Metashit


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

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

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

New Horizon Campaign

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

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

After the Flood mini-campaign

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

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

Spiral Confederacy Campaign

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

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

One-off adventures

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

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

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

Experimental writing

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

Gaming plans for 2016

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

Evolution of a New Atheist

Evolution of a New Atheist

Recent events in global politics seem to have brought the spit-flecked anti-Islamic radicalism of the New Atheists out into the open. Dawkins has had a bit of a thing about Ahmed Mohamed that is perhaps a little strange, but his most recent tweet drawing some kind of weird parallel between Mohamed and some poor child in Syria who was forced/brainwashed into beheading a soldier is really kind of off. Meanwhile in a podcast Sam Harris announced that he would rather vote for Ben Carson than Noam Chomsky because Ben Carson understands more about the Middle East.

Vicious, slightly unhinged attacks on children, and voting for a religious madman because he would keep out religious madmen seem like prima facie evidence for some kind of fevered new level of anger, so is it the case that the New Atheists are finally letting the mask slip, and revealing their prejudices in their full, naked glory? Harris is apparently an atheist but he would vote for an avowed born again christian who is completely immune to facts and probably wants to force the end of separation of church and state: when you vote for someone who is anathema to all your fundamental beliefs because of one specific policy you are signalling your policy preferences very clearly. Meanwhile, Dawkins is just … whatever he was trying to say with that tweet, it wasn’t pretty. Have recent events finally caused them to lose it?

Just recently I wrote an angry post about the Church of England trying to invade my leisure time, so in the interests of balance I think it’s only fair that I have a go at the New Atheists, who I find just as annoying in their own special way, though ultimately I think they’ll be far less influential than the current Archbishop of Canterbury. By the New Atheists I mean that crew of sciency types who publish books about how terrible religion is and affect to be experts on all things religious: people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers. Although I don’t doubt their atheism, I think they aren’t really acting first and foremost as atheists. Rather, I think they’re establishment scientists reacting in a particularly atavistic way to two kinds of insurrection that really make them feel threatened: the American vulgarist insurrection against science, which is primarily (but not only) driven by fundamentalist Christianity; and the Middle Eastern reaction against colonialism and imperialism, which has sadly shifted from a politically nationalist framework to an avowedly religious framework. The former threatens them intellectually and the latter threatens their identity, so they react viscerally. But in their visceral reaction I don’t think they’re acting against religion generally, and I think their visceral reaction is not a good thing for atheism. Even if they weren’t straight up reactionaries, I think they make poor spokespeople for atheism (to the extent that atheism is a movement of any kind). Here I would like to give a few reasons why.

The New Atheists will never change anything

In attacking Islam so vociferously, the New Atheists have chosen an easy target, but they aren’t going to change anything in Islam, and in any case they can’t even change Christianity. They don’t live in majority Islamic countries, so they’re in no position to make any changes to Islam; and by aligning themselves so closely with the Islamophobia of the religious/militarist right in the USA they instantly render any serious critique they have of Islam inaudible. In any case, Islam is not a monolithic entity like the Catholic church, it has no central leaders or doctrines, so there is no single force they can bend to their prodigious will. But even within their own Christian countries they’ll never effect any change because they’re going about it completely the wrong way. Religions can be institutionally monolithic, like the Catholic church or the Church of England, but they’re also diffuse and incredibly culturally resilient. You can’t change a religion by standing outside it yelling at it, because a strong religion is composed of both a powerful religious institution and a plurality of supporters, who are in a constant cultural tension with that leadership but identify strongly with what that leadership represents. Religions don’t change because people yell at them because changing a religion requires simultaneously changing its intellectual leadership and its adherents.  The best way to change a religion is to slowly move all of society forward, through technological, scientific and cultural advances, and then watch the religion catch up. It’s slow, hard, dirty work, the kind of work you don’t get accolades for and can’t distill into self-aggrandizing tweets, but that’s how religions change. Perhaps the best secular example of this is the relationship between labour unions and labour parties in the early part of the last century in countries like Australia and the UK. To change policy in those environments you had to be active in the union, working at the grassroots, but also active in the elite system of the unions and its associated mass politics. People like Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam emerged from that environment and they were formidable intellectuals with a very practical understanding of both the levers and the limits of power. Of course, the New Atheists aren’t going to have much of a sense of class politics, so they probably don’t have a clue about the secular equivalents of what they’re dealing with, either.

Furthermore, it’s often the case that the leading agents of change are people within the religion – your Martin Luthers and Gandhis – not angry outsiders. One hundred years from now, when Islam has moved forward to wherever it’s going, people will look back and say “look at that Turkish dude who reformed education in the 21st century” and “how about that Sudanese chick who campaigned against genital mutilation”. No one will be thanking Richard Dawkins for tweeting a picture of an ISIS child soldier brutalizing and being brutalized[1]. These people will never change anything.

Scientists are not good Atheists

There’s a kind of intellectual arrogance in the “elite” branches of science – physics, biochemistry, some parts of evolutionary biology – in which they believe that they can enter any other field of human endeavour and just pwn it with their superb intellectual skills. This is visible at its most nakedly ugly in the behavior of those cosmologists who think they are going to disprove (or discover!) god, and those terrible nuclear bomb makers who turned the whole thing into a sick parody of childbirth. But in this case it means that scientists are entering a world that is very unscientific, that has a completely different language and culture, and trying to understand it in terms that make sense to scientists, and thinking they can. This is why they seem to think that religions are anti-science because their books are kooky, and they think they can effect change through logical debate built on attacking the principles of those books. In science you look at founding principles and build arguments on them; in religion you play fast and loose with founding principles in pursuit of a story (or something; I’m not really au fait with how this stuff works). Yelling at people and claiming to be able to understand the way their religion works because you’re used to logical thinking is not going to get you very far. Laughing at silly origin stories (7 days! ha!) doesn’t get you very far because – newflash – most people don’t give a fuck about how smart you are until they need you to fix their TV and then they’re all like “what do you mean you study geckos?” When you engage with people outside of your field of expertise you need to set aside your field of expertise, or find a way to bring it to the engagement that doesn’t appear arrogant and out of touch. Which brings us to …

The New Atheists are poor scholars

Every field of intellectual inquiry has its own rules, its own language and its own disciplines. You can’t just go into another field of inquiry and start talking about it with the language and discipline of your own field – you’ll misunderstand and get confused. If you talk statistics with a statistician, you need to understand what “consistency” means; if you discuss economics at some point you need to come to terms with their weird and stupid definition of “efficiency”. Believe it or not, religions have their own language and disciplines, and the study of religion is a long-standing and well-respected intellectual field, connected with cultural studies, social science and art theory/history. But the New Atheists don’t give a fuck about that, they just barge on in and start arguing. This is most obvious in Sam Harris’s embarrassing little spanking from Noam Chomsky, where he thought he could engage in debate with one of the preeminent scholars of American foreign policy on the basis of a single reading of just one of his books (“I thought I could read it as a self-contained whole,” what, do you think it’s a Little Golden Book?), without any of the disciplines or scholarly background of international relations. It’s also obvious in the response of scholars of theology to Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which panned it as, for example, work that would make a first year theology student wince[2]. This is what happens when otherwise intelligent, well-educated scientists decide that they can enter into other scholarly debates without the proper debate and, dare I say it, the proper respect. And this is the real problem here: they don’t understand or respect the religious impulse or its history, they don’t respect anyone who believes differently to them, and they base their scholarly approach to religion on this lack of respect for its intellectual origins. This is very, very stupid. For much of human history religion was the wellspring of science, and almost all of our modern intellectual tradition is built on Catholic, Muslim, Jewish[3] or Hindu science. When a scientist goes into their world that scientist is dealing not with weird, kooky idiots who think the world was made in 7 days, but people who understand science and theology, and are comfortable believing in one while working in the other. You can’t knock these people over with second rate arguments about whether god could make a stone so heavy even he couldn’t lift it, and when you try they’ll come back at you with sophisticated discussion of exactly where that question fits into a range of epistemological, ontological and cosmological debates.

These religions didn’t develop through 1000 or 5000 years of history because they had a complete disregard for scholarly endeavour. But the New Atheists approach the mysteries of religion as if they were a first year biology problem. That’s bad scholarship, derived from a lack of respect, which is why I can say that …

They give atheism a bad name

Being an atheist doesn’t mean you think everyone who believes in God is an idiot. Sure, there are some cute jokes about sky fairies and stuff, but they’re rhetorical fluff, not to be confused with the substance of how atheists should (and generally do) approach believers. To me, first and foremost, atheism is about inquiry. I’m fascinated by all this stuff that goes on in this amazing and beautiful world, and that doesn’t just mean I’m interested in what will happen to the polar bears when the ice melts; it also means I want to know what my Muslim colleague thinks about things he maybe didn’t have to think about before he moved to Japan, or what my lapsed Catholic friend thinks about Shinto. It doesn’t mean that I just dismiss all that stuff as dumb-arsed imaginary-friend psychological props. It also doesn’t mean that when I see a member of a certain religion (I’m looking at you Mr. Mohammedan) doing a terrible thing I should immediately decide that all people from that religion are insane arse-hats. But please forgive me if that’s how I interpret the recent behavior of the New Atheists, who seem to have got a real bee in their bonnets about Islam, and are really seriously concerned that it’s the end of civilization. By throwing away their critiques of other religions, siding with religious lunatics, and dropping all pretense at mild manners or rational debate, they make it pretty clear that they have a certain, specific animus against a certain, specific religion. They look, in fact, like racists. Some of them also look like unreconstructed sexists. But in the modern era, they are also the main voice of atheism that most people recognize. Which means that in the public mind they speak for me.

My Muslim colleague is very concerned about the image of Islam that ISIS project. He sometimes talks about it with me – raises the terrible things they have done, tries to talk about how they are perceived by people not like them – and I can see he is worried that I might get a bad idea of his religion from the antics of its worst children. He also makes jokes about his own religion, and is comfortable dealing with the social conflicts living in Japan presents. It’s as if he is just a normal guy trying to get by in this crazy world, who believes some different stuff to me. But to hear Sam Harris’s latest utterings, he’s a monster waiting to blow me up. Or he might be, or something. When people say shit like that about any other group you back away slowly, or you give them hell. But these guys think they’re cool with it, and as the tide of public opinion turns against Islam I guess, increasingly, they will be. But sometime in the future, once ISIS are a bad memory (and they will be!), people will remember that those dudes were atheists, and they will assume that atheism is about racism and hatred or, at best, that it is completely attuned with popular opinion about who the latest bad guys are. Which it isn’t. Atheism is much bigger than that. It is much bigger than this small group of arrogant rich white scientists, and the sooner they let it go and give it back to us the better.

Atheism is not a movement and never will be

At the heart of this is a simple fact that perhaps we didn’t have to think about back when our spokesperson was Bertrand Russell, a man who would never have supported the Iraq war: Atheism is not a movement. It is the antithesis of a movement. It’s a group of people who have quietly decided to go their own way on this spiritual shit. We just don’t do it, but there’s no movement we can form to make that fact public – how can we? We don’t agree on anything! Sure, the Satanists are doing a great job of trolling some Christians in a completely cute and fun way, but they don’t represent us and no one thinks they do. We aren’t A Thing. Sure, sometimes we’d like to be – those atheist bloggers in Bangladesh might not have been killed if they were part of a movement with its own stormtroopers – and being part of a movement has many benefits, but that’s not what Atheism is. In it’s own way it’s as intense and personal as religion, it’s a feeling you have that you can’t project onto anyone else although the best of us will put our case carefully and wait for those we love and care about to maybe feel it, or maybe not. But I think the New Atheists would like us to be a movement, and I think you know who they think should be in charge of that movement.

But I don’t to be part of any movement that turns my inner life into a caricature of itself so they can spit on Muslims and use child soldiers as a rhetorical tool in some kind of shitty twitter war over a fucking clock. I don’t want to be part of any movement whose leaders think they’re intellectually superior to a couple of billion people, and I don’t want to be part of any movement whose representatives would vote for a religious lunatic who’s probably a con artist just because he hates the same people they do.

Once this war on Islam is done – and it will be done, once ISIS are gone, and they will be gone – these New Atheists will discover how fickle their new bedfellows are. When their new anti-Muslim fundamentalist christian friends kick them out, don’t welcome them back. Tell them they sold themselves cheap, and they can be footsoldiers in someone else’s intellectual battle. Atheism doesn’t need them, and neither do the religious people they think they’re helping.

fn1: Seriously WTF were you thinking, dude? Have you been following the movement against child soldiers, are you aware of what a complex, cruel and brutal thing the recruiting and enslavement of child soldiers is? Do you understand that the media have conventions about showing child victims? When the BBC interviews child soldiers they pixelate their faces. What were you thinking, comparing an American kid to a child soldier in the act of beheading someone? Do you have any respect at all for human dignity?

fn2: Read that review. That is how reviews are done.

fn3: Noam Chomsky, for example, grew up in a Jewish tradition heavily steeped in Jewish intellectualism.

Very apt ...

Very apt …

On the plane back from Italy I watched Ant Man, which my friend told me was better than expected and because I saw Jurassic World on the way over to Italy. Ant Man was an okay movie – the action scenes were okay, the ant-dude got a few decent moments of humour, the ant-control stuff was alright, and by super-hero comic standards the bad guy’s evil scheme was relatively plausible (he developed a super weapon and sold it to some bastards). I absolutely hated the Falcon from the moment I saw him and just thought he was completely naff, and in this case the “good guy”‘s plan was just stupid and dumb and ridiculous and that made enjoying the movie a little difficult, but I was toughing it out okay until I discovered that the central emotional hook in the plot was going to revolve around Hope’s issues with her daddy. At this point I cringed and lost most of my interest in the movie.

Why do so many American action movies have daddy issues as their central human drama? Just off the top of my head I can think of Treasure Planet, the Lego Movie, that execrable Star Trek remake with the completely implausible time travel plot (if you could go back in time to attack the Federation why didn’t you use your time travel powers to stop the meteor you dipshit?) and now Ant Man. In many cases (Star Trek is an obvious exception, because it was unrescuable) these daddy issues just dragged the movie down. The Lego Movie even managed to combine the daddy issues with “it was just a dream” which is like combining the nadir of emotional manipulation with the nadir of story-telling. I was absolutely loving the Lego Movie until that horrible final 10 minutes, which even manages to creep up on you with this horrible, careful forewarning – you don’t just get the end spoiled for you, but you spend a couple of minutes having your perfect fantasy world slowly impinged on by this Sauron-esque level of daddy issues.

Daddy issues in action movies are always a bad emotional hook, for so many reasons. First of all, not all dads are dickheads but you would never get that impression if you turn on netflix. Secondly, the resolution of the daddy issues is always completely implausible: Hope is on the board of directors of a major international company, she’s a kick-arse fighter and a scientist and she’s hot, but her dad has treated her like shit for 30 years because – sorry to break it to you Hope – he’s a complete arsehole, and yet at the end of the movie something she does is going to convince him he should treat her better. Sure, 50 year old men change their opinions of their highly successful, beautiful and super functional daughters just like that … Thirdly, the movies usually reinforce the daddy’s arseholery through techniques the director seems to think are meant to presage this implausible turnaround, which is just dumb. There are several moments in Ant Man where we are led to believe Pops understand he’s being an arsehole – but he keeps it up anyway. We’re meant to take these moments as a sign he’s redeemable but they just really make him seem like an egregious arsehole. Fourthly, they turn one character into a useless waste of space. Hope could have saved the world but her dad won’t let her so she ends up being just a pretty waste of space who exists in the movie to give her dad a chance at redemption. Sorry, director dude, but I like my action movie chicks to be active. Finally, they reduce the density of explosions: every scene devoted to exploring the characters’ daddy issues is a period of time when shit is not being blown up, and I came to this movie to watch shit being blown up. Sure, it’s based on a marvel comic for teenagers but most of the audience are not teenagers – we’re adults, and we’ve come to terms with our own stupid family relationships, we don’t need to have our precious explosion time diluted with time-wasting emotional antics we aren’t engaged with. Sure, I understand that human drama is hard to do well and the best way to do it is to invest it with fighting and explosions: Star Wars, Terminator 1, The Last of the Mohicans and Titanic are examples of movies that improve otherwise ordinary human drama with explosions, fighting and spectacular damage. But it doesn’t work the other way, you can’t make shrinking a man to the size of an ant more interesting by giving his love interest daddy issues. So just drop it from the script, and either shorten your movie (I missed the end of the final battle because the plane landed, and I would have seen it if they hadn’t wasted time on Hope’s angst for a man who is obviously a worthless piece of shit who deserves to pay for all his past unethical behavior) or replace those minutes of worthless sentimental bloat with something worthwhile, like more explosions.

The way daddy issues are handled in modern action movies is also something of a sinister tale for impressionable viewers. To the extent that movies play a normative role – describing what is and how things should be done – these action movies with daddy issues present a universally terrible norm. Obviously we don’t take all our moral cues from movies but they do play a role in establishing and defining norms, just as all cultural products do, and the ubiquity of daddy issues in action movies, combined with the age and vulnerability of their audience (teenagers and young adults, more likely male than female) means we should pay some attention to the messages these movies are putting out. First of all they give viewers the impression that all relations between children and their parents are fraught – i.e that all dads are dickheads – which isn’t true, and furthermore by making these broken relationships central to the emotional tension of the movie they exaggerate the importance of these damaged relationships, or serve to reinforce the insecurities of young people about their relationships with their parents. But worse still, through all of these daddy issues movies there is an implication that the kid can do something to fix their dad’s dickheadness, as if the whole thing is their fault. They always come to a resolution where the kid manages to change the way their dad views them and treats them through either emotional appeal or action or both. Everyone with an actual parent (i.e., pretty much everyone) knows that this isn’t how parents work: most parents don’t accept that their kids have grown up, let alone change long-established patterns of behavior in which they are the boss and their kids are appellants. Unequal power relationships like this where the powerful person is a dickhead do not change through the action of the weaker person, because the powerful person’s behavior has nothing to do with the behavior of the weaker one and is not their responsibility. Dickhead dads are dickheads because they’re dickheads, not because the 8 year old child didn’t try hard enough. These daddy issues movies always send out the opposite message though: something you do can change how your dad treats you. i.e. how your dad treats you is somehow your fault. It’s not, but most people spend a large part of their life working towards this understanding. Perhaps if these movies made that clear it would be easier for young adults to get the hint and start being more realistic about their relationships with their parents.

I wonder why American action movies suffer so badly from this problem? Here I am going to suggest two possible reasons: a cohort effect, and an allegory for the relationship between the citizen and the state. You’ve come this far, gentle reader, so bear with me …

Cohort effects on crappy movies

As someone who grew up in the UK in the 70s and 80s, I can sympathize with the notion that dads are arseholes. All the dads I met when I was growing up were unreconstructed arseholes, the kind of men who hit their kids out of laziness or spite rather than any kind of theory of discipline[1]. Also, watching young adult movies of that time, like Stand By Me and The Breakfast Club, you get the impression that American dads were really cold and stand-offish (all the boys referred to their dad as “sir”!). My guess is that the majority of today’s script writers and storymakers are American men who grew up in that period, probably mostly middle class, and their experience of family life is a powerful, distant father who terrorized them and a weak mother who did nothing to protect them, and that is why they routinely give their female characters power then strip it away (e.g. Hope, Hermione, Captain Ahab in Treasure Planet) and make daddy issues central to the emotional content of the story. The world has changed since then, however, and modern fathers are given much more emotional leeway, and emotional involvement with their children is supported and respected in a way it never was when I grew up. Compared to an era when it was cool to say your kids were annoying and should be “seen not heard” it is now normal for a dad to say he loves his children, to want to spend time with them, and to be engaged in and proud of their personal lives. So while these script writers might be writing about their own experiences, they’re writing a story that is unfamiliar to the majority of both the men and the children watching their shows. So why do they keep doing it? They’re paid a lot of money to recycle this drek, and personally I really don’t care what happened between whatever dude “wrote” Ant Man and his dad. If this is the reason that they’re writing these cheap emotional stories, I think they should do better – try and look outside their own experience for five minutes of their lives, and write someone else’s story for once.

The father as allegory for the state

The problem with the cohort effect explanation, though, is that daddy issues seem to be uniquely a component of American action movies. The Kingsman, for example, involved the (dead) father as a story hook but it was by no means a central part of the story – like most British movies the relationship with the mother was just as important, and even though the mother was a feckless dickhead the kid was immune to her behavior, interested in rescuing her from her situation but not feeling himself to blame for it. Similarly Japanese teen movies don’t focus on broken father-son relationships, often backgrounding parental relationships entirely in favour of the angst of teenagers (Neon Genesis Evangelion is a classic example of this). So unless American dads are uniquely fucked – an unlikely prospect, given the universal fuckedness of parents – there must be some other uniquely American reason for this obsession. My suspicion is that it could be explained by growing uncertainty about the relationship between American citizens and their state (bear with me here). In its classical representation, the state plays a role very much like a distant but essentially loving father. It can be demanding and harsh but ultimately its love is unconditional – if you are a member of its family you will get its support, whether at home or abroad. But recently this relationship between citizen and state has started to unravel, with a whole rash of policies that undermine the unconditional nature of this relationship. The most obvious is the desire of certain states to strip citizenship from people who fight against them – the political equivalent of being disinherited. But there are others: three strikes laws and mandatory sentencing; the excesses of the war on drugs; permanent sex offender registries; targeted killings of citizens in foreign countries; recent revelations of unconstrained spying on the communications of citizens; attacks on social security; the horrible and US-specific practice of civil forfeiture; and some of the more dubious sting operations that American authorities have employed in recent years. To be clear, these extra-judicial extravagancies have always been deployed against black people and certain types of domestic dissident, but in the past the victims of such excesses have typically been those who the state has refused to accept as full citizens (black people and communists). The more recent civil rights violations have expanded their reach to include middle class whites, who have always believed themselves to be the core group that the state will love unconditionally. This slow degrading of the basic rights of ordinary Americans, and this subtle change in the relationship between individual and state, might not be something that these white middle-upper class American screenwriters are directly aware of, but the general change in climate might be affecting the way they feel, and not having directly identified their concerns, it’s possible that they’re being reflected in their cultural product through uncertainties in their depiction of core human relations. If this were the case though one would think that similar allegories could be seen in other types of relations (such as the treacherous lover in Total Recall) – I don’t get the impression that this is the case though. Nonetheless, in a climate of increasing economic, legal and cultural uncertainty, it’s not impossible to imagine that screenwriters would project these uncertainties onto one of the key relationships that defined their own development. It’s also noteworthy that in modern movies at the same time as these daddy issues are being played out we also see the hero or other major characters caught up in some other excess of state power – the Ant dude with his prison issues, for example, or the way that super heroes often find themselves facing off against a shadow government agency that is up to no good.

Of course it could just be that American screenwriters are often shit, and Ant Man was written by a terrible screenwriter, or that this daddy issues thing is just some shallow Hollywood fashion that will fade away. If so, I hope it fades away sooner rather than later. If there’s going to be an emotional involvement in my action movies I want it to be simple, plausible, and positive – like The Last of the Mohicans – not filled with faux depth and unbelievable angst, and I don’t want it to be loaded down with unpleasant moral messages about how your fucked up relationship with your parents is your own fault. Get that drek out of my explosions!

fn1: It’s hilarious now to hear law-makers from that era oppose laws against slapping children on the basis of disciplinary practice. I had a friend called Christian in the UK who threw a snowball at his dad, and his dad didn’t like it and was in a bad mood, so we stood there and watched as he carefully packed a snowball with a stone in the middle, taking his time to really pack that ice tight while he ordered Christian not to run away, preparing that snowball with an intense expression of deep hatred, and then finally when he had it nice and hard, he threw it right in his own son’s face as hard as he could, then slapped him when he started crying. This kind of shit was pretty normal when I grew up – now the men of that generation complain that their child abuse is being outlawed and try to pretend it was done out of a need to instill discipline. They were lying bullies then and they remain lying bullies now.

Date: 2nd November 2166

Weather: Sunny! I got laughed at for carrying an umbrella by all the old ladies in the square …

Outfit: Yoga pants and a jacket. I thought Venice was meant to be the centre of fashion so packed all my shortest skirts and my coolest tights, and I had such a selection of fake haut cauture blouses and one pieces, but then I discovered that not only is Venice entirely stairs and men looking up your miniskirt but every girl here is wearing just yoga pants and a jacket and I felt so out of place except for the old ladies going to church who are so stylish but who does that so I had to run out and buy a set of yoga pants and a jacket (because I couldn’t wear the jacket I took to Rome since it’s covered in blood and that was such a nice jacket but Dirty Rum says he’ll replace it, I get expenses for this mission!). So now I’m walking around Venice wearing these super thin yoga pants and I can see every other girls panties through the fading patches on her bum and I’m super paranoid everyone can see mine but if I wear anything better I feel like everyone’s looking at me which you don’t want just after you have killed a major religious figure and left him in the bath with his big old man’s stiff prong getting stiffer before the polizia find him. Better to be incognito but I don’t feel incognito running around this ancient, crumbling crowded city in what is basically underwear, but no one notices me now because that’s what everyone else is wearing. Maybe I should download a yoga chipset to match this dodgy culture chipset that keeps making me go into boring museums!

Mood: Betrayed! Not because of the job, which went perfectly although the old man begged at the end and I felt like I was killing my grandpa, but then I saw the videos on his phone and realized that his night of lechery wasn’t ever intended to end in a big fat payout which I probably should raise with Dirty Rum but I guess since I was only in the bathtub so I could kill the old man there’s no use getting overly anxious about the fact that he was only in the bathtub so he could kill me. How does a crusty old dude like that kill a young woman anyway? I guess I learnt the reason when I toured the art galleries which is also why I’m feeling so betrayed! Because Dirty Rum said to me “you’re going to Rome to kill a man, and after that you should take a couple of days’ holiday. Go to Venice, soak in some culture,” so I thought when he said “soak in some culture” he meant to download a chipset on the renaissance, which I did, but why would I go to Venice just to download a chipset? That’s what the husk is for, I could have walked all of Venice’s crowded, crumbling streets right here in my bedroom! But Dirty Rum and I really needed this job so I went, and I downloaded the chipset from a cheap roadside vendor by the Fondamente, and at first it was fine but then it kept making me want to go to museums I didn’t want to go to even after I’d been in one and realized how much I hate this “art” these Venetians are peddling but it kept pushing me to go to more which is when I realized someone had bugged my chipset to make me spend money on museums I don’t like, and squished it under my (not high!) heel. So now here I am sitting by the canal with a crodino, thinking it’s probably good that Italy fell apart, because this whole place is just living in the past, and feeling betrayed by that chip-seller at the Fondamente. I would go back and drown him, but it’s bad enough wearing dry yoga pants – wet yoga pants would be just the worst!!! There’s some old Italian prince-dude called Machiavelli who probably has something good to say on this now, but since I ripped out that chipset I can’t remember any of the details of this place. I don’t speak any Italian or English either, and the only New Mandarin speakers are leading tours by that god-awful church by the lake, so I guess I’ll be staying right here by the canal until I go home.

I went to Rome to kill a man. Some old dude who runs a cult, an old cult that’s been around since humans were riding around on horses and dying of smallpox and blaming it all on some old dude in the sky. Rome used to be in this place called Italy but the old dude lives in a kind of summer house to Rome that has these really big walls. Anyway after Italy got carved up by the corporations and broken up into different little bits, this old dude was raising hell about it and saying it should all be put back together, and his little cult have some kind of influence all around the world, kind of like Nestle but through preaching instead of baby powder, and nobody really cared but then this little sect of his cult, called Optical Day or something, decided to get all terrorist and start blowing corporate assets up (why would a contact lens company blow up another company? Contact lenses are like a contract to print money, you don’t need to start any corporate wars if you’re a contact lens company! But Italians seem to be a hot headed bunch, must be all the typhoons in the mediterranean that drive them crazy). So finally the corporations decided to kill this old dude but he drives around in like a bullet-proof, rocket-proof AV and has his own personal guard of bad-arsed swiss dudes, and he lives behind these big walls all the time, and they couldn’t afford to nuke him (cheap!) so they needed to find another way in. And it turns out – shock! – that this old dude has a thing for young girls, but he likes variety, and he’s never had an inuit, and so here is Dirty Rum trafficking me into those high walls to some special place in there with a big bath and a very fancy day room and wall-to-wall porn of like the scariest kind, and my job is simple: kill this old dude in the bath and then shoot my way out.

So I did that, and on my way out I happened to kick his phone where it was plugged into one of his porno screens – I slipped, there was a lot of blood – and it somehow flicked to a new channel and that’s when I spent half an hour watching videos of the previous girls he’d had in the bath, and it wasn’t pretty and I suddenly had this big urge to send Dirty Rum a message saying “this job’s on me” but then I remembered that I’m not stupid, so I used the old dude’s dead finger to bypass his security, and mailed the whole lot to a couple of TV stations. Then I left, and went to Venice.

I only went to Venice because Dirty Rum said I should soak up some culture. I’ve never really been on a holiday before unless you count an afternoon of girls talk in Mister Donut, and I don’t really get why people go all the way to another country to pry into its dirty past. I mean, every culture is built on a bunch of horrible things and bad old ideas, and it always seemed to me like a lot of unnecessary effort to go halfway across the world to go prying into someone else’s bad secrets, like a kind of cultural voyeurism. Not that that’s the reason I never went to Disneyland – I just can’t afford it. Also Disneyland got nuked, so probably isn’t the best place to visit and who wants to go to America anyway? I’ll never meet an American I trust, I’m sure! But Dirty Rum said this one was on him, and have you ever seen Venice in the Autumn? So I took a train from Rome to Venice, and Dirty Rum arranged a nice hotel for me that rises above these narrow cobbled streets like an angel of steel and glass, and I can look over the whole thing, its pools of pale light and deep canyons of shadow, and think – I killed your stupid cult leader. You owe me.

Of course the bells are ringing a lot now he’s dead, and the TV stations are kind of frantic with all this talk about his paedophilia and his necrophilia, but me, I’m taking in the airs. Strolling the canals in my yoga pants, listening to my chipset tell me about how such-and-such a rich dude from the same cult built this building, and so-and-so rich dude from the same cult built that building, and oh by the way did you know that this piece of crumbling mosaic was dedicated to some poor sappy guy who was killed by enemies of the cult? This whole town is built on this stuff.

So I was kind of interested to find out a bit more about this cult, so I went to the big church in the square by the lake, where they have this tour that you can see the old church that is still running, and it’s meant to be impressive but really it’s only impressive because a bunch of people from 500 years ago could make a small house and put some badly shaped gold crust on the ceiling. You walk around and think it’s kind of pokey and what would these people have thought if they’d been taken to a Fay Ling Moon concert 500 years ago, they’d probably have died. It was kind of nice when I stood near the edge of this group of people who were praying, they sang a little song of devotion in pure and beautiful voices, the candle light wavering on their yoga pants and jackets and the voice of the crusty old dude ringing clear and faithful through the church. But then I turned away to walk out and there was this series of three little weird curtained booths with names over them that my chipset told me were confessional booths, where you can go in and hide your face while you tell the old man whose name is over the booth about bad things you did or even thought and he collects your stories so that he can go home later and imagine you without your yoga pants on doing those bad things that really aren’t bad at all, and I thought that old man leading the prayer was actually a kind of sleazy old man wasn’t he, just like his boss. And I looked at those booths and the curtain hanging limp there waiting for a person to sit inside it feeling bad for being natural and I thought it’s kind of like the biohazard suits we had to wear in the Indo zone, only to keep the hazard in, not out. And suddenly I felt kind of tired and sad looking around at the weary old gold-crusted ceiling, thinking about all the thousands of women who’ve trooped through here, entering those little booths of biohazard shame feeling like what happened in their yoga pants was okay, and leaving ashamed of themselves because some slimy old man told them so. And then I walked out kind of fast because I was getting angry and I didn’t want to do anything stupid to blow my cover.

… and then I got this desire to go to the old art gallery, which is called the Academy or something but the locals have got surprisingly bad English so they mis-spelled it and it took me ages to find it in my dictionary (why did I download a culture chipset instead of a language one?! I think I should upgrade my neuralware next time I’m in Russia, it’s cheap there and reliable). It cost a small fortune for an Inuit girl to get into the Academy, but I kept a receipt because Dirty Rum is paying for all this, and so in I wandered to look at all the art, and the chipset was full of all this knowledge about how great it all was, but as the rooms passed me by I started to get this really bad feeling about it all, like … these people really have built their entire artistic heritage on a pretty rough foundation, haven’t they? And I trust Dirty Rum but I’m starting to give him a good bit of side-eye now because I’m wondering why he thinks it’s culture to be painting a bunch of poorly-rendered pictures about some chick who had a baby without having sex which is like impossible, and a dude whose dad killed him just so he could be famous, and everywhere these really nasty, scary-looking babies that sometimes have wings and sometimes look really skeezy. And every time that virgin mother is in the picture there’s a bunch of super old dudes staring at her in this really dirty way and it’s like for 400 years the artists of this entire country couldn’t work out how to paint a finger or an arm or let alone a baby but they were like pre-eminent masters at getting that sleazy look so perfectly captured that it beamed on down through the ages to where a young girl looking at it today is like “that is the universal embodiment of sleaze!” What a lucky virgin mother this Mary chick was … It’s really weird too how the only reason she’s special is that she had a baby whose dad killed it just to get onto some ancient talent show, but then everyone thinks that she couldn’t be special at all if she had actually done some sweaty tussling with a man to get that baby going – that’s some real dirty double standards shining through right there and you can see that double standard in every roughly drawn picture of her carrying her stupid baby that’s gonna die, looking so stupid and innocent while a bunch of old men are leering at her thinking they want her but they’re dirty for thinking they want her.

Which I think is why that old dude I killed had to kill the girls after he’d diddle them, because he hated himself for doing what everyone knows is really just natural, though kind of gross, and his stupid religion tells him he’s bad for doing all the things that his body needs to do, and somehow on this peninsula that bad way of thinking got to be a thing, until the guy who represented that thing was so special that he could fly a bullet-proof AV and get to strangle any Inuit girl he wants, because he feels bad about wanting to be inside her.

Of course all these crazy ideas came up before people invented guns and contraception and cyberware, and now the world is different and any girl with a dentata and a pair of rippers can do away with some sleazy old strangler who wants what he doesn’t deserve. And now the whole cult is in tumult, I guess, because girls can run around in yoga pants killing their idols or other people’s idols, or having sex with them if they want though why you’d want to has always been a mystery to me, and doing the things that girls naturally want to do like chatting with their friends freely in public and shooting people for money. And those old pictures now they’re just relics of a time when nobody knew any better and girls like me couldn’t be free to do what we wanted, but there’s still people in the world who think the bad things that we were are important to the good things we’ve become instead of something we should be ashamed of, and I was sitting there on one of the benches while all the pretentious arty fashion types were walking past me talking about colour and light (probably – they weren’t talking Mandarin or Inuit so who knows if they were but they seemed to be!) and thinking, no, this is just dross, it’s old paper with bad scrawlings on it, let’s take some photos sure so that the people who like history can study it but maybe we should just burn this stuff down now? Because this building would make a great shooting range, if we cleared a few walls away. Or a dance club!

What we could be

What we could be

And then I left. But that chipset still had me thinking I needed to go to another weird old museum of skeezy dudes, and it led me across this bridge and then there was this museum of modern design that I managed to get into even though the chipset was really making me feel uncomfortable about it. And the museum had a special display about glass sculptures which was mostly terrible but I found this little side door that led into a dark room that had these two pieces of glass hanging in air like shreds of angels, and they were pieces of glass moulded in the shape of the lower torso and legs of people. They glowed there in the air, suspended in silence and darkness and carrying their own luminous flesh so powerfully that I could feel my own cyberskin moved and moving to the same colour. And I just assumed they were male torsos because all the art I had seen was about men but then I saw the little secret slits and the smooth beauty of their parts and I realized that these were some kind of floating embodiment of femininity, and I stood there entranced and my thoughts briefly washed away from me except the chipset was nagging me to go, go, go and watch some real art about men and their needs so I ripped it out right then and crushed it on the floor and just stood there thinking yes, we are in a better place, this world we’re in now where girls can hang luminous in the darkness, their skin flawless and glowing and their power complete, just like mine was when I strangled that nasty little man in the bath, one hand around his neck as his eyes bulged and my rippers sliding in and out of his sagging, filthy belly, the blood mingling with the bubbles in the bath and the spilled champagne, his gasps like a kind of choir singing hosannas to the perfection of modern womanhood in gurgling, ragged sighs.

And I didn’t go to any more museums. I’m going to enjoy the sun by the canals and watch the tourists wander by, until my flight lifts me out of this crumbling kingdom of old ruins and ruined old men, and takes me back east, where the future is.

Oh, they have a Grue...

Oh, they have a Grue…

My friend gave me a copy of Ready Player One to read on the plane back to Japan, but my airline tricked me into flying a 777 without reclining seats or accessible reading lights or wi-fi, so I didn’t get to finish it till today nor did I realize how enormously popular it is until I randomly googled it. It’s a really good book, but has some really irritating flaws, so here is my review.

The basic idea of the story is simple and powerful, and I’m surprised it took so long to be written. It’s set in a dystopian near future (where, for once, the effect of climate change is stated and assumed throughout the story), where the world economy is slowly falling apart but there is a new virtual reality internet called the OASIS, where people can spend basically their whole lives escaping the boredom and horrors of everyday life. This world is fully interactive using haptic gloves and suits, so a kind of addictive experience (fortunately the author doesn’t use this silly idea of internet addiction), but it is also huge, a kind of galaxy of many worlds where almost anything can happen. The designer of the OASIS has died, but instead of leaving a will he has left behind his fortune, plus the title to control the company that designed the OASIS, as a prize in a complex game that, when the book starts, no one has won. This idea is patently ludicrous: the OASIS is the most important technological development in human history (as an example, our lead character receives his education through the OASIS and it is clearly a superior education to any physical school) but its developer has left the deed to the thing for any random gamer dickhead to take possession of. We’ve all seen what gamers are like – would you want the world’s biggest and most important company to be controlled by them?

And it is clear from the book that it is gamers who will take the prize, since the prize is a complex series of challenges based entirely on computer games. In order to crack the puzzles one needs to be an exceptional gamer; but worse still, all the clues to the puzzles are drawn from 1980s nerd and teen pop culture, so in order to find the clues one needs to be deeply invested in such execrable crap as The Breakfast Club and Highlander. One also needs to be a genius with 1980s arcade games, possibly the worst games ever invented.

As a result of this plot device, the book is a constant pastiche of 80s references, and the characters are the kind of losers you hated in first year university, who quote Monty Python in place of social interaction, and think going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the height of cool. Worse still, the characters in this story are the worst kind of computer game winners: they may not be able to get laid or interact with actual human beings, but in the OASIS they’re unbelievably, perfectly good at everything. Worst of all is our hero Wade, who when challenged is able without any appreciable effort to get a perfect score in pacman, and wins a contest (based on a computer game) that the next best competitor took five weeks of constant striving to win. He’s also capable of hacking international corporations, quickly hacking the system to create a new identity for himself, and making leaps of intuitive faith about obscure 1980s game and video references even though he was never part of the 1980s culture and only understands these things from studying his hero. He is, of course, also stunningly good at PvP first person combat games.

In short, he (and his three colleagues) are at a Harry Potter level of unrealistic character development. Mixed with all the worst traits of the nerd world, and an urgent need to prove how smart they are. Reading about these kinds of people is annoying!

However, the challenge is also intoxicating, and the growth of the relationships between the main characters – and the challenges they face in solving the puzzle – is really compelling. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, I soon found myself really wanting them to survive and really engaged with the story. It’s a tense, tight, well-told tale with several unexpected twists and turns, and much of the setting is a range of magical or technological fantasy worlds that make it a fairly unique mix of real world and fantastic tales. The magical world much of it is set in (the OASIS) seems very unrealistic, but it’s also a stimulating and interesting vision of how the future could unfold if the technology were available. If you can put aside the constant, mostly lame, references to the 80s, and the really boring and annoying way in which the characters are almost perfect in every way relevant to their quest, it’s an exciting and enjoyable romp through a very well realized  image of the future of society’s relationship with the internet. I strongly recomend this book for gamers and those interested in visions of the future in which communication and internet technology trumps manufacturing and off-world exploration – it’s a fascinating and exciting story with an excellent ending! If you have any interest in virtual worlds, and enjoy watching ordinary people get it wrong and then somehow struggling through to get it right, then I strongly recommend this book!

 

Another perfect moment in British colonial development

Another perfect moment in British colonial development

I am in London for a week doing some research with small area analysis, and on the weekend had a brief opportunity to actually see the city. As is traditional by now on my annual trips to London, I visited the World Wildlife Photography Exhibition (which was a bit weak this year, I thought), and having a bit of time to kill wandered up the road to the Science Museum. Here I stumbled on a small and interesting exhibition entitled Churchill’s Scientists, about the people that worked with Winston Churchill before, during and after the war on various projects, and Churchill’s powerful influence on British science.

This year will see the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and you would think by now that popular culture of the victorious countries would finally have got to the point where it is able to handle a more nuanced analysis of the politics of that time than mere hagiography. It’s clear that the allied powers were uncomfortable about some of their actions during the war: the careful elision of Arthur “Bomber” Harris and his fliers from peacetime awards is an example of British squeamishness about the morality of the bomber war, but this squeamishness doesn’t seem to have manifested itself in any kind of clear critical reevaluation of the behavior of the allies at war, at least in popular culture. This silence is starting to be broken by, for example, Antony Beevor’s uncomfortable discussion of rape in Berlin, or his discussion of the treatment of collaborator women in Normandy; but it is generally absent from public discussion. Churchill’s Scientists is, sadly, another example of this careful and deliberate overlooking of the flaws of wartime leaders and their politics when presented in popular culture.

The exhibition itself is small and interesting, walking us through various aspects of the scientific endeavours of the pre-war and post-war eras. It describes the scientists who worked with Churchill, their relationship with him and the public service, and how science was conducted during the war. Churchill was very close friends with a statistician who advised him on all aspects of war endeavours, and also was very supportive of operational research, which was basically an attempt to revise wartime strategy on the basis of evidence. The achievements of these scientists given their technological limitations are quite amazing: drawing graphs by hand on graph paper to attempt to explain every aspect of the statistics and epidemiology of rationing, conducting experiments on themselves to understand the effects of low-calorie diets, and feverishly working to improve tactics and technologies that were valuable to the war. The post-war efforts were also very interesting: there is a life-size installation showing the original model of myoglobin, which was studied using x-ray crystallography and then built by hand using cane rods and beads to create the three-dimensional structure. There is a telling quote about how scientists became used to asking not “how much will it cost” but “how quickly can we get it done and what do we need?” There are also some interesting examples of how the wartime expectations of scientists translated into peacetime success: they had contacts in the ministries from their wartime work, they were used to having funds and knew how to raise money, and they had access to hugely increased resources as the ministries dumped wartime surplus in universities and research institutes. In the 1950s this translated into rapid advances in medicine, genetics, nuclear power and astronomy, all of which are documented in the exhibition.

There are, however, some political aspects that are overlooked. Currently in the UK there is an ongoing debate about whether to stop conducting the Census because it costs too much, and it is clear that since the war there has been a shift in funding priorities and a move away from the idea that science should be funded at any cost. I would have been interested to find out how this happened: did Churchill change his attitude towards funding for science or was this a post-Churchill trend? Was Churchill the last of the Great Investors? What did subsequent conservative party leaders make of his legacy and how do they talk about it? Why is it that the country that invented radar, that perfected antibiotic production, and that contributed more than any other to modern geographical statistics and demography, can no longer “afford” the census? Was the war a high point and an aberration in the history of British science funding? Did its successes distort the post-war scientific landscape and expectations? None of this is really described in the exhibition, which limits itself to Churchill’s positive legacy, and doesn’t seem to want to explore how it was undone. There is also a bit of attention paid to female scientists in Churchill’s war efforts, including women who developed X-ray crystallography and did important nutritional epidemiology research. But we know that much of the computational work done in the war and immediately after was also done by women, but they were slowly squeezed out of the industry after the war. I would have been interested in some description of what happened to all those female scientists and ancillary staff after the war – were they forced out of science the way women were forced out of factory work, or did Churchill’s support for women in science during the war permanently change the landscape for women in science? It seems clear that Watson and Crick’s work – initially sparked by x-ray images of the DNA that are shown in this exhibition – must have been built on the work of crystallography’s pioneers, who were women. But where did those women end up when the war effort wound down?

The other aspect of this exhibition that is sadly missing is a discussion of Churchill and his scientists’ darker sides. We are introduced to the exhibition through Churchill’s love of flying; the website for the exhibition quotes him talking about new technologies in aerial bombing; and the exhibition itself talks about his support for a British nuclear weapon. But nowhere in the exhibition is his enthusiasm for terror bombing discussed, nor the unsavoury way in which he developed this enthusiasm, running terror bombing campaigns against Iraqi tribespeople in the 1920s. Arthur Harris is only presented once in the exhibition, dismissing a biologist who proposed a campaign of tactical bombing of railway junctions (he “wasted his time studying the sexual proclivities of apes,” was the dismissal); but nowhere is the corollary of this position – Harris’s lust for destroying cities – mentioned, or the extensive scientific work that went into developing the best techniques for burning civilians alive. In the year that western governments will demand Japan apologize for its wartime atrocities (again!), one would think they could at least mention in an exhibition on wartime science the extensive research that went into perfecting the practice of burning Japanese civilians alive.

In case one thinks this might have been just an oversight on the part of the curators, later we see a more direct example of this careful elision, when the exhibit focuses on Britain’s post-war nuclear weapons program. Again, we have been presented with Churchill’s direct interest in blowing stuff up; here we are shown video of a nuclear test, and discussion of the research that scientists were able to do on the environmental and physical effects of the bombs. The exhibition doesn’t mention that many of these tests, conducted in Maralinga in Australia, were conducted on land that Aborigines had been expelled from and were unable to return to. It also doesn’t mention the contamination of Aboriginal customary lands, any possible harmful health effects for Aborigines living in the area, and the controversies of the Maralinga inquiries and subsequent compensation for soldiers and workers. Not even a one sentence reference.

Given that we know Churchill was a deeply racist man who supported colonialism and had no interest in the rights of non-white British, it seems hardly surprising that he might have had a slightly cavalier attitude towards ethics in research and military tactics where it was directed against Iraqi tribesmen or Australian Aborigines. It seems like 70 years after the end of the war it might be possible to start talking about this stuff honestly outside of academia, and to publicly reevaluate the legacy of men like Churchill, and many of his senior scientists, in the light of everything we know now, rather than simply portraying all their efforts through only the lens of wartime heroism. Churchill was undoubtedly a great man and a powerful leader, and the world owes him a debt of gratitude. He was also a racist and a colonialist, and some of the decisions he made before, during and after the war may not have been either right or the best decisions for the time. It also appears that despite his greatness, the legacy of his interest in science and education was soon undone, and the reasons for this are important for us to consider now. What does it say about Britain that 70 years after the end of the war it is still not possible to honestly assess Churchill’s wartime efforts but only to extol his great contribution to science; yet 70 years later his contributions to science have been so far wound back that the government is considering abolishing the Census? Does such hagiography benefit Britain, or British science? I would suggest not.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and we are going to see a lot more public discussion of the actions and contributions of the great people of that time. I fear that this discussion is going to be very shallow, and sadly empty of any attempt to critically reassess the contributions of the people involved, and how they shaped our post-war culture. This exhibition is a good example of how the war will be presented this year: stripped of moral context, all uncomfortable truths banished from discussion, and all long-term ramifications for post-war politics and culture carefully sanitized to ensure that no difficult questions are asked, or answered. Perhaps we aren’t doomed to repeat history, but I think this year at the very least we are going to be bored stiff by it.

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Today’s Guardian has an article on the UK Conservative Party’s “minority problem”: it’s inability to get a decent vote share from non-white British citizens. The article seems to be quite neutral on the issue of the Tory’s appeal and electoral strategies, at times even appearing to be pasting text from a Conservative pollster (at times the voice changes, and it seems to have a slightly different perspective to the main thrust of the article, as if text had been copied from an email).  The key problem for the Tories is that they just don’t seem to be able to muster a decent representation amongst minorities, which in the UK primarily means British of black or South Asian descent, and are being outpolled by Labour at a cracking rate (16% vs. 68% according to a quoted survey). Now that they’re in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats the Tories are starting to realize that even a small improvement in minority vote could have saved them a world of trouble, and as is often the case that huge gap seems like it should be easy pickings. So what is going wrong? The article describes a series of problems which bear more on the party’s image and past representation of its identity, rather than on anything about its current policy content, and I think the problems they face – and the solutions they have begun to recognize as important – are in many ways analagous to the problem of getting more women to participate in role-playing. The ultimate end point for the Tories if they fail to up this vote is also similar to that facing gaming if it doesn’t diversify its appeal: obscurity and insularity.

The problem the Tories have identified is a really frustrating one: a large proportion of minority voters identify with their policy but just won’t vote for the party. They like the content, but are put off by what’s on the box, and by the people they historically associate with the scene. The article sites studies that found

while better-off white people were significantly more likely to vote Conservative than their less wealthy counterparts, the same was not true for non-whites. That is despite the fact that minority groups were more right wing than the majority on the key issue of tax and spend.

and also identified non-white British as naturally inclined to Tory policy:

high-income people, politically on the right, who want a smaller government (and a tough stance on crime and immigration according to other studies) are still much less likely to vote Tory if they are non-white. Whatever the offer, they simply think this is not a party for people like them [emphasis mine].

Basically the problem is not the policies of the party, or some lack of alignment on fundamental shared goals: it is that the party itself turns them off. There’s something wrong, to the extent that one study even found

even when people support an idea (many minorities take a tough stance on immigration for example), finding out it is a Tory policy puts them off

This is a sign that the problem is the way they perceive the party, both presently and as a party with a political past. It’s not difficult to find examples of why minorities might be uncomfortable with the Tories, such as this election slogan from 1964:

If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour

I guess the person who coined that slogan didn’t think about the effect it would have 30 years or 50 years later, but a slogan like that kind of echoes down the ages, doesn’t it? The studies cited found other problems too: the “go home” anti-immigrant buses, historic support for apartheid, and the author cites her own discomfort at the claim that “multiculturalism has failed.” The posturing on Europe probably also looks different to groups of people who are more suspicious of the xenophobic direction of politics than are mainstream voters – these dog whistles aren’t heard just by the dogs, but also by their prey, and there’s a lot of bad faith that the Tories have to ask potential minority voters to overlook. They were, after all, going to be the blood on the streets in 1964 …

These challenges facing the Tory party are an interesting mirror of one of the main strands of debate about how to engage women in role-playing, and particularly whether the behavior of men in gaming spaces, and the representation of women in gaming, might be part of the problem. I have argued before that the reason that care in representation of women is important is not that they care about seeing tits-and-arse for its own sake, but that images of lingerie-clad sex dolls with chain mail panties mark out the hobby as a male-only space. They serve the role of girly calendars in a workshop, to make women feel like they are intruding in a male space. These tits-and-arse pictures are the “nigger for a neighbour” campaign slogan of gaming. Alongside them comes the behavior of gamer men – the BO problems, the staring, the rampant mansplaining (fuck, gaming must be the only hobby where socially maladjusted dudes mansplain to other men, like alphasplaining or something), and all of this wrapped up in a nice package in which the men in the hobby are aging as a cohort. And on top of that the rape humour, rape games, and barely-suppressed sexual violence of some products. It’s not that women don’t mind a bit of sexual violence in entertainment (hey, GoT is very popular with chicks!) or tits-n-arse (women like to perve on men just as much as men do on women), and everyone who is an adult has learnt to suffer through BO problems (except the sufferers, apparently); it’s the combination of these things as representative face of the hobby that makes women back away smiling. For a long time the hobby (and the world of nerd-dom generally) has made it uncool and uncomfortable for women to be gamers. Even though they might like the content of the games, and be perfectly comfortable with (or even into) the idea of scantily-clad heroes hacking away at orcs, they simply think this is not a party for people like them.

We’re like the conservative party of hobby-space.

The solution has not come rapidly to the gaming community – certainly in past posts on the topic here, and threads I read elsewhere, I get the sense that male gamers often don’t care about women joining their groups, are actively opposed to it, think that changing the way women are represented and written about is “political correctness” or “suppression of artistic freedom,” or think that these aspects of the hobby are a fixed thing like descending armour class, and that the only people who we care to let into the hobby are people who accept these things. This misses the representational issues and the issue of boys’ club mentality, and it means acting as if the preferences of the boys in the group are not actually malleable preferences, but god-given fixed parts of the environment. Just as the Tories have taken the assumption that the only minorities they want in their club are black men and women who are somehow comfortable with a party that until recently publicly called them “niggers.” Because you know, that’s just how it was back then. Now that the Tories have worked out that they’re heading into very difficult times if they don’t start to reach out to a group that constitutes 14% of the population, they’re working first and foremost on those representational issues, and then on trying to show they’re honest about opening up policy to minorities, to try and overcome that sticky sense of bad history that keeps the party glued to the spot.

But hey, the Tories did well: they only ignored 14% of the population. For most of its history the RPG industry has overlooked 50% of the population …

Some people I know think it doesn’t matter – we’re just a hobby after all and there are lots of other things women can do. But I think that the problem is bigger than that. We are aging as a cohort, with only a small number of people joining us, and the kinds of representational issues that keep women from joining us also make non-nerdy men suspicious of us. If we continue to age with only small numbers of (male) newcomers, as a market we will get smaller, with an associated decline in diversity and quality of products available to us. We will stagnate. This is the fate facing the Republicans in the USA, who also have a minority problem but face structural problems in coming to terms with it, and can’t find a way out of this bind of shrinking into obscurity[1]. We don’t need to be like that, and I think some of the more modern game companies have realized that. I read on YDIS that D&D 5th Edition has a wider range of non-white figures in art, and less sexploitation art; games like Malifaux and World of Darkness, while often rooted in an overly gothic and sub-cultural aesthetic, have at least tried to diversify the way they represent women in both art and game terms. I think Ars Magica was the first game I ever read that regularly had female characters as examples, female players as examples, and switched between male and female pronouns in text. These are small things but it’s these representational issues which first and foremost, I think, signify to women that they aren’t welcome. It’s small steps, but if the UK conservative party can do it, surely we can too?

 

fn1: Spit-flecked obscurity, so there is that …

… Because they are so much more Dudalicious. In honour of the David Gilmour (not the guitarist!) school of teaching, from now on I will only use statistical techniques designed by men. Sure, I could use Generalized Linear Latent and Mixed Models (GLLAMM), but just listen to the name of the damned thing. It’s like the Jane Austen of stats, and unsurprisingly it was developed by a woman (Sophia Rabe-Hasketh). Hardin and Hilbe just had a much more indefinably cool … manliness … about them, so I think for clustered binomial or count data I’ll just wing it with Generalized Estimating Equations. Luckily I don’t do much in the way of RCTs, because the classic text on experimental design by Cochran and Cox is half-authored by a woman – I can’t tell which bit she wrote so I’ll just have to dump the lot to be sure. This could be a bit tricky, because that stuff is pretty fundamental to how we think about efficiency in experimental design. No problem really, though, I’ll just make sure I apply for bigger grants and recruit more subjects. Typical of a woman to write a book about how to be thrifty with sample sizes really, isn’t it? Real men just recruit more subjects.

David Gilmour also doesn’t like Chinese authors, so if I’m going to follow his approach I’ll probably have to drop any adjustment for probability sampling, since a lot of the development work for those methods was conducted by Indians after independence. That shouldn’t be too bad because there are still some low-grade journals that let you publish without adjusting for your sampling process. Of course, to be sure I think I should develop a few stock phrases to deploy in explanation of why I’m avoiding certain methods:

Although region-level variables were available, they were not incorporated in this analysis because the methods required were developed by a woman

or

To avoid feminization of statistics, the clustering effects of school and classroom were not adjusted for in this analysis

and maybe

Probability weights were not incorporated into the analysis, because that method was developed by Indians

I’m sure the peer reviewers will appreciate that, but just to be sure I’ll be sure to specify in all submissions that I not be reviewed by women. That should cover it.

Now, some of you might suggest that I should just relax and use all the techniques available to me, or at least not go through the canon with a fine-toothed comb checking the gender of every contributor – I mean, couldn’t I just drop the techniques only if I find out that they were written by a woman, without active screening? A kind of passive case-finding approach, if you will (but can I employ case-finding – it may have been invented by a woman. I should check that!) But this is not how the David Gilmour school works. You have to assess your authors first and foremost on their cool manliness:

Chekhov was the coolest guy in literature. I really think so. There’s a few volumes of his there, what a great looking guy. He is the coolest guy in literature; everyone who ever met Chekhov somehow felt that they should jack their behaviour up to a higher degree.

And really, when you look at the kinds of canon that are taught in English at high schools and first year uni courses, it is quite often the case that they are all (or almost all) male. Every statistician knows that those kinds of imbalances in a sample don’t happen by accident – that’s a deliberate selection bias. If it’s good enough for dudely English teachers it’s good enough for me, so I think from now on I should screen out any beastly feminized stats. Sure, you can’t get into any half-decent journals if you can’t use GLLAMM and good experimental design, but I say hell to that. It’s time to fight back! Men-only stats for the win!

In case anyone thinks I’m being serious[1], there’s been something of a storm of controversy about this David Gilmour chap, and I think you can see how stupid his approach is if you imagine trying it in a technical field. Stats being part of maths, it has its fair share of chick lit, but it is still male dominated; nonetheless, if you screen out the main work done by women, you suddenly lose a huge range of tools and techniques that are essential to the modern statistician. Surely the same applies in English literature, but moreso given the huge role women played in the development of the novel. Check this Crooked Timber thread for more entertaining take-downs of this position (with some prime grade Troll Meat thrown in the mix). It really is outstanding on so many levels that a literature teacher would judge who to teach in such a juvenile Boys Own Manual way; that they would take their responsibilities so lightly as to think that their sole task was to teach students their own opinion rather than … something useful … and that they would not try to hide it behind some more mealy-mouthed apologia. I mean really, there are a lot of very good female writers in the last two centuries and yet people like this David Gilmour chap manage to construct a syllabus without a single woman in it. Usually their argument would be along the lines of “I judge on merit” but you do have to wonder, don’t you? And then along comes a naif like Gilmour and makes it completely clear how these canons are really constructed – the women are screened out from the get go.

fn1: I really hope not, but this is the internet.

Is it just me, or has the Guardian embarked on a project of excessive tastelessness[1]? In the last two days they have shown video footage of 17 people dying in a hot air balloon (apparently you can see people jumping to their deaths) and of a man being dragged to his death by a South African police van. WTF? I don’t want to watch people die. I was always of the understanding that snuff videos were an urban myth. Call me crazy, but I don’t think media outlets should be showing footage of real people dying. I don’t want my death to be on film, and I don’t want to watch you die. Maybe occasionally there is some social value to watching you die, but in general I think your death should be something kept between you, your family and your god or gods.

I remember years ago some stupid American politician shot himself in the face in front of the media, and pretty much every Australian TV station chose not to play it. I recall one station even had a statement about why they “censored” the sight of a man blowing his brains out. What has happened in the intervening years that grainy footage of some holiday-makers having an otherwise great day ruined by their horrible fiery deaths has become news? Why do I need to see some kid in South Africa being murdered?

I think I can chalk this up as another example of how journalists and the media generally are losing track of reality. But let me say this: to the best extent that I can, I will try to avoid watching you die. Obviously, some stupid media may trick me into watching their horrid snuff films, but if I have any say over the matter, I will not watch you die.

I’m sure that will make you feel better when you do.

fn1: Obviously for a lot of people this has been a rhetorical question for a very, very long time now.

The Shaikh would not approve!

The Shaikh would not approve!

I discovered tonight that my blog has come to the attention of a Muslim scholar in the UK, in a piece he wrote about the UK census. Like me, this scholar noted the obssessive focus of the UK press on the growth of Islam, rather than the explosion of atheism[1]. Unlike me, the writer of this piece didn’t comment on the simultaneous release of gay marriage laws that privilege the bigotry of the mainstream churches. I wonder why?

Anyway, in previous posts here I have presented the use of Tolkien by fascists as evidence in favour of my thesis that his work is racist. So it’s only fair that I hoist myself on my own petard, and have a look at what kind of people hold my work in high esteem[2]. If we can find even one work by this website that supports the veil, then surely I’m anti bikini? Right?

Fortunately, the Islam21c website gives a convenient collection of all the works of the scholar in question, Shaikh Haitham Al-Haddad, so we can read his opinions in full, and an interesting read they are. Essentially they read like your standard form of leftist religiosity, with perhaps a touch more homophobia and prostration than one might see of a Catholic liberation theologist, but generally in the same vein – they’re the sort of thing that a mainstream leftist christian in America would probably approve of (minus the “peace be upon him”s) or that a conservative Australian catholic unionist (or even Tony Abbott) could get behind. They also have a particular theme that you won’t find in the works of a “mainstream” religious activist in the UK – how to deal with being a Muslim in Britain. And in this regard they don’t read particularly differently to the opinions of a practical Marxist or fascist, in that they attempt to provide guidelines for how to conduct oneself in a world that one simultaneously appreciates and enjoys, but finds morally bankrupt and which (to a greater or lesser extent depending on one’s political and religious leanings) rejects you or your kind. Thus we find advice on whether or not to vote (do so, but do so from a framework of minimizing evil, and aim to follow the advice of Muslim scholars about which party to vote for); advice about how to respond to the killing of bin Laden (which, funnily enough, contains no advice; but condemns al Qaeda while blaming everything on America); an opinion on the London riots (morally reprehensible, but driven by racism and the exclusion of the poor from education[4]); and recommendations about banking practice (if you hold views which require a boycott, as do e.g. vegetarians or environmentalists, then you need people to gather information and present their opinion of whether particular products are valid to use[3]). Every gold card should have a fatwa!

More interesting is the site’s attempts to describe the nature of the hijab (voluntary, but recommended to all), the issue of immodest hijabs (yes, they exist!) and the problems inherent in treating the hijab as a symbol of identity rather than an act of worship (I actually thought these readings would put many a post-structuralist feminist to shame); and most interestingly, its ongoing series of posts on what it means to be British in an Islamic context, built around a debate with another Islamic scholar about the role of music (very appropriate, given the strength of British culture in the production of music). Would that mainstream journalists in the UK could put as much thought into these issues as this obscure website has done! In this context I thought the open letter to David Cameron was particularly impressive.

Although I think I can say I disagree with almost everything on this site, I think I understand the fundamental struggle it describes: to try to live according to a strict set of moral precepts in a world that doesn’t agree with them, or that agrees with them in principle but doesn’t support them practically. You can see this from christian fundamentalists, vegans, pacifists and some kinds of Marxists and libertarians, and the personal struggles their websites describe are all the same. Unlike some christians in the west, though, this site is more honest: it directly blames the Japanese tsunami on a failure to embrace the correct God – a view this tired atheist would have once got angry about, but now appreciates for its cruel honesty. The more times that religious people say things like this, the more potential followers they will lose, because in statements like this they reveal the fundamental cruelty of the god they claim loves them, and the responsibility of all right thinking people everywhere to oppose those gods if they were real. Anyone who submits to a god that kills 10,000 people even though they have never had a chance to convert to his “love” is lacking some fundamental understanding of what compassion is. Or is being very bloody-minded. Either way, it’s better that these things are stated openly than clothed in mealy-mouthed excuses about “the problem of evil.”

Anyway, the post-colonial critique of mainstream analyses of Islam was good, as was the debate about what it means to be British, and the subjugation of nationalism to the greater struggle – very much in keeping with the major streams of international socialist thought. Shame about the hocus-pocus, but you can’t have everything – but who cares when you can hoist faustusnotes on his own petard, and prove without a shadow of a doubt that my website is opposed to bikinis!? And, no doubt, objectively pro-terrorist …

fn1: incidentally, my spell-checker notes that “Islam” requires a capital “I” whereas “atheism” does not need a capital. Typing here, I also note that “Christianity” requires a capital “C”. I think this is bullshit. I think in all future posts, I will capitalize the “A” in “Atheism.”

fn2: my claiming that this islam21c blog holds me in high esteem might be stretching it a bit, but we don’t get a great many hits around here, so please go easy on me.

fn3: In Australia, vegans generally told each other that Toohey’s Red and Coopers were safe beers to drink

fn4: but your average rioter probably doesn’t want to assume this means they receive any sympathy – if our friendly shaikh had his way, they’d be getting a hand amputated!

« Previous PageNext Page »