off-topic ranting


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!

There is no universal interpretation of this

There is no universal interpretation of this

Coming off of a mildly catastrophic discussion of Trump and racism at Crooked Timber, I thought I’d use some of my holiday time to make a first pass at organizing some opinions I have been forming about sexism, misogyny and the pernicious influence of Christianity on western discrimination. I’ll try not to make it too long but I have today off and a long, complex write-up of the weekend’s adventure to procrastinate about, so we’ll see …

First I should say this post is aimed at left wing philosophy. If you’re a right-wing philosopher you might find it entertaining but I doubt there is much to benefit you here, so you might want to save yourself an hour of bad prose and move along …

There is a common debate in western leftism between people who think that various forms of discrimination (most especially sexism and racism) arise out of economic relations, and those who think that economic relations arise out of the inherent structures of some underlying fundamental inequality. For example, some feminists might argue that human development goes through a universal stage of domination of women, and from this arises the various heirarchical structures that give us racism, classism etc. Others might argue that the economic relations always come first, and that for example the economic forces unleashed by the development of agriculture favor the development of specific social forces (e.g forcing women to have more children in order to support population growth made possible by agriculture, or slavery to enable use of more land). Obviously most people see these things as interlinked or happening contemporaneously, and no one is ever silly enough to think that this stuff was all purposive (a group of farming men getting together and deciding to lock up their women, or whatever).

These origin stories don’t have much importance in day-to-day struggle, but they do and have been influential in major political movements in the past. For example, most of the streams of communist or anarchist radicalism believe that the economic forces of capitalism necessitate class and gender divisions and we can’t eliminate gender discrimination without destroying capitalism; but in contrast radical feminists often believe that you can’t reformulate the social organization of any system without first tackling the underlying gender discrimination that sustains all heirarchies. Obviously on a day-to-day basis we fight battles on the basis of the nature of the battles, so if an issue of equal pay is best won by union activism we organize that way, while if it requires a fundamental rethink of the way women and men interact at work we may fight it through education and awareness raising. But sometimes something big comes up in the ordinary day-to-day political hurdy-gurdy, and in order to deal with it we have to think about the underlying structures of society and what really drives our mainstream political ideas. Brexit and Trump are examples of this, and in many ways I think the radical left has failed to understand them by casting them as simple economic responses rather than manifestations of a deep underlying racism in these societies. In the case of Brexit there is a yearning for lost empire underlying the dreams of the little Englanders, and in the case of Trump I think we are seeing the final fight against the civil rights movement and, assuming the left wins, the burial of slavery apologia and confederate dead-ender ideology.

I used to think about the social order primarily in terms of the economic forces argument: that is, I used to think that when racist and sexist undercurrents reared their head in mainstream politics or pushed a surge of hatred through society, that they reflected some kneejerk, incoherent response to underlying economic forces. In this worldview we don’t have to tackle the deeper undercurrents of society’s problems, we just look for the economic pressures and fix them. Fixing economic pressures is easy, whereas tackling things like the social undercurrents of the alt-right’s hideous misogyny is hard. But then I came to Japan, and discovered that actually a functioning capitalist society with all the same economic pressures can have radically different approaches to the interaction between the sexes, and I started to understand that actually in many cases culture trumps economics, and understanding the cultural forces driving our social development is really important to being able to finally end many of the problems we face. I don’t know how a right-wing interpretation of these things would work, but the classical hard left really needs to adapt its analytical strategies to consider the deep undercurrents of social life. Similarly, when I came to Japan I realized that origin stories or analytical frameworks that posit universal underlying structures based on universally observable basic facts are useless, because actually there are huge differences in the way societies practice the same forms of discrimination, and these differences are relevant. In particular, radical feminist ideas about the origins of sexism and how sexism functions and is maintained fail dismally in the face of cultural differences that I think radical feminism, with its primarily American and British origins, doesn’t understand.

In this post I aim to discuss how I changed my mind about this in the light of Japanese gender relations, and how I came to realize the overwhelming importance of christianity’s sexual morals in generating western gender relations. As a result of coming to Japan I realized that if we want to change gender relations for the better in the west we need to – absolutely have to – crush the influence of Christianity on our culture. So first I want to explain the difference between the west and Japan on this issue, and then explain why I think it’s important.

Before I go onto the next section I want to stress that it is not my task here to present Japan as an ideal society or to say it is not sexist or women don’t have a hard time or there is no rape or anything like that. I just want to show how things are different.

How are Japanese gender relations different?

I think the very first thing that foreigners realize when they come to Japan is that it is safe. It’s safe for men, and every day I am so happy about the fact that physical confrontations don’t happen here, but the absolutely overriding difference in safety is noticed by women. There is no street harrassment and no public fear of rape. I live in an area surrounded by parks that are dark at night and it is absolutely normal to see women walking alone through those parks at midnight, with earphones in, alone, with no concern in the world. I know in the country that there are places where women don’t travel alone at night because of flashers and gropers, but in the city at least this absence of the threat of sexual violence is noteworthy. It’s not just a statistical anomaly brought about by underreporting or something, and everyone who lives here seems to feel it very quickly. And when come from a western country with a lot of interpersonal aggression and a lot of violence against women (like Australia) you really – I cannot stress this enough – you really don’t understand what a difference this makes until you experience it. Once you have experienced a world without this kind of behavior you just lose all tolerance for western approaches to it. When I look at the lockout laws being introduced in Australia to stop violence between drunk men in pubs I am just astounded that we ever as a society tolerated this kind of thing, or that we have to use such a ridiculously heavy-handed approach to stopping it – and I notice exactly the kind of problem I alluded to above. The lockout laws are an attempt to use economic and legal tools to stop an underlying socio-cultural problem. Tackling adult male violence is hard, but stopping them from getting drunk in public is easy. But these solutions don’t stop the problem, they just stop it manifesting.

Some other easily-grasped ways in which gender relations are different in Japan include:

  • There isn’t really any Japanese word for “cunt” that you can use as an insult, and in fact there are no insults based on sexual activity or sexuality. In Japan you don’t tell someone to fuck off, you don’t say they’re a fag, you don’t say that was a dick move – sex is just not a degrading or insulting thing here, and you can’t use it as such, and if you tried people just literally wouldn’t understand what you were saying (though they would think you were being very coarse)
  • As a result of this difference, two chapters of Dworkin’s famous book Intercourse – Dirt and Death – don’t really seem to apply in Japan. A whole section of the radical feminist understanding of the universality of women’s oppression is built on an explicitly christian framework that 120 million people don’t get
  • Japanese women seem to have a much greater ability to negotiate safer sex than western women. Obviously I don’t know what every Japanese woman is saying or doing in the bedroom but the statistics make it clear: the vast majority of Japanese women are not using the pill, but rates of teenage pregnancy are very very low, as are rates of pregnancy generally. The only way this is possible if Japanese women – even teenage girls – are able to negotiate the parameters of sexual activity more effectively than western women
  • Japanese attitudes towards casual sex are completely different to the west. The love hotel is a ubiquitous part of Japanese life and while westerners usually think this concept is disgusting and weird Japanese people in general have no real problem with it at all.
  • Japanese women often work in industries where western women can never be seen. In particular farming, transport, and even construction seem to have a higher prevalence of women workers. It’s not common, but not especially rare, to see female truck drivers, and female farmers are normal.
  • Japanese women’s sporting participation seems to be much higher than western women’s and much more widely respected, across a wider range of fields. In particular Japanese women’s participation in fighting sports – and non-participant women’s deep appreciation of fighting sports – is completely normal, while it remains a very modern phenomenon in the west
  • Attitudes towards sex work and all forms of the sex industry here are much more practical and non-judgmental
  • Small businesses almost universally don’t have men’s toilets. They have a women’s toilet and a shared toilet
  • Opposition to homosexuality appears to be minimal and based primarily on concerns about responsibility to family and society, not on fear and disgust

I think these differences in attitude are strong and they derive from an obvious source: Japan is a pagan society. It has no long-standing or deep-seated religious just-so stories about how everything is women’s fault and women are dirty and bad, and sex is a punishment from God. Attitudes towards sex in Japan are constructed around privacy and shame, whereas in the west they’re structured around guilt and sin. Indeed, if you dig into some of the attitudes towards sex that are similar between Japan and the west – the lack of mixed bathing, for example, or the weird video censorship – you will often find they’re a result of Japan reacting to western values either post-Meiji or after world war 2.

Another result of this difference in attitudes that I have noticed but which I can’t formulate easily into words is the difference in attitudes towards femininity. In the west femininity seems to be seen as this kind of act that women put on in their early 20s, and it is seen as a deceptive and manipulative cloak. To be taken seriously at work or as an adult a woman needs to divest herself of this feminine cloak (or, as it is generally described, these “wiles”) and behave seriously – it is seen as a kind of childlike deceit. In Japan it seems to be viewed as just a natural aspect of being a woman, not a deceptive trick, and women remaining feminine into their 50s and 60s is completely normal. I think this also means that women are not taken less seriously because they dress and act feminine, although this femininity may disadvantage them by drawing attention to their gender (which, as everyone knows, is discriminated against at work and home in Japan as everywhere). I think this difference in attitudes towards femininity explains why Japanese women have maintained a high level of style and attention to personal appearance separate to men even as women in the west have begun to favour jeans and t-shirts – Japanese women don’t need to hide or be ashamed of their femininity, because they don’t have to dress in men’s uniform to be taken seriously. This is also evident in sport, where Japanese athletes who are taken really seriously by the public (the Nadeshiko football team, for example, or the wrestling team) still dress and act feminine because they don’t have to hide this stuff in order to be taken seriously. It’s hard to draw these links because it’s all nebulous cultural stuff, not hard science, but I think the simple reason for this difference is the Genesis story. In Genesis a woman tricked a man into a sin, and as a result women can’t be trusted. Christianity tells us that performative femininity is a deception that leads men into trouble and danger – it’s literally wily. After 2000 years of that story (and all the stupid badly-done renaissance paintings of a wily girl tricking a dude) we get young men who know nothing about Christianity or feminism or indeed women saying that they can’t trust a girl who wears make up, they don’t like make up because it’s deceptive, etc. There’s a 2000 year long history of distrusting women’s wiles and tricks at work there, and I think it has a profound effect on the way women in the west present themselves at work and in politics.

I suspect also that in reaction to this notion of femininity as performative and deceptive, and out of deep-seated fears of homsexuality that are also grounded in biblical hatred, men overperform their masculinity. The result is street violence. I think in fact Japanese men are much more comfortable about their masculinity and feel no special need to display it, not because women have been held back and men thus don’t feel threatened, but because they haven’t been raised in a society where men have to constantly prove themselves as not feminine and not gay.

What does this mean for western views on sexism and racism?

Obviously I’m no cultural theorist and I’m definitely not an expert on Japanese culture and history; this is just my impression of the differences between the west and Japan from 10 years of living here. Obviously also these lines between ancient books and modern practice are mediated by thousands of years of cultural baggage, and there are other cultures at play in western countries that may still have a lingering influence on how sexism and racism develop. But I think the connections are there, and that even though we in the west like to fancy ourselves as enlightened and developed, we’re actually still wallowing in a swamp of barely-understood cultural norms that derive from what is, in essence, a very very bad place. When you step outside the christian world and spend some time looking in, you start to notice that actually a lot of our bad points are not universal, and I think they probably stem from our religious origins. Here I have given the example of gender relations but I think the same thing applies to race relations and probably the way we approach class, economic inequality and other -isms. But I think that the differences in gender relations are clearest because they are most noticable in day-to-day life, and perhaps also reflective of the most poisonous aspect of Christianity.

I have said before on this blog that I think western radical feminism is itself misogynist and conservative. This is because it’s really hard to escape the origins of your own culture, and the reality is that our culture has its origins in a deeply misogynist, poisonous text that is hateful and judgmental – the old testament of the bible. And while modern Christians try to pretend that they built their ideology on the new testament’s story of love, this new testament story is an evil story of child murder, with a side of nasty misogyny from some of the apostles, and it doesn’t do anything to leaven the nasty hatred of the old testament. Furthermore, while our modern Christian movement tries to pretend that it is all about love and light (and murdering your own son so you can be famous, then fetishizing his dead body), the actual origins of our cultural approach to sex and sexuality are all in the old testament, in the disgusting, judgmental and hateful texts of Genesis and Leviticus. Our fundamental origin story is designed around hating women, and making sex sinful and dirty. Much as we like to pretend that we’re free of religion, we’re not free of its cultural influences, but we need to be if we truly want to liberate women and men from the shackles it has imposed on our relations. But my experience in Japan shows that these ideas are not universal, they’re not fundamental parts of who we are as human beings or who we will become if we try – we can shake off these ancient rusty chains, and become better people. But in order to do that we need to confront the causes of some of our deepest, most secret problems, and for the left that means not assuming we can fix all our problems by fixing economic relations – we need to keep taking the fight to the bible, and to the deep-seated insecurities and social tics it has created in us.

And sometimes that means we need to recognize where our society is failing itself, and fight cultural battles on purely cultural grounds, because when we assume there is some economic force that created Trump or the modern Republican hate machine, we are guaranteed to fail. Sometimes hate is just hate, and sometimes we need to fight it on its own grounds.


About the picture: This is a picture a friend of mine took at a recent festival. It’s Seiko Omori, about whom I know nothing, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of Japanese cultural imagery that is a) really hard for westerners to understand at all and b) almost certain to be misunderstood and misinterpreted if we try to analyze all the imagery in terms of western notions of sex, sexism, women’s roles, pornography, or power.

 

You whelp 'em, we use 'em

You whelp ’em, we use ’em

The National Review, conservative journal of record and close ally of the Republican Party, has been struggling with Trump’s impending nomination victory. They ran a special issue “against Trump” in which all of their columnists whaled on him; they invented the #neverTrump hashtag that is clearly failing; and they have been running a constant series of attacks on him, leavened of course with conspiracy theories about how he is really a Democrat and anyway it’s all Obama’s fault. Finally, though, they realize that the writing is on the wall and have given up on any chance of  holding him off. Today’s National Review is full of articles claiming he is no worse than Bill Clinton, it’s all the left’s fault, the media are all just like Breitbart, and he won’t be so bad as president anyway. I guess this is the bargaining part of the five stages of grief, which leaves just depression and acceptance to go. And make no mistake, the journal that was formed to “Stand athwart history, yelling stop!” is almost certainly going to accept Trump in the vain hope that they can cut a deal with him – or more likely, so that they can stay connected to the wingnut welfare dripfeed. We’ll see about that.

But before acceptance comes depression, and the National Review’s subscription journal released a perfect model for that stage of grief today, in the form of a vicious attack on the “white working class” that make up the Republican base, and that is deserting its mainstream candidates for Trump. In this article we get to see what the Republican establishment really thinks of its base, through the voice of a Republican stalwart, Kevin Williamson. And what he has to say should put to rest any doubts that the Republican leadership have any respect for ordinary people. Here is a taster:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog—you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that…

…The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible… The white American under-class is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul. If you want to live, get out of Garbutt [a blue-collar town in New York].

There’s a lot more where that came from, all of it vicious and bitter, and defended by another close friend of the establishment, David French, in a follow-up article. This stuff is so cruel, so bitter and so vicious that it’s hard to comprehend that these people see white working class Americans as anything but their greatest enemy. I want to particularly isolate this phrase for special attention, from the above quote:
the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog
Roll that phrase around in your mouth for a moment. How does it taste? That’s some bitter fruit, right there. I’m having difficulty thinking of anything I’ve read in political discourse from a mainstream commentator any time in the past ten years that compares to this piece of vileness. The language is carefully designed to remove the humanity of its object, not just through the banal comparison to stray dogs (we all know what to do with them!) but through its careful transformation of the phrase “human children” into a soulless other. It’s a phrase so dripping with contempt that no one who deployed it will ever be able to walk back from it. It’s clear to everyone what Williamson and his defenders think of the white working class, and it’s not pretty.
Unfortunately for the puppy-beaters at the National Review, the “white working class”[1] is all that stands between their precious party and electoral oblivion, and for the past 20 years they and their political friends and their donor masters have been assiduously alienating themselves from every other slice of American life. It’s pretty clear that they’ve been running a long con on their main voters, promising them racism and religious fundamentalism in exchange for an economic policy platform built entirely around shoveling money into the bank accounts of their rich mates, no matter what the price to their voters. They’ve sustained that con through deceptively blaming all the problems on Democrats, and maintaining the image that they are the only people who really care about or understand mainstream America. But now a brave new figure has promised that “white working class” base a new, shinier agenda with more racism and an economic message that appeals to their real economic insecurities. The National Review’s “intellectuals” and Republican leadership have been telling their base that the economy is fucked and it’s all Mexicans fault for 20 years now, while stealing their income, and now some philistine has come along to play to the same insecurities with a much louder racist message.
This has the sheisters at the National Review mad for two reasons. It isn’t just that the victims of their con have proven as faithless to them as they were to their victims; it’s also that they realize their position at the wingnut welfare feeding trough is in danger. These trust fund babies who have never done a decent day’s work have made a very good living from writing attack screeds on poor black people and pretending that Obama was born in Kenya, but they thought the skills they were offering were in real demand. Now Trump has shown that the GOP doesn’t need policy nuance or subtly-crafted dog-whistle rhetoric. You just have to call Mexicans rapists and promise people everything they want, and the vote is yours. Why would the Koch brothers bother funneling money to the likes of Kevin Williamson when any old red-faced carnival barker can win the nomination just by screaming at foreigners? If the folks at National Review had any use, it was laying the groundwork for Trump. Their work is done now, the earth properly salted – who needs them any more?
Over the next few months, as the Republican thinktank establishment realize that their base has deserted them, and then also start to worry that the wingnut welfare will follow, you can expect a lot more of these vicious attacks on the white working class. They’re going to show what they really think of the marks they’ve been fleecing over their whole career. And as you read this venom, remember that a central part of Republican “intellectual” mythology is that the Democrats are the party of the inner-city elites, people who don’t care at all about the troubles of ordinary Americans, never move amongst them and don’t understand them. In popular Republican orthodoxy Democrats sneer at blue collar workers and all the schmultzy paraphernalia of workaday America, and only Republicans truly understand these salt-of-the-earth Americans. Then compare Williamson’s phrases with the way Bernie Sanders talks about (and has fought for) the rights and lives of ordinary Americans, or the way Obama engages with the victims of mass shootings. Who really cares about these people?
Everything you need to know about the Republican party’s agenda is in that Williamson article. Let’s hope it becomes their epitaph.
—-
fn1: I put this phrase in quotes because there is no such thing as a monolithic “white working class” in a country as geographically and economically yooooge as America. White workers in the coastal South are completely different to workers in the megalopolis of the north east, the farming communities of flyover country or the sun-drenched west. In truth the Republicans haven’t been able to maintain a monolithic control over this group, but American political scientists (as well as Republican “thinkers”) seem to see everything in terms of demographics, so I’m stuck with the idea.
picture note: That beast is from the BBC TV Torchwood series special issue, Children of Men, in which [spoilers!] aliens come to earth to harvest human children to use as recreational drugs. The language that alien in the picture uses to describe its drug dispensary is pretty much on a par with Williamson’s.
Fuck this actual thing

Fuck this actual thing

Most people gather with their family for Christmas, and most people seem to view this as a chore. In the days leading up to Christmas my Facebook feed is filled with articles about how to survive your drunk, racist uncle, or complaints from my friends about the impending horror of Christmas dinner. In November in the run-up to Thanksgiving Day my feed is also filled with articles from Vox and other US aggregators about how to survive the drunk racist uncle (plus, interestingly, how to rebut questions about when you are going to get married or have kids).

I escaped most of these responsibilities years ago, because I have no family. For me Christmas is a time of mixed emotions, when on the one hand my friends all abandon me to go hang out with their family, reminding me of everything that I have missed for a long time; but on the other hand their time with their family is a chore, and is primarily made that way by the poor behavior of older relatives who cannot accept basic norms of social interaction.

By way of explanation, my family abandoned me when I was 17 and although we made a few efforts at reconciliation subsequently, those efforts never stuck and ultimately I gave up on them. For most of our lives we have been separated (even when I was a child) by an ocean and two continents. Once I married I did occasionally have to endure Christmas with my in-laws, but I could also choose not to and often did, preferring not to spend the money or, once I was in Japan, unable to due to work.

At some point in the process of being abandoned by, trying to reconnect with, and then giving up on my family, I discovered that actually family are not as important as the world tells you it is, and most of what the world tells you about family is misleading and/or actually destructive. In fact – contrary to popular wisdom – your family are just people, like you, and they have a responsibility to treat other family members with respect that all too often they fail to live up to. Other family members, especially junior members, are expected to tolerate the poor behavior of other members, and make special allowances for them that ultimately degrade everyone’s relationships and put a deep poison into a central factor in many people’s lives.

We are of course used to the idea by now that adult family members have to try hard to provide a good environment for their children, to be responsible in their relationships and not to be abusive. But once we become adults everything changes. Suddenly the onus is on the children and younger family members to be an empty vessel for their parents’ idiosyncracies, anger and gradual loss of touch with reality. We all know the drill, because we’ve all done it: sitting through the lectures by the angry uncle who thinks climate change is a myth made up by lesbian Aborigines, or enduring the vicious angry barbs of the perenially-aggrieved aunt, or sitting through destructive patterns of parent-child interaction that have existed since we were little, are plain as day to us but apparently completely unnoticed by the parent in the interaction. In our twenties, especially, before we’re independent in our careers and have our own families, we have to endure the sneers of older family members who view our ideals as shallow and foolish thoughts we will grow out of when we become just like them. If we’re women, we have to endure being seen as soft and emotional if we disagree with our parents on a range of things (not just political, but about how people should behave at Christmas parties, how labour should be divided, what we should eat or how the young and elderly should be treated). We struggle to introduce new ideas to the Christmas event or to find new ways of doing things, because the older family members control everything, and attempts to deflect or defuse long-standing and destructive social dynamics are ignored, or even openly opposed. In my family, worst of all, was the assumption that my older family members could say horrible things that would see anyone in my peer group cast out instantly, and I should never, ever speak up against those horrible things or present a different opinion, but must sit quietly while a gaggle of aging, out of touch idiots rained hatred and bile down upon me.

For the life of me I cannot fathom where that hatred came from, and I cannot understand why my parents never understood that I don’t want to hear it. I mean sure, if you want to argue … but it’s exhausting, can’t we just put it aside and talk about something else? I guess my family was incapable of any form of interaction that wasn’t conflict, and by the time you’re an adult it’s not possible to break that dynamic from within. My family was also incapable of understanding and respecting my work, which is a thing I notice often in my friends’ families too – especially working class families, whose children have moved from building things to programming things, living in two-income families with no children at a time when their parents were in single-income, breeding families fixed on a certain trajectory. The problem here is not that the children are doing different things to the parents, but that the parents don’t understand the value of those things.

I know not everyone experiences these things at Christmas, and that for many people (I guess) Christmas is a generally pleasant, slightly boring experience with a few eye-rolls mixed in. But for a lot of us one or more of these phenomena are a common, frustrating and often quite upsetting part of any major family gathering, that leaves us exhausted, stressed and in many cases distressed. Why is this and what should we do?

In my opinion much of this Christmas-time anguish comes from two related problems. First, parents cannot accept that their children have grown up and do not want to deal with the possibility that they could learn or grow from their children’s experience. It is the ideal of every society that every generation is better educated, wealthier and has a wider range of positive experiences than their parents, and I think it is still the case that this is true, but imparting this education and experience backward to the previous generation doesn’t seem to be part of this goal. This means that even in adulthood we are infantilized by our parents, who always weigh their limited and often negative experiences – of war, poverty and life before the internet – against our positive and empowering experiences. Even when we reach our 40s and 50s there still seems to be this ideal that we will sit down and shut up while our elders tell us stuff we have heard a million times before – and no sharing back.

Second, and worse, society sells us an image of family relationships that is completely destructive, and that I think is built on experiences of times long past. This image simultaneously holds that our family are essential – that we can’t rely on anyone as much as family – and that our relationships with them should be unconditional in a way that our relationships with almost everyone else in life are not. I don’t think either of these things are correct. Family are often the first to let you down in a time of crisis, and in any case modern society has many systems in place to protect those who cannot rely on their family – systems like guardianship boards, pensions, elderly care, which while not perfect liberate us from dependence on our families at times of emergency – and there’s no reason to think that they should necessarily be the first or best people to turn to in times of crisis. Those of us who live far from our family understand this, even if we can trust our family, because distance renders their willingness to help immaterial. But the second part of this image, of the unconditional nature of our family relationships, is a terribly destructive force in our personal lives. What is it about family that means we have to endure each others’ foibles and cruelties without complaint or surcease, year in and year out, where we would abandon even partners who treated us with the same disregard? What possible benefit is this for anyone involved in the often-destructive relationships that hang over us from our childhoods?

I have a feeling that at least some part of the persistence of these negative dynamics in adulthood arises from the simple expectation everyone has that family will continue to stick together even if they abuse each other. For example, I know of a family where one member sold a struggling business to another, naive family member, and used the money to move into a new, booming business, leaving that family member to sink under the pressure; they were all still expected, somehow, to get along. In my own family my Father was viewed with shock and amazement when he declared he would no longer speak to or have any dealings with an uncle who sold him a dud car that was actually a deathtrap. Family are expected to stick together even if they do things that are cruel, destructive or alienating – even if they do them over and over again. I think people all know this about family life, and it makes them reckless in their dealings in a way that they are not with strangers.

If everyone in a family relationship knew that they would be tossed away as easily as strangers if they behaved cruelly or immorally, everyone would behave better. We all know that if we treat our partner a certain way they will abandon us, and that our friends only stick with us so long as our good points outweigh our bad points. In this regard our friends and partners keep us honest, and maintain some certain baseline of behavior. Obviously at times this changes, for example when a child is born or a shared business demands some special commitment, but in general our friends and partners respect that they have to listen to our needs, act on our complaints and at least try to show some degree of care for our needs. But family members – especially the older ones – work on the general assumption that no matter what they do, they won’t be dumped. They won’t be uninvited from family affairs even if they spout casual, disgusting racism or treat other family members with contempt. Many families harbour long grudges and wounds from past misdeeds that would have seen a member cast out from any other group. Those misdeeds would be much less likely to happen if people held family members to similar standards of responsibility that they hold the rest of the world to.

Many people think that the family is a central unit of society, that it holds society together and is the fundamental building block of social order. Yet it is within this fundamental building block that people are held least responsible for their own actions towards others. Perhaps the family would be a stronger building block of society if people understood that they were at more risk of being held accountable within it. Perhaps people’s behavior across society would be better if within their families they were held to similar standards of behavior that they expect of strangers. Perhaps then the family would be a real building block of social cohesion, rather than – as I suspect it has been for much of human history – a stumbling block to self-improvement, in which everyone’s welfare is held back by a fear that conflict within the family will have real physical and economic consequences for everyone in the unit.

We have updated relations in friendship groups and in couplings to reflect the realities of the modern world, but in many ways our families still rest on a fundamentally feudal (or Victorian?) assumption about their importance to the welfare of all their members. Let’s update our family relations to match the world we live in, not the world our parents inherited. Hold your family accountable for their bad behavior, and let them know they won’t always hold your patience and tolerance. We can build a better world not just by the way we treat strangers, but also by the way we treat those closest to us – and the way we force them to treat us.

 

SPOILER: Everything they do turns to shit

SPOILER: Everything they do turns to shit

Last week David Cameron, British PM, put the case for bombing ISIS. It was interesting not for what he didn’t say but for the extent of what he did say. In stark contrast to the last time a British PM tried to ginny up a war, this time he was unstinting in his efforts to present facts and legal material in support of his bloodthirst. I watched it live (by coincidence!) and was interested to see that he released the legal evidence for war – something Blair never did – and spoke in detail to a list of reasons why bombing ISIS would be a war of self-defense, justified by not just international law but common decency. I can’t find the speech online, but you can read highlights here. In my opinion this was one of Cameron’s finer moments, reminiscent of the Cameron I saw on TV in 2009 before I left the UK, making strong speeches upbraiding the Labour Party for abandoning equality and promising that the Conservatives would be a party of greater equality and opportunity.

He does a good act, does the pig-fucker general. He let it all down today when he called the opposition leader a “terrorist sympathizer,” a cheap and pathetic shot that he really didn’t need to deliver after making a strong and passionate speech in favour of a war that, I think, many people would be happy to support. Why smear shit on that gilded lily? This particular insult is particularly stupid because while many people might suspect Corbyn of being a bit too close with Assad, it’s really obvious to everyone that a) this wouldn’t be happening if Assad had a few more friends and b) Corbyn is obviously a pacifist, which means he is not a terrorist sympathizer and everyone knows this. Saying something like “Corbyn can’t be trusted with the nuclear arsenal” is a perfectly reasonable slur; there is, however, no logic to claiming a pacifist is a terrorist sympathizer, and coming from someone in a position of such strength as Cameron this is just pathetic.

It’s also redolent of the worst rhetorical excesses of the period leading up to the Iraq war, when anyone who didn’t agree with a plan to kill a million Iraqis, displace 4 million more, and ignite a powder keg in the middle East was derided as a coward and a friend of Saddam Hussein. After those heady days of bloodthirsty stupidity it’s a very, very bad plan to show any hint of the same arrogance. This was on display in both Cameron’s speech and Corbyn’s reply, both of which were heavy with caution about the idea of sending British soldiers to the middle East. Cameron was at pains to point out that this was not a war of choice, and Corbyn was at pains to point out that the Labour Party is no longer the party of indiscriminately murdering foreigners.

Progress! And how did this progress come about? Because everyone in British politics is now desperate to avoid being compared to that most sinister of Vampiric figures, Tony Blair, the muppet who sucked Britain into a devastating war with a country it had no reason to invade, against all reason and popular will. Excepting the Scottish National Party, who are a kind of post-Blairite success, the rest of the parliament were engaged in a ten-hour long debate this week with not each other, but the ghost of Vampires past – Tony Blair. They could as well have burnt his effigy and all gone home, because until a couple of generations have passed and that evil grinning demon is dispelled from the British conscience there is no possibility of having an honest debate about war. How can you debate something when the shame, stigma and sin are so deeply ingrained as this? Little knowing, Shakespeare prepared a scene for just this moment in British political history: “Out, damned spot!”

But like the play, it won’t wash out, and as a result Corbyn’s response to Cameron’s speech was, in my opinion, crabby and limited. He could have set a higher tone by commending Cameron for his thoroughness, reminding everyone from the start of what a heinous mistake the last British effort was, and engaging the points that Cameron made rather than reading off a list of questions that Cameron had basically already answered. Corbyn’s speech was aimed at an absent Tony Blair, and those of his ghouls who remain connected to the parliamentary Labour Party, rather than the ostensible warmonger standing in front of him. Was ever a political party more hamstrung by its recent history than this? They elected a near-pacifist, who has completely reasonable grounds for his beliefs, and is strong in them, but the first time a war comes along he actually has a really good opportunity to engage with the British public by renouncing those beliefs “for a greater good”: only he can’t, because he and his whole party couldn’t go to war against Darth Vader himself if he was murdering puppies by the bucketload, because even the suggestion of a warlike impulse and the entire country will yell “FUCK! Blair!” and head to the bomb shelters.

He doesn’t have a reflection, but surely Blair’s shadow stretches far.

Later in the week Corbyn recovered some poise, and wrote a much more solid opinion piece for the Guardian, explaining in more detail why war won’t work. He seems to be largely supported by his party, though reports say he is allowing a conscience vote, which is good. War should be a matter of conscience, though that wouldn’t have stopped the Blairite clique, who are as completely lacking in conscience as they are in souls. Corbyn’s piece points out that without boots on the ground we can’t win, and the only boots on the ground that can win are local, but the local forces are either useless or very very dubious. He also points out that British planes won’t add much to all the other powers there so why bother? I have the same feeling about Trident: just let it all go boys, you’re no longer a world power! But the deeper point I think is more important: without ground troops bombing campaigns are a waste of time, and there is no army ready to deal with ISIS.

ISIS are the Khmer Rouge of the Middle East. Just like the Khmer Rouge, they sprung out of destruction and waste, sowed now as it was then by the US air force and triggered by a local insurrection. In the end the Khmer Rouge were brought down by a Vietnamese invasion, which it appears many scholars think met all the conditions for a “just war”: they invaded Cambodia to protect themselves, stop massive refugee flows, and end a despotic and genocidal regime. Cameron was at pains to make the same points in his speech, though he didn’t compare the UK to Vietnam, and I think he’s on solid ground. The difference, of course, is in the source of ground troops: Vietnam is a neighbour of Cambodia, and sent in 150000 Vietnamese troops, defeating the Khmer Rouge in two weeks (ha!), but there is no similar ground force available to beat ISIS. If the western powers are going to depose ISIS they’re going to need a local force, and the only local forces available are either unacceptable (Iran, Hezbollah, Assad) or uninterested (Turkey).

When I read the debates about what to do about ISIS I find myself trapped by the same demons as Corbyn. On first blush it appears like the perfect humanitarian intervention – no clearer case has presented itself in 30 years. But our recent history of interventions and the recent history in the area make me think that no intervention is going to work. Which leaves ISIS rampaging across the region, destroying everything they touch, even though there’s the possibility of a coalition of global powers acting together for the first time since world war 2 to destroy an unqualified evil, uncompromised by concerns of local politics or history. Since the Khmer Rouge no one has been so obviously cruising for a bruising as ISIS, and no coalition more clearly ready to form since world war 2.

And yet over it all hangs the shadow of Blair and Bush. Vox recently published a great article featuring a debate between Christopher Hitchens and a few other randoms, in which Hitchens was 100% convinced that no harm could come from invading Iraq, while someone else in the debate was predicting, essentially, ISIS. Reach back in history and view that, and weep at how stupid our political masters can be. If they hadn’t invaded Iraq, a million people would still be alive and ISIS probably wouldn’t exist; and if they did, the political will to destroy them would be intense and unstoppable.

There is no place in hell hot enough for the people who made those decisions in 2003.

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.

It’s Friday night here in Japan and I have better things to do with my time than political punditry, but I’m very interested in the shock results coming in from the UK general election. It appears that, against the flow of two years of opinion polls, the conservative party (the Tories) have not just held on to their hung parliament, but may have actually seized enough seats to rule in their own right. If they don’t get those seats it looks likely that they’ll be able to rule with the help of either just UKIP or just the Democratic Unionist Party.

It’s too early to tell but it looks to me like Tory gains have come primarily at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, who have been (deservedly, in my opinion) slaughtered at the ballet box, with the Guardian at this point in the count suggesting only 8 seats remain – down from 53. Another three might cling on, but even the best case scenario is a disaster.

The obvious dark horse in this race was the Scottish National Party, which took Scotland from Labour – they gained 50 seats, almost all of which were from Labour, and have basically ejected Labour from the North. This would not, however, by itself have been enough to prevent Labour from governing, if they had been able to get enough seats by themselves to form a majority with SNP support. Labour leader Milliband (immorally, in my view) refused to enter a coalition with the SNP, but he could have changed his mind on that had he seized enough seats in his own right. And this is where Labour failed – they couldn’t take seats back from the Tories south of Scotland, and this election, obviously, was a referendum on the performance of the ruling coalition. This coalition is very unpopular, but they only suffered (at this early stage) a 0.44% swing against them to Labour, indicating a dismal failure to punish the Tories for their unpopularity at the ballot box.

I think this is possibly because of the spoiling role that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) have played in many Labour seats. According to the Guardian, UKIP issued a statement that said

In many constituencies we are the opposition, on behalf of working class voters who have been neglected and taken for granted for decades. This is true of both Northern England where we are the opposition to Labour and in Southern England where we are the opposition to the Conservatives.

We’ve provided hope and truth for the electorate and driven the political agenda.

In Britain’s first past-the-post system, it’s possible that the spoiling role of UKIP in conservative seats was not enough to win Labour the vote, or that it was equally spread between the two parties, so Labour couldn’t capitalize on Tory unpopularity. Did UKIP cost Labour the chance to lead?

Of course this question would be moot if the UK had a functioning electoral system, with preference allocation, held on a Saturday. More working people would have come out to the vote, and those UKIP votes would have flowed back to the party they defected from. But the ruling parties have both resolutely refused to consider electoral reform. This election shows in stark detail the consequences of continuing with the UK’s flawed electoral system: it benefits regional parties, which both major parties have claimed don’t have Britain’s interests at heart, but worse still it disenfranchises a huge proportion of the electorate. Between them UKIP and the Greens won 16% of the vote but hold 2 seats out of 650; while the Scottish National Party won just 5% of the vote and hold 50 seats. This is because the SNP is a holdout from the time of local politics, while UKIP and the Greens are parties of national opinion – broad movements across the whole country, connected not through local constituencies but through national issues. In a system like Australia these parties would gain significant representation in the Senate, where they are nationally representative – but the UK “Senate,” the House of Lords, is unelected and the ruling parties have refused to give UKIP and the Greens seats in the Lords consistent with their vote share. In a system like New Zealands, these parties would gain some representation through lower house lists – but the UK ruling parties refuse to countenance any change to first-past-the-post systems.

Essentially the UK ruling parties want to cling to a system that dates back to the 19th century, when politics was by necessity local, or the immediate post-war era when politics was strictly defined on class lines and classes were strictly segregated by region and area. Labour thrived under this system 50 years ago as the party of the industrial north, and the Tories as the party of the landed gentry; residual class barriers and geographic prejudices mean they can maintain this benefit for the short term, but at a huge cost to the political aspirations of a large minority of the country. You may not like UKIP or Green politics, but their voters have a right to be heard; you may like SNP politics, but that doesn’t mean they deserve representation in parliament well beyond their ultimately very localized base. Yet this is the result of the current system in the UK.

I hope that the sudden surge in the SNP presence in parliament will get the major parties to finally seriously think about electoral reform. If they don’t do something about it, then at some point in the future the conservative vote will collapse, as always happens in the electoral cycle, and the country will find itself being ruled by a coalition of labour unions and Scottish nationalists. If the conservatives care at all for the future of their country they will look on that prospect with genuine fear, and start working on real electoral reform. Or not … given that if they do UKIP will eat them from the right.

Oh the horrors of being a British voter …

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