Australia


Could you lie to this nice lady?

On 18th May 2019 Australia held a federal election, and the ruling Liberal/National Party (LNP) Coalition scored a victory over the Australian Labor Party (ALP) that was billed by most observers as an “upset” because opinion polls had in general been predicting a narrow ALP victory. The opinion polls predicted that the ALP would get a two-party preferred vote of 51.5% over 48.5% for the LNP, and would cruise to victory on the back of this; in fact, with 76% of the vote counted the Coalition is on 50.9% two party preferred, and the ALP on 49.1%. So it certainly seems like the opinion polls got it wrong. But did they, and why?

Did opinion polls get it wrong?

The best site for detailed data on opinion polls is the Poll Bludger, whose list of polls (scroll to the bottom) shows a persistent estimate of 51-52% two-party preferred vote in favour of the ALP. But there is a slightly more complicated story here, which needs to be considered before we go to far in saying they got it wrong. First of all you’ll note that the party-specific estimates put the ALP at between 33% and 37% primary vote, with the Greens running between 9% and 14%, while the Coalition is consistently listed as between 36% and 39%. Estimates for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party put her between 4% and 9%. This is important for two reasons: the way that opinion pollers estimate the two party preferred vote, and the margin of error of each poll.

The first thing to note is that the final estimates of the different primary votes weren’t so wildly off. Wikipedia has the current vote tally at 41% to the Coalition, 34% to ALP and 10% to Greens. The LNP vote is higher than any poll put it at, but the other three parties’ tallies are well within the range of predicted values. The big outlier is One Nation, which polled at 3%, well below predictions – and far enough below to think that the extra 2% primary vote to the Coalition could reflect this underperformance. This has big implications for the two party preferred vote estimates from the opinion poll companies, because the two-party preferred vote is not a thing that is sampled – it is inferred from past preference distributions, from simple questions about where respondents will put their second choice, or from additional questions in the poll. So uncertainty in primary votes of the minor parties will flow through to larger uncertainty in two-party preferred vote tallies, since these votes have to flow on. By way of example, a 1% difference in the primary vote estimate for the Greens (e.g. 9% vs. 10%) will manifest as a difference of 10% in the total number of two-party preferred votes flowing to the major parties. If the assumed proportion of those votes that go to the Liberals is wrong, then you can expect to see this multiplied through in the final two-party preferred vote. In the case of One Nation, some polls (e.g. Essential Research) consistently gave them 6-7% of the primary vote, when they actually got 3%. So that’s a 50% miscalculation in the number of preference votes that flow to someone from this party. This is a unique problem for opinion polling in a nation like Australia and it raises the question: Have opinion poll companies learnt to deal with preferencing in the era of minor parties?

The second thing to note is the margin of error of these polls. Margin of error is used to show what the range of possible “true” values for the polled proportion might be. For example, if a poll estimates 40% of people will vote Liberal with a 2% margin of error that means that the “real” proportion of people who will vote Liberal is between 38% and 42%. For a binary question, the method for calculating the margin of error can be found here, but polls in Australian politics are no longer a binary question: we need to know the margin of error for four proportions, and this margin of error grows as a proportion of the estimate when the estimate is smaller. For example the most recent Ipsos poll lists its margin of error as 2.3%, but this suggests that the estimated primary vote for the Coalition (39%) should actually lie between 36.7% and 41.3%. This means that the estimated primary vote for the ALP should have a slightly wider margin of error (since it’s smaller) and the Greens even more so. Given this, it’s safe to say that the observed primary vote totals currently recorded lie exactly within the margins of error for the Ipsos poll. This poll did not get any estimates wrong! But it is being reported as wrong.

The reason the poll is reported as wrong is the combination of these two problems: the margin of error on the primary votes of all these parties should magnify the margin of error on the two-party preferred vote so that in the end it is larger than 2.3%, so we should be saying that the two-party preferred vote for the Coalition that is inferred from this poll is probably wider than the range 47 – 51%. That’s easily wide enough for the Coalition to win the election. But newspapers never report the margin of error or its implications.

When you look at the actual data from the polls, take into account the margin of error and consider the uncertainty in preferences, the polls did not get it wrong at all – the media did in their reporting of the polls. But we can ask a second question about these polls: can opinion polls have any meaning in a close race?

What do opinion polls mean in a close race?

In most elections in Australia most seats don’t come into play, and only a couple of swing seats change, because most are safe. This election has definitely followed this pattern, with 7 seats changing hands and 5 in doubt – only 12 seats mattered in this election. Amongst those 12 seats it appears (based on the current snapshot of data) that the Coalition gained 8 and lost 4, for a net gain of 4. Of those 12 seats 9 were held by non-Coalition parties before the election, and 3 by the Coalition. Under a purely random outcome – that is, if there was nothing determining whether these seats changed hands and it was purely random, the equivalent of a coin toss – then the chance of this outcome is not particularly low. Indeed, even if the ALP had a 60% chance of retaining their own seats and a 40% chance of winning Coalition seats, it’s still fairly likely that you would observe an outcome like this. A lot of these seats were on razor thin margins, so that literally they could be vulnerable to upset if there was something like bad weather or a few grumpy people or a change in the proportion of donkey votes.

I don’t think polls conducted at the national level can be expected to tell us much about the results of a series of coin tosses. If those 12 seats were mostly determined by chance, not by any structural drivers of change, how is a poll that predicts a 51% two-party preferred vote, with 2% margin of error, going to determine that they’re going to flip? It simply can’t, because you can’t predict random variation with a structural model. Basically, the outcome of this election was well within the boundaries one would expect based purely on the non-systematic random error at the population level.

When a party is heading for a drubbing you can expect the polls to pick it up, but when a minor change to the status quo is going to happen due to either luck or unobserved local factors, you can’t expect polls to offer a better prediction than coin flips.

The importance of minor parties to the result

One thing I did notice in the coverage of this election was that there were a lot of seats where the Coalition was garnering the biggest primary vote but then the ALP and the Greens’ primary vote combined was almost as large or a little larger, followed by two fairly chunky independent parties. I think in a lot of elections this means that Greens and independents’ preferences were crucial to the outcome. As the Greens’ vote grows I expect it encompasses more and more disaffected Liberal and National voters, and not just ALP voters with a concern about the environment. For example in Parkes, NSW the National Party and the ALP experienced major swings against them, but the National candidate won with a two-party preferred vote swing towards him. This suggests that preferences from minor parties were super important. This may not seem important at the national level but at the local level it can be crucial. In Herbert, which the Coalition gained, two minor parties got over 10% of the vote. In Bass the combined ALP/Green primary vote is bigger than the Coalition’s, but the Liberal member is ahead on preferences, which suggests that the Greens are not giving strong preference flows to the ALP. This variation in flows is highly seat-specific and extremely hard to model or predict – and I don’t think that the opinion polling companies have any way of handling this.

Sample and selection bias in modern polling

It can be noted from the Pollbludger list of surveys that they consistently overestimated the ALP’s two-party preferred vote, which shouldn’t happen if they were just randomly getting it wrong – there appears to be some form of systematic bias in the survey results. Surveys like opinion polls are prone to two big sources of bias: sampling bias and selection bias. Sampling bias happens when the companies random phone dialing produces a sample that is demographically incorrect, for example by sampling too many baby boomers or too many men. It is often said that sampling companies only call landlines, which should lead to an over-representation of old people so that the sample is 50% elderly people even though the population is only 20% elderly. This problem can be fixed by weighting, in which the proportions are calculated with a weight to reflect the relative rarity of young people. This method increases the margin of error but should handle the sample bias problem. However, there is a deeper problem that weighting cannot fix, which is selection bias. Selection bias occurs when your sample is not representative of the population, even if demographically they appear to be. It doesn’t matter if 10% of your sample are aged 15-24, and 10% of the population is aged 15-24, if the 15-24 year olds you sampled are fundamentally different to the 15-24 year olds in the population. Some people will tell you weighting fixes these kinds of problems but it doesn’t: there is no statistical solution to sampling the wrong people.

I often hear that this problem arises because polling companies only call landlines, and people with landlines are weirdos, but I checked and this isn’t the case: Ipsos for example samples mobile phones and 40-50% of its sample is drawn from mobile phones. This sample is still heavily biased though, because people who answer their phones to strangers are a bit weird, and people who agree to do surveys are even weirder. The most likely respondent to a phone survey is someone who is very bored and very politically engaged; and as time goes by, I think the people who answer polls are getting weirder and weirder. If your sample is a mixture of politically super-engaged young people and the bored elderly, then you are likely to get a heavy selection bias. One possible consequence of this could be a pro-ALP bias in the results: the young people who answer their mobile are super politically engaged, which in that age group means pro-ALP or pro-Green, and their responses are being given a high weight because young people are under sampled. It’s also possible that the weighting has been applied incorrectly, though that seems unlikely to be a problem across the entire range of polling companies.

I don’t think this is the main problem for these polls. There is a 2% over-estimate of the ALP two-party preferred vote but this could easily arise from misapplication of preferences. The slight under-estimate of the LNP primary vote could come from inaccuracies in the National Party estimate, for example from people saying they’re going to vote One Nation on the phone, but reverting to National or Liberal in the Booth. Although there could be a selection bias in the sampling process, I don’t think this selection bias has been historically pro-ALP. I think the problem in this election has been that the fragmentation of the major party votes on both the left (to Green/Indies) and on the right (to One Nation, UAP, Hinch and others) has made small errors in sampling and small errors in assignment of preferences snowball into larger errors in the two-party preferred estimate. In any case, this was a close election and it’s hard for polls to be right when the election comes down to toss-ups in a few local electorates.

What does this mean for political feedback processes in democracies?

Although I think the problem is exaggerated in this election, I do think this is going to be a bigger problem in future as the major parties continue to lose support to minor parties. One Nation may come and go but the Greens have been on a 10% national vote share for a decade now and aren’t going anywhere, and as they start to get closer to more lower house seats their influence on election surprises will likely grow – and not necessarily in the ALP’s favour. This means that the major parties are not going to be able to rely on opinion polls as a source of feedback from the electorate about the raw political consequences of their actions and that, I think, is a big problem for the way our democracy works.

Outside of their membership – and in the case of the ALP, the unions – political parties have no particular mechanism for receiving feedback from the general public except elections. Over the last 20 years opinion polls have formed one major component of the way in which political leaders learn about the reception their policies have in the general community. Sure, they can ask their membership for an opinion, and they’ll get feedback through other segments of the community (such as the environmental movement for the Greens, or the unions for the ALP), but in the absence of opinion polls they won’t learn much about how the politically disengaged think of their policies. But in Australia under compulsory voting the politically disengaged still vote, and they still get angry about politicians, and they still have political ideals. If this broader community withdraws completely so that their opinion can no longer be gauged – or worse still, politicians learn to believe that the opinions of those who are polled are representative of community sentiment in general – then politicians will instead learn about the reception their policies receive only through the biased filter of stakeholders, the media, and their own party organisms. I don’t see any of the major parties working to make themselves more accessible to community feedback and more amenable to public discussion and engagement, and I don’t think they will be able to find a way to do that even if they tried. Over the past 20 years instead politicians have gauged the popularity of their platform from polls, and used it to modify and often to moderate their policies in between elections. Everyone hates the political leader who simply shapes their policies to match the polls, but everyone hates a politician who ignores public opinion just as much. We do expect our politicians to pay attention to what we think in between elections, and to take it into account when making policy. If it becomes impossible for them to do this, then an important mode of communication between those who make the laws and those who don’t will be broken or worse still become deceptive.

It does not seem that this problem is going to go away or get better. This means that the major political parties are going to have to start finding new mechanisms to receive feedback from the general public – and we the public are going to have to find new ways to get through to them. Until then, expect more and nastier surprises in the future, and more weird political contortions as the major parties realize they haven’t just lost control of the narrative – they aren’t even sure what the narrative is. And since we the public learn what the rest of the public think from opinion polls as well, we too will lose our sense of what our own country wants, leaving us dependent on our crazy Aunt’s Facebook posts as our only vox populi.

As people retreat from engagement with pollsters, the era of the opinion poll will begin to close. We need to build a new form of participatory democracy to replace it. But, and how? And until we do, how confused will we become in the democracy we have? The strange dynamics of modern information systems are wreaking havoc in our democratic systems, and it is becoming increasingly urgent that we understand how, and what we can do to secure our democracies in this strange new world of fragmented information.

But as Scott Morrison stands up in the hottest, driest era in the history of the continent and talks about building more coal mines on the back of his mandate, I don’t hold out much hope that there will be any change.

 

Watching the new Fantastic Beasts series, set in the Harry Potter world but outside of Hogwarts school, has made me aware of the horrible inequalities and vicious politics of the Harry Potter world. I have reported on how the first movie very starkly illustrated the lack of interest wizards have in the welfare of muggles, and the extreme inequality between wizard and muggle world that wizards actively work to maintain. In the second movie their disregard for the muggles bleeds into full exterminationism, and the central plot of the movie is revealed to be the battle between an evil guy who wants to exterminate all muggles and a plucky wizard who wants to preserve the status quo (although perhaps his main motivation is getting laid). In the second movie we also see how the politics of the wizard world is close to fascist, and definitely dystopian, and the wizards are subjected to a strict system of control and enforcement that seems to be largely built around ensuring they don’t reveal themselves to or do anything to help muggles.

In comments to the post in which I discuss this dystopian wizard world I attempted to discuss which kind of political dystopia the wizard world is, and after rejecting fascism and communism I settled on a colonialist model for the world. In this post I want to explain in detail how the politics of the Harry Potter world is explicitly colonialist, discuss the world’s repeated turns to exterminationism in light of this politics, and ask a few questions about how it is that a book in which we cheer for a bunch of colonialist bell-ends became an international sensation.

This post is going to be long, and will be structured something like this:

  • An introduction to colonial practice: Exploitative versus acquisitive colonialism
  • The proto-fascist structure of colonial states
  • The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion
  • Why muggles are treated the same way as indigenous people in the Harry Potter world
  • The inevitability of extermination and the threat of muggle technology
  • Cheering on racists: How did we come to this?

In constructing this argument I will draw on background material from the Harry Potter books, some supporting material which I think JK Rowling published, and the events of the two Fantastic Beasts movies. I’m not a Harry Potter expert, so there may be mistakes. Anyway, here goes…

Two kinds of colonialism

When people think of colonialism they often think of the conquest and exploitation of India, which is seen as the canonical model of how a rich European state takes over and exploits a thriving non-European community. However, this is only one of two types of colonialism. For simplicity in this post I will define these two kinds as exploitative colonialism and acquisitive colonialism. In exploitative colonialism an aggressive and expansionist state invades and subjugates a weaker but technologically advanced state, destroys or co-opts its existing political structures, and runs its economy to its own exploitative benefit. Typically the state that the colonialist power invades is established, strong, with its own heirarchies, a thriving market, international trade and its own technological developments and progress. The model of such a state is India, but any of the South East Asian nations and also much of North Africa qualifies for this situation. In exploitative colonialism the cost of exterminating the locals, and the huge benefits of exploiting their existing markets and social structures, mean that exploitation is the best or possibly the only way for the colonial power to extract benefit from a people it considers its inferior. In contrast, acquisitive colonialism seeks no benefit from the people it overruns. In acquisitive colonialism the expansionist state finds a people who are technologically far inferior to itself, have a very small and dispersed population, limited or no international trade, and few markets it can intrude into. The only thing they have that is of value to the expansionist state is land and the resources locked in and under that land. Often their political systems are so alien to the conquering state that it cannot conceive of how to exploit them, and in any case the local economy is so small in comparison to the colonial state’s that there is no point in wasting energy trying to extract anything from them. Often these highly isolated societies are also vulnerable to diseases that the colonist brings, so exploitation will be highly destructive in any case. In acquisitive colonialism the costs of extermination are so low, and the benefits of exploitation so minimal, that the best outcome is to destroy the local community, drive it off of all profitable or beneficial lands, isolate it from the invaders and exclude it from all contact with or benefit from the invading society. This form of colonialism was practised in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. The final goal of this form of colonialism may not have been the complete destruction of an entire race and culture, but it was most certainly the complete expulsion of these people from all profitable lands and their exclusion – generally on racist and eugenicist grounds – from all political and cultural interaction with the colonial state. This final stage is characterized in the USA by the reservation system, and in Australia by the mission system and the child abduction program. These acquisitive colonial states reached their nadir in the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century, when they mixed their colonial ideology with scientific racism, but had a tail that trailed into the late 20th century, with the end of the explicitly exterminationist strategies probably marked by Wounded Knee in the USA and the end of the child abduction program in Australia in the early 1970s.

Of course neither of these kinds of colonialism perfectly enacted the goals they set out for themselves, partly due to conflicting political visions, partly due to changing circumstances, and partly because the goals cannot be pursued to their pure conclusion through the flawed and human agents of colonial repression. But that they did not, for example, completely exterminate the native American peoples should not be taken as a sign that American colonialism was not explicitly acquisitive and exterminationist.

The proto-fascist structure of colonial states

Colonialism extracts a heavy toll from its subject peoples, but it does not do so without also implementing an architecture of oppression and authoritarianism at home. Colonialist states explicitly structure their world view around heirarchies of human worth, defined in terms of race, class and gender, and the state and its supporters construct a network of social, political, economic and cultural forces to support and maintain these heirarchies. Within the home country of the colonialist state there is usually an extensive apparatus to control the poor, with institutions such as the workhouse and the prison, poor laws, debtor’s prison, and press gangs. Much of the British state’s early actions against sex workers were based on fear of the weakening influence of sexually transmitted infections on the colonial project, and the mistreatment of poor women and their children – including deceptively stealing their children and shipping them to the colonies to be used as cheap labour in the mission system and the homes of wealthy colonial families – is well documented, finally.

In the acquired colonial territories the state enacts vicious repression on its own lower classes, in the form of anti-union violence and the employment of terror organizations such as the Pinkertons to enforce its will. Where extractive industries in the acquired territories come into conflict with colonial labourers or encounter activism to preserve the environment or other public goods they react violently and with government support. Movement of non-indigenous people into indigenous areas is heavily restricted, and organizations that might represent the interests of indigenous people are suppressed. In the USA there was lynching of free Mexican workers throughout the south west, and in Australia in the 1960s the Freedom Riders were met with violence in their journey around Australia publicizing Aboriginal disadvantage. In the UK it was not uncommon to see “No dogs and Irishmen” signs on public accommodations, and at times in history it was not acceptable for white and indigenous people to marry or live together. In later years through programs like Cointelpro and the undercover police operations of the UK the state’s secret police worked assiduously against not only indigenous rights but also environmental and labour activism, animal rights progress, and any form of restrictions of the rights of the colonial state to extract full value from its stolen lands. In the USA this led to state and extra-judicial violence against indigenous people protecting their water rights, open suppression of land rights activism, and the use of prison and state power to restrict services to reservations to force acquiescence from indigenous activists and their non-indigenous supporters. The British state introduced transportation in the 19th century, dumping petty criminals and labour organizers from the UK into the badlands of its colonial properties and then pitting them against the indigenous residents, and punishing those who spoke out against these practices.

It is not possible to exterminate whole peoples, push them off their hereditary lands, and steal their resources without maintaining a violent state that represses all attempts at clemency or understanding. You cannot keep humans out of your polity without forcefully policing the boundaries of your polity, and requiring that your citizens stay strictly within it. Colonialist states are repressive, and build up structures of political and state control intended to ensure that their heirarchical and violent systems are maintained. There is a wide literature on the damaging political consequences of the exercise of state power in support of colonialism: George Orwell writes eloquently about its damaging effects in Burmese Days, and Katharine Susannah Pritchard describes the oppressive atmosphere of the frontier very well in Brumby Innes and Coonardoo. Henry Reynolds describes the violence of the frontier in The Forgotten War, and of course the Bringing them Home report details the racist underpinnings of the political order supporting colonialism in Australia. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand offer an unrelenting description of the colonial project in New Zealand, against an incredibly beautiful and peaceful backdrop. There is no reason for anyone in colonial societies not to know these things, but many of us do not.

Having established these outlines of what colonialist policy is and how colonial states enforce it on both their colonized victims and their citizens, let us move to the world of Harry Potter, and examine how the wizard world treats muggles.

The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion

The Muggle Protection Act is a law passed in 1992 to protect muggles from magical accidents. It was part of a broader body of legislative and scholarly work on maintaining the veil of secrecy between the muggle and wizard worlds. It may be just a coincidence, but most colonial states have a law akin to this. For example in 1869 the Aboriginal Protection Act was passed in Victoria, which amongst other things restricted “where people could live and work, what they could do and who they could meet or marry”. Similar restrictions and guidelines were published in the wizarding world, for example the three volume Laws of Conduct When Dealing with Muggles, or the cultural (but not legal) stigma attached to marrying muggles. It appears, from Queenie’s behaviour in The Crimes of Grindelwald, that it is not possible for her to marry Jacob Kowalski or even to have a relationship with him, which is why she has abducted him and charmed him to come with her to France. That suggests that in 1920s America at least there was some kind of restriction on muggle-wizard relationships, or at least they were only considered acceptable in extreme circumstances. It is also apparently the case that the ministry of magic attempted to remove certain books from school libraries if they depicted relationships with muggles or were overly sensitive in their reporting on muggles.

The politics of muggle exclusion becomes much clearer when we investigate Dumbledore’s history of activism on this subject. In a letter to Grindelwald on the topic, this scion of liberal wizard politics writes

Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD — this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more.

This is a classic model of white man’s burden. Consider, for example, this minute from the colonial secretary of New South Wales to the Legislative Assembly, 1883:

HAVING carefully read the two reports by the Protector, the various letters and articles which have appeared in the newspapers on the La Perouse blacks, and the report of Messrs. King and Fosbery on the Warangesda and Maloga Mission Stations, the opinion which I formerly held is confirmed, viz., that much more must be done than has yet been done for the Aborigines before there can be any national feeling of satisfaction that the Colony has done its duty by the remnant of the aboriginal race.

Later in this note (which can be found as a reference here), we can find in the report of the NSW Aborigines Protection Association the following charming indication of how many people in 1881 felt about Aboriginal people:

As usual in inaugurating an effort of this nature, the Association had some obstacles to surmount through misrepresentation and apathy. It was said that any attempt to better the condition of the blacks was labour in vain; that they were such irreclaimable savages, and so devoid of ordinary human sympathies that no hold could be got over them ; and that they were dying out so fast that no good end could be served by trying to civilize and educate them.

This is very close to the way Grindelwald or Voldemort think about Muggles; indeed, without having access to it, one could assume that Dumbledore’s reply to Grindelwald is a reply to a sentiment such as this. Certainly there is a movement in the wizard world – epitomized by Grindelwald and Voldemort, but also expressed through pure-blood fascists like Malfoy – that the wizards have the right to rule over muggles, that no consideration should be given at all to muggles and that purity of blood is essential. Indeed, the entire language of blood status in the wizard world exactly mirrors the language of racial heirarchies in colonial societies, and policies championed by pure-blood fascists are very similar to those proposed by people like A.O. Neville in early 20th century Australia. The similarity of language and intent is striking. Effectively what we see here is one side of an ongoing debate between wizards about whether to completely ignore or even exterminate muggles, or to keep them excluded from wizard society but act where possible for the good of the muggles when doing so. In the Harry Potter books we see this debate manifest as a violent conflict between Voldemort on one side, and Dumbledore and the children on the other, in which we side with Dumbledore and his white man’s burden, rather than the exterminationist Voldemort.

The Muggle-Indigenous parallel

Of course, one might argue that this colonial vision cannot be shared between wizards and European colonialists, because wizards are not stealing anyone’s lands. They don’t need to interact with muggles at all and they’re simply maintaining a peaceful distance. But this is not the case at all. Muggles are a constant burden to wizards; muggles are in the way. Whenever wizards show themselves around muggles – whenever they attempt to be on muggle land or in muggle spaces as wizards – they risk violence, and the entire architecture of wizard secrecy was developed in 1683 in response to violent encounters between muggles and wizards. In the colonial project Indigenous people are also in the way, because they occupy land that the colonialists want, and attempts to use that land incur Indigenous anger and violence, so the simple solution is to push them off. Perhaps they could have come to some arrangement to share the land, but why would they bother with people so far beneath them? And why negotiate when essentially you do not believe that Indigenous people are using the land at all? This logic of terra nullius makes it an injustice to the colonialists to have to negotiate with their inferiors for access to land they don’t believe the indigenous people are using or need. A very similar situation applies to the wizard world: wizards cannot openly use muggle land or public space without incurring violence, and so the muggles to them are just a nuisance. They have nothing to gain from interacting with muggles, and consider themselves so far above muggles that negotiating with them is a waste of time, and so they try to separate their societies. To this end they establish a complex system of laws that they enforce with extreme violence (towards wizards who violate them) and obliteration (of memories) for muggles who stumble across their existence. It is also clear from the books that even liberal wizards don’t think twice about interfering in the wellbeing and livelihoods of muggles if the muggles’ presence causes them even a moment’s inconvenience. Consider this story from Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince[1]:

There was no doubt that Mrs Cole was an inconveniently sharp woman. Apparently Dumbledore thought so too, for Harry now saw him slip his wand out of the pocket of his velvet suit, at the same time picking up a piece of perfectly blank paper from Mrs Cole’s desktop.

‘Here,’ said Dumbledore, waving his wand once as he passed her the piece of paper, ‘I think this will make everything clear.’

Mrs Cole’s eyes slid out of focus and back again as she gazed intently at the blank paper for a moment.

‘That seems perfectly in order,’ she said placidly, handing it back.

Here Dumbledore, ostensibly a champion of muggle rights, simply screws with a woman’s mind and creates a future disciplinary issue for her, just because she is “inconveniently sharp.” Her situation or needs are of no importance to her at all – he simply dismisses her intentions and free will, and tricks her into not doing her job, with all the consequences that entails.

It is inevitable that at some point in this history an impatient or particularly arrogant wizard is going to advocate for the next step from this inconvenient co-existence: exterminate them and take their land. This is what Grindelwald wants to do, keeping alive perhaps a small number for some as-yet-unclear purpose. It is also part of Voldemort’s goal, although he also appears to want to reshape wizard society as well. Perhaps he realized that rebellion against the system of muggle protection boards and secrecy statutes was not enough, and to properly settle “the muggle question” one needs to also change wizard society so it is less squeamish about what needs to be done. This would make him no different to the people arguing against the Aborigines Protection Association in Australia in 1881.

The parallels are obvious: an inferior race interferes in the goals of wizards by being in their way on land they could be using for their own benefit. So the debate becomes: do we tolerate them and do our best to rule with good intentions, avoiding harming them as much as possible; or do we exterminate them for our own convenience? All of the Harry Potter plot – and especially the plot of the new Fantastic Beasts series – concerns the resolution of this debate. It’s the classic debate of the colonial era, with magic.

Extermination and the threat of muggle technology

The slide towards extermination is inevitable, and the imperative to do so becomes obvious in The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we begin to realize that there are too many muggles, wizards can’t control them forever, and because they haven’t already completely destroyed their society, the muggles are developing their own technology. Grindelwald shows a vision of the future in which muggles have nuclear weapons and it becomes painfully apparent to the gathered wizards that the game is up: if the muggles get that technology, they are the equals of wizards. That one vision by itself is enough to convince at least half of the wizards to switch sides. Queenie switches sides, with the promise of no moral constraints on how she will be able to deal with muggles. The implication for Queenie is that she can have Jacob – but what does that mean for the other wizards in the room? Murder? Slavery? It’s not clear but the implication is not good. The moral implication of this in the context of this colonialist model of wizard-muggle interactions is obvious: because they didn’t exterminate them and disrupt their culture sooner, the wizards have allowed the muggles to flourish and become independent, and now they are a threat. The wizards should have learnt from the human playbook, and done the job properly from the start. Grindelwald – and, perhaps, later Voldemort – will do the job properly!

The moral implications

What should we as readers take away from this collection of stories? I tried googling to find out what others have written about this topic, and although I found some interesting questions and debates on colonialism in the stories, I could not find anyone tackling the obvious racism of the wizard/muggle divide and the horrifying language of colonial racial hierarchies in Rowling’s lexicon of blood purity. I found an article from an academic, Magical Creatures and How to Exploit them, about the colonial politics of wizard’s attitudes towards non-human magical beings. I found a question on Metafilter (wtf!) about whether the wizards bothered to stop colonialism when muggles did it to each other, with the obvious implication (since it happened) that wizards from all the countries on earth sat back quietly while muggles of one country enslaved and exterminated muggles of other countries. This is an interesting question that makes the central interventionist debate in Black Panther look kind of pissy, but it doesn’t address the issue of how wizards view and treat muggles. The entire issue seems to have just slid under everyone’s notice.

I think this is a strong indictment of how western societies view our colonial past, and also a really depressing example of how much indigenous peoples’ voices and cultural history have been excluded from western culture. We didn’t even notice as a series of books in an obviously, openly racist and colonialist setting swept the world by storm. A huge amount of ink has been spilled on her description of native American wizards, but nothing has been said about the colonized nature of muggle life, and the fascist society that rules over them and is planning to exterminate them.

There is nowhere in the original series of novels or in the movies where the author makes a judgment on this, or leads us to believe that she even sees this issue (indeed, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them it is unclear whether we’re even meant to think the summary execution of Tina is bad). It is possible to make stories of this kind with a little more moral nuance than we see in Harry Potter. For example, in his Culture series, Iain M. Banks makes it very clear that there is something slightly wrong about the Culture, and especially about the behavior of the Contact section. In Consider Phlebas we are obviously meant to sympathize with the Culture’s enemies as they race to find the Mind, and in The Player of Games the planet that Gurgeh intervenes in is set up as almost comically evil with the specific intent of posing a moral question about interference. The decisions that the main characters make leave them scarred and cynical, and sometimes set them against their own society. In the movie Avatar the colonial conflict has a clear moral framework and we end up switching sides midway through. There is no point in any of the multitude of books, movies and associated stuff where any wizard character of any kind rebels in any meaningful way against the colonial system, or even questions it. The obvious implication of this is that we’re complicit with it, as readers – we are asked to go along with it, and we do!

This leads me to ask a few questions about the series, its conception and its reception, which I have not been able to answer:

  • Did J.K. Rowling intend this series to be a discourse on colonialism, or did she invent this entire apparatus out of whole cloth?
  • Has anyone noticed the racism of wizard society and its colonialist parallels, and has Rowling responded to that?
  • Is there any young adult literature where the good guys are embedded in and supporting a society as openly fascist as the one that Rowling writes about?

It is disturbing to me that this series is about a group of children defending an overtly authoritarian society from a fascist takeover, in which two separate storylines describe bad guys intending to exterminate most of the human race on racial grounds, and we are supposed to cheer on the “good” colonialists who are protecting a “good” society which controls the minds, bodies and souls of 6 billion people because of their infinite inferiority, and maintains a deeply violent and illiberal social order in order to protect that colonialist project. I cannot remember any book I have ever read in my entire life (except perhaps Starship Troopers, but for obvious reasons my memory of that is dim) in which the society the good guys come from is so deeply evil, and yet we are so blithely expected to cheer along the main characters as they defend and support that society. Looking back on it now, I feel as if I have been indoctrinated into a vicious and disturbed cultural order, raised in it just like the children in the books, and only when I was presented with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did I finally realize that the society I had been cheering for needs to be torn down root and branch.

Conclusion

The society of the Harry Potter world is best modeled as a colonialist society in which an elite of extremely powerful people lord segregate themselves from a mass of muggles who they exclude from the riches and benefits of their own society, on explicitly racist grounds. This society has developed an intensely authoritarian and illiberal system of government to control the wizards and ensure that the colonial order is reproduced, and is happy to use violence and imprisonment in a soul-destroying prison to maintain that order. Exterminationist ideology bubbles up repeatedly in this world because it is inevitable that a society which views 6 billion people as worthless interferences in its daily activities will eventually decide that the convenient thing to do is murder all of them, and the need to do so becomes pressing when people realize these supposedly useless muggles will get nukes. We the readers are supposed to cheer on the agents of this authoritarian society as they defend it against a fascist, exterminationist incursion, without ever questioning the underlying principles of this social order, the author never shows any sign that she intends for us to question the moral framework of her series, and no character ever seems to question the fundamental evil of it all.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the series, and it’s certainly an interesting political project. But it says a lot about the state of our society that this became popular and that the political underpinnings of the work have never been questioned, or indeed that the explicitly racist framework of the stories has not been repeatedly attacked. Obviously it’s good that millions of children enjoyed a hugely popular book that is enjoyable to read and introduced a whole new generation to the joys of reading and the creative brilliance of literature, but I really hope that in future we as a society can do better than this.


fn1: Itself a deeply disturbing name, when you think about the history of phrases like “Half-blood” when applied to indigenous peoples.


Art note: This is a ledger drawing, art drawn on a school exercise book or some other workaday paper, which is a part of the historical record left behind by indigenous Americans after the end of their independent communities. This one is a drawing by an unknown Kiowa artist, which I took from the Wikipedia entry on ledger art.

Recent events in Australian politics suggest to me that Australian conservatism’s ideological conflicts are coming to a boil. For my foreign reader(s), the situation is roughly this: The Liberal party (actually our conservative party) had a contest for the leadership of the party which was ostensibly between a right wing nutjob, Peter Dutton, and our supposedly moderate PM, Malcolm Turnbull. These contests are par for the course in Australian politics (it’s a Westminster system so the party that controls parliament chooses the prime minister, who is usually [always?] the leader of the parliamentary party and can be turned over by a simple vote of the party’s representatives) but in the past 15 years they’ve become a bit too common and they appear from the outside to be arising out of nothing. In any case in this instance Dutton (the right wing nutjob) did an incompetent job of counting his supporters, Turnbull (the supposed moderate) didn’t have the guts to challenge and lose, and in the resulting shitshow a third candidate, Scott Morrison, came out of nowhere and stole the top job. This might seem like standard bloody-minded ambition, except that if one is crazy enough to follow the history of leadership challenges in this party it seems pretty clear that the underlying forces driving this were:

  • Turnbull was about to introduce an energy policy that involved some action on climate change
  • The coal industry didn’t like this at all
  • A few of the coal industry’s friends in parliament and the media stirred up a fight, and it got out of control

It also appears that somewhere behind it all was the former PM, rampant misogynist and global warming denialist, Tony Abbot, who is an all round piece of shit. Abbot can’t run for the job himself because he did a really bad job when he was last PM and noone wants him back, so instead he used his Frankenstein Monster, Dutton, and (as he does with everything he touches) managed to screw it up.

Unfortunately Morrison is a friend of the coal industry – he once famously brought a lump of coal into parliament because Aussie politics is super classy – and so now we have a denialist back in the top job, just as 100% of New South Wales is declared to be in drought conditions.

Some Australians will probably disagree with my opinion on some of exactly what happened and why, to which I can say booyah because nobody is going to ever find out the truth, but in the run up to this leadership kerfuffle it was pretty clear that the right wing of the Liberal party was beginning to kick up a stink about gay marriage (which Turnbull legislated, but please don’t give him any credit) and climate policy, which has been a huge problem in Australian politics for 20 years now. Unfortunately it now looks like they’re going to lose the next election, and because Turnbull has resigned they may find themselves in a very precarious position in the parliament if his electorate decides it’s time to ditch the conservative nutjobs who are slowly eating the party. This isn’t the first time the party has cut off its nose to spite its face – back in the noughties when I was still living in Australia the NSW state party launched a sudden unexpected leadership challenge that got rid of a very well liked politically moderate leader in exchange for a raving christian nutjob, and as a result lost a perfectly winnable election against a tired and immensely corrupt labour government that must have been so chuffed to see their apparently 100% flatlined political chances revived by rightwing ratfuckery.

Both times this has happened it has been a spiteful christian rump trying to tear down a popular moderate, modern version of conservatism, and destroying the entire project’s electoral chances in the process. This represents a simmering conflict that has been ongoing within this party for the past 15 years, between two radically opposed political visions that have very little in common except their desire to win. On the one hand are a bunch of generally (but not always) younger, more ethnically diverse “moderate” conservatives who are probably better described as not conservative at all, but genuine liberals. They support gay marriage, civil rights, and individual freedoms even where individuals might find those freedoms distasteful on religious or cultural grounds. They also support free markets, less regulation, and an open modern economy. On the other side are the paleoconservatives, who oppose any loosening of the social conditions of the 1950s, and only support free markets where those free markets can be held to benefit middle class white Australians and farmers. The two sides can sometimes agree on economics, and the liberals are so desperate to win that they’ll throw most of their economic principles overboard if they think bribing the middle class will win them votes, but on one or two issues they are implacably opposed and increasingly, as climate change starts to bite, climate change is where their real problem is. Basically, they cannot compromise: one half wants a market-based mechanism for reducing emissions, and the other side doesn’t believe in global warming and is taking a lot of money from the coal industry. As Australia’s weather goes wonky and the barrier reef slowly bleaches away, and the entire country dries up, and as the fossil fuels that the conservatives love become increasingly insecure and expensive due to overseas market conditions, these two sides cannot reconcile themselves anymore.

They need to split and form two parties, a real Liberal party and a real Tory party, but they can’t, because if they do they will permanently cede political control to the labour party, and be forced to sit in the wilderness watching as reasonable policy gets made that benefits poor and working people as well as rich people. Unacceptable! It’s particularly difficult for the tory half of this deal because while the liberal half would be happy to work with labour to pass some social reforms and climate policy, the conservatives can’t allow it. So they have to cling together in this vicious death spiral, fighting each other over policy that the majority of Australians just want fixed and done with, unable to compromise with each other or the electorate and unable to deal with labour. Fifteen years ago when they did this in New South Wales it was over drug policy and how policy was made (evidence vs. religious fee-fees). Now it’s over climate policy and sex. And the two sides really do look like they hate each other now. How long can it last?

If they did split we would see some fascinating political science experiments in real time. What proportion of Labour voters are actually Greens voters who have been sticking to Labour out of fear of the conservative vote, but would shift their vote if they thought it was safe? What proportion of the electorate is genuinely deeply conservative, and how long would it take the Tory party to become a rump? What proportion of the liberal voters would give their preferences to Labour over the Tories? Could Labour and the Liberals do a coalition deal, especially if the Greens started picking up more seats in the lower house (which seems possible if the conservative vote split)? Could the Liberals, Tories and Nationals form a coalition, and how horrifically retrograde would this be given the sudden increase in the Nationals’ bargaining power? What would happen to fringe lunatics like One Nation and Bob Katter if there was suddenly a mainstream genuine Tory alternative, undiluted by Big City Liberals? Would NSW become the conservative heartland, and Victoria the Liberal heartland? What about Tasmania? Who cares!?

Of course as a Labour supporter I would love to see these parties split, and their electoral futures die in a ditch. From the perspective of the single biggest issue facing humanity over the next 20 years – climate policy – it’s essential that whoever is in power in Australia (and every country!) form a solid and radical carbon policy that targets a rapid shift to a zero carbon economy, or industrial civilization will stagger to an ignominious end. So we need the liberals to get kicked out and it needs to be made clear that they lost because of climate policy. Unfortunately when they do get the boot, people in the party will assume it was disunity wot did it, and they’ll just fight harder to win control for their half of the party, intensifying the internecine conflict. That at least provides some entertainment for the rest of us as the planet burns.

This dummy spit by the Tory right of the Liberal party also sends a clear message to politicians in Australia: you cannot negotiate with these nutjobs. Turnbull repeatedly and disgracefully backed down on signature policies, or maintained pre-existing right wing policies (like the ludicrous plebiscite on gay marriage) and it was never enough for the right. The gay marriage plebiscite was Abbot’s idea but his rabid nutjob attack dogs cited it as a reason to be angry at Turnbull – presumably because they really believe they could have won the plebiscite if Turnbull hadn’t been in charge, which shows that they’re way more out of touch with Aussie life than I am (and I haven’t lived there for 12 years!) When Turnbull dropped a big part of the energy policy to please Abbot and his denialist mates, Abbot simply cited it as a lack of conviction by Turnbull. These people cannot be appeased or satisfied, and everything they want is wrong. There is only one solution to these people: they need to be driven out of politics. Reasonable liberal/moderate conservative politicians (if any of the latter still exist) need to see these people for what they are: a fifth column of traitors and economic wreckers, who care only about their ridiculous religious beliefs and the money they get from polluting industries, and for whom ecocide is impossible for religious reasons and in any case acceptable to their patrons. They need to be driven out of the party, driven out of the right wing media and right wing think tanks, and forced into the boondocks of facebook and youtube to yell harmlessly at the clouds they hate so much. We are no longer at the point in environmental history where an accommodation can be made with these people – we have no time for it. Once the Liberal party loses the next election and goes through its soul-searching about what went wrong, the liberal half of it need to get vindictive, get vicious, and get these people out. They’re a stain on the party, and a curse on humanity’s future.

The same, obviously, applies to any other conservative or Liberal party in any other country that wants to be recorded in the history books (if there are any 100 years from now) as anything except traitors to our species.

Awoken!

 

Standing at the limit of an endless ocean
Stranded like a runaway, lost at sea
City on a rainy day down in the harbour
Watching as the grey clouds shadow the bay
Looking everywhere ’cause I had to find you
This is not the way that I remember it here
Anyone will tell you its a prisoner island
Hidden in the summer for a million years

Things have not gone well for Australia’s Aborigines in the 70 years since the apology. Not because the government did or didn’t do what they had to do but because in the years that followed Australia became a banana republic. The world moved on from the oil age, and by 2077 Australia was a relic of a bygone era, a nation of miners and farmers in a world of virtual business and infinite energy. Successive governments, held in thrall to the big resource companies, rich farmers and an agrarian socialist rump, consistently missed the chance to seize on the enormous wealth of the Lucky Country: they missed the solar boom that made energy virtually free for everyone; they missed the asteroid mining industry that jump started a new decade of economic expansion but left terrestrial resource economies staggering in their own dust; they missed the chance to profit from the growth of offshore arcologies and the new Green Revolution. By 2077 the nation had been reduced to a corrupt kleptocracy, a rump of hard scrabble miners and farmers in the interior scraping by where and how they could in the wreckage of the resource economy, while on the coasts a cheap service industry bloomed around elite corporate arcologies and gated holiday homes while the advanced industry of the early millenium moved offshore and disappeared. Cities crumbled, migration slowed, the smartest young people left, and Australia floundered, a land of 1950s ideas squatting in the shadow of 2050s neon.

Then came the Awakening, when the ancient spirits of the world’s First Nations were ripped from their aeons of slumber and returned to the earth. The Awakening rolled over Australia’s Aboriginal people like a wave of enlightenment, affecting them more perhaps than any other indigenous community. Everyone and their Aunty knew someone who had discovered new powers, and the old tribes found themselves surrounded by powers and spirits they had not known since the Dreamtime. It was pure, too, in a way that signified some ancient difference in this ancient people: While the Awakening tore through the bodies of white people on the coasts, ripping them apart and reconstituting them as Orcs, Trolls and Elves, almost no Aboriginal person Awoke as a metahuman. Instead they just … Awoke. Shamans, mages, adepts … every tribe and family suddenly found themselves suffused with the knowledge of the Dreamtime, and the spirits of that time walked the deserts and scrublands where once stockmen and mining companies had their way.

Jayden Roose Awoke in this time, and found answers to questions that had always bothered him. Jayden was a knockabout man, a typical country bloke making his way in this new rough and ready world. He left school … sometime back then … and since then has worked where and how he can: driving cars and trucks for mining companies, helicopters on the big stations, pearl diving in the summer and sometimes working as a tourist guide or a hunter when times were lean. He worked offshore at the crumbling, rusting gas rigs, and then in the dry season moved to Darwin to work as a security guard at clubs and brothels, sometimes mixing in with gangsters or providing private security to the shadier visitors to that wild northern city. Over time he became better at these security jobs, an almost supernatural sense of danger working to protect him even in gangland ambushes or when tense negotiations went wrong. He also found a natural affinity for working with knives, and despite only peripheral involvement with criminal gangs and martial arts teachers across the Top End he found himself an expert in knife fighting, faster and deadlier than almost any non-augmented man around him, even people with many years’ more combat experience. People put it down to his natural affinity as a sporstman, but he was never sure.

In between his knockabout jobs Jayden returned to his tribal home in an inland town, and in those long months of furloughed time he would play a lot of footy. Here too he excelled compared to his peers – people wondered how he could leap so high for the marks, and why he was never seriously hurt no matter how hard the collisions or how vicious the tackle. With his almost prescient ability to judge others’ movement, his seeming immunity to damage, and his powerful leaps, he soon became a valued player in the wild scrubland melees of local pick-up footy matches, and in the local league that his team routinely topped. People said he was just a natural … but he always wondered. And then he Awoke, and discovered that he was an Adept, some kind of spirit-walker who had always had some connection to a deeper well of spiritual power, something he never felt or believed but suddenly understood fully and could use to his advantage. Suddenly he understood how his life had been blessed with the foreshadowing of this power, and he also realized that he had been guided in his travels, to some extent, by a mentor spirit. Wherever he traveled he was never too far from that symbolic Northern bird, the Wedge-tailed Eagle, and now he understood that that feeling of assured confidence he had walked with was not just his own youthful arrogance, but a greater power that had selected him to watch over. His sixth sense for danger, his ability to dodge that backstab or that unexpected kick, to duck just when that man opened fire as the drug deal turned south … it wasn’t just luck, or a steely eye – something soared above him, and in those moments he saw everything around him as if from a great height, through steely predator’s eyes. He was blessed with the mentor spirit of the wild raptors of the North, walking on ground newly sacred, bearing an ancient power in his long black limbs.

This ancient power that Awoke in the Red Centre soon began to tear Australia apart. The spirits of the Dreamtime were back and many of them were angry. Australia’s sclerotic political system, so insufficient for the task of grappling with the 21st century, was completely incapable of dealing with the Sixth World. Connections between states and cities frayed, long-standing political truces collapsed, and the distant lands of the Top End and the far west began to spin away from central control. The lands that Jayden knew from his youth reverted to a wilder, more primal state, and his people began to return – many against their will – to a way of life that some had long pined for, and just as many had forgotten. For Jayden, part of his tribe but not close to it, used to wandering the byways of both tribal and corporate culture, it was all too much. He took one more journey, and this time he ended up in New Horizon, watched over now by the city’s sea eagles, hungry for work, dislocated and looking for new things. New adventures in the shadows now not of a crumbling colony, but a collapsing megalopolis…

Jayden is an unprepossessing man. Simply dressed, with dark skin and the typical wide, cheerful facial features of an Aboriginal man, he looks like nothing special or especially imposing. He moves with a certain unaffected grace, and acts with the confidence of a man who knows he can get out of any spot no matter how tight, but years of rough work and rough sleeping have cleansed him of any belief that he is special or unique or that any great fate awaits him. He is uneducated, simple, rough and pure: what he wants to do he does, and he associates only with people he cares about. He has little care for money and few ideals, though he will not do anything especially criminal or immoral unless the target of his wrath is another, worse criminal. He wears rough jeans and simple linen or cotton collared shirts, usually under a stockman’s coat that is old, dusty and lined with kevlar. He carries a wicked knife that has carried him through many fights, and somewhere inside that coat a plain pistol with no pretensions to grandeur or any kind of Street Samurai heritage – but which has seen more than its share of blood spilled. Laconic, relaxed and simple, his manner puts those around him at ease quickly, and his relaxed, easy style and languid grace hide a deadly seriousness of purpose when the fighting starts. Why be a man of many words, when a few strokes of the knife can tell the whole story? And why waste words on strangers, when a warm smile and an easy hand can smooth over any awkwardness? With this unpretentious and uncomplicated style, Jayden will make a new life in New Horizon – or die trying.

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!

Last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association had an excellent article by Chapman et al giving a robust analysis of the effect of the change in Australia’s gun laws that happened in 1996. These laws (the National Firearms Agreement) were enacted very rapidly after a major mass shooting (the Port Arthur massacre) in which 35 people died. Their major components were banning certain kinds of weapon, and introducing a gun buyback scheme to enable gun owners to hand in their guns and be compensated, provided they did so within an amnesty period. Wikipedia describes the law changes in a short paragraph that shows how wide reaching they were:

The law, which was originally enforced by then-Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, included a number of provisions. For example, it established a temporary firearm buyback program for firearms that where once legal now made illegal, that according to the Council on Foreign Relations bought over 650,000 firearms. This program, which cost $230 million, was paid for by an increase in the country’s taxes. The law also created a national firearm registry, a 28-day waiting period for firearm sales, and tightened firearm licensing rules. The law also required anyone wishing to possess or use a firearm with some exceptions, be over the age of 12. Owners must be at least 18 years of age, have secure storage for their firearms and provide a “genuine reason” for doing so.

The laws have been partially evaluated a few times, were the subject of an excellent John Oliver piece, and have been controversial amongst pro-gun activists for some time, with much debate about whether or not they worked. One big problem with analyzing their impact is that the rate of firearm homicides was already in decline when the laws were enacted, and at the same time the rate of non-firearm suicides began to decline in a sharp turnaround from past trends. This has given a lot of room for people concerned about the laws to argue they had no impact.Chapman et al’s article provides a thorough analysis of all the available data on the laws. The analysis uses nationally-available death and population data from 1979 – 2013, so it can analyze two 17 year periods of data to look for changes in rates. It uses the correct analytical method to handle the low numbers of counts (negative binomial regression), and the models are constructed carefully to enable comparison not just of the changes in deaths that occurred at the time the laws were introduced, but to calculate changes in trends at this point in time, and to test if these trends occurred by chance. They conducted the analyses separately for firearm- and non-firearm suicides and homicides, total homicide deaths and gun homicide deaths with mass shooting-related deaths removed. Their key findings were:

    The rate of decline of firearm homicides accelerated, though this acceleration was not statistically significantThe rate of decline of firearm suicides accelerated, and this change was statistically significantThe increase in non-firearm suicides changed to a decrease, and this change was statistically significant

They conclude that there was no evidence of substitution of suicide methods due to the change in laws. Overall their findings seem to be robust, but actually there is a small flaw of interpretation and modeling in this paper that makes it, in my opinion, a missed opportunity to give a definitive answer to the question of the true effect of these laws.

Several limitations with the paper

The big problem with this paper is its failure to directly compare changes in different rates of death. They fitted separate models for the four kinds of death, when in fact they could have fitted a single model for all four kinds of death, plus time and interactions between the four kinds of death with each other, time and the laws. This model would have been slightly nasty to interpret, but would have the benefit of enabling the reader to identify any additional effect of the law on firearm homicides vs. non-firearm homicides, and firearm suicides vs. non-firearm suicides. Statistically significant terms for these parts would imply that the law had a bigger effect on firearm-related deaths than non-firearm-related deaths. This would also have the advantage of giving the model larger numbers of counts, thus reducing confidence intervals. My suspicion, just looking at the data presented in the paper, is that if this more complex model had been fit the authors would have found that the change in laws affected homicide and non-homicide deaths, and suicide and non-suicide deaths. This probably wouldn’t be as interesting a finding, but it would have been more robust.

The second big problem with the paper is that it doesn’t include a control group. I have previously written a post on this, in which I suggested using New Zealand data as a control group, since NZ is very similar to Australia but didn’t enact gun laws at that time. In that post I found that we would probably need to wait until 2023 to make a definitive conclusion on whether the gun laws prevented mass shootings. I didn’t touch so much on the homicide/suicide analyses but the same rules would apply. By using a control group we can rule out any possible cultural changes that may have happened more broadly at that time.

It’s also worth noting that the study doesn’t adjust for age. As Australia ages we expect to see the rate of homicides decline, since older people don’t shoot each other as much as the crazy young’uns, and this adjustment didn’t happen in the study. Given the conclusion about firearm homicides is primarily one based on trends, and a slowly aging society should see the effect of age through changes in trends, this was a missed opportunity. Similarly, suicide tends to happen in age groups where homicides don’t (above the 30s) and an aging society might be at higher risk of suicide, so adjusting for age might find an even bigger effect of the laws. I think it’s possible that a combination of aging society plus increasing proportions of non-white migrants[1] might explain the sudden cessation in mass shootings, especially if you treat mass shooting as an infectious disease, that is less likely to break out as the period of time between outbreaks increases.

Finally, the study doesn’t appear to have actually analyzed statistically the decline in numbers of mass shootings. Is this because the result was non-significant? It’s a strange omission…

Conclusion

This study provides better evidence than previous studies of the effect of the national firearms agreement on firearms-related deaths in Australia, but it is not conclusive. There is still a possibility that the decline in firearm homicides was non-significant, and that the effect on firearm suicides was coincidental. In the absence of a control group, and without constructing a full interaction model testing differences in trends between suicide methods, it is not possible to definitively conclude that the observed effects were due to the national firearm laws. Also, in the absence of a statistical test of the effect on mass shootings, we also cannot conclude that the national firearms agreement reduced these shootings. Nonetheless, the study provides strong evidence that the laws achieved their intended purpose. A more thorough analysis with proper interaction terms might answer this question definitively, but sadly didn’t happen in this particular paper.


fn1: This is probably a slightly controversial position but I have a suspicion – purely theorizing – that mass shootings start off as an in-group thing, they’re something that the majority population do to themselves. This appears to have historically been the case in the USA, with most shooters being white, but somehow in the last 10 years the disease broke out of this group and into non-white minorities, first Asian and then black Americans. I suspect this is unusual, and requires a long period of regular exposure to shootings by the in-group before it happens. This isn’t meant to say that any particular racial group is more prone to mass shootings than any other, just that it starts in the mainstream group and, while it remains a very rare event, remains there. So as the proportion of the population that this group fills declines, the rate of mass shootings also declines, leading to less and less social contagion both within the in-group and between the in-group and others. The exception to this is the USA, where the easy availability of guns means that there is no brake on the continued high rate of events, and eventually the infection spreads out of its main host[2].

fn2: In case it isn’t clear, I think that mass shootings should be seen as a kind of infectious process, spread by media hype, and have suggested changes in media laws to prevent this.

Today is the 70th anniversary of victory in the Pacific (VP Day), when Japan surrendered to allied forces. For the USA, UK and Australia this marked the end of four years of merciless war; for China it marked the end of about 20 years of colonial aggression on the mainland; and for Korea it represented the end of 35 years of colonization by Japan. For the rest of the Asia-Pacific region the end of the war brought on in many cases a new era of instability as colonial governments collapsed and the independence movements of south and south-east Asia took off. The start of peace for Japan was only the beginning of years of civil war, colonial confrontations and communal violence in the rest of Asia, and in comparison to the slaughter and chaos visited on these countries before and after the war ended, the other allied powers’ experience of the Pacific war was relatively pleasant. Still, Australians have many reasons to mark VP Day as a major event in our history, both on account of the huge loss of life sustained, the cruelty experienced by Australians at the hands of Japanese captors, and the profound political implications for Australia of the collapse of British colonialism in Asia, and the UK’s inability to protect Australia (or even win a single battle against Japan!) Japan’s early, complete and ruthless victories over the supposedly superior army, navy and air force of the UK shook the foundations of the UK’s colonial project and brought on the rapid collapse of not just British but also the Dutch, French and Portuguese colonial project. For Australia that meant a major reorientation of our political outlook, first towards the USA and then (much later) towards Asia.

While the long-term political consequences of world war 1 were a second war in Europe, the holocaust and the cold war, the long-term political consequences of the Pacific war were decolonization, rapid development, and ultimately a long peace and relative stability in all of Asia, presided over initially by US power, then by a resurgent and determinedly non-colonial Japan, and now by the three great industrial powers of China, Korea and Japan – once mortal enemies who now have a shared goal of peace and development in all of Asia. Seventy years after Japan’s colonial ambitions were thoroughly repudiated, at great cost to China and Korea, they share a broad set of goals in the region. These goals are disturbed primarily by only two issues: border disputes that no one is really willing to go to war for, and the issue of Japan’s acceptance of its past crimes. Every VP Day there is renewed controversy about exactly how much Japan admits past wrongdoing, and renewed calls for an apology for past acts, and it was expected that on this day especially the Japanese government might do something special about this.

Unfortunately Japan’s current prime minister is a historical revisionist like no other in a long time, and is playing to a right-wing rump at home that prevents him from properly acknowledging Japan’s guilt. He is exactly the wrong prime minister to be making statements of contrition, but it was him who had to give a speech, widely reported, in which he stated that he did not want Japan to have to continually make new apologies. Seventy years on, he wants to draw a line over the past, and look forward to a world without war. Such lofty ideals might sound better if they were coming from someone who was not intent on denying the truth of the comfort women issue, and who was not trying to reform Japan’s constitution to enable this peace-loving nation to deploy its (considerable!) military in joint self-defense actions.

But putting aside the political background of this particular PM, is he actually wrong? Japan has made many apologies over specific incidents and general wartime aggression and violence, and in particular on the 50th anniversary of the war made an apology with the full backing of the Cabinet (the Murayama statement) that is widely seen as an official apology. This statement has been repeatedly reiterated and referred to in subsequent dealings with the affected nations, and at other VP Day events (including in 2005). Abe did not explicitly reference that statement, but he did implicitly endorse it when he stated that “Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future”. He went on, however, to make clear that he thinks that Japan should stop continually apologizing, while remaining aware of the sins of its past and endeavouring never to repeat them:

In Japan, the postwar generations now exceed eighty per cent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.

This statement is being taken by some in the media as a repudiation of past apologies and a statement of intent to forget the war, but I don’t think it can be seen that way at all. It’s simply making the obvious point that when a population has apologized, and is no longer connected to the people who did these things, there comes a point where you have to stop expecting remorse to be a key part of how they memorialize those past mistakes. Instead Abe proposes that future efforts to remember the war be focused on better understanding of the events of the past, and stronger efforts to build a global society that does not or cannot seek war to resolve economic or political problems.

As a citizen of a nation that has only recently apologized for past wrongs that were committed recently enough for a large part of the population to be connected with them, I think he raises a strong point. In 2008 the Australian federal government apologized officially to the living Aboriginal people known as the Stolen Generation who had been stolen from their families by commonwealth policy, and also made a broader statement of recognition of guilt for genocide. This apology came after long years of campaigning (in which I as a young Australian was involved) and a broadly-supported reconciliation movement which wanted to see not just an apology but full recognition of Aboriginal people’s history and the history of genocide against them, and proper compensation where proper compensation could be given. This reconciliation movement was tied in with a land rights movement that saw victories and defeats but was built on a fundamental acceptance of the role of white Australia in stealing land from black Australia and benefiting from that theft.

I don’t think at any point that when we were campaigning for that Apology, we ever intended that the government should repeatedly apologize and continually be forced to officially admit its guilt in some public and formalized way, even as it continued to work on development and welfare improvements for Aboriginal Australians. We saw the Apology as a moment to convey acceptance and recognition, and … well, to say sorry. There is discussion about formalizing a national Sorry Day, but this wouldn’t be a day intended to force every PM to continually reiterate these apologies; rather, it would be a day of recognition of the past, with local events intended to revitalize and reauthorize our commitment to working together to make the future better. I think if the official Apology had been proposed as an ongoing, annual ceremony of abject admission of guilt, no one would have supported it and no government would have done it.

There is something about apologies that requires at some point they stop. As a nation we can have ongoing recognition of the past, through e.g. national memorials, national days of commemoration, or whatever; but the requirement that every government reiterate the sorrow of its predecessors for deeds committed (ultimately) after all those involved have passed on (or been found guilty) doesn’t seem to be the right spirit of apology.

In the case of Japan, the entire Asia-Pacific has VP Day in which to remember the events of the past, but that doesn’t mean that every VP Day the Japanese government should craft a new apology and seek forgiveness again for something that happened 70 years ago; rather, a simple reiteration of past statements, the laying of a wreath, perhaps the unveiling of any new local projects (Japan is involved in projects throughout the Asia Pacific, including research projects aimed at better understanding the war itself); surely, after 70 years and multiple apologies, it’s time that everyone recognized that the past is the past, what was done was done, and moving on from that past to make a better future requires that the events of the past not be raked up and made fresh, whether out of anger or sorrow?

The same can be said of Australia’s genocidal past. There are ways still in which Australia hasn’t come to terms with that past, but mostly these are best confronted and expressed not through apologies but through concrete actions: efforts towards the finalization of land rights law and land reform; redoubled efforts to improve Aboriginal health, welfare and employment; and better incorporation of Aboriginal people into Australian political life. Although in many cases the problems that still exist are bound up with racism that needs to be confronted through political action (see, e.g. the recent shameful treatment of Adam Goodes), this political action needs to be expressly practical. This is exactly what happens in Australia now, too, I think – for example, Adam Goodes’ treatment was not tackled by further apologies, but by practical action by the football association and statements of support and respect from other football clubs and their captains.

In my view apologies are a very important part of the process of political reconciliation and healing, but they should not be some kind of constantly-repeated process of formal self-flagellation because, while on an individual level an apology usually involves an explicit admission of personal guilt for a personal act, on a political and national level they do not represent guilt, as most of the people whose representatives are doing the apologizing were not responsible in any way for the crime. Political apologies are an act of recognition and restitution, not an expression of guilt. At some point the apologies need to stop, and life needs to proceed with practical political commitments and goals.

So I think it’s time that Japan stopped apologizing, and the other nations that were affected recognize that Japan is a good neighbour, an exemplary world citizen, and a nation that is genuinely aware of and remorseful about its past crimes, with a real intention never to repeat them. Japan doesn’t deal with its past crimes in a perfect way, and indeed much work still needs to be done on understanding what Japan did (many records were lost), on coming to terms with the comfort women issue, and on dealing with the (frankly ridiculous) Yasukuni Jinja situation[1]. But these are all practical efforts, that will advance future understanding and respect much more than further apologies.

I also think it’s high time that people in (and on occasion the politicians of) the USA and UK stopped criticizing Japan’s “lack of apology” and instead started thinking about doing themselves what Japan and Australia have done: Apologizing for their own crimes. There is a new willingness in India to make demands for recognition of Britain’s colonial crimes, but many British people – including most of their politicians – still cling to the repulsive notion that the colonization of India was an overall plus for its people. The UK, Holland, Spain, France, Belgium and Portugal all owe apologies for severe and extreme crimes committed expressly in the interests of stealing other people’s land. Similarly the US puts a lot of effort into memorializing Vietnam but hasn’t apologized for its murderous war, let alone subsequent adventures that killed a million people, and whose architects are advising Jeb Bush on foreign policy. Indeed, Kissinger and McNamara are still respected in the USA, when they should be in prison. I think it’s time that the world recognized that while the great crimes of the 20th century have been pored over and guilt ascertained and accepted, there are many slightly lesser crimes that go unremarked and unrecognized, and that a mature nation should recognize those crimes. Rather than seeing Japan as a recalcitrant revisionist, Japan should be seen as a model of how to acknowledge and atone for past crimes, that “better” nations like the UK and USA could learn from.

A few other notes on Abe’s apology

Abe’s apology, which can be read here, is extensive and, I think, quite powerful. He talks about how Japan lost its way and went against the trend toward peace that other nations were following, and explicitly blames colonial aggression for its actions in China. He thrice refers to the injury done to women behind the lines, giving a nod to more than just the issue of the comfort women but also to the general evil of rape as a war crime, and explicitly identifies the need to prevent this from happening in future wars. He also has some very powerful thoughts to add on the nobility of China and Korea after the war, when he states that Japan must take to heart

The fact that more than six million Japanese repatriates managed to come home safely after the war from various parts of the Asia-Pacific and became the driving force behind Japan’s postwar reconstruction; the fact that nearly three thousand Japanese children left behind in China were able to grow up there and set foot on the soil of their homeland again; and the fact that former POWs of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and other nations have visited Japan for many years to continue praying for the souls of the war dead on both sides.

How much emotional struggle must have existed and what great efforts must have been necessary for the Chinese people who underwent all the sufferings of the war and for the former POWs who experienced unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military in order for them to be so tolerant nevertheless?

I think this is a powerful statement of respect for how well Japan was treated after the war, and recognition that there is a great willingness on all sides of a conflict to move on from it despite great cruelties committed. I think also the paragraphs near the end of the speech, which start “We must engrave upon our hearts” are also very powerful, showing how Japan and the world can strengthen efforts to make sure that the crimes Japan committed are not possible anywhere in the world in the future.

Also, I note that this apology is a Cabinet Statement so represents official government policy, not just Abe’s personal opinion. I think it’s a good basis to move forward, recognize that Japan did wrong, and accept that apologies should not and cannot continue forever.

Instead of constantly dwelling on a world consumed by war, let’s work on building a world without it.

fn1: I personally think that this problem could be solved best by opening an official national war memorial – Japan currently has none – that explicitly excludes the 14 war criminals, is non-religious, recognizes Japan’s war crimes and war of aggression, includes a memorial to the people killed in other countries by Japan, and has a high quality modern museum that accurately reflects the truth of the war. Then on some nominated day that isn’t VP Day, politicians can officially go there and pay their respects to the dead and officially, without controversy, reflect on what was, ultimately, a great tragedy for the Japanese people.

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