Plain old conceit


The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!


fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

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Nail them to the wall

In September 2017 Philip Morris International (PMI) – one of the world’s largest cigarette companies – introduced a new foundation to the world: The Foundation for a Smoke Free World. This foundation will receive $80 million per year from PMI for the next 12 years and devote this money to researching “smoking cessation, smoking harm reduction and alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers”, with the aim to draw in more money from non-tobacco donors over that time. It is seeking advice on how to spend its research money, and it claims to be completely independent of the tobacco industry – it receives money from PMI to the tune of almost a billion dollars, but it claims to have a completely independent research agenda.

The website for the Foundation includes a bunch of compelling statistics on its front page: There is one death every six seconds from smoking, 7.2 million deaths annually, second-hand smoke kills 890,000 people annually, and smoking kills half of all its long-term users. It’s fascinating that a company that as late as the late 1990s was claiming there is no evidence its product kills has now set up a foundation with such powerful admission of the toxic nature of its product. It’s also wrong: the most recent research suggests that 2/3 of users will die from smoking. It’s revealing that even when PMI is being honest it understates the true level of destruction it has wrought on the human race.

That should serve as an object lesson in what this Foundation is really about. It’s not an exercise in genuine tobacco control, but a strategy to launder PMI’s reputation, and to escape the tobacco control deadlock. If PMI took these statistics seriously it could solve the problem it appears to have identified very simply, by ceasing the production of cigarettes and winding up its business. I’m sure everyone on earth would applaud a bunch of very rich tobacco company directors who awarded themselves a fat bonus and simply shut down their business, leaving their shareholders screwed. But that’s not what PMI wants to do. They want to launder their reputation and squirm out from under the pressure civil society is placing on them. They want to start a new business looking all shiny and responsible, and the Foundation is their tool.

PMI have another business model in mind. PMI are the mastermind behind iQos, the heat-not-burn product that they are trialling with huge success in Japan. This cigarette alternative still provides its user with a nicotine hit but it does it through heating a tobacco substance, rather than burning it, avoiding much of the carcinogenic products of cigarettes. PMI have been touting this as the future alternative to cigarettes, and are claiming huge market share gains in Japan based on the product. Heat not burn technologies offer clear harm reduction opportunities for tobacco use: although we don’t know what their toxicity is, it’s almost certainly much lower than tobacco, and every smoker who switches to iQos is likely significantly reducing their long term cancer risk. What PMI needs is for the world to adopt a harm reduction strategy for smoking, so that they can switch from cigarettes to iQos. But the tobacco control community is still divided on whether harm reduction is a better approach than prohibition and demand reduction, which between them have been very successful in reducing smoking.

So isn’t it convenient that there is a new Foundation with a billion dollars to spend on a research platform of “smoking cessation, harm reduction and alternative livelihoods.” It’s as if this Foundation’s work perfectly aligns with PMI’s business strategy. And is it even big money? Recently PMI lost a court case against plain packaging in Australia – because although their foundation admits that smoking kills, they weren’t willing to let the Australian government sell packages that say as much – and have to pay at least $50 million in costs. PMI’s sponsorship deal with Ferrari will cost them $160 million. They spent $24 million fighting plain packaging laws in Urugay (population: 4 million). $80 million is not a lot of money for them, and they will likely spend as much every year lobbying governments to postpone harsh measures, fighting the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and advertising their lethal product. This Foundation is not a genuine vehicle for research, it’s an advertising strategy.

It’s a particularly sleazy advertising strategy when you consider the company’s history and what the Foundation claims to do. This company fought any recognition that its products kill, but this Foundation admits that the products kill, while PMI itself continues to fight any responsibility for the damage it has done. This company worked as hard as it could for 50 years to get as many people as possible addicted to this fatal product, but this Foundation headlines its website with “a billion people are addicted and want to stop”. This Foundation will research smoking cessation while the company that funds it fights every attempt to prevent smoking initiation in every way it can. The company no doubt knows that cessation is extremely difficult, and that ten dollars spent on cessation are worth one dollar spent on initiation. It’s precious PR in a time when tobacco companies are really struggling to find anything good to say about themselves.

And as proof of the PR gains, witness the Lancet‘s craven editorial on the Foundation, which argues that public health researchers and tobacco control activists should engage with it rather than ostracizing it, in the hope of finding some common ground on this murderous product. The WHO is not so pathetic. In a press release soon after the PMI was established they point out that it directly contravenes Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which forbids signatories from allowing tobacco companies to have any involvement in setting public health policy. They state openly that they won’t engage with the organization, and request that others also do not. The WHO has been in the forefront of the battle against tobacco and the tobacco industry for many years, and they aren’t fooled by these kinds of shenanigans. This is an oily trick by Big Tobacco to launder their reputation and try to ingratiate themselves with a world that is sick of their tricks and lies. We shouldn’t stand for it.

I think it’s unlikely that researchers will take this Foundation’s money. Most reputable public health journals have a strict rule that they will not publish research funded by tobacco companies or organizations associated with them, and it is painfully obvious that this greasy foundation is a tobacco company front. This means that most researchers won’t be able to publish any research they do with money from this foundation, and I suspect this means they won’t waste their time applying for the money. It seems likely to me that they will struggle to disburse their research funds in a way that, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do not. I certainly won’t be trying to get any of this group’s money.

The news of this Foundation’s establishment is not entirely bad, though. It’s existence is a big sign that the tobacco control movement is winning. PMI know that their market is collapsing and their days are numbered. Sure they can try and target emerging markets in countries like China but they know the tobacco control movement will take hold in those markets too, and they’re finding it increasingly difficult to make headway. Smoking rates are plummeting in the highest profit markets, and they’re forced to slimmer pickings in developing countries where tobacco control is growing in power rapidly. At the same time their market share is being stolen in developed countries by e-cigarettes, a market they have no control over, and as developing nations become wealthier and tobacco control strengthens e-cigarettes grow in popularity there too. They can see their days are numbered. Furthermore, the foundation is a sign that the tobacco companies’ previous united front on strategy is falling apart. After the UK high court rejected a tobacco company challenge to plain packaging laws, PMI alone decided not to join an appeal, and now PMI has established this foundation. This is a sign that the tobacco companies are starting to lose their previous powerful allegiance on strategy against the tobacco control movement. PMI admits they’ve lost, has developed iQos, and is looking to find an alternative path to the future while the other tobacco companies fight to defend their product.

But should PMI be allowed to take their path? From a public health perspective it’s a short term gain if PMI switch to being a provider of harm reducing products. But there are a bunch of Chinese technology companies offering e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking. If we allow PMI to join that harm reduction market they will be able to escape the long term consequences of their business decisions. And should they be allowed to? I think they shouldn’t. I think the tobacco companies should be nailed to the wall for what they did. For nearly 70 years these scumbags have denied their products caused any health problems, have spent huge amounts of money on fighting any efforts to control their behavior, and have targeted children and the most vulnerable. They have spent huge amounts of money establishing a network of organizations, intellectuals and front groups that defend their work but – worse still – pollute the entire discourse of scientific and evidence based policy. The growth of global warming denialism, DDT denialism, and anti-environmentalism is connected to Big Tobacco’s efforts to undermine scientific evidence for decent public health policy in the 1980s and 1990s. These companies have done everything they can to pollute public discourse over decades, in defense of a product that we have known is poison since the 1950s. They have had a completely pernicious effect on public debate and all the while their customers have been dying. These companies should not be allowed to escape the responsibility for what they did. Sure, PMI could develop and market a heat-not-burn product or some kind of e-cigarette: but should we let them, when some perfectly innocent Chinese company could steal their market share? No, we should not. Their murderous antics over 70 years should be an albatross around their neck, dragging these companies down into ruin. They should be shackled to their product, never able to escape from it, and their senior staff should never be allowed to escape responsibility for their role in promoting and marketing this death. The Foundation for a Smoke Free World is PMI’s attempt to escape the shackles of a murderous poison that it flogged off to young and poor people remorselessly for 70 years. They should not be allowed to get away with it – they should be nailed to the wall for what they did. Noone should cooperate with this corrupt and sleazy new initiative. PMI should die as if they had been afflicted with the cancer that is their stock in trade, and they should not be allowed to worm out from under the pressure they now face. Let them suffer for the damage they did to human bodies and civil society, and do not cooperate with this sick and cynical Foundation.

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!

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

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

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

New Horizon Campaign

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

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

After the Flood mini-campaign

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

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

Spiral Confederacy Campaign

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

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

One-off adventures

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

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

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

Experimental writing

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

Gaming plans for 2016

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

Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Indiana, USA[1] has just passed a law that discriminates against ordinary arseholes, and especially confirmed atheist arseholes. This law would make discrimination okay so long as the discriminator [hereafter referred to as “the arsehole”] is religious, and clearly sets up three categories of people with different sets of rights: nice people who want everyone to get along, religious arseholes and non-religious arseholes. Into the latter category we can add arseholes who are religious but whose arseholery is clearly not religiously-based, which is a distinction I’m sure the current Supreme Court can have a lot of hours of fun with.

As a confirmed, unrelenting but unfortunately atheist arsehole, I will be boycotting Indiana from now on. I was planning to visit later this year, rent a massive gas guzzling car with sealskin hubcaps and drive around throwing money to passing orphans while snorting cocaine off the naked bodies of zero-size barely legal models, but I refuse to throw away my arsehole currency in a state that classifies me as a second-class citizen. I will instead visit a state that allows all arseholes to be equally arseholey[2].

I mean, what is the point of this law except to redefine arseholes into two categories? It can’t possibly be the case that the LGBT couple who are refused service will be all peachy about it just because the refuser is wearing a funny hat, or believes in some funny beardy dude; I accept that intent is important in framing law (see e.g. manslaughter vs. murder) but usually it is limited to classifying degrees of severity, not allowing some people to break the law with impunity. Sure, if the law defined degrees of discrimination it might make sense (and a whole new season of Law and Order would be born) but to just define away criminality for certain classes of arsehole? Isn’t that … discriminatory?

This Vox article tells me that 20 states in the USA have these laws in place, and suggests to me that arsehole freedom is the next great civil rights movement in America (we could call ourselves the moonies). It also makes me wonder if there are any adults left in America, because it suggests that most of these laws have been passed to protect “religious minorities” and gives an example of Amish trying to protect themselves from a law that requires them to hang a glowing light on their buggies. They had to go to court to get protection against that law? Couldn’t everyone just discuss the law and come up with a compromise? Apparently not in America. And did the Amish really think they were so special that they were willing to go to special legal lengths to ensure that they didn’t have the same road safety responsibilities as everyone else? And why should they?

The same applies to vaccination exemption laws. If you believe in some beardy dude who says that women are second-rate citizens, gay people should be shot (I’m looking at you, Californian arseholes!) and pi is 3.0, you get to endanger other peoples’ kids by refusing  a medically safe and proven technology. But if your intention is simply to endanger other peoples’ kids because you’re a misanthropic arsehole who is too smart to believe the blather of a 2000 year old book that was written before people understood how to be nice to each other then too bad! You gotta be nice or face a fine.

Why this extreme double standard against arseholes?

America needs a movement of arseholes, willing to throw off their shackles and rise up against discrimination, before it becomes impossible to be intelligent and mean in any state of the union! Rise up, arseholes of America, and reclaim your right to be mean to people you don’t like for no other reason, without having to dishonestly cloak it in superstitious blather! Truly, liberation of pure arseholes is the movement 21st Century America needs, and truly 21st Century America is ready for it!

fn1: What is it with Americans thinking they don’t need to specify which country their states are in?

fn2: Suggestions in comments please

In preparation for a post on the political origins of anti-vaccination ideology, I want to make a point about the way that the ordinary public interact with scientists. My last post on anti-vax and Republicans has been linked to by a climate change blog, and on that blog one of the commenters is making big claims about what the public should do to understand climate science. In particular he or she says:

‘Trust the science’ is a very ambiguous statement. People should follow the scientific method, but I think what you mean is closer to ‘people should blindly believe what authority figures in science tell them’. This can get very dangerous and appeal to authority is not part of the scientific method. Rather the scientific method involves questioning authority and skepticism.

I think this is an incredibly unreasonable and unrealistic depiction of how people should interact with scientists, and is an advanced form of epistemological nihilism. I want to give a specific example of why, though I’m sure there are many others.

My father left school at 15 to take up a trade as a typesetter, my mother left school at 13 to work in a cake shop and her father left school in Spain at 15 to fight fascism (he subsequently became a forester in England after the war and devoted his spare time to raising a family and learning English). Not only did all my forebears leave school before they got a chance to receive an advanced science education, but they went to school before computers were common, when quantum mechanics was still in its learning stage (e.g. before Bell’s Inequality) and in my grandfather’s case before the invention of the microwave, the guided missile, or a man on the moon. The idea that my parents and my grandfather can “follow the scientific method” – indeed, that they even know what it is – is ludicrous, as is the idea that they have any kind of skill or capacity to question authority where science is concerned. Furthermore, the idea that they should work 9 hour days of physical labour and then come home and devote their time to learning about these things in order to understand policy about important issues like global warming is both unreasonable and, frankly, insulting. If you can’t explain this shit to these people in a way they understand, don’t get uppity that they aren’t willing to put the time into learning your shit properly. They’re busy, and their reasons for being busy are just as valid as yours. I would go further and say that most scientists don’t have a clue about how typesetting works (that’s why LateX was invented!) and would get quite miffed if they got an email from their publisher saying “we can’t be bothered fixing up the typesetting in your paper so that it can be legible in print. You should have learnt this stuff. Your paper is going to look like shit.” Life is too big to learn everything, and this is why we have specialization. Expecting everyone to engage with your trivial little skillset[1] is called “arrogance” in the real world.

So, I don’t think this is how ordinary people should interact with science. In a functioning society, ordinary people should be able to assume that scientists are working for the good of all, that government funds are expended on science in a way that is somehow subject to reasonable oversight and judgement, that experts translate this stuff into public policy, and that ordinary people with no science background can trust that their political representatives are handling the science in a way that is open, rational and coherent. With proper governance structures they can have mild confidence that science is being done ethically and to certain basic standards of intellectual rigor, and with a professional and well-run media they can have some confidence that the popularization of science doesn’t also debase and ruin it. In this sense, while “appeal to authority” is not part of the scientific method it is very much part of how we the public interact with and make decisions about the implications of the scientific method for policy. If 97% of climate scientists say the earth is warming through human influence, then the public should be able to be confident that this means mitigation needs to be debated. If doctors say vaccination for mumps, measles and rubella is needed at a certain age, we should be able to go along with it because we trust that those doctors came to that position through a transparent, ethical process of scientific inquiry, and this position only entered practical health policy through a well-governed and robust process of policy development. We should not have to follow the chain of logic, statistics and biological science that led to this decision in order to support it.

This process by which people actually engage with science in practice is the reason that ideologically-determined views of science are both unavoidable and necessary. Left-wing or working class people will trust that the science minister they voted in from the labour party interprets science into policy in a way that is both a) in the interests of all of society and b) in their class interests; similarly right-wing or rich people will assume that the science minister they voted in will interpret science into policy in a way that represents their love of the free market and eating puppies while kittens cry. This is both inevitable and right (except for the kittens crying). The breakdown of political responses to climate change and the acrimonious debate surrounding it has not occurred because ordinary people failed to follow the scientific method (or did, and found it wanting); it has occurred because a certain part of the political scene in the rich west has abandoned its responsibilities to its electors and started lying to them about a fundamentally important issue. This is a failure of governance and ethics on the part of our leaders, not a failure of ordinary people to engage in scientific critique.

Provided their political representatives hold their best interests at heart, people can be as ignorant as sin about science, and still see good scientific outcomes without even knowing that there is such a thing as “the scientific method.” Conversely, when our political representatives go feral on us and refuse to act on science that is compelling and urgent, it doesn’t matter how educated and engaged ordinary people are – we’re toast. This is why the global warming issue is not being addressed, and in my opinion (as I hope to show in my next post) there is absolutely no lesson to be learnt about vaccination policy from the clusterfuck that is global warming. And in any of these scientific debates, the expectation that ordinary people should engage with science rather than judging it through reference to their authority figures is simultaneously arrogant, unrealistic and ignorant.

fn1: “Skillset” is one of my most hated words, and I use it here to be deliberately insulting

This week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has a perspective piece by a doctor from Kentucky, describing the changes wrought by Obamacare in its first year. The doctor, Michael Stillman, is writing from a clinic serving a relatively poor area with limited health access: 60% of the doctor’s patients had no health insurance in the year before Obamacare’s introduction. It’s a short but quite powerful piece, and worth reading if one wants to get a sense of the transformative effect of Obamacare for the working poor. Dr. Stillman writes:

Last year, I encountered a patient with widely metastatic colon cancer whose diagnosis had been delayed because of lack of health insurance. He had clearly become ill at the wrong moment in our commonwealth’s history. Before Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear decided to implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and accept federal funding for Medicaid expansion, the 60% of my clinic patients and 650,000 Kentuckians who lacked health insurance received disjointed and disastrous care. They could be seen in subsidized facilities and be charged for their visits on a sliding scale, but they were asked to pay in advance for most diagnostic tests and consultations. Many of them avoided routine and preventive care — and worried that a medical emergency would leave them bankrupt.

This describes a pretty terrible situation in the world’s richest nation, and something that could hardly be imagined in any other developed nation. Dr. Stillman’s first sentence in this paragraph has a reference to another perspective he wrote last year, Dead Man Walking, in which he describes the case of this patient with colon cancer in more detail:

We met Tommy Davis in our hospital’s clinic for indigent persons in March 2013 (the name and date have been changed to protect the patient’s privacy). He and his wife had been chronically uninsured despite working full-time jobs and were now facing disastrous consequences.

The week before this appointment, Mr. Davis had come to our emergency department with abdominal pain and obstipation. His examination, laboratory tests, and CT scan had cost him $10,000 (his entire life savings), and at evening’s end he’d been sent home with a diagnosis of metastatic colon cancer.

The year before, he’d had similar symptoms and visited a primary care physician, who had taken a cursory history, told Mr. Davis he’d need insurance to be adequately evaluated, and billed him $200 for the appointment. Since Mr. Davis was poor and ineligible for Kentucky Medicaid, however, he’d simply used enemas until he was unable to defecate. By the time of his emergency department evaluation, he had a fully obstructed colon and widespread disease and chose to forgo treatment.

This is not the fate that should be allotted to the working poor. Obamacare will change this situation for a large number of Americans: in Mr. Davis’s case, Obamacare made him eligible for Medicaid, so had Obamacare been passed just a little earlier he might have been able to diagnose and treat his cancer earlier; or at the very least, would not have used up all his life savings on a mere diagnosis. The author reports that in Kentucky Obamacare has expanded access to 430,000 previously-uninsured Americans, and the same process is being repeated across the country. The Obama administration itself is forecasting a total of 9 million people will gain health insurance through the ACA, and I earlier reported on the first assessments of its impact from the Commonwealth Fund. Although most of the rest of the world agrees that Obamacare is flawed and doesn’t go far enough towards universal health coverage, this is still a huge achievement and any politician who opposes it, or any pundit like Michael Cannon who deploys disingenuous arguments to destroy it on ideological grounds should be seen as the wrecker and low-life that they are. Responsible politicians of any political stripe should be focusing on improving it, not destroying it, but sadly this is not the way the American political system seems to work.

Dr. Stillman finishes his article with this little observation:

I was once uncomfortable discussing politics with my patients, but now I routinely ask them if they are registered to vote and remind them that certain candidates do not support the legislation from which they have so palpably benefitted.

This little sentence should have Republicans and other opponents of Obamacare worried. If they can’t destroy it in the Supreme Court soon, they’re going to have to hoodwink 9 million Americans at the next election. The fact that they would even consider such a reckless and destructive policy is a depressing indictment of the cruelty and shortsightedness of the modern Republican party. I hope their intransigence on this issue destroys them at the next election, and Obamacare survives to be improved and consolidated, rather than dismantled and discredited. For where will the working poor be without it?

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