Something Hollywood could learn from ...?

Something Hollywood could learn from …?

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

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

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

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

What does blackface mean in Japan?

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

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

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

A “recent” history of fascism

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

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

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

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

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

Misinterpreting Japanese legislative intent

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

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

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

Misinterpreting Japanese attitudes towards multiculturalism

The article cites an associate professor from Temple University saying that

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

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

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

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

You Americans … you talk too much

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Opposition to GMOs left-wing?

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

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

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

Motivated reasoning and opposition to GMOs

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

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

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

What is different with malnutrition today?

The Underpants Gnome thinking of the pro-GMO lobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaccination policy through Republican eyes

Vaccination policy through Republican eyes

The recent outbreak of measles in the USA has brought on an epidemic of Republican anti-science blathering, this time focused on vaccination. First we had Chris Christie saying measles vaccination should be optional, then Rand Paul putting his libertarian principles where his mouth is and declaring all Americans should be free to give each other smallpox; now the National Review Online has stepped into the fray with the rather contradictory policy advice that vaccination obviously works but should be voluntary (and thus, in the case of measles, almost certainly be rendered useless).

Vaccination policy is one of those areas that is ripe for Republican chaos. As the National Review observes, it involves “elites” (a perjorative deployed in this case to describe doctors) making decisions about what parents should do, and pushing for strong laws to ensure that everyone does what they’re supposed to. Like public education, it is only of value if the overwhelming majority of people do what the “elites” want. In this case, we can calculate mathematically what proportion of the population need to do what they’re told in order to prevent the spread of disease and, unfortunately for libertarians everywhere, the required proportion for measles and whooping cough is so high as to require even strict religious types and conspiracy theorists to obey if we want to prevent everyone getting the disease. This article from the Bulletin of the WHO makes the case for herd immunity, which in the case of measles requires greater than 95% of the population be vaccinated. Allowing parental opt-outs is going to rapidly get the proportion of children vaccinated below this threshold, especially in a society where many people can’t afford medical care. This is particularly likely for measles, mumps and rubella, since the Andrew Wakefield scandal has put the fear of God (well, autism) into parents in the UK and the USA, leading to precipitous falls in vaccination rates for these conditions. Indeed, the UK is now experiencing endemic measles after a long period of only having imported cases, and recent epidemics can almost certainly be traced to the cohort of children who were not vaccinated in the years after the Wakefield scandal. Elimination of these diseases requires strong pressure for all parents to vaccinate their children, and in rare cases these children will experience usually minor side effects. We all literally have to take one for the team, because those black-helicopter “elites” at the WHO tell us to. It’s a Republican’s nightmare.

But Republicans never used to be so fragile about science. This rash of equivocal statements from potential presidential contenders and their lackeys in the media is a new phenomenon. I have a feeling that the Republicans are lurching slowly towards a new orthodoxy of denialism, to add to their creationism and global warming denialism: anti-vaccination ideology. I hope I’m wrong, but I have a suspicion that this next denialist lurch is going to be inevitable given three potent forces driving modern Republican political ideology: populist anti-government rhetoric, potent sexual morals, and a virulent anti-science culture.

The modern Republicans are steeped in anti-science through their long association with the tobacco lobby, anti-environmentalism in the service of corporate interests, and their deep commitment to global warming denialism. US libertarian and right-wing politics is notable for its foolish fixation on DDT built on a foundation of false attacks on Rachel Carson, its hatred of the clean air act, its increasingly fantasist opposition to the science of global warming, and its strict libertarian stance on smoking. Indeed, the link between these ideological strands is hardly surprising given that big tobacco has funded the network of climate denial and anti-environmentalist organizations for years. But as this web of denialism expands, and newer activists grow up and learn their trade in a political environment that is suffused with not just the rhetoric of anti-science activism but also with a deep disrespect for scientists and the scientific process, it is hardly surprising that the Republican political world will become vulnerable to new forms of anti-scientific crusade. Many Republicans seem to be opposed to any form of scientific research, not just that which directly threatens business. How can we forget Senator McCain’s derision for a study of the DNA of bears? It’s easy to imagine that the post-tea party Republican party is easily fooled by anti-science rhetoric posing as scientific critique.

I think this toxic atmosphere turned its sights on vaccination science proper for the first time when the HPV vaccine was introduced, and vaccination got its full attention for the first time. This happened because the HPV vaccine is aimed at a sexually transmitted disease, that is only harmful to women, and in order to prevent this disease one needs to vaccinate girls before they become sexually active. Somewhat alarmingly for those in our community who want to pretend that their daughters are all good little girls, the policy therefore requires vaccination at a surprisingly young age, the implication being that good little American girls might be getting laid rather early. This immediately drew the ire of the sexually conservative wing of the Republican party and associated organizations like the Family Research Council. Initial objections were based on sexual morality, but it entered Republican politics during the primary season for the 2012 presidential election. By this time arguments against the HPV vaccine had become more nuanced, as for example in this National Review piece where the author tries to argue that HPV is different to measles because it is intentionally transmitted and rare (wrong!) and questions why only girls get it, as if this is some evidence of a sexual conspiracy by liberals (in fact this policy is followed because the science suggests it is sufficient to prevent cancer, and more cost-effective). However, in the modern world debates on health policy inevitably require some kind of scientific rhetoric, so by the time of this primary season Michele Bachman had found the spurious scientific objection that it causes mental retardation. In four years opposition to the vaccine had gone from a purely sexual-morality-based principle to a general scientific critique of the safety of the vaccine and the validity and necessity of the policy. All these “science”-based arguments are wrong, but how is a modern Republican to know? They have a kneejerk distrust of scientists and they are so negative about science that it’s hard to believe they would understand or accept any science they read. So of course people who want to object to the vaccine on principle but feel the need to cloak their opposition in scientific rhetoric are going to be willing to believe any rubbish they’re fed.

Finally, overlaid on this mixture of christian anti-sex moralizing and distrust of science we have the libertarian arguments about agency and control over one’s individual choices. For most moderns, health continues to be seen as an individual choice, and decisions about healthcare are things that we take for ourselves when we are sick. Vaccination policy is the exact opposite of this: it concerns actions taken with our bodies when we are well to protect others. It’s all too easy for libertarians to fall prey to conspiracy theories and bad science where vaccination policy is concerned because it just doesn’t sit comfortably with their ideology. So the trifecta is complete, and the entire ideological sweep of the Republican party is vulnerable to anti-vaccination claptrap.

If my theory is correct, then we should expect to see more of this kind of rhetoric as Republican primary season heats up, and we should also expect to see the typical Republican approach to undoing long-standing laws they don’t like: administrative procedures to make them too difficult to enforce, followed by court challenges rather than direct political debate. If we start to see that happen then I think we need to throw vaccination into the large and growing dustbin of sane and rational policies that have become too tough for the Republican machine to handle – along with gun control, universal health coverage, and global warming. Once they take the step to anti-vaccination denialism, what bridge connecting them to the science community is left to burn?

Adventure stories for economists ...

Adventure stories for economists …

As expected, Syriza have won the Greek elections, taking a near majority and forming a government with a minority right wing populist party, and so far none of my fears have been realized (yay). As expected, Syriza’s “radical” economist Yanis Varoufakis has been selected as finance minister, putting him on a direct collision course with the Troika. Varoufakis seems like an interesting guy, and it will be interesting to see what the burden of his position does to him. He is young, an academic economist until he decided to run for parliament, seems to be quite a handsome chap, and is also a dual citizen of Greece and the Duchy of Edinburgh Australia. So now it appears Australia has two finance ministers, Matthias Corman the actual finance minister of Australia who was born in Belgium and Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister who was born, somewhat surprisingly, in Greece. Yanis Varoufakis has written a book and is also a private consultant for Valve, the game company responsible for Half-Life and Steam. I wonder if he’s a gamer?

That’s a pretty interesting background and, whatever one might think of his political views, pretty solid qualifications for a finance minister. In sad comparison, Matthias Cormann has been a political apparatchik since the 1990s, has an undergraduate degree in law, and has never written anything as far as I can tell. But in addition to writing a book and some academic articles, Varoufakis also maintains a blog. He’s just like me! And in his latest post he has promised to try and keep blogging while working as a minister, which I suspect makes him the first ever blogger finance minister. This potentially means we are going to get some kind of real-time coverage of how and what the finance minister of Greece is thinking as he negotiates with the EU, IMF and ECB on the tricky issue of Greek debt. He has previously written alternative solutions to the problems of public debt in the EU, which seem to have worked their way into The Economist. His blog is a pretty interesting read, and if he does manage to find time to maintain it while managing his new position I think it will make a fascinating and unique contribution to both the blogosphere and the disciplines of economics and politics.

This also gets me thinking: will there come a day when an active role-player gets into the halls of power, and chooses not to stop gaming? Imagine if they turned up at conferences, and you could role-play with the US president … (I bet there’d be no rules-lawyering at that table! “Why can’t I get +2? It’s in the rules!” “I am the president of the USA, you get whatever bonus I give you!”) Or if they were a regular commenter at an RPG forum, posting in between meetings with heads of state to complain about why Bards are the worst character class. Maybe they could run online role-playing sessions where they run adventures in all the trouble spots they’ve invaded and messed up, until it gets to the point that the electorate start thinking the President is only starting new wars so that he can have new campaign settings. That may seem crazy, but it seems like a better rationale for a war than the gloop we were actually fed before Gulf War 2…

Greece has been suffering difficult economic times, and it seems obvious that something has to be done. Austerity has failed Europe dismally, and the economic pressures it is creating are being released through politics of the worst kind, as extremist right wing parties grow in influence across the continent, perhaps most especially in Greece. The search for a solution is going to be really challenging for Syriza, and it is my hope that they will find a solution that makes Greeks better off, and averts the social catastrophe they seem to be sliding towards. Yanis Varoufakis seems like a man well-placed to take on the job, and it is my hope that he can find success despite the challenges he faces. I also hope he can find the time to blog about it, so we can get some insight into what happens both behind the scenes and behind the man. Good luck, Dr. Varoufakis, and I hope more bloggers in future (and eventually, more gamers) can get to the halls of power.

And remember, if you find Greek debt challenges too tough, you can always come to Australia and help out our government…

This Sunday Greece is holding a general election in a very tense and fraught environment. It looks likely that the “radical” left wing group Syriza will win, with the threat that they will default on Greece’s debts and possibly lead it out of the Euro, back to the Drachma. Meanwhile Golden Dawn remain a real menace to migrants on the streets of Greece, and there are rumours that they have connections with what is sometimes called the “Deep State,” internal security and police who hold a secret longing for a return to the days of dictatorship and a deep hatred of the left. The London Review of Books published a good and very disturbing account of the behaviour of Golden Dawn and its links to this alleged Deep State, written by a journalist who managed to get some way into the organization. Meanwhile the European Central Bank has announced a new run of quantitative easing, perhaps intended to send a message to the Greek electorate that they might expect some support in their austerity plans, but the austerity program the Greek electorate is facing is shockingly tight and extremely disruptive.

Given this environment, and being safely ensconced far away from the trouble, I have thought of a few possible outcomes of the election, and have a few questions about what might happen. Even though I think asking a question and answering it yourself is the first mark of a dickhead, here are some of my questions with my thoughts on the possible answers.

  • Will Syriza win? The polls seem to give them an edge but maybe the possibility of a real default will lead Greeks to return to the status quo
  • How will Golden Dawn react? It seems to me that there is a very real possibility they will try and instigate some kind of communal violence, and the state doesn’t seem interested in confronting Golden Dawn
  • Will the Deep State act to preserve the interests of the elite? Assuming this Deep State is even a thing, will it react to a communist victory by moving to interfere in the functionings of democracy? If it is true that a large minority of powerful people still hanker after the era of the Generals, will they move to act on this?
  • Will Syriza back down on default and exit? Some are suggesting Syriza have been mellowing their rhetoric on default and exit as the election looms, but this could just be a campaigning tactic. Even if they really are starting to feel the heat, backing down on key parts of their platform will probably break them apart and bring about more instability. It seems to me they’re going to be hard-pressed not to follow through on core policies
  • What will the effect of this be on other countries, especially the UK? The UK is slated for a referendum on EU membership if the Torie win in 2017. If Greece exits and it is not a catastrophe for Greece or the EU, this will potentially influence that referendum, since the pro-exit people will be able to point to Greece as an example. Likewise if exit is disastrous for Greece. If Greece starts a chain of exits by highly-indebted or highly anti-EU countries it could spell tough times for the EU. Will the much-maligned Greek left be the trigger for a conservative rebellion in the UK?

I don’t have an opinion on what Greeks or Syriza should do, being too far away and too ignorant to have strong views, and although I think much of the narrative on Greece and its economic problems is shallow and ideologically driven, and I’m generally not in favour of the Euro, I can’t say what I think is right or wrong about the whole sorry mess. If Syriza win I hope the transition to radical left leadership happens without neo-fascist street violence, and if Greece exits I hope they are able to solve their economic problems quickly and with minimum fuss. If a Greek exit begins a chain reaction that sees the EU scaled back a bit and maybe made more fiscally flexible I think that would be a good thing, though it won’t change British angst about the EU so long as the free movement of people remains at the heart of the project. But I really really hope that if Syriza win, their victory doesn’t lead to a long period of instability that turns Greece into the neo-fascist cradle for all of Europe. That would spell trouble far beyond Greece’s borders, and well beyond this election, and I hope the Greek people are able to avert such a disaster regardless of how they vote this weekend.

Nature has just published an assessment of the location and accessibility of all the world’s known carbon fuel reserves (coal, oil and gas), and its conclusion is striking: 80% of coal, 50% of oil and 33% of gas need to be classified as unburnable if the earth is to remain within the 2C “guard rail” of global warming identified by the IPCC and major governments. The Guardian has some nice graphics summarizing the implications, which are dire: 90% of Australian coal and 85% of Canadian oil needs to stay in the ground, for example. These country-specific estimates are based on the assumption that the cheapest material will be extracted first, and uses information on the specific carbon cost of each source. For example the Nature press release states that:

Canada holds the world’s single largest share of unburnable oil because most of that reserve comes in the form of tar sands, a mix of bitumen and sand that requires burning natural gas to transform it into usable petroleum products

and explains that this extra carbon cost makes the tar sands essentially inaccessible. Meanwhile, at the Conversation, John Quiggin has written an article suggesting that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is a non-starter, indicating that we can’t rely on sequestration to take out the excess carbon we are producing. Which means that the only option for dealing with this carbon becomes a blacklist, with severe implications for the future of the fossil fuel industry:  and if 80% of the stuff needs to stay in the ground then that means fossil fuel companies have to essentially write off 80% of their balance sheet. There is no solution to this stranded asset problem that will see our planet remain a livable place, but no government and not many economists are taking this seriously.

So what can be done to solve this apparently unsolvable problem? A lot of economists attempting to tackle the policy response to global warming seem to think that a carbon tax or a carbon price is the most efficient way to reduce carbon use, but they don’t usually take into account this budgeting problem: they talk about reducing flux, but not about the hard ceiling of the carbon budget. At best, advocates of a carbon price seem to think that the price alone will spur creativity and new investment that will lead to a solution to the budget problem, but when challenged (as I have done repeatedly at for example John Quiggin’s blog) the only answer they seem to have is some vague promise of future technological improvements, or tree planting. As I have observed previously on this blog, even an extremely high and strict carbon tax will likely be insufficient to force even the rapid reductions in carbon consumption we need now, let alone to force developed nations to zero carbon. It is increasingly obvious that a carbon tax is a minimum response to the challenge of global warming, and that on top of that specific policy and legislative interventions are needed to rapidly decarbonize those elements of the economy that can be. If 80% of the world’s coal needs to remain unburned, then we need to be reserving that coal for long-term use in an industry that cannot operate without it: steel-making. Given it is essential for steel production, coal should not be used for anything else. Similarly, oil should be reserved for jet travel and any maritime uses where it cannot be exchanged for something else. Using it for heating or private transport is an incredibly wasteful use of a resource which is far more valuable than its available reserves suggest. Even under an aggressive and probably fascistic level of tree planting, we won’t be able to get to a world of negative carbon emission for a very long time, and until we do reach that state we need to recognize that the only carbon we should be emitting should be from industries that absolutely cannot be switched.

We also need to recognize that the continued prospecting for new coal, oil and gas is madness. There is no social value to be had from this prospecting. $670 billion a year is spent on prospecting for material that can never be used, contributing to a growing carbon bubble that could have serious economic consequences. That money should be spent on developing new zero carbon industrial and energy production processes, and given the efforts that the resource companies have made to get us into this mess, it hardly seems a big deal to me if they were forced to spend their prospecting money for the social good. But in any case one thing should definitely be done immediately: all new prospecting should be banned. It’s not just a waste of money, it’s counterproductive: the more reserves there are, the greater the future environmental risk and the harder it is to downsize this industry.

As I have said often on this blog, it’s time the world got serious about climate change. This means more than just minor tax changes with a vague promise of innovation in the future; it means a concrete set of policy proposals for the elimination of carbon emission from our economy, with a concrete goal for every sector of industrial and social life. Sectors that can’t go zero carbon need to be identified and strategies put in place to first minimize and ultimately offset those sectors’ emissions, and coal and oil resources need to be prioritized for only those sectors. If we start now and implement policies rapidly across many countries, we can probably do this with minimal economic disruption, but if we don’t start soon and act aggressively, the future is going to be very dark: we will enter a world of extremely fascist and restrictive responses to growing environmental problems, coupled probably with potentially catastrophic and untested geoengineering.

It’s now or never!


Rebellion Pastiche!

Rebellion Pastiche!

Many years ago now I lived in Newtown, Sydney, and the areas surrounding it (Stanmore, Marrickville, etc), all of which have a recent history as the home of a large number of Aboriginal people and a bit of a hotbed of street activism (far left and far right), largely probably due to their proximity to the University of Sydney, some large inner city areas of Aboriginal housing, and some industrial areas. Marrickville, where I also lived, has a long tradition of Greek, Italian and then Vietnamese migration, and the whole area is a wide swathe of light industrial zoning with a long and proud history of unionism. As part of the post-60s wave of Aboriginal rights and green activism a large number of murals were painted in various areas of the inner west. From the train line between Redfern and Newtown passengers used to be able to see a rendering of the Black Panther Olympic salute, entitled “Three proud men”; and on the road to Stanmore there was a really creepy old guy perving on a girl on a tricycle. But the most famous mural is the “I have a dream” mural, pictured above, which was painted on the side of a terraced house in the very centre of the main commercial road, King Street, very close to the station. This mural combines a picture of Martin Luther King, his most famous phrase, the earth with Australia red in the centre, and the Aboriginal flag (the black and red squares with the gold disc in the middle). It’s a bit tacky but also a proud reminder of Indigenous struggle, painted there by a local couple many years ago. In my opinion the Aboriginal flag is a really powerful symbol, and should be used as Australia’s official flag in place of the Southern Cross[1], which is nowhere near as cool, and this mural combines that strong image of Australia with a couple of international ideas about liberation and freedom. I’m not entirely in favour of importing American ideals of freedom and struggle to other countries, but I hope my reader(s) can see the intent and appreciate its strength.

Anyway, back when I lived in Newtown this mural was starting to decay, the paint was starting to crumble, but worst of all a lot of posters were beginning to appear, mostly on the bottom left of the red part of the flag but also in the golden disc. Rather embarrassingly, most of these posters were either for far left political groups, or for illegal raves (“doofs”) that would regularly spring up in the inner west and which were also largely associated with the far left/green movement. This was in the 1990s, before the Reconciliation movement had really taken off, probably 10-12 years before the apology, and a lot of the far left hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that Aboriginal reconciliation and land rights were becoming a really important part of the political landscape – Aboriginal activism generally was seen as strongly connected to the Labour party and the Democrats, and viewed with suspicion by the far left. This might explain their willingness to put up posters on such an iconic mural (the far right couldn’t, because they had either died of heroin overdoses, been sent to prison, or been driven out of the inner city by unionist violence). My friends and I weren’t happy with this though, because as the posters accumulated and damaged the paint, and the mural got scrappier, the incentive to post more posters and slowly destroy it was growing – like litter or broken windows, the damage was encouraging more damage. So one sunny Saturday morning we got up early, grabbed a ladder, some paintbrushes and a few scrapers and some paint, and set about restoring it. We didn’t organize it with any official organs because no one was officially in charge of this mural – we just rocked up and started cleaning it. The version you can see above is probably from about 10 years after we did this, because it is still clean and in the bottom left corner you can see my contribution to the project. That corner was where most of the posters were stuck, and after I scraped them off and we repainted it I wrote this in my bad freehand:

My tiny piece of history, badly drawn

My tiny piece of history, badly drawn

I took this photo of my contribution in 2006, probably 8-9 years after I painted it, just before I left for Japan, and at this time no one had posted any bills anywhere on the mural – you can see on the wall to the side that they are using nearby wall space for a thick layer of posters, but they aren’t putting them on the mural itself. Sadly, this situation no longer pertains today, another 8 years after I took that picture. The Marrickville facebook page has a link to the picture which in March this year had comments saying that someone needs to put the “Don’t poster here” order back on. Someone must have painted over it after I left the country, and now the posters are returning. However, after many years, the mural has finally received some official respect, and the Marrickville Council have decided to Heritage List it, which means that they are now officially responsible for maintaining and protecting it. I hope this means that the posters will be removed and no new ones added. Maybe they’ll even repaint it with a better and more consistent colour palette than my friends and I used …

This was my sole real contribution to the urban community of Newtown. My friends and I got pissed at the mess, went up there and (I guess!) risked a graffiti charge in broad daylight on a sunny Saturday to repair the damage. While we worked lots of people came up to thank us and express their approval (I think one person wandered across the road to buy us a coffee or a drink or something), and I guess the police must have cruised by at some point and done nothing. Everyone seemed to treat our efforts as if they were as natural as the presence of this unclaimed and unprotected mural in the heart of the little shopping area. It was like everyone accepted it and respected it, but everyone thought it was everyone else’s responsibility. Maybe that unfocused view of its place in Newtown is part of the reason that people were able to damage it without any trouble being raised – because everyone just assumed someone else knew who was responsible for its upkeep. But in truth no one was, and our action was the only time I know of in the entire time I lived in the area that anyone took responsibility for it. And it worked! That little two sentence demand I wrote there on the wall kept the entire mural clean and free of damage for 10 years, and my guess is that if someone hadn’t painted over it the mural would still be free of damage today. Now that it is Heritage listed I guess it will get a little plaque and a bit of care and respect, and my bodgy handwritten warning won’t be needed anymore. It will be forgotten soon enough, but I am proud of my little tiny effort in preserving an emblem of a struggle that, over the time I lived in Australia, really began to assert itself and push itself into the mainstream. I hope people will remember the long slow path to acceptance of Aboriginal rights in Australia when they look at that mural, and I like to think that my tiny contribution went a little way towards preserving that mural long enough for it to make the heritage list. Hardly a radical or brave act, it’s true, but I’m proud of my little tiny contribution to one of the most important political movements in Australian history.

fn1: It actually has official flag status, but is not usually used as such.


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