Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Art of the Audience

One of the problems with the USA's rhetoric about free speech is that it is the speech that is glorified, not the hearing of it. The speaker is the star; no one wants to be the ones sitting quietly and listening. A consequence of this is that, when people get an idea about a subject they bleat it out, loud and proud, deafening themselves to what anybody else has to say.

To be a good audience is an art all by itself; just as musicians are judged by their music and directors by their films, connoisseurs are judged by their taste. The difference being that we are all amateur connoisseurs, whether we want to be or not, and there is value in being a good one. I find this troubling, given my love of Star Trek, 90's pro wrestling and The Moody Blues.

But being an audience is about more than having taste; it is about fulfilling your part in the performance by witnessing it and that requires only that you watch, listen and try to take it in. If you do this, you are a good audience. If you talk all the way through it, snore loudly, beat an African drum out of time or just don't bother engaging with it, then you are a bad audience.

Political discussions and debates should be where both parties play both performer and audience, but they're not. Almost all debate is adversarial, between parties standing at their pulpits and never sitting down. Sometimes that can work in a debaters favour, as they are forced to keep coming up with holes in the opponents position and to keep finding more strengths in their own. Mostly, it teaches you finesse, so you never have to admit that you're wrong. However, everyone is wrong sometimes. I know: I have been wrong sometimes, too. In that way, I'm like everyone.

I have not only been wrong, but I've been loud and insulting at the same time. What can I tell you? I am drawn to the fruits of my own mind like a wasp to sugar, and once I have supped its intoxicating nectar, like the wasp I stumble around stinging people at random and frightening pretty girls. I'm trying to get better. I've been trying for years. I think I'm getting somewhere.

When I first heard the term 'Rape Culture' I thought "That's a dumb term to use - so divisive, empty of meaning, insulting to everyone - it's sure to kill any chance of reasoned debate between feminists and potential allies. Besides, it's probably reactionary claptrap."

But instead of yelling that repeatedly every time it's come up, I've been speaking to a friend I respect about it, in a round about sort of way (i.e. I haven't just said "So; 'Rape culture.' What's that mean?"). She's a girl I've known for years, whose currently studying for a Phd. in the US, and who has been patient enough to put up with my adversarial style of debate (and friendship) for long enough to actually teach me something.

I have come to the conclusion that there is some content in there worth taking seriously. So when a feminist goes on Newsnight and says "Men are raised to hate women" I don't immediately greet it with derision; when I see feminists holding signs saying "Don't teach girls to not get raped: teach your sons not to rape!" I understand that there is a whole background of thought to that statement, and it's not just reactionary, pie in the sky nonsense.

Of course, there is understandable resistance to accepting that there is even such a thing as 'Rape Culture', never mind that it refers to some insidious element woven into the fabric of our society in the ways women are depicted, treated, taught to act, what is expected of them and how they are judged; not only that, but how sex is thought of, how boys are taught to think of sex and girls, and, well, etc.

I like to criticise: it's easier. But proclaiming a belief in something that is so challenging to not just society but my own attitudes seems pretty unwise and sure to backfire. Especially when I'm aligning myself with the more extreme proclamations of a group as widely reviled as feminists. But upon hearing the arguments against them, filled with unexamined misogyny, categorically prove their point, I can't help but feel people need to listen to them better.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Thunderf00t In Mouth

There has, of late, been a disturbance in the atheist community; a schism has opened between feminists and atheists who think feminists are a bunch of man-hating crackpot dykes in plimsolls. I have noticed on my Facebook wall that my atheist weather-vane friend has posted several anti-feminist memes which have been appropriately welcomed by his atheist friends. Here's an example:

Photo: - P0J0

You could argue that this is pro-women's rights, but I think that defining 'Feminists' as overly-sensitive people who make spurious claims that ruin the lives of innocent men is anti-feminist. It's a logical fallacy: just because a = b, does not mean b = a; Andria Richards may be a feminist but feminists aren't Andria Richards (whether or not Mz. Richards was actually in the wrong).

This attitude is reflected by recent posts from vlogging narcissist, and nascent lion-tamer, Thunderf00t. He complains that using his real name is somehow cheap points scoring - his real name is Phil Mason - I don't see how I've scored cheap points here - maybe the game we're playing is "names that sound like words" and I got 'film ace n' for two and a half.

Many people prefer to refer to someone with a real name, one that is neutral and not a self-aggrandising title making you sound like some giant god. But: whatever.

Thunderf00t generally posts videos attacking creationism and religion; he has built a loyal following on youtube advocating Dawkins-style, in your face, out-and-proud atheism. His videos are useful if you don't really know what 'superciliousness' is, and want to experience it in it's purest form.

His attacks on religion have, at their heart, the certainty that simply being an atheist makes one rational; that rationality is not something one does but is something one embodies as an atheist. He condescends to opponents, whether they are deserving or not, and presents their arguments in their flimsiest state, before affirming his own rightness with unearned certitude. He takes rationality as fundamental to his being; reality as his sole province. I hold him up as the ugly atheist for this reason - that and his face.

Thunderf00t has, of late, been posting videos attacking feminism, and he has now moved on to dispensing his perfect wisdom on the subject of rape. Note to all men: do not presume to lecture women on rape. You end up looking like a fool. This is because you are a fool. So: shut up. This advice comes too late to save Thunderf00t from himself. Here is his 18 minute long journey into the land of the rape apologist.

Rebecca Watson, writer for Skepchick, posted a response, pointing out that Thunderf00t seems to think women a: need to be told to worry about rape, and b: should take responsibility if they have not done everything reasonable to avoid being raped (i.e. worn modest cloths; been unfriendly to potential attackers [e.g. all men]; not drunk alcohol; worn plimsolls; smothered themselves in bird lime, etc.) (one of the things about the concept "everything reasonable" is it is open to a vast array of interpretations - it might be considered rational to bathe in a sewer if it means you avoid getting raped).

One thing she missed was that Thunderf00t equates the action of rape with sexuality: he says we can as much teach children to not rape as we can teach them to not be homosexual. He ignores that rape is a specific activity, not a state of being. I am heterosexual; that is a state of being. I am not a rapist; that is a report of my activities to date. Unless he believes that sexuality is an activity and not a predisposition, in which case his argument falls apart anyway. Does he think that all rapists are compelled to rape by genetic predisposition? It is unclear.

One more video and we're up to date: Thunderf00t has responded with this condescending, self-aggrandising bollocks in which he resorts to the 'women are too emotional to be rational' trope, which is startling. He also continually insults Rebecca Watson and anyone who disagrees with him, with terms like "idiot", "batshit crazy" and "incapable of understanding." I lost count of the amount of times he said "emotional", so it's worth repeating here - "emotional" is man-code for "women can't be rational" - it's the oldest, most insidious way of undermining a female interlocutor. It's definitively misogynist. He may as well suggest she go upstairs with the other wives and let the menfolk talk over brandy, maybe adding, "You'll get confused otherwise, there's a good little woman."

As for the substance of what he says, he makes a grand total of one intelligible point: that he is advising a reduction in risk and is being unfairly pilloried for it. All he meant to say was that taking reasonable precautions to avoid rape can reduce the likelihood of rape. Unfortunately, he would have done well to remind himself of Socrates' wisdom: "All I know," said the wisest man, "is that I know nothing."

His analogies treat rape the same as getting pick-pocketed, burgled or run over, ignoring that rape is not an accident and not property crime; that rape is a personal, social risk to women, not because they wear certain cloths or get drunk, or don't smear birdlime over their hair and faces, but because they exist next to men (n/b men get raped, too, but that deserves it's own treatment elsewhere). He ignores the place rape occupies in human society and in the lives of every woman and every girl.

He ignores that rape is a choice that the rapist, and only the rapist, makes.

This is not a subject to be judged from one's ivory tower, but one to engage with openly, from the fully self-aware ground of one whose life has never been directly affected by rape and who, thus, doesn't have the first clue about it. Ignorance is understandable and forgivable. What is not forgivable is to not recognise the ignorance inherent in one's own perspective, and yet claim to be an agent of reason.

To be ignorant of your own ignorance while professing your wisdom is unwise. To not know when you know nothing is to know nothing at all.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Cognitive Dissonance: The Madness of Cut Kings

The great big, fat lie that is most often repeated about the government shutdown in the US is that it is a fault of 'government'; it is the system that is broken; it is the partizan culture that is to blame; both parties have failed America.

Poppycock. Horse hockey. Fliberty flobbing of the highest order. Indeed, I say: pish-posh and tish to that rotgut.

This is a video from a Tea Party rally in March 2011, at about 2:50 the chant of "Cut it or shut it" can be heard, along with "Shut it down" references in the speeches throughout:



This is the right wing of the Republican party demanding a government shutdown if their cuts are not accepted. There are many other examples, both before and since, where Republican members of congress promised to shutdown the government to get their way. Do note the total lack of substance in everything everybody says in this video. Note also that there appear to be more speakers than attendees at this Washington gathering.

For clarity, the budget they were talking about cutting was cut. They got what they wanted in terms of spending levels. Here's a chart demonstrating that:


The continuing resolution (CR) the Senate has approved, is set to fund the government at $986 billion, which is over $200 billion less than President Obama's budget and over $100 billion less than Paul Ryan's original austere budget and only $19 billion more than the 2014 Ryan budget, otherwise known as "Ayn Rand's lovechild with Ebeneezer Scrooge."

What I'm saying is: The Republicans got what they wanted. They "Cut it". I'm here to tell you they "Shut it" anyway. "Why?" you ask, doubtlessly praying I don't give you another flood of figures to skate over.

There seems to be some confusion over that. Leading up to and on day one and two of the shutdown, Republicans did what they could to blame President Obama and Senate Democrats, organising a photo opportunity with themselves (eight white guys) sitting at a table across from nobody:



They also circulated the talking-point that President Obama would negotiate with extremist mullahs in Iran but not with House Republicans. As has been pointed out many times, that really says more about how they're acting than about the President.

They seem to have switched tactics, recognising that they weren't moving the public perception needle with "Blame Obama", and have decided to be seen proclaiming how happy they are to have shut the government, while decrying the fact that the government is shut.

It is as if some strategist has sat them down and said: "You see, the effects of a government shutdown are only going to be bad, so it is best to distance yourself from them, but the government itself is unpopular, especially with the right-wing base, so associating yourself with shutting it down is a win." This is how you get a Tea Party congressman who voted for the government shutdown berating a park ranger for not allowing entrance to a monument which is closed because of the government shutdown.

Time will tell if this mind-warping sleight of hand works. I can't tell if it's as dumb as it sounds, or the work of some unheralded strategic genius with access to studies suggesting American voters cannot link cause and effect. The presence of a number of other Republican members of Congress at that event confirms, in my eyes, that this represents a strategy rather than an accident.

With the cuts they demanded being offered to them after they threatened to shut the government down, House Republicans demanded that Obamacare be delayed by a year, again threatening that they'll shut the government down. This threat didn't work twice, so they shut down the government, hoping that Obama would cave. It's not going to work and they know that it's not going to work, so they've basically given up on this line of attack.

Which leaves us with a problem: there is no specific demand that the Republicans are making that will be addressed by the Senate or the President. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is settled law and is going ahead on schedule, having been the subject of two presidential elections and a case at the Supreme Court. Obama has no need to negotiate on that. Everyone now realises this. But the government is still shut. Hundreds of thousands of workers are furloughed. Millions will start to feel the pain shortly.

Republican Congressman Marlin Stutzman really summed things up when he said: "We don't want to be disrespected. And so that's where we're at today, where we have to get something out of this and I don't know what that even is."

To sum-up: "Cut it or Shut it? Hell, why choose? Let's have it all! We closed the government, conservative America: rejoice! In unrelated news: The government is closed, conservative America: Outrage! Down with Obamacare! We can't get rid of it? Don't disrespect me! I want something! I need something! SOMETHING!"

The problem, as I see it, is this: Tea Party members define themselves as not for anything, but as being against President Obama. Look at how they started: They were given the biggest tax cut ever by Obama early in his first term and then they complained about a hike in taxes. They are thus definitely not an issue group.

They are an anti-Obama group.

President Obama, being a Democrat and therefore at least part pussy, caved to their demands for cuts. They did not compromise. They voted for the sequester, cutting funding haphazardly, and they were outraged at "Obama's Sequester." The opportunity to shut the government came at the same time as The ACA's Health Exchanges went online: they tied the two together and tried to make it seem as if Obamacare was the reason the government shut down. That failed.

Because they define themselves as anti-Obama alone, they cannot be negotiated with, something that Obama has learned. Whatever he gives them, they will want more. Give them what they want and they never wanted it. Cut their taxes and they complain about a tax hike.

They are a mad group. There is no power of reason that can understand their workings. They take as fact what we laugh at as morbid fantasy. They laugh at settled science as lies.

What will happen? Long term: they will fall apart, probably in some sort of intra-mural purity squabble. Short term: they have already won, now they will proclaim defeat.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Paper That Hates Britain

Readers of the Daily Mail will, naturally, not be reading my blog as they will be too busy losing their livelihoods to immigrants, contracting swine flu and curing/getting cancer because of something something Diana.  They will, however, be aware that Ralph Miliband existed. And he hated Britain. And then he had kids and the weird looking one wants to take us back to the 1970s, because something something Karl Marx, and The Daily Mail stands by every word in that article until they issue a retraction.

I have no interest in trying to argue about whether or not The Mail should or should not have commissioned that particular article or gone with that particular headline "The Man Who Hated Britain." Doubtless, it is a venal piece of politics to attack one party's leader by dragging his dead father through the mud; and it is unquestionably vulgar, when that man served in the Royal Navy in WWII, to accuse him of hating Britain. This editorial decision becomes transparently moronic when you consider that before WWII the owner of The Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere (great-grandfather of the current owner), advocated appeasement, wrote to Hitler to support his invasion of the Sudatenland and stood up for Mosely's Blackshirts.

All this is the kind of information that should accompany any reading of the Mail's writing on historical matters, given that successive editors have failed to put sufficient distance between their past and current output in terms of the degree of almost fascistic right-wing-nuttery to be found in their pages. However, I want to present the case that, apart from their hypocrisy, tastelessness and anything else, it is The Daily Mail that hates Britain.

Every week there are stories in its pages that denigrate the traditions that have defined the finer aspects of British culture over the last half-century. Great Britain's history of Empire has made it a country at the forefront of multi-ethnic, multi-culturalism, the reality of which is now at the very heart of British life. It is a proud fact that black and Asian Britains are seen on TV, in every town, in almost every village, in every school at almost every workplace, in every high street and at every level of British life - but not just seen, nor merely accepted, but without the need for explanation, without questioning. British people are all colours.

This is something that The Daily Mail exists apart from - their target market is overwhelmingly, disproportionately white, so they attack immigrants at every opportunity without the risk of losing existing readers. But it is the UK's proud history of welcoming immigrants and adjusting to them that The Daily Mail attacks with each of these headlines.

The Mail hates multi-cultural Britain and proudly attempts to sabotage the general bonhomie between cultures you will find throughout the vast majority of this country. Why else would they have splashed the headline "You Must Take Off Your Veil" in a story that was, after all, confined to the time one defendant in an unimportant case would be giving evidence in a courtroom? I could call this headline many things, but at base I think it is a battle-cry to its more small-minded readers, that they will repeat in their minds every time they see a veiled Muslim in the street. It is a silent curse of the most unedifying type; a voice of resentment of others for simply being 'other'.

The Mail's readership is generally older than the average, making youth-bashing a unit-shifter. The regularity with which these articles appear in the pages of The Daily Mail, attacking young people for being feckless layabouts who don't know how good they've got it, makes me think that the Mail despairs of all Britains under the age of 25. The Mail would rather accuse a whole socio-economic group of 'lacking grit' than consider that the economy is in the worst state it has been in 70 years (thanks to the sort of laissez-faire capitalism The Mail advocates), and perhaps that is why young people struggle to get work. The Mail hates Britain's future and attack it's inhabitants with abandon.

The divisive nature of the Mail's editorial bent can be seen in it's reporting of protests. They are usually identified as mobs or riots or some other threatening group. Of course, anyone who has been to a protest knows they are generally peaceful gatherings where people and police mingle fairly amiably in ordered disapprobation of whatever it is they are there to protest. Protests are almost always the preserve of the lefty pacifist, who are about as threatening as a strawberry. Though there are of course exceptions, this is generally the way of things.

The protests at Balcombe against fracking were generally orderly, peaceful and amiable. Police and protester existed side by side and both did what they were there to do. Whilst there were incidents where protesters were arrested (including Green MP Caroline Lucas), the protests were peaceful and no-one was hurt. The Mail, however, characterised the protest as a "battle" and went so far as to accuse the police of "cav[ing] in" when they failed to use sufficiently deadly force to enforce the law.

But Daily Mail readers don't go to protests, so the characterisation goes unchallenged by their own experiences. The Daily Mail would presumably prefer that protests were cleared with bullets and truncheons,  and are so against the right of peaceful assembly in this country that it lies about the nature of protests. There is something very British about the orderly manner in which people will march to make their point, but share some tea with the nice police officer whose job it is to control their activity. It is an essential, defining aspect of British culture that tea supercedes all imperatives and motivations. It is a truth that the outrage and division characterising every headline in the Daily Mail cannot abide - the Mail would rather lie about it, deny it or ignore it than celebrate it.

The Daily Mail hates Britain for its multi-culturalism, hates Britain's future and hates Britain's gentility. It is a paper that hates Britain.