. But the New Atheists don’t give a fuck about that, they just barge on in and start arguing. This is most obvious in Sam Harris’s embarrassing little spanking from Noam Chomsky, where he thought he could engage in debate with one of the preeminent scholars of American foreign policy on the basis of a single reading of just one of his books (“I thought I could read it as a self-contained whole,” what, do you think it’s a Little Golden Book?), without any of the disciplines or scholarly background of international relations. It’s also obvious in the response of scholars of theology to Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which panned it as, for example, work that would make a first year theology student wince[2]. This is what happens when otherwise intelligent, well-educated scientists decide that they can enter into other scholarly debates without the proper debate and, dare I say it, the proper respect. And this is the real problem here: they don’t understand or respect the religious impulse or its history, they don’t respect anyone who believes differently to them, and they base their scholarly approach to religion on this lack of respect for its intellectual origins. This is very, very stupid. For much of human history religion was the wellspring of science, and almost all of our modern intellectual tradition is built on Catholic, Muslim, Jewish[3] or Hindu science. When a scientist goes into their world that scientist is dealing not with weird, kooky idiots who think the world was made in 7 days, but people who understand science and theology, and are comfortable believing in one while working in the other. You can’t knock these people over with second rate arguments about whether god could make a stone so heavy even he couldn’t lift it, and when you try they’ll come back at you with sophisticated discussion of exactly where that question fits into a range of epistemological, ontological and cosmological debates.

These religions didn’t develop through 1000 or 5000 years of history because they had a complete disregard for scholarly endeavour. But the New Atheists approach the mysteries of religion as if they were a first year biology problem. That’s bad scholarship, derived from a lack of respect, which is why I can say that …

They give atheism a bad name

Being an atheist doesn’t mean you think everyone who believes in God is an idiot. Sure, there are some cute jokes about sky fairies and stuff, but they’re rhetorical fluff, not to be confused with the substance of how atheists should (and generally do) approach believers. To me, first and foremost, atheism is about inquiry. I’m fascinated by all this stuff that goes on in this amazing and beautiful world, and that doesn’t just mean I’m interested in what will happen to the polar bears when the ice melts; it also means I want to know what my Muslim colleague thinks about things he maybe didn’t have to think about before he moved to Japan, or what my lapsed Catholic friend thinks about Shinto. It doesn’t mean that I just dismiss all that stuff as dumb-arsed imaginary-friend psychological props. It also doesn’t mean that when I see a member of a certain religion (I’m looking at you Mr. Mohammedan) doing a terrible thing I should immediately decide that all people from that religion are insane arse-hats. But please forgive me if that’s how I interpret the recent behavior of the New Atheists, who seem to have got a real bee in their bonnets about Islam, and are really seriously concerned that it’s the end of civilization. By throwing away their critiques of other religions, siding with religious lunatics, and dropping all pretense at mild manners or rational debate, they make it pretty clear that they have a certain, specific animus against a certain, specific religion. They look, in fact, like racists. Some of them also look like unreconstructed sexists. But in the modern era, they are also the main voice of atheism that most people recognize. Which means that in the public mind they speak for me.

My Muslim colleague is very concerned about the image of Islam that ISIS project. He sometimes talks about it with me – raises the terrible things they have done, tries to talk about how they are perceived by people not like them – and I can see he is worried that I might get a bad idea of his religion from the antics of its worst children. He also makes jokes about his own religion, and is comfortable dealing with the social conflicts living in Japan presents. It’s as if he is just a normal guy trying to get by in this crazy world, who believes some different stuff to me. But to hear Sam Harris’s latest utterings, he’s a monster waiting to blow me up. Or he might be, or something. When people say shit like that about any other group you back away slowly, or you give them hell. But these guys think they’re cool with it, and as the tide of public opinion turns against Islam I guess, increasingly, they will be. But sometime in the future, once ISIS are a bad memory (and they will be!), people will remember that those dudes were atheists, and they will assume that atheism is about racism and hatred or, at best, that it is completely attuned with popular opinion about who the latest bad guys are. Which it isn’t. Atheism is much bigger than that. It is much bigger than this small group of arrogant rich white scientists, and the sooner they let it go and give it back to us the better.

Atheism is not a movement and never will be

At the heart of this is a simple fact that perhaps we didn’t have to think about back when our spokesperson was Bertrand Russell, a man who would never have supported the Iraq war: Atheism is not a movement. It is the antithesis of a movement. It’s a group of people who have quietly decided to go their own way on this spiritual shit. We just don’t do it, but there’s no movement we can form to make that fact public – how can we? We don’t agree on anything! Sure, the Satanists are doing a great job of trolling some Christians in a completely cute and fun way, but they don’t represent us and no one thinks they do. We aren’t A Thing. Sure, sometimes we’d like to be – those atheist bloggers in Bangladesh might not have been killed if they were part of a movement with its own stormtroopers – and being part of a movement has many benefits, but that’s not what Atheism is. In it’s own way it’s as intense and personal as religion, it’s a feeling you have that you can’t project onto anyone else although the best of us will put our case carefully and wait for those we love and care about to maybe feel it, or maybe not. But I think the New Atheists would like us to be a movement, and I think you know who they think should be in charge of that movement.

But I don’t to be part of any movement that turns my inner life into a caricature of itself so they can spit on Muslims and use child soldiers as a rhetorical tool in some kind of shitty twitter war over a fucking clock. I don’t want to be part of any movement whose leaders think they’re intellectually superior to a couple of billion people, and I don’t want to be part of any movement whose representatives would vote for a religious lunatic who’s probably a con artist just because he hates the same people they do.

Once this war on Islam is done – and it will be done, once ISIS are gone, and they will be gone – these New Atheists will discover how fickle their new bedfellows are. When their new anti-Muslim fundamentalist christian friends kick them out, don’t welcome them back. Tell them they sold themselves cheap, and they can be footsoldiers in someone else’s intellectual battle. Atheism doesn’t need them, and neither do the religious people they think they’re helping.

fn1: Seriously WTF were you thinking, dude? Have you been following the movement against child soldiers, are you aware of what a complex, cruel and brutal thing the recruiting and enslavement of child soldiers is? Do you understand that the media have conventions about showing child victims? When the BBC interviews child soldiers they pixelate their faces. What were you thinking, comparing an American kid to a child soldier in the act of beheading someone? Do you have any respect at all for human dignity?

fn2: Read that review. That is how reviews are done.

fn3: Noam Chomsky, for example, grew up in a Jewish tradition heavily steeped in Jewish intellectualism.

Next Page »