Reviews


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

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

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

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

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

Two kinds of colonialism

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

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

The proto-fascist structure of colonial states

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

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

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

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

The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muggle-Indigenous parallel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extermination and the threat of muggle technology

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

The moral implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


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


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

Grindelwald apologizes for his crimes

On the plane back from Bangladesh I made the mistake of watching The Crimes of Grindelwald, the latest instalment in Rowling’s exploration of the Potter universe. In this sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Grindelwald has escaped from imprisonment by the wizards in the USA and headed off to Europe to find Credence and begin to rouse a following of wizards who will help him achieve his goals. We follow Newt Scamander, Tina, Queenie and Jacob as they attempt to head off Grindelwald and stop him doing whatever he is trying to do.

I cannot give much more of a review of the movie than that because to be honest I didn’t have a clue what was going on in this messy and confusing story, and I was too incensed by a few details of the movie to care too much about the story anyway. What is Johnny Depp doing in this thing? Quite apart from the fact of recent revelations about his personal life, he is well past his use-by date and should be taken out the back of the studios and quietly put out of his misery. To be fair his performance as Grindelwald is better than pretty much anything else he has done in a long time, but this simply means it could have been replaced with pretty much anyone else. But I persevered! Only to find that fat ugly stupid boring Jacob gets his girl, because while in Hollywood every woman has to be stunningly good looking and have a flawless body and perfect make up and clothes, any fat dude in an ill-fitting suit with the personality of a wet blanket can pull any hot chick. There’s hope for you yet, Homer Simpsons of the world! Also, what happened to the sweet and happy Queenie of the first movie, that she makes a sudden Luke Skywalker-esque zig zag to amoral monster in the beat of an eye? Why can’t modern movie-makers figure this simple shit out? Or at least give us some hint of the change in personality that a much-loved character is going to undergo, so we can at least try and understand it[1]? So having overlooked Queenie’s monstrous change, I am left none the wiser as to what Grindelwald is really trying to do or in fact what his actual crimes are. Has he killed anyone yet? Has he actually done anything? Also, what’s with the incredibly complex and twisted family tale involving baby-swapping on the Titanic? Does everything have to have these super complicated antecedents? Can’t Credence just be, well, Credence? Does he have to be someone important? Is it something weird about Americans that everybody in their movies has to be a fucking Kardashian? Heaven forbid that a powerful wizard should just be an ordinary orphan boy (or worse still, a girl!) with nothing to recommend them except their own innate character and talent! Not that anyone in this putrid sequel had any character … even Scamander was a second-rate version of himself from the previous movie, and Tina and Queenie had lost all of the ethereal beauty and charm they had in the first episode.

So, really, this movie had nothing to recommend it overall and is a good reminder of why I skipped most of the Harry Potter movies. But it offers us a fascinating case study in the problem I identified in my review of Fantastic Beasts: This world we are watching is fucked up, and the sooner the Muggles burn it all down, hoist every wizard on a lamppost, and rid the world of their evil, the better. In my review of the first movie I noted that the magical administration seems to have brainwashed its participants and is cool with summary execution, and I also noted that there is a big inequality between muggles and wizards, that the wizards know about and are doing nothing to stop. In this movie the fascism of the wizards becomes even clearer. In addition to the summary executions of the first episode, we now learn that the administration has complete control of your travel rights and a wizard who travels without permission from the administration gets locked in Azkaban for life; we see that they have a well-organized and extensive secret police; we see that they have surveillance and control measures that they can apply even to famous intellectuals (i.e. Dumbledore) with impunity; and we see no semblance of due process for any of this. We also discover that they have strict anti-miscegenation laws – no one is allowed to love a muggle, and the punishment is terrible. Finally we learn that a lot of them think of muggles as inferior and not human, and want to exterminate all of them. Or, in the case of Grindelwald, exterminate most of them but keep a few around as cattle. So basically the wizards are running a parallel world to the muggles that is much much wealthier than the muggle world, could intervene at any time to make the muggle world much wealthier, healthier and better developed, but doesn’t want to and maintains a strict fascist administration that murders and imprisons anyone who opposes it or tries to help the muggles in any way. Dumbledore is in on the whole thing, and even people who break the rules (like Scamander) don’t do so out of any deep dislike of the system – they just break the rules because they want to have a fling in Paris with their American girlfriend.

Nice people all round.

We also get to see that Grindelwald has seen the future and has seen that in a couple of years the muggles are going to go to war and develop new weapons (nuclear weapons and aircraft) that will make wizards look like chickenshit, and his proposed solution to this problem is the mass extermination of all muggles. When he reveals this information to his followers they gasp in horror at the “arrogance” of the muggles in developing such weapons. Nobody seems to put any thought into the possibility that the muggles wouldn’t have to lift a finger to produce anything like nuclear weapons if the wizards would just share their power to breach the laws of thermodynamics with those who are not lucky enough to be born magical. But such a solution would be a step too far – why would they share their wealth with inferior muggles when it’s much more logical just to wipe them out?

Also why am I watching this movie about a couple of servants of a fascist organization (Tina and Scamander) who are working hard to prevent a radical fascist splinter group of their fascist organization from enacting a global program of genocide to stop a movement of non-magical fascists who share exactly the same principles as they do? It’s fascists all the way down. It seems like the only way that this series could turn a moral corner is if we discover that actually Stalin was industrializing the Soviet Union for the sole purpose of exterminating wizards, the real enemies of global prosperity[2]. By the end of this I was cheering for everyone to kill themselves.

So that’s the problem with this movie: everyone in it needs to die. But the movie does give us something of an insight into how confused Americans (I guess; and Rowling, who is British) are getting about fascism. Grindelwald’s organization had obviously Nazi imagery – his thuggish aides wore obviously Nazi style clothes, he himself is suspiciously German, etc. – and his goal of exterminating all the untermenschen[3] is explicitly Nazi. But the organization he is in opposition to is also a straight-up fascist dictatorship, with far-reaching powers of surveillance and secret investigation, enamoured of torture and extra-judicial killings, who control every aspect of their citizens lives. And the organization he is ultimately scared of and trying to stop is also a Nazi organization[4], which will attempt to do all the things he and his opponents in the wizarding world want to do. Yet, the placement of heroes and villains in this movie in the traditional sense tells me that I’m supposed to be supporting one side in opposition to the other, which means I’m supposed to be supporting fascists who are trying to stop some splinter fascists from fighting some fascists. This is both terrible story-writing and also a sign that modern writers have lost their ability to understand Who are the Real Fascists. Usually stories about people opposed to fascists involve brave, good people who generally stand on the side of freedom and liberty – not Other Fascists. So either the writers have got a really vicious sting in the tail of this trilogy, or the writers have some kind of grimdark vision in which we all side with the fascists, or the writers have not got a fucking clue what a fascist is, and are so unmoored from a basic understanding of politics that they can’t any longer tell the difference between Fascists and Anti-Fascists. There are, we are led to believe, good people on both sides! Or at least on one side, which is a significant advance on “there were no good people on either side”, which was (I would have thought) the standard view of fascists fighting fascists until relatively recently.

My inference from all this is that the people writing this movie actually want us to pick a side, and just haven’t noticed that the side we’re supposed to pick is actually a fascist world government that executes people on a whim and imprisons you for life in a hellish prison with soul-eating demons if you have the wrong boarding pass. The writers are so politically ignorant that they don’t understand the difference between fascism and freedom, and/or are so used by now to the creeping fascism overwhelming their nation that they haven’t noticed that the things the magical administration does are deeply wrong. This is consistent with a lot of other warning signs we’re seeing coming from America at the moment: the fact that Elliot Abrams was defended by almost everyone in “serious” political journalism when a politician pointed out his history of treason and lying to congress; the fact that so many movies now have the good guys using torture and summary execution without any moral qualms; the fact that 23 Republican congressmen can vote against a resolution opposing hate because hate is now cool. I could go on. The moral collapse in the US (and the UK?) is now so far gone that the people who produce its propaganda can no longer tell the difference between themselves and the things that their nation once fought. And so it is that we get subjected to movies like The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we are asked to pick a side when all the sides need to die in a fire.

The only pure people in Rowling’s world are the muggles. They need to rise up and destroy the wizards, or at least enslave them, before the wizards try to exterminate everyone on earth. If we’re lucky that will be the sting in the tail of the final movie, but I doubt it. More likely, we’ll be cheering the fascist government as it beats its fascist splinter movement, and then stands back to watch as fascists burn Europe to ashes. And somewhere along the way the writers will assume that we have lost our own moral code, so that we think this hell makes moral sense. I never thought I would have to say this, but I think the fascists have won.


Other reviews you might be interested in

Why the Last Jedi is shit.

The problems underlying Rowling’s world.

Why Avengers: Infinity War is a bullying disaster.

Mad Max: Fury Road as a perfect political vision of ecofeminist violence.

 


fn1: Also a shout-out here to the way Rowling pissed away one of the fundamental parts of Voldemort’s back story with the Queenie-Jacob shenanigans. Apparently Voldemort is evil because he is the child of a union that was forced by love magic, and that’s why he’s a psychopath who doesn’t understand love. This is a super important message from the original books! So in this movie we see Queenie rock up with Jacob under the exact same spell, and it is just a passing gag, nothing serious, no reflection on her personality or on the nature of wizards. These moments – like the newfound hyperspace killer trick in Star Wars: The Last Jedi – undermine the seriousness and impact of whole story arcs in previous canon, and are a really fucking stupid thing to do.

fn2: I guess there’s another bridge-too-far story in which Hitler set up the Nazi Party as a movement dedicated to the destruction of wizards, but somewhere along the way the wizards used mind control powers to change its platform into exterminating other muggles instead, thus avoiding being identified as the real threat facing the world, and accidentally sparking the holocaust as a by-blow of their plan. This might seem tasteless, but what are the alternatives when you have fallen down the rabbit hole into a world where you are supporting fascists in their fight against splinter fascists who want to kill other fascists they consider inferior? It’s a kaleidoscope of fascists down here.

fn3: Sorry I don’t know the German word for “magically unendowed and therefore subhuman subhumans”

fn4: It could be said that because he and his little nazi mates are scared of nuclear weapons that they aren’t just opposed to Nazi Germany but to the technological achievements of all of muggledom, but we all know that this would be a weak excuse since the Nazis are blamed for world war 2 and when any movie hero or villain says that they’re trying to stop ww2 we assume that they are trying to stop the Nazis, not the Allies, because it’s the Nazis who started the war. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his primary enemy in muggledom are the Nazis.

Dhaka by night

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

Dhaka city centre, with metro works (I think)

The Elephant Man

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

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

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

The Sand Gang in action

The Sand Gang

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

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

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

Dhaka traffic comes to the bazar

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

Libertarian dreams

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


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

It’s just not cricket …

It’s that time of the year again, and the newspapers are full of reports about the Superbowl. Vox has been flooded with articles about why we hate the Patriots or why players keep getting bigger, and everyone is expected to have an opinion on this sport. Apparently this year’s effort was extra boring, and the half-time adverts were crap, and the Maroon 5 dude revealed that he has a tattoo in Times New Roman font[1]. This year I didn’t bother with this whole thing, because I have tried to get into American Football and I just simply cannot. I have tried, and I just can’t really enjoy it.

This is a bit of a surprise to me, because I can enjoy most sports if I understand them. Indeed, I put in a bit of effort over the past two years to learn the rules of NFL, I spent time watching matches (which are broadcast live here in Japan if you have cable tv, and which on replay are stripped of adverts and quite easy to watch), I put a bit of effort into studying some of the rules and trying to figure out what was going on. It’s my view that the single biggest reason most people don’t enjoy most sports is that they simply don’t know the rules, and that if a sport is played well by elite athletes and you understand the rules you will probably enjoy it. So I was surprised when I tried to learn the rules of NFL and I still found it simply unenjoyable. I have tried to find reports from others about why they don’t enjoy NFL, but there are precious few, or they are reports like this one that don’t really seem to explain the game’s problems. So I thought I would write a post about why I can’t get into NFL. Perhaps someone will comment to give their own opinion, or to explain why I’m wrong (nicely, I hope!) or perhaps not, but here I would like to outline some of my reasons.

Here I am not going to waste time talking about the many political problems of the NFL – the blackouts, the teams’ insatiable demands for government money, the racist team names, the fact that college football players aren’t paid, the disgraceful treatment of cheerleaders, the concussion scandals, the awful mismanagement of the knee issue or the blatant disgusting militarization of the whole thing – which are well known and are a good reason to boycott it on principle, but not an explanation for why the game itself is simply not enjoyable. I also don’t intend to talk about this as “my favourite sport is better than yours” or to suggest that NFL players aren’t great athletes or that rugby dudes are tougher than NFL dudes or anything silly like that. I thought I should like NFL – I like ball sports with heavy contact, I approve of violent sport, and I like watching men smash each other, and I enjoy most other ball sports when I watch them – but I don’t enjoy it. I also don’t intend to tell people what sports they shouldn’t like, or laugh at people for watching weird shit – if you like snooker or darts or curling that’s all cool and not my business – but I wanted to try and pin down why I don’t enjoy NFL, and see what other people have to say about that. For the record, my favourite sports in approximate order would be kickboxing/MMA/boxing, rugby, high quality English premier league soccer, AFL, some olympic-level sports, lower quality soccer, and then a bunch of other stuff in no particular order. I’m not anti-sport, and I’m not opposed to violent sport (I thoroughly oppose any efforts to ban boxing, for example, on pure civil liberties grounds). I also have done kickboxing (and other martial arts) for 25 years, fought in an amateur fight once, and enjoy regular training with rough men. I’m not squeamish about violent sport. So, here are my reasons, in no particular order.

  • The weird stops and starts: I really cannot get used to the strange way the game stops, waits, everyone changes, and then it restarts. It doesn’t feel like sport to me, and it all feels strangely pre-determined. It feels more like work than sport. I just can’t get into the pre-organized changing of sides and ordering of attack and defense. Weird, given I am into turn-based combat in RPGs, but there you go.
  • The lack of ebb and flow: This is a big one for me and I think the single biggest spoiler. When the QB gets sacked or a pass is incomplete the game just … stops. No one fights for the ball, there is very rarely a change in direction of the attack, and it seems impossible that the flow of the game would change several times. When you watch soccer or rugby there is a constant shift and flow of possession, attack and defense, and no reprieve for either team when they have or don’t have the ball. If an NFL team is defending at 4th and goal, there is no sense in which they are under the cosh as they would be in a concerted soccer or rugby attack – they just have to foil one more play and then they are guaranteed the ball. Worse still, the attacking team don’t need to worry about the possibility that a pass will be interrupted or that they will miss the pass, because there is no penalty for this in the flow of the game. The only way the flow changes is if someone intercepts and catches the ball or a player straight drops it and the opposition scoop it up. This gives the game a really dead flavour. Nobody is risking anything, nobody is pressed, strategy isn’t built on what-ifs. So many times you get the 5th play and the team brings on a whole different set of players to punt, because there is this regular process that doesn’t change, shift or move around. It’s weird and I cannot think of any other sport except perhaps cricket which is so completely lacking in these sudden shifts of play.
  • The weird timing: There is something really strange about the way that time is calculated in NFL, as if time were not a thing at all. Teams have time-outs during which they keep playing, a one hour game seems to take 3 hours to play, the last 5 minutes just goes on forever, and every player has to be insanely careful about the implications for timing of e.g. an incomplete pass vs. being pushed out of bounds. I appreciate that rules are rules but why do there have to be so many weird and complex ways of simply keeping track of time? In any other game it’s simple: time passes at its usual rate until the game is over, and injuries are handled either by stopping the clock when they happen or adding time on. I don’t understand why there have to be so many weird ways of keeping track of time.
  • The strangely hypocritical rules: The weird timing brings me to the most frustrating thing I have ever witnessed in sport – a player being penalized for throwing a ball down in frustration and wasting 3 seconds of time, right before the game cuts to 2 minutes of adverts. What is going on with that? Why is time-wasting punished harshly in a game that takes 3 hours to play an hour’s football? Similarly, why is it a terrible offense to touch someone’s helmet but completely cool to hit them with a head-high tackle that is guaranteed to cause serious injury? It’s so pernickety, so finnicky, and so arbitrary.
  • The enormously complex rules: Most games have a simple set of penalties for all infringements, with at most two levels of escalation to deal with more serious incidents. But NFL has this intense system of penalties which involve decisions about whether to reset the downs and whether to penalize with distance, and seem to have an enormously complex set of rules that can be broken. It also seems in comparison to other games to have a lot of indecipherable decision points about basic aspects of basic gameplay, such as what constitutes a catch or pass interference. Every game has ambiguities and inconsistencies, but NFL seems to be consistent only in its ambiguities and complexity. It can be frustrating watching rugby and having to depend heavily on the referee’s judgment, but this pales to insignificance compared to the opacity of referee decisions in NFL.
  • The action is everywhere at once: When a play starts there is action happening all across the line and further downfield, and it’s very hard to follow all of it. I think this also means that in every play there are multiple infractions and it’s just luck if the referees see them. This is fine if complexity is your thing but it’s a uniquely weird experience that this is a ballgame yet almost all the action is off the ball.
  • The messy sideline situation: It really weirds me out that for the whole game there is this unruly mob of random people standing all along the sideline. Hundreds of people just shuffling around doing their thing. It’s so messy and weird. Every other ballgame has allocated places – a bunker or a coach’s area or something – but in NFL everyone is standing right down by the sideline crowding the game and just being messy. I guess it’s necessary because of the constant substitutions and changes of team (and we wouldn’t want to waste time!!!) but it’s just weird to me, like a pitch invasion is constantly being threatened.
  • The specialization: Every game has its specialist players but the level of specialization in NFL seems extreme, and not really much fun to watch. Vox tells me this wasn’t always the case, and that when substitutions were allowed more freely this led to the growth of specialization. It’s particularly focused on the quarterback, and I have never seen a game as focused on a single position as NFL. I guess this is a nice analogy for America’s political system, which is obsessively focused on the actions of one man, and I think it’s just as frustrating in sport as in politics. What kind of team game boils down to the decisions of one man? A weird one.
  • The weird camp machismo: I know it’s a bit of a cliche to say this but NFL players are really really camp, and it’s weird that Americans think they look super macho. I recall watching an interlude in a Japanese broadcast[2], and the American review was focused on some player from some team and talking about how incredibly tough and powerful he is. While the narrator was going on about this the camera was doing a slow-motion reel of this dude walking along, helmet in hand, with aggressive and threatening music playing. It was all a big and theatrical build-up to describe how aggressive and manly this dude was. The dude in question was walking slowly along the sideline with his shirt rolled up and tucked into his chest armour, showing off his powerful abs. So basically this super macho dude was walking along in spandex tights and a midriff top, and I’m meant to think that this is tough and not camp. It just doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong, I know these guys are hard as nails, but what is wrong with Americans that they confuse camp and macho? You see the same thing in WWE, which is outrageously camp, and in super hero movies, which are wall-to-wall spandex and glowsticks. I guess there’s a reason that the players have to wear tight spandex tights with gussets, and have a towel hanging out of their back pocket that makes them look like a glistening furry or something, but I don’t know what that reason is and I suspect I wouldn’t be convinced even if it were explained to me. I just can’t get into the American vision of macho, and I think there’s a deep cultural insight somewhere in the fact that a country whose politics is steeped in misogyny and homophobia has so much difficulty distinguishing between camp and macho.
  • It’s dangerous by design: As I said, I’m into violent sports, but I’m not into sport that is designed to damage its participants. Even boxing has limits on the amount of damage its players are allowed to sustain. But much of NFL seems to be designed to damage the players, or specifically allows tactics that are at their most effective when designed to hurt. The bit where the linesmen crash into each other is obviously dangerous by design, but also the complete lack of any sanction for head-high tackles and neck grips means that players are rewarded for injuring each other. With players getting bigger and stronger every year, and no limit on their strength due to exhaustion as the game wears on, it’s inevitable that people will be seriously injured as a necessary consequence of playing the game. This is particularly shit if you’re a college football player who isn’t even getting minimum wage for your work, you’re betting your whole economic future on making it to the next tier, and then the game fucks you up because that is what the game is designed to do. Most sports have a pretty sharp pyramid shape and most people fall by the wayside and never make it to the top, but to be wrecked before you get anywhere good because that is what the game is designed to do isn’t very fair. Other games have introduced specific systems or rule changes to minimize the risk to players, without necessarily changing the overall level of violence or aggression, but NFL seems uniquely unwilling to do this. There’s a limit to how much I can enjoy a sport I know is designed to ruin its participants, and there are so many moments when the dangerous acts are gratuitous. It’s possible that NFL, being dangerous by design, can’t be changed, but in that case it will likely die as American parents forbid their kids from playing it. I won’t miss it if it does.
  • There’s no endurance penalty: In rugby and soccer players have to play for the full length of the game, which means that they have to balance the energy they put into individual plays against the need to go the distance. This is a natural part of any competitive system in nature. But in NFL the constant switches of teams mean that players don’t have to balance these things, and don’t get exhausted near the end as far as I can tell. This takes a lot of tension out of the game, and also eliminates one form of extreme effort from the enjoyment of the game. Particularly in rugby and boxing the last 10 minutes are a test of endurance and will as much as anything else, and losing teams have the chance to win something back by ruthlessly capitalizing on mistakes that happen when people are exhausted. The game also has a natural sense of having run its course, as the players are completely done for at the end, rather than having come to a bitter end because a weird unbalanced and unnatural clock finally reached 0. I also don’t really feel like I’m there alongside the players when they aren’t even sweating. It makes all the drama seem manufactured and culturally mandated rather than arising from the game, an impression that is simply reinforced by the injection of high drama through the narrative efforts of the announcers rather than arising organically from the contest itself.

Put together these things make the game seem dry and sterile to me, a manufactured contest rather than a real game. It doesn’t help that there aren’t many teams and a short season, which just increases the sense that all the drama is manufactured. The crowd also doesn’t have anything resembling the passion of similarly-sized European soccer crowds. Also what’s going on with every player saying which university they’re from when they introduce themselves in the pre-game team review? That’s super weird.

So those are the reasons I can’t enjoy NFL. Apart from “dangerous by design” I don’t think any of them are objectively bad things – they’re just things I don’t like, and obviously you’re welcome to not not like them. I would be happy to hear explanations or alternative interpretations of some of these things (except “you’re dumb for not liking this thing you don’t like”), or other comments on things that stop you enjoying this game. Also, tips on how to enjoy it! (Except “drink more” because the games are broadcast in the morning here).


fn1: And he’s not even a millenial!

fn2: Because Japan doesn’t broadcast the American ads and doesn’t play its own (because Japanese tv isn’t as rapacious as American I guess) they fill the advertising breaks with a review of the previous week’s games, which is prepared by the NFL. I guess the NFL has to prepare this for its overseas affiliates because we aren’t used to intense advertising and need something to fill the space. Or maybe it’s some weekly show. Anyway, it features weird overblown narration with a mixture of faux-highbrow imagery and bad puns, and we also get to see a lot of the sideline behavior of the players, which is frankly fucking awful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These guys only run forward!

I have just completed a three day trip to Chengdu, China, where I was visiting an NGO that provides HIV testing and counselling to men who have sex with men. There’s not much to report about the trip itself – the NGO is doing well and we came up with some interesting research opportunities, and I spent a lot of time eating exhausting spicy hotpots – but the Sichuan Airlines flight I took there gave me an opportunity to watch Operation Red Sea, the new hyped-up Chinese action movie. I previously reviewed Wolf Warrior 2, which I watched on a work trip to Guangzhou, so I thought this time I would give a review of this new phantasmagoria of action violence.

This movie is apparently based on a real event in which a Chinese warship evacuated Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015. I think “based on” is doing a lot of work in this claim, however, since the sheer volume of damage and destruction handed out by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in this movie could be seen from space if it actually happened, and I suspect that the only thing the real events and the movie have in common is the words “Chinese warship”. But don’t let that discourage you, because this is an action movie and we all know that action movies are at their best when they ignore reality.

The basic plot of this movie starts simple but gets over-complicated very quickly. A coup breaks out in a fictitious north African country, and as the coup unfolds an Islamist revolutionary group takes advantage of the situation to create havoc and try and steal some yellowcake and the plans for a dirty bomb. A bunch of Chinese nationals are caught in the country, working at various businesses, and so a Chinese warship (the Guangdong, I think) enters the port of the capital and deploys teams of soldiers to evacuate Chinese nationals. The parameters of their mission are very very clear: they are only to act with permission from the government (which they seek every time they expand their mission), and they are only there to save Chinese nationals. Anything else is a bonus, but they have to get permission for every bit of mission creep. This was also a strong theme in Wolf Warrior 2: as opposed to certain nations, these movies make very clear that the Chinese government does not interfere in other nations’ affairs unless it has permission from the UN and local governments, and only to protect Chinese interests.

Pretty much as soon as they enter the town where the civil war is unfolding things begin to go wrong. They get attacked from all sides, there are suicide bombers, the people they’re evacuating have been split up, and then they learn of more nationals who have been kidnapped and taken inland. One of these nationals is a female journalist who is hot on the case of a bunch of Islamists who are planning to steal some uranium ore, and a dubious scientist who has the plans for a dirty bomb that can be made with it. The soldiers have to go and save her but are attacked on the way, which requires much slaughter, and then find that to rescue the journalist they will have to fight an entire platoon of terrorists – 8 against 150, which of course they pull off because China! Then things go a bit awol, when the journalist tells them about the yellowcake and they decide – without permission from their superiors on the ship – to go foil the yellowcake plan. Rescuing the journalist leads to quite a few of the soldiers dying, and ends in a rather fantastic tank chase with strong hints of Mad Max.

Aside from occasional 5 or 10 minute breaks to set the scene of the next clusterfuck, and to lay out or reinforce a few nationalist themes, this movie is a non-stop warzone. It’s like your GM squeezed a whole campaign into two hours, with stirring music and a lot of stern faces. The soldiers level up between each scene too, because the challenges they face become more and more extreme and they rise to every single one. I didn’t know that Chinese special forces are also elite tank stunt drivers, but apparently they are, or at least in one of their level-ups they picked that skill to a pretty high level, and I think one of them must be able to fly heavy transport planes too. This movie is basically a team of 8 Rambos, doing Rambo things for two hours against exponentially increasing levels of difficulty.

Which would be frankly ridiculous but the action scenes are very good and the challenges are super fun. The whole thing is also anchored by the story of the sniper and his assistant, who seem to be the pivot around which the rest of the action takes place. The sniper scenes are really cool, and although one of the snipers is a typical East Asian hard-faced bullyboy[1], with vulnerable sidekick, they work out in the end. At several points in the action they are forced to face off against a baby-faced Arabian sniper, who is presented in a surprisingly sympathetic way and is actually pretty cool, though like pretty much everyone in this movie he gets it in the end (I think it’s safe to say that there’s no risk of spoilers here). The bad guys aren’t as one-dimensionally awful as the bad guys in Wolf Warrior 2, but they’re still very nasty, with a fondness for forcing innocent people to be suicide bombers by threatening their children, beheading journalists, that sort of thing[2]. It’s one of those movies where you really don’t feel bad about viscerally hating the enemy. Which is just as well because the body count is very high.

Along the way our team of heroes save a couple of victimized local women and some non-Chinese foreigners, and bravely also rescue a suicide bomber from his bomb, while under fire, but mostly their position is non-interventionist: they’re here to do a specific, limited, internationally-sanctioned job and they absolutely will not deviate from that mission unless there is zero risk that they will screw it up by helping out a local. They may be disgusted at the local brand of terrorism, but there’s no liberal interventionism here! The movie also makes a point of pausing regularly to reiterate basic Chinese government policy: we don’t intervene, we absolutely will not allow Chinese citizens to be victimized by other countries, all our actions are in accordance with international law, and everyone from China loves China. The movie also finishes with a shockingly nationalist epilogue: after all has been said and done and the special forces have returned to China, we have a final scene in which some unnamed ships from an unidentified nation are seen moving towards the screen, and a voiceover is saying something like “This is the Chinese navy. Do not enter Chinese territorial waters” with threats of escalating intensity. I think it’s clear enough to everyone who the unidentified nation are and where the territorial waters must be, and I think this might be the clearest case I have ever seen of current great power politics being expressed directly in a movie (barring the infamous final credits from Rambo IV, I guess).

This nationalism is an interesting experience in watching Chinese action movies like Operation Red Sea. Occasionally things happen on screen that are so blatantly intended to push nationalist buttons that you think “wow, this is super unsubtle and really close to fascist!” but then you pause and realize – because you’re viewing it from more of a distance than usual – that what you’re watching is no different to any number of American action movies. It’s probably less blatant than gay porn like Top Gun, and although nowhere near as self-critical as First Blood is definitely no worse than Rambo IV. Because we are not used to seeing military action movies from anyone except America, the kind of nationalism that is routine currency in American movies and that we’ve been raised on suddenly seems shockingly blatant and unpleasant. There’s absolutely nothing in Operation Red Sea that you would not see over and over in any episode of The Last Ship (remember when they pick up that mercenary at Guantanamo Bay? Good times!) But it stands out like dog’s balls when it’s not being portrayed by someone on “our side”. I think it’s very educational to see nationalism from the outside, and reminds me of how much we grow accustomed to in American movies that we really shouldn’t.

Overall this movie is a fun ride, though it has a few problems. The team really is a team, with no strong candidate for a single lead character, and so it’s hard to keep track of exactly who dies and who doesn’t because they’re largely interchangeable. It also seems to hand-wave away some important plot problems, like for example when they’re stranded in the middle of the desert with a bunch of foreign nationals and injured soldiers after the Islamists blow up their ride, and then suddenly we’re at the next battle and all their non-combatant charges have disappeared. They don’t spend much time on character development and aside from the chick, the dude who eats sweets and the sniper team we don’t have a lot of character to hang onto from half of the team (but it’s okay; most of this team aren’t going to go the distance). The first scene with the pirates and the ship also seems kind of unnecessary, like we could have just skipped that, but I guess the GM needed an introductory adventure for the characters. Other than these problems though the movie is a pretty solid contribution to the military action movie genre. It has a little bit of the feeling of Blackhawk Down, though it’s not as good as that (but most action movies aren’t). I recommend seeing it as both a cross-cultural experience, and a rich two hours of exhausting violence, with a tank chase!


fn1: I realize this might sound harsh to my reader(s), but if you have lived and worked in East Asia you’ll know the character I mean.

fn2: It says something about how awful the bad guys were in Wolf Warrior 2 that the journalist-beheading terrorists in this movie are less extreme. At least no one in this movie executed an entire hospital full of Doctors Without Borders volunteers, or blew up a bus full of refugees! (Actually on reflection they did do the latter, but in this movie the bus was part of a military convoy and was also carrying soldiers). But what does it tell us about the movie-maker’s point of view that the enemies in Wolf Warrior 2 were primarily western mercenaries, while the (not as nasty) dudes in this movie are Arabian?

And let me tell you something
Before you go taking a walk in my world,
…you better take a look at the real world
Cause this ain’t no Mr. Rogers Neighborhood
Can you say “feel like shit?”
Yea maybe sometimes I do feel like shit
I ain’t happy about it, but I’d rather feel like shit
…than be full of shit!

 

There are times in life when it’s necessary to turn to the original gurus of self-righteous self-inspiration, Suicidal Tendencies. Life getting you down, you feel you can’t keep going? Crank up ST and when the boys ask you “Are you feelin’ suicidal?” yell back “I’m suicidal!” and you’ll be back on track in no time. Been meandering through some shit, making mistakes you know are your own dumb fault, and need to kick yourself back onto the straight and narrow? Gotta kill Captain Stupid is what you need. Getting played by conmen who play on your better nature, maybe take you for a ride using your religious impulses? Then you can crank up Send Me Your Money and be reminded that “Here comes another con hiding behind a collar / His only God is the almighty dollar / He ain’t no prophet, he ain’t no healer / He’s just a two bit goddamn money stealer.” That’ll get your cynical radar working again! But the Suicidals’ most useful refrain, the one that applies most often and most powerfully in this shit-stained and terrible world, is the imprecation at the beginning of the second half of their skate power classic, You Can’t Bring Me Down:

Just cause you don’t understand what’s going on
…don’t mean it don’t make no sense
And just cause you don’t like it,
…don’t mean it ain’t no good

This pure reminder of the power of bullshit over mortal men came to me today when I began to delve into the background of the latest Sokal Hoax that has been visited on the social sciences. I’d like to explore this hoax, consider how it would have panned out in other disciplines, make a few criticisms, and discuss the implications of some of their supposedly preposterous papers. So as Mikey would say – bring it on home, brother doc!

The Latest Hoax

The latest hoax comes with its own report, a massive online screed that describes what they did, why they did it, how they did it and what happened. Basically they spent a year preparing a bunch of papers that they submitted to a wide range of social studies journals in a field they refer to as “grievance studies”, which they define by saying

we have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.

This definition of the field is easily the vaguest and most hand-wavey way to select a broad set of targets I have ever seen, and it’s also obviously intended to be perjorative. In fact their whole project could perhaps be described as having the “common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail” – starting with their definition of the culture.

The authors admit that they’re not experts in the field, but they spent a year studying the content, methods and style of the field, then wrote papers that they submitted to journals under fake names (one real professor gave them permission to use his name) from fake institutions. They submitted 20 papers over the year, writing one every 9 days, and got 7 published, one with a commendation; the other 13 were repeatedly rejected or still under review when somehow their cover was blown and they had to reveal the hoax.

The basic problem with the hoax

The papers they submitted are listed at the website and are pretty hilarious, and some of the papers that were published were obviously terrible (though they may have been interesting reading). Two of the papers they submitted – one on dog parks and one on immersive pornography – used fake data, i.e. academic misconduct, and two were plagiarized parts of Mein Kampf, with some words replaced to reverse them into a feminist meaning of some kind (I guess by replacing “Jew” with “men” or something).

Submitting an article based on fraudulent data is, let’s be clear, academic misconduct, and it is also extremely difficult for peer reviewers to catch. Sure it’s easy in retrospect to say “that data was fake” but when peer reviewers get an article they don’t get the raw data, they have to judge based on the summaries in the paper. This is how the Wakefield paper that led to the collapse in MMR vaccination got published in the Lancet – Wakefield made up his data, and it was impossible for the peer reviewers to know that. The STAPP controversy in Japan – which led to several scientists being disgraced and one suicide – involved doctored images that were only discovered when a research assistant blew the whistle. Medicine is full of these controversies in which data is faked or manipulated and only discovered after a huge amount of detective work, or after a junior staff member destroys their career blowing the whistle. Submitting fraudulent work to peer review – a process which at heart depends on good faith assumptions all around – is guaranteed to be successful. It’s not an indictment of anyone to do this.

Submitting a word-replaced Mein Kampf is incredibly tacky, tasteless and juvenile. Most academics don’t read Mein Kampf, and it’s not a necessary text for most sociological disciplines. If the journal doesn’t use plagiarism software or the peer reviewers don’t, then this is undoubtedly going to slide through, and while much of Mein Kampf is pernicious nonsense a lot of it is actually pretty straightforward descriptions of political strategies and contemporary events. Indeed the chapter they used (chapter 12 of volume 1) is really about organizing and political vision[1], with only passing references to Jewish perfidy – it’s the kind of thing that could be rendered pretty bland with a word replace. But from the description in their report one might think they had successfully published an exterminationist screed. I’m sure the hoaxers thought they were being super clever doing this, but they weren’t. Detecting plagiarism is a journal’s responsibility more than a peer reviewer’s, and not all journals can. It’s not even clear if the plagiarized text would have been easily detected by google searches of fragments if there was a suitable level of word replacement.

So several of their hoax papers were highlighting problems with the peer review process in general, not with anything to do with social studies. Of the remainder, some were substantially rewritten during review, and a lot were rejected or sent back for major revision. While people on twitter are claiming that “many papers” were accepted, in fact the most obviously problematic ones were rejected. For example the paper that recommended mistreating white students, ignoring their work and dismissing their efforts, to teach them about white privilege, was rejected three times, but people on twitter are claiming that the treatment of this paper shows some kind of problematic morality by the peer reviewers.

The next problem with the hoax is that the authors have misrepresented good-spirited, kind-hearted attempts at taking their work seriously with uncritical acceptance of their work. Consider this peer review that they report[2] on a paper on whether men commit sexual violence by masturbating to fantasies of real women (more on this below):

I was also trying to think through examples of how this theoretical argument has implications in romantic consensual relationships. Through the paper, I was thinking about the rise of sexting and consensual pornographic selfies between couples, and how to situate it in your argument. I think this is interesting because you could argue that even if these pictures are shared and contained within a consensual private relationship, the pictures themselves are a reaction to the idea that the man may be thinking about another woman while masturbating. The entire industry of boudoir photography, where women sometimes have erotic pictures taken for their significant other before deploying overseas in the military for example, is implicitly a way of saying, “if you’re going to masturbate, it might as well be to me.” Essentially, even in consensual monogamous relationships, masturbatory fantasies might create some level of coercion for women. You mention this theme on page 21 in terms of the consumption of non-consensual digital media as metasexual-rape, but I think it is interesting to think through these potentially more subtle consensual but coercive elements as well

This is a genuine, good-faith effort to engage with the authors’ argument, and to work out its implications. But this peer reviewer, who has clearly devoted considerable time to engaging with and attempting to improve this paper, now discovers that he or she was being punked the whole time, and the authors were laughing at her naivete for thinking their idea should be taken seriously. He or she did this work for free, as part of an industry where we all give freely of our time to help each other improve their ideas, but actually this good faith effort was just being manipulated and used as part of a cheap publicity stunt by some people who have an axe to grind with an entire, entirely vaguely-defined branch of academia. And note also that after all this peer reviewer’s work, this paper was still rejected – but the hoaxers are using it as ammunition for their claim that “grievance studies” takes preposterous ideas seriously. Is that fair, or reasonable? And is it ethical to conduct experiments on other academics without consent?

I would be interested to know, incidentally, if their little prank was submitted to institutional review before they did it. If I tried to pull this shitty little move in my field, without putting it through an IRB, I think my career would be toast.

But there is another problem with this hoax, which I want to dwell on in a little more detail: some of the papers actually covered interesting topics of relevance in their field, and the fact that the hoaxers think their theories were preposterous doesn’t mean they were actually preposterous. It’s at this point that the Suicidals’ most powerful rule applies: Just because you don’t understand what’s going on, don’t mean it don’t make sense.

The theoretical value of some of the hoax papers

Why don’t men use dildos for masturbation?

Let us consider first the paper the authors refer to as “Dildos”, actual title Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use. In this paper the hoaxers ask why men don’t use dildos for masturbation, and suggest it is out of a fear of homosexuality, and transphobia. The hoaxers say that they wrote this paper

To see if journals will accept ludicrous arguments if they support (unfalsifiable) claims that common (and harmless) sexual choices made by straight men are actually homophobic, transphobic, and anti-feminist

But is this argument ludicrous? Why don’t men use dildos more? After all, we know that men can obtain sexual pleasure from anal insertion, through prostate stimulation. There is a genre of porn in which this happens (for both cismen and transgender women), and it is a specialty service provided by sex workers, but it is not generally commonly practiced in heterosexual intercourse or male masturbation. Why? Men can be pretty bloody-minded about sexual pleasure, so why don’t they do this more? There could be many reasons, such as that it’s impractical, or it’s dirty, or (for couple sex) that women have a problem with penetrating men, or because men see sex toys as fundamentally femininized objects – but it could also be out of a residual homophobia, right? This seems prima facie an interesting theory that could be explored. For example, the only mainstream movie I can think of where a woman penetrates a man is Deadpool, and so it should be fairly easy to study reactions to that movie and analyze them for homophobia (reddit should be pretty good for this, or MRA websites). Understanding the reasons for this might offer new ways for men to enjoy sex, and a new diversity of sex roles for women, which one presumes is a good thing. So why is this argument ludicrous?

Why do men visit Hooters?

Another article that was published was referred to by the hoaxers as “Hooters”, actual title An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant. The article argues that men visit “breastaurants” to assert male dominance and enjoy a particular form of “authentic masculinity,” presumably in contrast to the simpler motive of wanting to be able to look at tits. The authors say they did this article to

see if journals will publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women and will accept very shoddy qualitative methodology and ideologically-motivated interpretations which support this

But again, this is basically an interesting question. Why do men go to restaurants with scantily-clad women? They could eat at a normal restaurant and then watch porn, or just read playboy while they eat. Or they could eat and then go to a strip club. So why do they need to be served in restaurants by breasty girls? And why are some men completely uninterested in these environments, even though they’re seriously into tits? The answer that this is something about performing a type of masculinity, and needing women as props for some kind of expression of dominance, makes sense intuitively (which doesn’t mean it’s right). It’s particularly interesting that this article is being presented as preposterous by the hoaxers now just as debate is raging about why Brett Kavanaugh insisted in sharing his non-consensual sexual encounters with other men, while Bill Cosby did his on the down-low. It’s almost as if Bill and Brett had different forms of masculine dominance to express! Forms of masculine dominance that need to be explored and understood! By academics in social studies, for example!

Also note here that the tone of the hoaxers’ explanation suggests that the idea that visiting breasty restaurants is problematic is obviously wrong and everyone believes them about this. In fact, many Americans of good faith from many different backgrounds don’t consider visiting Hooters to be a particularly savoury activity, and you probably won’t convince your girlfriend you’re not an arsehole by telling her she’s wrong to “problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women” in the context of your having blown your weekly entertainment budget on a trip to Hooters. Understanding why she has problematized this behavior might help you to get laid the following week!

Do men do violence to women when they fantasize about them?

The hoaxers wrote an article that they refer to as “Masturbation”, real title Rubbing One Out: Defining Metasexual Violence of Objectification Through Nonconsensual Masturbation, which was ultimately rejected from Sociological Theory after peer review. I think this was the most interesting of their fake articles, covering a really interesting topic, with real ethical implications. The basic idea here is that when men fantasize about women without women’s consent (for example when masturbating) they’re committing a kind of sexual violence, even though the woman in question doesn’t know about this. They wrote this article to test

To see if the definition of sexual violence can be expanded into thought crimes

But this way of presenting their argument (“Thought crimes”) and the idea that the definition of sexual violence hasn’t already been expanded to thought crimes, is deeply dangerous and stupid. To deal with the second point first, in many jurisdictions anime or manga that depicts sex with children is banned. But in these comics nobody has been harmed. So yes, sexual violence has been extended to include thought crimes. But if we don’t expand the definition of sexual violence into thought crimes we run into some very serious legal and ethical problems. Consider the crime of upskirting, in which men take secret videos up women’s skirts and put them onto porn sites for other men to masturbate to. In general the upskirted woman has no clue she’s been filmed, and the video usually doesn’t show her face so it’s not possible for her to be identified. It is, essentially, a victimless crime. Yet we treat upskirting as a far more serious crime than just surreptitiously taking photos of people, which we consider to be rude but not criminal. This is because we consider upskirting to be a kind of sexual violence exactly equivalent to the topic of this article! This is also true for revenge porn, which is often public shaming of a woman that destroys her career, but doesn’t have to be. If you share videos of your ex-girlfriend naked with some other men, and she never finds out about it and your friends don’t publicize those pictures, so she is not affected in any way, everyone would agree that you have still done a terrible thing to her, and that this constitutes sexual violence of some kind. I’ve no doubt that in many jurisdictions this revenge porn is a crime even though the woman targeted has not suffered in any way. Indeed, even if a man just shows his friend a video of a one night stand, and the friend doesn’t know the woman, will never meet her, and has no way to harm her, this is still considered to be a disgusting act. So the fundamental principle involved here is completely sound. This is why porn is made – because the women are being paid to allow strangers to watch them have sex. When people sext each other they are obviously clearly giving explicit permission to the recipient to use the photo for sexual gratification (this is why it is called sexting). Couples usually don’t sext each other until they trust each other precisely because they don’t want the pictures shared so that people they don’t know can masturbate to them without their consent. We also typically treat men who steal women’s underwear differently to men who steal other men’s socks at the coin laundry – I think the reason for this is obvious! So the basic principle at the heart of this paper is solid. Yet the hoaxers treat the idea underlying much of our modern understanding of revenge porn and illicit sexual photography as a joke.

I think the basic problem here is that while the hoaxers have mimicked the style of the field, and understand which theoretical questions to target and write about, they fundamentally don’t understand the field, and so things they consider to be ludicrous are actually important and real questions in the topic, with important and real consequences. They don’t understand it, but it actually makes sense. And now they’ve created this circus of people sneering at how bad the papers were, when actually they were addressing decent topics and real questions.

How would this have happened in other fields?

So if we treat these three papers as serious recognizing that two were published, and then discount the paper with fradulent data (dog park) and the paper that was plagiarized (feminist mein kampf) we are left with just three papers that were published that might be genuinely bullshit, out of 20. That’s 15%, or 22% if you drop the plagiarized and fraudulent papers from the denominator. Sounds bad, right? But this brings us to our next big problem with this hoax: there was no control group. If I submitted 20 papers with dodgy methods and shonky reasoning to public health journals, I think I could get 15% published. Just a week or two ago I reported on a major paper in the Lancet that I think has shonky methods and reasoning, as well as poorly-gathered data, but it got major publicity and will probably adversely affect alcohol policy in future. I have repeatedly on this blog attacked papers published in the National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER) archives, which use terrible methods, poor quality data, bad reasoning and poor scientific design. Are 15% of NBER papers bullshit? I would suggest the figure is likely much higher. But we can’t compare because the authors didn’t try to hoax these fields, and as far as I know no one has ever tried to hoax them. This despite the clear and certain knowledge that the R&R paper in economics was based on a flawed model and bad reasoning, but was used to inform fiscal policy in several countries, and the basic conclusions are still believed even though it has been roundly debunked.

The absence of hoaxes (or even proper critical commentary) on other fields means that they can maintain an air of inassailability while social studies and feminist theory are repeatedly criticized for their methods and the quality of their research and peer review. This is a political project, not a scientific project, and these hoaxers have gone to great lengths to produce a salable, PR-ready attack on a field they don’t like, using a method that is itself poorly reasoned, with shonky methodology, and a lack of detailed understanding of the academic goals of the field they’re punking. They also, it should be remembered, have acted very unethically. I think the beam is in their own eye, or as the Suicidals would say:

Ah, damn, we got a lot of stupid people
Doing a lot of stupid things
Thinking a lot of stupid thoughts
And if you want to see one
Just look in the mirror

Conclusion

This hoax shouldn’t be taken seriously, and it doesn’t say anything much about the quality of research or academic editing in the field they’re criticizing. Certainly on the face of it some of the papers that were published seem pretty damning, but some of them covered real topics of genuine interest, and the hoaxers’ interpretation of the theoretical value of the work is deeply flawed. This is a PR stunt, nothing more, and it does nothing to address whatever real issues sociology and women’s studies face. Until people start genuinely developing a model for properly assessing the quality of academic work in multiple fields, with control groups and proper adjustment for confounders, in a cross-disciplinary team that fully understands the fields being critiqued, these kinds of hoaxes will remain just stupid stunts, that play on the goodwill of peer reviewers and academics for the short-term political and public benefit of the hoaxers, but for no longer benefit to the community being punked, and at the risk of considerable harm. Until a proper assessment of the quality of all disciplines is conducted, we should not waste our time punking others, but think harder about how we can improve our own.

 


fn1: I won’t link, because a lot of online texts of Mein Kampf are on super dubious websites – look it up yourself if you wish to see what the punking text was.

fn2: Revealing peer reviews is generally considered unethical, btw

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