Meat Life


The rule of law …

On 1st April this year the first protest march against the Hong Kong extradition law was held in Wan Chai. Ten years ago on that same day, 1st April, the London Metropolitan police murdered Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor, at the G20 protest in London. They killed him on film, in front of thousands of citizens, by pushing him onto his face from behind and beating him with a baton. They then refused to help him, denied that they had done it, and refused to accept any responsibility until the film of the event was released. The day after his death the police attacked peaceful protestors at a candelight vigil to remember him, also on film. They lied about his death for days and found a corrupt coroner to do an autopsy, in a scandalous miscarriage of justice that took a year to be undone. Finally, after a second autopsy and an inquiry the police officer who killed him, PC Harwood, was found not guilty of manslaughter, and eventually dismissed from the police force. He was never convicted of any crime, and neither were the police who assaulted mourners at the vigil for Tomlinson. For weeks after the event the police and their friends in media organizations like the Sun, Daily Mail and the Telegraph maintained that demonstrators had prevented ambulance officers from reaching Tomlinson, when in fact the police had refused to provide first aid and the only help Tomlinson received was from protestors.

At the G20 protest in London – which lasted for 4 days – the police used aggressive “kettling” procedures, police dogs and horse charges. A total of 180 protestors were injured. While PC Harwood and the police who assaulted the mourners were never convicted of any crime, one demonstrator was sentenced to two years in prison for throwing a chair through a bank window.

Today in Wan Chai the protests against the Hong Kong extradition law continue, as they have done almost continuously since the events began on 1st April. During this four months no one has been killed, although the police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray at the protestors. Police in London 10 years ago also used batons and pepper spray, along with horses and kettling tactics. What have the Hong Kong protestors done, and how does it compare with the G20 protest?

  • They sprayed the Chinese for “chink” (支那) on the walls of the Beijing Liaison office, knowing full well that in mainland China this is a vicious racial slur
  • They broke into the legislative building and trashed it
  • They have repeatedly torn down the Chinese flag and replaced it with the former Hong Kong colonial flag, a reminder of a time when China was humiliated by a foreign power
  • They graffitied the graves of important historical figures in Hong Kong history with racial slurs
  • They attacked mainland Chinese people and chanted “go back” at them
  • They occupied the airport and railway stations, disrupting major transport hubs and interfering with the business of ordinary Hong Kong people, and deliberately disrupting the business of mainland traders near the border
  • They forced mainlanders to hand over their phones to demonstrators to prove they weren’t filming them

How many of those things did the G20 protestors do? And how many of those things did you see reported in the western press? I’ll wager you saw none of it, but if you read today’s feed on the Guardian about the demonstrations you will see all manner of cute little tidbits about all the peaceful and happy things the demonstrators are doing, told with a breathless tone as if it’s just a day out in the park and the first time the reporters have ever seen a demonstration. Breathless reports about how the demonstrators are cheered by passing citizens and told to “add oil”, reports of them using cute codewords to alert teams to raise umbrellas, pictures of decorated barriers, uncritical reporting of rival demonstrators as “triads”, reports from the airport of protest banners saying they can handle tear gas, talking about flash mob tactics with an approving tone and cute exclamation marks … it could almost be a picnic!

You didn’t see any of that style of reporting back in the G20 protests in London. There was no breathless tone of approval, no reports on the cute things that everyone does at demonstrations to defuse tension, pass the time or relieve boredom. Western reports did not describe protest tactics with approval at how smart and organized they were, or talk about which passersby approved (they only reported disapproval). When protesters at the G20 wore masks to hide themselves from police cameras or pepper spray they were described as thugs or maligned as “black bloc”, not seen as innocent young people taking necessary measures to defend themselves from police violence. In the Hong Kong riots police attack protesters; in the G20 London protest “violence broke out”, the passive voice used to ensure the police did not take the blame. There were no lasers used by demonstrators at the London protest, but rioters in Hong Kong have fired lasers at police “to obscure their identity”, and the media have not reported this as if it might carry some risk of blindness for police. For weeks they have reported about demonstrators helping old men across the road, about their kindness to strangers, about the organized way they care for their town and each other. There was even some ridiculous footage of them cleaning up their rubbish. You didn’t see any of that at the G20 London Protest, even though it all happened (these things always happen at protests).

The underlying demands of the protest are also reported differently. The G20 protestors’ concrete demands for change – for a fairer distribution of the wealth that global elites have been stealing from ordinary people, for greater equity, for environmental action and action on global warming – were ignored, and the whole movement made out to be a seething mass of discontented socialists. In the Hong Kong riot the protests are always reported as being about the extradition law, even though their actions – the “Hong Kongers!” chants, the “go back” chants, the racial slurs, the equivalent of Pride Boys moving in the mass[1], the tearing down of the Chinese flag, the calls for independence – make it clear that a large part of this movement is not about that at all, but a demand for independence from China. They also completely misrepresent the law itself, presenting it as a law to extradite people to China when it is not that at all, and conflate it with things completely unconnected to the law (like the bookseller issue). There is also a constant breathless expectation that the police will turn more violent or the army will be sent in, even after four months of restraint and patience on behalf of the Hong Kong government that would never have been seen in the UK.

If the G20 protests had lasted 4 months, shutting down Heathrow Airport and the Tube and involving vicious attacks on European bank workers on the streets week in and week out, would the Metropolitan police have been so restrained? Considering that they murdered an unconnected civilian on the first day, and covered it up? No, I don’t think they would have. And rather than having the main media organizations wondering daily whether the police would escalate, by the time a month had passed outlets like the Times and the Daily Mail would be begging them to. Western media coverage of the G20 protest in London was shameful, and their pathetic acquiescence to the lies the police told about the murder of Ian Tomlinson was a deep stain on their profession. Now we have to watch them uncritically refusing to report anything bad about the Hong Kong demonstrations, and reporting them as if they were a fun family picnic for the simple reason that their government doesn’t like the Chinese government – and for reasons of good old fashioned racism, of course. Today, for example, the Hong Kong chief of AFP tweeted a claim that the Opium War was good for China, and doubled down on it when challenged. These people are responsible for reporting to you about what is happening in Hong Kong, and they don’t care about any truth or any balance at all.

Underneath all of this unrest in Hong Kong is another tragedy. The extradition law was brought to parliament after a 20 year stay because a Hong Kong national murdered his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and fled the country, and because there is no extradition treaty with Taiwan he cannot be sent back to face justice. The story of that murdered girl and her family’s need for justice has been buried in the hyperbole about freedom and the rule of law, just as 10 years ago the truth of Ian Tomlinson’s murder was buried by a complicit, lickspittle press under an avalanche of lies and obfuscations. It is looking likely that the murderer of that Taiwanese woman will get away with his crime, just as PC Harwood suffered no legal consequences for murdering Ian Tomlinson. And in both cases the press will look the other way, forget the ordinary people that mattered, and offer up lies and calumny in the service of the national interest. They shamed themselves then and they shame themselves now.


fn1: It’s pretty well established that the 2014 umbrella movement had a nasty racist component, probably led by a movement called Civic Passion that is also present in the current demonstrations, and seems to be a little bit like a Pride Boys movement for Hong Kongers.

As sure as night follows day there has been another mass shooting in America, this time at a Walmart, where 20 people have been killed by a 21 year old white man who published a manifesto on 4chan. He turns out – shock – to have been a white supremacist who is concerned about Mexicans taking over Texas, and particularly worried about the possibility that it will flip Democratic (because Hispanics vote Democratic) and usher in an era of permanent Democrat rule (which is apparently a bad thing). You can find his manifesto here if you are up for reading this sort of stuff, and you can tell where he stands pretty quickly from his two opening sentences:

In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.

This dude is not happy about Hispanics taking over his country, and he has a plan. He says he has read The Great Replacement, a theory espoused by the dude who wrote The Camp of the Saints (Steve Bannon’s favourite book) and he thinks he needs to take action to protect his nation from being overrun by foreigners. Most of his manifesto is classic white supremacist nutjob stuff, though remarkably lucid for the genre and (by Fascist standards) relatively well argued. On Twitter, however, he is getting some traction amongst concerned leftists because he ascribes some environmental reasons for his actions, and some people are hailing him as the first eco-fascist shooter. For example, William Black writes:

This suggests that he has an environmental motive for his attack, and needs to kill foreigners to make sure that only Americans can enjoy the fruits of America’s fragile environment.  In response, someone else suggests that hyping the threat of global warming may have been a mistake:

If the right is turning to eco-fascism then it will put a new slant on all their activities and give them a new wedge to use against opponents of fascism; it also signals that they may have seriously upped their game, since until now ineffectual bullshit flailing against the “Chinese hoax” of global warming has been their thing. But how true is it that this guy is an eco-fascist? And was he really worried about global warming? His manifesto is 2,359 words long, and this is his entire comment on environmental issues:

The American lifestyle affords our citizens an incredible quality of life. However, our lifestyle Is destroying the environment of our country. The decimation of the environment is creating a massive burden for future generations. Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources. This has been a problem for decades. For example, this phenomenon is brilliantly portrayed in the decades-old classic “The Lorax.” Water sheds around the country, especially in agricultural areas, are being depleted. Fresh water Is being polluted from farming and oil drilling operations. Consumer culture is creating thousands of tons of unnecessary plastic waste and electronic waste, and recycling to help slow this down is almost non-existent. Urban sprawl creates inefficient cities which unnecessarily destroys millions of acres of land. We even use god knows how many trees worth of paper towels just wipe water off our hands. Everything I have seen and heard in my short life has led me to believe that the average American isn’t willing to change their lifestyle, even if the changes only cause a slight inconvenience. The government is unwilling to tackle these issues beyond empty promises since they are owned by corporations. Corporations that also like immigration because more people means a bigger market for their products. I just want to say that I love the people of this country, but god damn most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.

It’s 270 words, or just over 10% of his manifesto. He commits almost that much verbiage to describing the weapon he’s going to use. This isn’t exactly Unabomber-level commitment to the cause is it? In his ecological dissertation he does not mention global warming or climate change, but only overuse of resources, with a reference to The Lorax (which I don’t think has any words to say about global warming). His screed is essentially Malthusian, not environmentalist, and his position is relatively clear: since political change to reduce waste and overconsumption is hard, we need to cull the herd. This isn’t a new position in right-wing thought, although obviously attaching it to an AK-47 is an unpleasant rhetorical escalation. In the 1990s Australia had a right-wing anti-immigration party, Australians Against Further Immigration, who worked from this exact position, and it’s been a fixture of European fascism forever. But it’s not the centerpiece or even a major part of his manifesto: It’s bolted on the end of his piece, as an addendum to his main concern, which is the Great Replacement. He devotes about as much space to complaining about the role of corporations in undermining American workers through immigration – this is a theme all through the first two pages of his writing, covering the issue of automation and Universal Basic Income and how the presence of low-paid foreign workers will mess up the society-wide response to automation that he sees as necessary – and much of what he writes has a lot more to do with the National Conservatism[1] of Hurley and Carlson than it does to do with any kind of eco-fascism.

It’s also impossible to imagine that an American conservative at this time would break so much with conservative orthodoxy as to endorse global warming as real. That would basically alienate you from your entire political cohort, and would be a poison pill for all your political relationships. Now that his social media are shut down it is impossible to glean his opinions about this, but it should be clear from recent American political movements that it is almost impossible to be an American conservative and accept the reality of global warming, let alone take it seriously enough to kill people over.

This man is not an eco-fascist, but that does not mean that eco-fascism won’t come to America in time. As the climate crisis deepens we can expect all high-income nations to experience increasingly difficult environmental problems, and since the USA is particularly vulnerable to global warming we can expect to see it hit harder and earlier than say Europe. You can be sure that when it becomes impossible to avoid acknowledging the problem the American right will find a way to blame all the years of inaction on the left and/or Jews, and will react with its customary lack of humanity or sense to deal with the challenges global warming creates. But before that you can expect a long period of denialism and increasingly brutal treatment of refugees, foreigners, and ultimately poor and black people within US borders as resource crises strike (probably starting with water). I have previously reviewed the foundational text of modern American fascism, the Turner Diaries, and noted the extreme nihilism and violence of their vision, and in that book it is very clear what the American right’s response to resource pressures will be. On the one hand it is clear that they are willing to burn the entire world down rather than compromise their racial purity, and their solution to extreme privation is to force white people to compete in a brutal and murderous competition to gain access to the limited resources available. So we can expect the American right to further exclude refugees and migrants, to become more vicious in their treatment of “non-productive” minorities within America, and to enhance these cruelties while continuing to burn the fossil fuels that are causing the problem; and when they finally accept that it is too late, we can expect them to pit poor whites against each other to determine who gets to survive in the burning times.  I doubt we will see anything as enlightened as a violent fascist overthrow of corporate polluters in order to preserve the environment for the white race. If you doubt me about that, read the Turner Diaries and ask yourself what the movement’s leaders would do, given they all consider that to be the ur-text for their movement.

We have a long wait yet before eco-fascism comes to America, if it ever does, but in the meantime we have a very real and very dangerous fascist movement taking over the country. Don’t look to some weird eco-fascist fringe for the threat to the future of America and the world: look to the Republican party, which is producing all the intellectual and rhetorical support for these terrorists, and looking the other way while the country burns. And don’t get distracted: their only real interest at this time is race, and they have their eyes on the prize even if you don’t. So stay focused, and do everything you can to beat these people back before they burn down your country and our world.


fn1: Good choice of name there boys, you’ll go far.

No doubt many of my readers are aware that there is a stream of feminism, which calls itself “gender critical”, that rejects the idea that transgender women are women and aims to “protect” cis women from having these women in women-only spaces. In the 1970s and 1990s this manifested as an internecine feminist turf war over whether trans women should be allowed into women’s spaces. This battle appeared to die down in the 2000s but a new generation of gender critical feminists are now attempting to defend women’s bathrooms, sports and changing rooms from transgender women. They seem to be particularly active in the UK, where feminists like Professor Kathleen Stock are attempting to fight changes to the Gender Recognition Act that would lead to people being able to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, rather than the gender they were born as.

A core demand of these feminists is that only women who were born female should be able to use women’s bathrooms. In this post I am going to use Bayes’ Rule to show that the inevitable consequence of this political position, if it were to be enforced, would be the widespread harassment of natal women. I will also present anecdotal evidence that this is exactly what is happening now as their ideas gain traction, and discuss the inevitable hypocrisy and contradiction in the gender critical position in light of their responses to the concerns that some (primarily butch-presenting) lesbians have raised about their cause.

Content warning: This post will use a lot of language associated with the “woke” American left, like the prefix “cis”, and also the language of these gender critical feminists, like “natal woman” and the weird distinction they insist on between “woman” and “female.” I will explain my choice of language at the end. Bear with me!

Applying Bayes’ Theorem to Bathroom Exclusion

So how does bathroom exclusion work? The goal of gender critical feminists is that women who were not born female – that is transgender women – are not allowed to use women’s bathrooms, and that this exclusion should be enforced through codification in the Gender Recognition Act. They don’t specify exactly what follows from this but the obvious implication is that if a natal woman in a bathroom fears that another woman in the bathroom is actually a natal man she should be able to confront that person and demand they leave and go to the men’s bathroom, fully supported by the force of the law, public opprobrium and if necessary state force (represented in the US, let us remember, by an armed and trigger-happy police force that has little regard for people who do not follow strict white middle-class standards of dress and behavior).

In practice what this will mean is that a natal woman will need to judge whether another woman in the bathroom is a “real” woman or not by her face, clothes and manner. She certainly won’t be able to demand a genital check[1], so her entire means of discrimination will be by a visual check. Now, discrimination of this kind is a statistical process on which a large amount of theoretical work has been done since the 18th century, and in particular in public health we use Bayes’ Rule to determine the effectiveness of a discrimination process. Bayes rule provides us with a formula that links the sensitivity and specificity of a test to the probability of correctly discriminating between two groups. It depends on three essential quantities:

  • The sensitivity of the test, which is the probability that the test will correctly identify a person with a condition as having the condition
  • The specificity of the test, which is the probability that the test will correctly identify a person without the condition as not having the condition
  • The prevalence of the condition being tested

Wikipedia offers an example based on drug testing, but the rule is universal: it applies to any attempt to discriminate between two classes of a thing with a test that is imperfect, and it has some alarming and counter-intuitive results in the case that the condition being tested is rare.

In the case of bathroom exclusion, we want to know the following three things:

  • What is the probability a normal person[2] will correctly identify that a transgender woman is a transgender woman?
  • What is the probability a normal person will correctly identify a non-transgender woman as non-transgender?
  • What is the prevalence of transgender women in the population?

How good do you think you are at the first two of these things? I’m not aware of any tests of ordinary bathroom users, but facial recognition software has reached high levels of accuracy above 90%. So, let’s suppose that we were to put a facial recognition device on a bathroom door that had 90% sensitivity and specificity, and assume that 5% of women are transgender. Bayes’ Rule tells us that we would have a positive predictive value of 32%. That is, only 32% of the women refused access to the bathroom would be transgender women: 68% of women rejected (2 in every 3) would be natal women who had been misclassified as transgender.

Now, I think that 5% is way too high an estimate of the prevalence of transgender women. At 3%, with the same specificity and sensitivity, only 22% of rejections are correct – 80% of women refused admission to the bathroom are natal women. Figure 1 shows the relationship between specificity and this proportion at a prevalence of 3% for three different levels of sensitivity.

Figure 1: Proportion of women harassed in a bathroom who are natal women, for three different levels of sensitivity. Prevalence of transgender women is set at 3%. The x-axis shows specificity (percentage chance of correctly identifying a non-transgender woman is not a transgender woman)

As should be quite clear from this figure, even at very high specificity – for example where you are 95% likely to correctly identify natal women as natal women, and 99% likely to identify transgender women as transgender women, more than half of all women rejected from the bathroom will be natal women, not transgender.

Do you think that most women using bathrooms have greater than 95% accuracy at accurately determining other women’s birth gender based solely on their appearance? Do you think they have better than 98%? If not, then you are basically setting up a system of harassment of natal women. I have prepared figure 1 in terms of specificity because it is specificity that determines how many natal women you harass in your project to exclude trans women from bathrooms. By way of comparison, the specificity of commonly-used HIV tests is better than 99.998%: less than 1 mistake in 50,000. Can you be that good?

How will discrimination work in practice?

Bayes’ rule is an absolute law of discrimination tests, not some weird philosophical notion. If you set out to discriminate between two groups of people your results are determined by Bayes’ Law, without exception. It applies equally to HIV tests, gender selection, screening terrorists at airports, or picking penis size from nose length. Those three numbers – prevalence, specificity and sensitivity – determine how well you discriminate, without any exception in any cases. When you stride across the bathroom to grab that girl and tell her she’s not a “real” woman and should go to the urinal, you make yourself subject to Bayes’ Law.

Of course in practice your sensitivity and specificity depends on something: you don’t discriminate randomly, but on the basis of certain visual cues. What are those cues? Of course they will be markers of femininity: breasts, long hair, feminine facial features, make up, feminine style clothes. This will be especially the case if the Gender Recognition Act is not changed and a narrative of exclusionary behavior is established that encourages ordinary cis women with no experience of trans issues to begin singling out women for exclusion. These women will have no idea what trans women look like, how much they can “pass” as natal, or what kind of styles and manners butch-presenting lesbians use. The result of this will be what we always see when we establish discriminatory systems: non-conforming people, poor people, non-white people and people with disabilities will be singled out for discrimination. The gender critical feminists will achieve a strange paradox in which in order to be protected from trans women in the bathroom, natal women will have to act extra feminine and hew more clearly to gender stereotypes. We see this being reported now as the bathroom exclusion principle begins to apply. Consider this tweet from a queer Scottish woman:

This woman has had to begin wearing a badge that specifies her birth gender, because feminists keep mistaking her for a transgender woman. This problem will also affect any other women who do not look sufficiently womanly: women with a little bit of facial hair (which is more prevalent in women with certain sorts of illness), sportswomen who don’t dress femme, non-white women who confuse the white majority’s facial recognition, butch-presenting lesbians, and (particularly ironically) feminist women who reject standard stereotypes of feminine dress and behavior. That 80% of women excluded from bathrooms who are actually natal women and not transgender are more likely to be non-white, disabled, or non-gender conforming. They’re also more likely to be lesbians.

This is what gender critical feminism’s completely uncritical approach to bathroom exclusion will do. Here is another example of this, tweeted by a butch-presenting lesbian:

How have gender critical feminists responded?

The first thing to note about gender critical feminists is they seem to be very ignorant of the history of this debate. Holly Lawford-Smith seems to think the whole thing became a feminist issue in the 2010s, and appears to be completely ignorant of the history of transgender wars in women’s spaces in the 1970s and 1990s. Kathleen Stock, one of the major proponents of bathroom exclusion in the UK, responded to the above tweet with this:

“Worse things happen at sea.” Clearly, Stock is willing to throw her lesbian comrades under the bus in order to attack transgender women, and has given no thought to the relative balance of probabilities. She and her colleagues in the gender critical world know nothing about how this discrimination will actually work, haven’t bothered to consider who will be the real victims of their exclusionary practice, and don’t think it will affect many natal women. As I have shown, quite the opposite is the case: the majority of people affected by this exclusionary approach will be natal women.

But the gender critical feminists have become increasingly radical as they have been challenged more on this. Not only do they not take the risk of exclusion seriously, they have also begun to make their definitions stricter and more exclusionary. We see this particularly in response to the controversy around Caster Semenya, where a lot of gender critical feminists appear to have decided that she is “male” on the basis of having difference in sexual development. See, for example, this reddit thread in which they debate whether she is a man or not. So in response to criticism of their original exclusionary position they have extended their definition from “born with female genitals” to “born with female genitals AND normal testosterone.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these white feminists from a rich European country have decided to define a black woman who beat feminine-presenting white women as actually a man: this is another example of how their discriminatory practices will play out in practice, as a series of overlapping forms of prejudice work to punish the poor, the dark-skinned and the disabled far more effectively than the wealthy, white, feminine-presenting heterosexual women who make up the majority of the female population. Their concern with “protecting” women is really only about middle class cis white women.

The inevitable hypocrisy of trans exclusion

The underlying principle of gender critical feminism appears to be that sex and gender are different, and that gender differences need to be eliminated. Somehow this has been twisted to mean that trans women who choose to present as feminine – wearing dresses, make up and long hair – are simply “acting” female and aren’t really women at all. Before she was banned from twitter Holly Lawford-Smith liked to criticize transgender women who expressed happiness at successfully passing as women, deriding them for thinking that their appearance and their gender had any connection. Yet when it comes to pushing trans women out of women’s spaces these feminists will necessarily have to judge on the basis of how women present, not who they are. Sure, if they successfully get transgender women excluded from women’s prisons and women’s sport they may be able to do it on the basis of checking genitals (though see my footnote 1 below), but when it comes to bathrooms, women’s spaces on campus or at work, prayer rooms, women’s swimming pools and women’s beaches, they’ll have to do it entirely on the basis of how these women present. And like all human beings everywhere, they will be most likely to believe a woman is a woman if she looks femme. The more strongly they push this transgender exclusionary principle the more they will be forced to judge by feminine presentation.

Worse still, once they release their prejudices into the wild with the backing of the state, ordinary non-feminist women with no experience of trans issues will be the ones doing the judging and excluding. And you can bet that when those women decide to exclude a girl from the bathroom they won’t do it by themselves: they’ll call their masculine-presenting cis white boyfriends, or the police, to help them do it. This will lead to women with facial hair, manly physiques, and non-femme aesthetics being harassed, beaten up and potentially imprisoned (in male-focused custodial settings!) for the simple crime of not looking girly enough. Once it is released in the wild, gender critical feminism will become a feminism of harassing women who do not conform with patriarchal expectations of their physique, clothing and manners.

And that is not feminism.

Conclusion

Gender critical feminists need to drop this bathroom exclusion stuff and their opposition to the changes to the Gender Recognition Act. It is leading to the harassment of lesbian and transgender women now, and if their campaign is successful it will lead to much more harassment of non-conforming women. Rather than protecting natal women from men, it will lead to natal women being harassed by cis women, their natal male boyfriends, and the violent agents of the state. They also need to recognize that there is a fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of their exclusionary policies, and the only way that they can be put into practice is by accepting and reinforcing the worst patriarchal norms of gendered behavior and appearance. Their feminism is very bad for transgender women but it is also bad for all women who do not conform to gender stereotypes. It is toxic, dangerous, hypocritical and confused, and they need to rethink their whole approach to gender.

A note on language

I want to target this post at people who support gender critical feminists’ approach to exclusion of transgender women from women’s spaces, and so in the title and much of the text I have used their terms for things: I have used their name for themselves, and their language of “natal women” and “born women”. I also haven’t touched on the issue of trans men, an issue that gender critical feminists are extremely uncomfortable talking about because it completely ruins their ideological certainty. However, I think that the language they use is wrong and also highly unpleasant. They aren’t “gender critical”: it has been made clear by their feminist critics that they haven’t read the literature on this, and don’t understand the history of or long-standing theoretical debates about transgender issues within feminism. They also haven’t bothered to be very critical of the potential consequences of their beliefs. I think they are far better described by the acronym their opponents give them: TERF. They want to exclude trans women from women’s spaces, which makes them trans exclusionary, and their feminism is certainly radical, though not in the sense they want to believe. So they should be called TERFs, and we should not subscribe to their false dichotomies of “natal” versus trans women. We also should not adopt the horrible American practice of calling women “females” as if they were animals. So although I have used their language in this post, I don’t like it at all and I think it’s another part of their philosophy that needs to be kicked to the curb.


fn1: It’s worth bearing in mind that even a genital check is possibly not sufficient if the trans woman in question has had gender confirming surgery, since most cishet women have very little experience of or exposure to other women’s genitals in any detail, and might not be able to identify the difference between “real” genitals[2] and surgically designed genitals. We’ll come back to this issue later in the piece.

fn2: Here I use the word “normal” to indicate that the person is a member of the population with a standard education, upbringing and level of political awareness, not to suggest that natal women are “normal” and transgender women are not normal

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.

 

Are you young, American, living in America and scared about where your country is headed? Want to get out before it all goes down? Are you worried about getting shot at school or work, or by the police? Don’t think that the healthcare situation is going to get better or even stay as bad as it is? Have a pre-existing condition and don’t know how you’re going to be able to afford medicines after you turn 26 (or even now)? Are you worried about Roe vs. Wade and pretty sure your reproductive rights are going down the tube in the next few years? Noticed that the new Georgia anti-abortion bill includes ectopic pregnancies, so is actually gynocidal? Are you poor and doubt you’ll ever be able to get into a good university and make a decent career, but don’t want to be stuck in an Amazon warehouse the rest of your life because working class work no longer pays in America? Are you black and don’t want to get shot by the police, or Jewish and a little bit worried about where those Proud Boys are taking your country?

Do you need to get out? This post outlines two strategies for a simple and easy way to get out of the USA, for people aged 16-21 who are either finishing high school or finishing university, and not sure what to do next. If you’re confident that even if the Dems win the next presidential election things still aren’t going to get better, you might want to consider one of these two strategies. Both involve leaving America for Japan, and this post is to tell you how.

Strategy 1: English Teacher

Lots of young people don’t know about this, but there are lots of private English teaching companies in Japan that are always looking for staff from native English speaking countries to work in them. To get a job at an English teaching company in Japan you need three basic qualifications: you need to be a native speaker, you need a bachelor’s degree, and you should still be in possession of a face[1]. Most of the big English teaching companies do recruitment tours in the USA, but they usually also have open recruitment on their websites. You can find them pretty easily on google. For a company like Aeon you will go to a day-long recruitment seminar that doubles as an interview, and usually you’ll get a job offer as a result. You just need to turn up looking presentable, act like you care, and be willing to work with kids. You do not need to be able to speak Japanese or have any knowledge of Japanese culture (though knowing more about Japan than “manga!” and “geisha!” would be helpful probably).

Once you get the job the English teaching company will place you in a random city in Japan, pay for your airfare, and organize an apartment for you. This may be a share house or it may be a one room. You’ll get paid probably 200-250k yen per month (about 1800 – 2000 USD) and will have to pay taxes and health insurance from that. Health insurance is affordable, and it covers everything: no pre-existing condition exemptions or any shit like that. It starts from the day you arrive in the country. Usually the company will help you set up bank account, phone etc., so even if you don’t speak Japanese you’ll be good to go. Once you arrive and get settled you can save a bit of money and after a few months you’ll be in a position to move somewhere you like, or change companies to a better one. If you speak Japanese because you were lucky enough to study it at high school you can maybe shift to a better job. But the key thing is you’ve landed in civilization, and you’ll be safe.

The salary isn’t great but it’s enough to save money if you don’t do dumb-arsed things, and you will be able to make occasional short trips in Asia on that salary. Japan is not an expensive country and especially if you aren’t in Tokyo or Osaka it’s a super cheap place to live. The working conditions at teaching companies aren’t great (typically some evening and weekend work, and your days off may not be guaranteed to be Saturday and Sunday) but they don’t have at-will firing over here and even though you’re foreign you have all the employment rights of a local, including unemployment benefits after a minimum period of time in the job. English teachers are generally considered to be the lowest of the low among foreigners living in Japan, for reasons you’ll understand within minutes of meeting your colleagues, but it’s better to be the lowest of the low in Japan than to be middle class in America. So do it!

If you’re a high school student this option isn’t open to you (these companies require a bachelor’s degree) but you can aim for it: they don’t care where your degree is from so you can attend a local low-cost uni (I believe you guys call this “community college”?) and still get accepted when you graduate. See my special notes for high school students below.

There are also similar companies in China and Korea (see my notes on other Asian countries below). There is also an Assistant Language Teacher program where you work in schools, which is apparently a little more demanding to get into. Google is your best friend here!

Strategy 2: Japan government scholarship

The Japanese government runs a large scholarship program for students from overseas, called the Japan Government Scholarship, also known as the MEXT scholarship or Monbusho scholarship. This is available for all education levels: undergraduate, masters or PhD. You apply through your embassy (the US website is here) about now. The scholarship pays your university fees, a monthly living allowance, and a return airfare. You can apply for this for your undergraduate studies, so you apply from high school and go straight to university study in Japan. Unless you are planning on studying certain topics (e.g. Japanese literature) you don’t need to be able to speak or read Japanese: they set a Japanese test during the application process but this is used to determine what level of training you need, not to screen you out. The amazing thing about MEXT scholarships is that they’re not very competitive – not many people know about them and not many people want to move to study in Japan – so even if you don’t have a stellar record you still have a chance. Also they don’t discriminate on race or economic background, as far as I know, and it’s a straight-up merit-based application. The allowance is not great – I think about 100k yen for undergrads and about 150k for postgrads – but you’ll get subsidized uni accommodation and won’t pay tax, so it’s perfectly viable. If you go for Masters you need to find a supervisor who teaches in English and isn’t an arsehole – this is a big challenge – but you can do it if you try. One big benefit of the MEXT scholarship at postgrad is you get a year as a “research student” during which you don’t study in the department you’ve chosen but instead just learn Japanese. You can get really good at Japanese this way if you pay attention. Another great thing is that once you’re in the MEXT program it’s easier to go to the next step – so you can go from undergraduate to masters to PhD. Theoretically you could go from 1st year undergraduate to the end of a post-doc on Japan government money, which would put you in Japan for 11 years and probably stand you in a good position for a permanent faculty position, which are like hens’ teeth in the USA but quite common here. ALSO, if you do undergraduate study here you have a very good chance of being able to get a job in a Japanese company when you graduate, probably quite a good one, and build a career here.

The application period is usually about now so get busy!

Special notes for high school students

Note that if you’re finishing high school you can target all of these strategies now. Apply for the MEXT scholarship and if you don’t get it, go to a local community college or whatever they’re called. Target one where you can study an Asian language, either Chinese, Korean or Japanese. Then apply for MEXT again at the end of your undergraduate, and if you don’t get it apply for an English-teaching company in whatever country you studied the language for. You can use this English teaching job as a base to find a job in whatever field you actually want to work, because you’ve got four years of language training under your belt and so should be able to speak the local language reasonably well. If this falls through you’re still okay because no matter how shit your degree was at that community college, a second language is a skill you can take to the bank. You can probably then find an okay job in a US company targeting that country. This means you’re still trapped in a failing state, but at least your attempt to get out didn’t doom you to work at Starbucks (though who knows, four years from now maybe America won’t have any industry except Starbucks).

Remember, if you get the MEXT scholarship you’re going to graduate from university with no debt, proficient in a second language, and with a full career path in Japan likely right there in front of you.

Notes on other Asian countries

Most Asian countries have the English-teaching option available – for sure you can get to China or Korea if you don’t want to go to Japan, and they all have approximately the same requirements. All three countries now have functioning health insurance systems and you won’t get shot in any of them. They’re all aging and need young people, and at least in Korea as well as Japan Americans are generally still viewed well (for now; this is changing). Obviously there are some issues about personal freedom in China and if things continue to go south in the US-China relationship you might not feel safe from reprisals from the government. Other countries like Thailand, Vietnam etc. also have English-teaching jobs but I’m not sure about the pay and conditions – you might find you can’t save money in these countries and it becomes a kind of trap. I don’t know. But any of the high-income Asian countries are good places to teach English.

China also offers scholarships for overseas students through the CSC. The Chinese education system is very good and if you get a degree at a good Chinese university you’re probably getting a better education than you’d expect in any American uni. I don’t know if the CSC offers scholarships to Americans (since, let’s face it, you guys suck) or what the long-term consequences of that will be for your career in either country, but it could be worth investigating. You might also want to consider Singapore, which has excellent universities, but I have no idea how it works.

A note on the long-term risks of English teaching

You can make a life time career as an English teacher in Japan but it won’t be well paid and you’ll remain permanently lower middle class, which is not a big deal over here (Japan is an equitable country) but also not the best working life to pursue. But most importantly, if you spend more than a few years as an English teacher straight out of uni, your employability in your home country will take a nose dive, because you have no skills or experience relevant to a real job. So you need to make an exit plan if you want to return to the west. One option is to get an English as a second language (ESL) masters (you can do this online) and try to move into teaching English at uni, which pays slightly more and has a bit more prestige, but is a slightly riskier career (it can mean a permanent career as an adjunct, which is tough). Another option is to try and jump ship to a real company using whatever skills you’ve got but this can take time and may not lead you to a good place. If your Japanese is good you can maybe shift to being a standard office worker, but if you have no Japanese you need to bear in mind that English teaching is a trap if you do it for more than a few years. Bear in mind that Japan is aging fast, the pool of available workers is dropping in size, and as time goes on opportunities for foreigners here (even foreigners with weak language skills) are only going to grow. Also contrary to what you’ve heard (see below) Japan is becoming more and more open and welcoming to foreigners, even under supposedly militarist Prime Minister Abe, so things will just get easier as time passes. It’s worth risking for a year or two to try and build an escape plan, and if it doesn’t work out what have you lost? Just be ready to jump out if you see that trap closing before it’s too late.

Why Japan?

I’m recommending this escape plan because I know Japan: I live here and I know it’s a good place to live. You’ve probably heard that it’s expensive, treats foreigners badly and is very inward-looking. None of this is true. You’re not going to experience much racism at all, if you’re a woman you’re not going to get sexually assaulted on the train, and it’s not an expensive place to live. Rent is affordable even in Tokyo on an English teacher’s wage, your health insurance is fixed at a small proportion of your salary and is always affordable, food is good and cheap, and you can live a good life here even on low wages. You can’t live an American life of huge housing, a car, an assault rifle and all the home-delivered pizza you can eat but that’s a good thing, not a bad thing: those are the reasons your country is killing the planet and itself.

If you live in Japan you will be safe, you will be healthy, and you’ll be able to build a life for yourself even on a low income. If you want to live here long term you’ll need to learn the language (which is boring and bothersome to do); you may find that as a foreigner you are not going to be able to ascend to the peak of your career here no matter what it is. It may be hard for you to buy a place here either because your low salary precludes saving a lot of money for a deposit, or the bank won’t loan you money if you don’t have permanent residency. You won’t be able to afford to go back to America a lot unless you get out of the English teaching trade, and you will be restricted to short visits to nearby Asian countries. You’ll probably have to work hard and if you choose the wrong company after university (or the wrong post-graduate supervisor) you’ll be bullied and overworked. These are risks of moving here! But you’ll definitely have healthcare, you’ll have no risk of being shot by either crazy white guys or police, if you’re a woman you can walk safely at night no matter what time or how deserted the streets, and no matter what you earn people will show you the respect you deserve as a human being. And the government is not going crazy, nor will it.

So if you’re young and scared and worried about your future in America, and you really want to get out, consider these two strategies, and get out while you still can.


fn1: Actually I’m not sure if they care about whether you have a face. But just to be sure, apply now before some lunatic gets a chance to shoot you in the face.

Dhaka by night

I’m currently on an extended work trip to Bangladesh, teaching a couple of intensive seminars on epidemiology and related topics in Dhaka. This is the second time I have come here, and I plan to write a separate post soon on my impressions of this country – there is a lot to say about it. For those of you who don’t know, Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country of 170 million people neighbouring India, and is very poor. It is currently ranked 136th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index, putting it in about the bottom third of national wealth globally. Per capita GDP is about 1,800 USD, with huge inequality. Although the government of Bangladesh is angling to have the country ranked as a lower middle-income country it is still very poor, with no serious functioning health insurance system, limited skilled employment and a weak industrial sector outside of an extremely well-performing garment sector. Even the Tuk-tuks are imported from India. Bangladesh is something of a success story in health, outperforming expectations for its HDI and in particular making huge gains on maternal and child health. Nonetheless, life here is tough for all but its wealthiest residents. For example a basic garment worker job, which is a sought after thing here, pays about 80USD per month. I learnt this from my local colleagues, who are running a project on the health of these women, and I also helped interview a senior researcher position for a local organization, which was looking to pay a person with a master’s degree and several publications about $500 per month. It’s not a rich place! In particular there is a very large population of unskilled and/or illiterate young people, who are not able to engage in the garment sector or any higher-paid work, and for whom employment opportunities are limited. So it is that these people go to quite outrageous lengths to earn money, including some quite entertaining scams. Here I report on two, one of which I was told about and one of which I and my colleagues almost became entangled in.

Dhaka city centre, with metro works (I think)

The Elephant Man

I took a few hours after work this week to visit a tailor that my colleague Doughty S recommends. This tailor could make me a tailor-made suit, three shirts and a pair of trousers for a mere 170 USD, so is probably worth the two hour slog I had to endure to get there, and the 3 hour slog home. Did I mention that traffic in Dhaka is insane? Traffic in Dhaka is literally insane. It’s exhausting, depressing and soul-destroying, a problem of many cities in developing nations, and about this I will write more in my report on Bangladesh. At one point, driving relatively fast for the time of day, we passed an elephant standing by the side of the road, eating grass from a building site while its rider lounged about atop its broad back. It wasn’t huge as elephants go, but it was still big and more to the point I have never in my life seen an elephant just ambling along in public doing its thing. So I naturally declared “elephant!” and tried (and failed) to get a photo from the car that was suddenly and perversely actually moving for once.

My colleague Doughty S informed me that this elephant wasn’t a working elephant in the sense that it lifts and carries and drags things like an elephant should; rather, it was an essential participant in a money-making scam. Basically the dude on top of the elephant will manoeuvre it in front of your car, forcing you to stop, and then refuse to move the elephant until you pay him. Since it’s an elephant, you probably aren’t going to try and hit it; and if you’re in Dhaka traffic you probably won’t be able to outmanoeuvre it; and you can’t reach the dude to punch him since he’s on an elephant. It’s really a quite foolproof way of extorting a bit of money from passing motorists. So the scam unfolds, but on this occasion we were fortunate enough to be on the opposite side of the road, so no elephant extortion came our way.

Doughty S also told me that the same people who ride the elephant also sometimes have a box with a snake in that they threaten to curse you with unless you cough up some money. But I think we can all agree the elephant scam is way more elegant.

The Sand Gang in action

The Sand Gang

This is a devilishly cunning plan that seems worth far less than the effort and risk required to pull it off, but you have to admire the chutzpah of its architects. I spent two days at a resort town, Cox’s Bazar, during the break between seminars, to unwind a little and get some beach air. Cox’s Bazar is a kind of peninsula, with a single road heading south along the beach side, and over a line of hills the Rohingya refugee camps. The Rohingya fled violence in Myanmar to camps near Coxs Bazar, and there is now a huge industry of aid groups and Bangladesh army tending to their needs[1]. Most of the aid workers stay in Coxs Bazar, and every morning they drive along the road south to the camp. However, recently the government closed a 200m section of road near the hotels for repairs, and now there is no road south from the southern part of the town. Rather than head north and around, the aid workers drive onto the beach in their white SUVs and use the beach as a short cut, as do all the locals who live in the southern stretch of Coxs Bazar. It’s ridiculous that there is only one road and that it has been closed now, but this is Bangladesh so everyone just rolls with the punches.

So, when our time came to do a little beach tourism our driver took us onto the beach – me, Doughty S, his wife and child, in a rundown old van without seatbelts, along the beach and up to the part of the beach where we are to rejoin the road – where we found a couple of cars bogged down, and a queue of cars waiting to get up the hill. You can see the scene pictured above. We sat here for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes waiting our chance to drive up the hill but it seemed every time we tried to gun the engine and go up the hill someone let a tuk-tuk down in front of us, or someone cut in, or a group of people got in our way. Doughty S got out of the car and went up to direct traffic, and we watched as various cars floundered and then got pushed up the hill of sand by gangs of eager men. Eventually a gap appeared, our driver took a risk, and even though a woman in a sari and a tuk-tuk nearly cut us off we gunned up the sand hill, the driver throwing the car left and right with ferocious energy until we bounced up a huge lump and onto smoother, firmer sand, then onto the road where Doughty S rejoined us.

Doughty S reported to us the real story of the floundering cars: a kind of local syndicate of young men had set up a scheme where every time a car attempted to take the hill at speed someone would step in front of it, or they would direct a car coming in the opposite direction into its path. They made sure that children were the ones stepping in front of the car, so that it was guaranteed to slow down, though not so carelessly as to make it stop entirely. Its power gone the car would then hit the bank and flounder, and then the men would offer to push it out for a small fee. The fee was about 30 taka (30 cents or so) for a Tuk-tuk, up to perhaps 100 taka for a car like ours. Many of the drivers were not locals or were not used to driving on sand, and were easy marks; somehow the UN vehicles were never affected by this scam, and neither was the military truck that was just rolling away when we arrived. They obviously knew how to select their targets. Doughty S also told us some drivers suspected the sand gang had sabotaged the road to start with, undermining the sand bank.

Dhaka traffic comes to the bazar

By the time we returned from our tourism trip, the sand gang had also managed to expand to the other slope near our hotel, where I witnessed the traffic jam above. When you see a picture of Bangladesh traffic it is important to remember it’s not just a throng of cars; it’s also a cacophony of horns, because everyone uses their horn all the time for everything, and even the small jam pictured above was raising an enormous racket. Needless to say, we jumped out here and walked the rest of the way to our hotel.

Libertarian dreams

There is a cyberpunk air to Dhaka, in the sense that there is no smooth and ordered government-run system and everything is a chaotic mesh of competing businesses and money makers. There are no traffic lights or traffic police, no road rules, most of the time not even any lanes, and in the chaos of the traffic it’s every man for himself. With a weak state and a populace with limited work opportunities and not much money there is a big atmosphere of scamming, grift and graft. Funnily enough despite this lack of oversight no enterprising soul has managed to set up a toll road, or offer some advanced business plan that can cut through the dust haze and klaxon roar to somehow make money distilling all this essence of chaos down to pure profit. It just remains barely controlled chaos, mostly held together not by profit motives so much as by the common decency people usually show each other despite their situation. It’s a bit of a cliche to tell libertarians that if they want a world without a government they should move to Somalia or something, but I think for your everyday Bangladeshi worker that’s pretty much what they face: undiluted libertarianism. Out of pocket payments for healthcare and rubbish disposal, a completely uncontrolled transport system with very little public investment, a government sector where everyone accepts that services are purchased not given, and some dude with an elephant making a living (of some dubious kind) by extorting motorists. This is the reality of unimpeded libertarianism: the elephant man and the sand gang. If you want to see where it takes you, come and enjoy the traffic in Dhaka… but look out for the elephants!


fn1: The Rohingya are a sad story but I don’t get the impression that anyone here resents them. The Bangladesh army set up camps early, and have done what they can given their resources, and the town is generally welcoming of the aid workers and happy to take their money. Bangladeshis I speak to are universally proud of the social harmony in their country, “unlike India,” and don’t consider for example Hindus or tribal people (who apparently live around here) to be lesser people. The government wants to send the Rohingya back but seems willing to not force them while they are still at risk, and although it’s not a pleasant situation everyone seems to be doing what they can. I wonder if the Rohingya have elephants …?

The new documentary Fyre, available on Netflix, describes the events surrounding the collapse of the infamous Fyre festival in 2017. The collapse of this festival gained worldwide notoriety because the festival was billed as a super luxury elite event full of models and influencers and famous people, which only the very rich could afford, but which ended with the “elite” guests having to camp in the dark in emergency response tents and eat soggy sandwiches before they fled home. It was covered extensively in the media and was often covered as a kind of disaster for the instagram age, a festival as fake as the world we build on social media, and a moral story about the collapse of truth in an era of influencers and instafame. It was a particularly attractive FUBAR because it involved rich people being scammed out of their money for what on its surface appears to be a completely vainglorious and shallow status symbol event.

I think a lot of that narrative was either untrue or a pernicious interpretation of the evils of social media. This documentary goes some way to helping to clarify what really happened and helps us to understand who some of the real victims and real villains were, but I think ultimately it fails because it does not go far enough or deep enough, and to some extent it is complicit with the scammers. It has three key flaws: 1) it fails to really contest the accounts of the organizers; 2) it does not give much of a voice to the guests; and 3) it does not offer any deeper commentary on the social media aspects of the SNAFU. I want to talk about each of these three problems and give a little opinion about what this festival tells us about social media and scams, again returning to my old saw that there is nothing new about the evils of social media, and no special skills are required to understand and deal with the problems social media creates.

First though I would like to say that although this documentary is flawed it is worth watching: it will give a much more detailed understanding of what happened and help to put the events into their proper perspective. I did not know, for example, that the organizer of the festival had been involved in a previous scam with all the same players; that a website and twitter account started to debunk the festival long before it happened; and that a great many of the attendees were not the super rich. Some of these points are not really clarified or explored properly in the documentary, but if you watch carefully and pay attention you can see these facts.

The first problem of the documentary is that it is highly dependent on footage of the entire project planning that was taken by the organizers themselves. I don’t know why they filmed themselves but it appears that the boss of the whole thing, Billy McFarland, has something of an obsession with filming his work – even at the end of the movie when he is on bail and living in a penthouse running a new direct mail scam he is filming himself doing it, which is weird. But it seems to me that in order to get this footage the documentary makers had to treat many of the organizers with kid gloves, which gives many of them the opportunity to provide self-serving and I suspect highly biased accounts of their own responsibility for the disaster. Four figures in particular – Carolla the financer, an old guy who has backed Billy McFarland for too long and has 30 years’ showbiz experience, the key guy responsible for logistics and the key guy responsible for booking acts – are up to their necks in the scam and it’s just not believable that they weren’t part of it. When one of them says that Billy would keep going away and finding new investments, it’s obvious that he is scamming new investors and they must know – and sure enough it turns out that he has been lying egregiously in documents to investors. Other people not so close to Billy were quick to get out when they realized the shitstorm that was coming, and one guy who saw right through it was able to get direct photos of the development of the festival and could clearly see it was going to be an omnishambles, yet these four couldn’t see it? Some of them, in particular Carolla and Ja Rule, were involved in Billy McFarland’s previous business, Magnises, which was clearly and obviously a scam, so it really stretches credibility when they tell the documentary makers that they didn’t know what was going on and kept not seeing the wood for the trees even when it was really clear what was going to happen. It’s very clear that Billy McFarland has a powerful effect on these people and is good at keeping them disoriented and confused, and he is always ratcheting up the chaos and demands so that they don’t have time to get clear-headed perspective on the damage he is doing. It is also really clear that he has found typically devious ways to keep them entangled in his dramas so that not only they but a lot of people who depend on them will be damaged if they back away; but these people have been around Billy McFarland long enough to know that this is his shtick, and to find ways out. There is a story in here about how incredibly dangerous people with personality disorders are when they have access to money and authority; but there is also a moral tale about the importance of not enabling these people, and of ultimately being willing to take the risk of walking away from them. This documentary shows in the end that when you enable the disordered leadership in order to protect those around you, all you really do is set those people up for a bigger fall when the narcissists’s schemes finally collapse. There’s a definite cautionary tale for Trump’s America in this documentary, but unfortunately by not properly challenging the stories of Billy’s fellow travelers the documentary fails to draw the proper lessons about the dangers of sticking with a leader with personality disorder.

The collapse of Fyre festival was a social media spectacle that was turned into a morality play about millennial idiocy by the media, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there were real victims of this farce. The documentary makes a good case for the low-paid workers of the Bahamas and the businesspeople who were left out of pocket on the island by the scammers, but it does not put much time into the feelings and experiences of the guests who paid to come to the festival and got scammed. It even manages to broadcast Billy McFarland’s point (made through Ja Rule) that nobody got injured or died. Nonetheless, the people who attended this festival turned up to an island far from home and got dumped on a fake beach in the dark with nowhere to stay except damaged tents with sodden mattresses, barely any food, and no idea what to do to get home. A large number were locked inside the airport without food and water for a night while the authorities tried to figure out a way to get them off the island. The fact that they were rich beautiful people doesn’t lessen the fear and hardship that they had to endure for a day or two while they found a way out of this scam – they were poorly mistreated. The documentary finds a couple of customers who were willing to speak on camera about their experience, and it uses a bit of social media footage of other victims, but it does manage to build up an image of these people as wealthy people who were paying for an elitist experience. It even shows a clip of a beautiful girl (possibly one of the influencers who was supposed to get free villa accommodation, though the documentary is careful not to reveal who the people in the social media clips are) saying that the “private” plane was “worse than the lowest class in economy”, which makes her seem kind of snobby from her tone. On twitter today I have been seeing people saying that what these people were really paying for was exclusivity, buying an experience that no one else could have, but I did not get that impression from the documentary: they were pretty clearly paying for the experience of a party on a beautiful beach, and paying for a luxury experience. Everything was marketed as a luxury experience and that’s what the guests were paying for. They weren’t necessarily driven by a desire for exclusivity. After all, they knew lots of other people were going to be there and fundamentally, like with any festival, wanted to go there and share the experience with those people. Any music event is never about exclusivity – you go to live events so you can share the experience with other people. But worse still, this documentary slides over the possibility that actually a lot of people weren’t that wealthy, and had actually been scammed out of real hard-earned money, not disposable income. You can’t tell from the people they interview, or from the prices they display on the documentary screens, but the lowest price tickets were between $500 and $1500. It’s not beyond a person on a normal income to spend a large chunk of their savings on this festival, so that they can have this experience. Looking at the people on the social media footage the documentary shows, and judging by their clothes and reaction, a lot of these people were not throwing away a casual weekend’s cocaine money to drink champagne off models’ tits in an exclusive villa: they were dumping a large portion of their hard-won savings on a chance to enjoy their favourite music in a geodesic luxury tent on a beautiful beach. Now, I have experienced a really enjoyable music festival on a secluded beach (the San-in Beach Party), and it really is a very nice experience, and to do it in luxury on a beach in the Bahamas is something that a lot of people would consider worth burning their savings on. It’s well-established that millennials, knowing they can’t afford a house or a stable retirement, choose to spend what limited savings they can scrape together on experiences like this. No matter how much David Brooks might sneer at their ephemeral spirit, it’s no reason to scam them of their hard-earned cash. That’s not exactly Robin Hood stuff is it? But by carefully avoiding investigating these peoples’ backgrounds, and not trying to do any deeper investigation into who went and why, the documentary falls into the usual traps that bedevil any attempt to explore modern youth culture, and makes it seem once again like a bunch of entitled millenial trustafarians got what they deserved.

Finally, the documentary does not properly explore the central role of social media in the debacle, and what the implications of that might be. The Fyre festival’s initial hype was built up by a bunch of influencers – perhaps 400 – all posting a picture of a blank orange tile to their instagram accounts at the same time, with a link to the Fyre page, where people could see videos of these influencers cavorting in the sea. It was a masterfully done advertising campaign, that used the viral power of instagram and other social media to multiply the value of each user’s post. But let’s not be coy about how this worked: they sank an enormous amount of money on this advertising. The documentary reports that the top girl in the influencer group they gathered, Bella Hadid, was paid $250,000 for that one post. They set up a website that was basically just a collection of movies, and then through a very well designed visual campaign they got a lot of people interested in their product. The documentary reported that in the aftermath of the Fyre farce the US government introduced new rules for social media stars, requiring them to indicate when they’re being paid to advertise product, and the documentary suggested that their behaviour had been duplicitous. The documentary also suggested that they should have done due diligence on the product they were selling, but this point was rebutted by some of the people involved who pointed out – fairly, I think – that these girls are models not scientists, and it’s not their job to vet the quality of a good they’re paid to advertise – that’s what regulatory authorities are for. Fundamentally what happened here is that Billy McFarland paid them to market a scam that neither they, the buyers, any of the contractors in the Bahamas, or apparently any of his colleagues, recognized was a scam. I don’t think under these circumstances these girls are the first people who should be blamed.

More importantly, none of what this advertising campaign did was new. It girls have been around since Audrey Hepburn (Holly Golightly was a classic It-girl), and in the era of the big people magazines girls like Paris Hilton were huge news, without ever making a single social media post. The fact that you can be an it-girl on Instagram doesn’t change anything, and although Bella Hadid is more ubiquitous in the feeds of her followers than Paris Hilton might have been, she is no less ubiquitous in popular media than Paris was. I am old enough to remember the Paris Hilton era, and let me tell you, there is nothing that Instagram could teach her about how to get rich and famous by being nothing and doing nothing. Yes the Kardashians’ famous-for-fame-itself lifestyle and business model is repulsive, but so was Paris Hilton’s. Similarly the problem of these girls advertising products without announcing they’re paid: it may shock my younger reader(s) to learn this, but a mere 20 years ago all the Hate Radio stars in Australia – Alan Jones, John Laws, that repulsive dude in South Australia, and the racist pig in Western Australia – were all advertising products all the time on the radio without telling you they were paid. They had a conversational tone in which they told you personally that they used this car oil, and never once mentioned that this conversation was paid for. This scandal blew up in the late 1990s and you should have seen the entitled whining they did when they were forced to admit on air that they were paid to make their endorsements. Now as far as I know, the late 1990s was approximately 60 years after the widespread adoption of radio. So it took approximately 10 times as long for the authorities to wise up to payola on the radio as it did for them to crack down on these pretty young things on Instagram. I’m sure that their haste to crack the whip on those girls has nothing at all to do with their age and gender … and of course all the top 40 charts and bullshit rankings on MTV and radio charts are still completely bought and paid for by the music industry, but we should worry that occasionally a model will slip in an unannounced endorsement on Instagram… No, as I have said before, the problem here is not social media – it’s you. Indeed there were even social media accounts dedicated to revealing the truth about Fyre but they didn’t take off – because nobody cared about the truth. If you cannot tell that a party on a remote island in the Bahamas where you get to cavort with models in a villa with a private plane for a couple of thousand bucks is smoke and mirrors, you won’t be saved by seeing that scam advertised on tv instead of Facebook. And if a slimy con artist decides to lie to you that he has villas for 5,000 people on that beach when in fact there are no houses on the entire island, it doesn’t matter if he does it on TV, Instagram or a message written in the sky – he’s a liar and a con artist, and the problem is that he lied. Unfortunately, while this documentary does make clear much of the way in which he built his lies, it also glosses over the simple fact that the world is full of liars and rubes in favour of the easy lure of social media panic, and schadenfreude at rich people getting duped.

So, watch this documentary if you want a more detailed account of that fateful party and the garbage fire it became, but don’t let yourself be fooled by the easy targeting of social media and rich entitled millenials. The story of Fyre is as old as the story of liars, and our natural faith in the honesty of our fellow humans. Whether you lie to someone’s face, on tv, on Instagram, or on stone tablets, a lie is a lie: and Fyre was a bonfire of stupid, vicious lies that left a lot of people hurt. Let’s hope we’ve all learnt from it, and that this documentary will help us all ensure it does not happen again.

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