Uncategorized


There is a fascinating passage in Antony Beevor’s Berlin where he describes the bemusement experienced by Soviet soldiers when they entered Germany proper, and discovered how rich the Germans were. Beevor describes this bemusement turning rapidly to anger, as the Soviets began to ask themselves why a nation that was so much richer than them would want to invade them at all. Why didn’t they just stay home and enjoy their riches? Beevor even ascribes some of the Soviet soldiers’ furious treatment of German civilians (especially women) to their response to this discovery.

I am travelling at the moment, and my travels start with Swiss and Germany. Obviously the Swiss are fantastically wealthy, but when I enter Germany I am always struck by how staggeringly rich Germans are. I don’t mean in the sense that there are a lot of obviously fantastically wealthy people with a million ferraris; rather, the average German is just stupidly wealthy. Furthermore, their infrastructure is stupidly modern: trains are gleaming and new, cars are silent modern things, hotels are well-appointed and modern, farms are always well built and have the latest stuff. Everyone has solar panels. This is a nation not only of private wealth but of public investment. This is particularly interesting because Germany is cheaper than Switzerland or the UK – the price of living is really low – but it’s really obvious that the country is not doing badly despite this.

My next stage in my travels will be London. London is so remarkably different from either Berlin or rural southern Germany, where I am currently staying. It is filthy, rundown and seething with discontent. Nothing works properly, the infrastructure is crumbling, and very few people take any pride in either the service they provide or in the way their nation treats strangers. The contrast from Germany is remarkable – even though the price of living in the UK is much, much higher. How can it be that a nation of such historical greatness can be so decrepit in comparison to Germany?

Many leftists wish to blame all of this on Margaret Thatcher, but this isn’t really a tenable argument. For starters, the UK had serious economic problems before Thatcher (see e.g. the three-day week), and it had a long period of Labour rule after Thatcher, during which it could have fixed some of Thatcher’s worst excesses. Not to mention that Germany has had its share of economic troubles, backward-looking leaders, and of course the need to absorb all of East Germany. Furthermore, Britain has highly valuable resources – oil and gas – that Germany lacks. It’s also unusual for a country’s entire economic troubles to be linked to just one leader – they tend to be more systemic than that – and other nations like Japan and Australia have also had serious economic problems, but still seem wealthier than the UK. So what is it?

Looking around Europe, I note that among the five big ex-colonial powers, only two are still doing well. The five big powers are the UK, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. If we add in Italy for its African possessions, we have a pretty low rate of economic success for the ex-colonialists. Meanwhile the nations of northern Europe that weren’t colonists are doing very well, as is Japan. (Note that here, by “the colonial powers” I don’t include those nations such as Japan and Germany that tried it for a few years and failed – I mean only those nations who held colonies long enough to benefit from them). I guess some would argue that France is doing okay, but I’m not convinced. But the UK, Spain and Italy are obviously in huge economic trouble. I don’t think that this can be sleeted home to the welfare state – Germany, Japan and the Scandinavians all have excellent welfare states, but they’re much better off than the UK. It also isn’t due to that old British canard, “diversity” – Australia and Germany are actually just as diverse as (or more diverse than) the UK.

I think it might be that colonialism creates a kind of resource curse – nations with large colonies they can exploit don’t bother building up the cultural, economic and political attitudes necessary to be economically successful in the modern world. They stagnate under the influence of colonialism’s apparently beneficial balm. I remember in reading A.N. Lee’s the Victorians that he tries to understand how it is that the UK never experienced the revolutions and civil wars of Europe, and he mentioned one possible reason was the ability to loot Ireland and India. In this version of history, the Irish famine was partly brought about by the need of the British ruling class to subsidize British food supplies, to ensure the poor didn’t revolt. I think Beevor points out that India suffered huge famines in world war 2 as the British exported as much food as possible to the UK. George Orwell notes this phenomenon as well, and in Burmese Days his lead character gives an anti-colonial diatribe in which he points out that the UK basically set India up as a captive market, preventing any industrial competition on the sub-continent in order to ensure that British industrialists had somewhere to sell their products[1].

By way of comparison, Germany and Japan have had a couple of revolutions and, in the absence of either colonies or resources, have had to develop a strong industrial base and a society built around competing with the rest of the world. They have the advantage of having populations large enough to support internal markets and a solid industrial policy – but so does the UK. The difference is that they have never been in a position to decide it’s all too hard and resort to stealing from foreign territories. The economic model the UK worked on until the 1950s was a pretty successful one – you have a small group of people willing to do dirty work, who ensure a regular supply of money to the government by ripping off people who have no power to resist. Such a system is a very tempting way of avoiding facing deep structural problems in your economy, and an excellent way of buying off your poorest class but when the system collapses you find yourself in very difficult economic circumstances[2]. And I think that might partly explain the problems that the UK, Portugal, Spain and France are facing – for too long they were able to belay their economic challenges onto others, and loot weaker nations to plug economic gaps of their own. Since the 1950s the UK’s colonial empire has rapidly unwound, with the jewel in the crown (India) lost in the 1940s. The result is that all those structural problems that were previously being prevented by colonial money have come to the fore, and increasingly desperate attempts to solve them have all come to naught. My favourite example of this zeitgeist is the museum of the crown jewels in the Tower of London: it houses a fantabulous display of colonial bling, showcasing the rapacious powers of the British Empire, but when you get to the end you are confronted with a request to donate to maintain the thing – because the British government no longer has the cash to properly fund its public sector.

Japan and Germany learnt through hard and bitter experience that the colonial powers weren’t going to welcome any new colonial projects in the 20th century, but Japan’s horrible acts and horrible end led directly to the unraveling of the colonies. And when those colonies unwound, I think that Germany, Japan and the other rich non-colonial nations (like Australia and Canada) were in a much better position to face the new world order that resulted. The UK will continue to be unable to adapt to the new world while its politicians, public intellectuals and even its general public are unable to face the true history and legacy of colonialism. Of course, facing this legacy isn’t going to be enough in and of itself – the UK needs to find a way to dig itself out of its economic troubles. I don’t think they will, and instead they’ll be left reflecting on past colonial glories as they slowly slide into the ranks of the low-income countries. Eventually their old colonial possessions will surpass them, and the cycle of colonial history will be complete.

fn1: the lead character of that book is a racist, sexist puppy murderer, so make your own judgments about whether you think they have much worthwhile to say about politics.

fn2: any similarity to Tony Blair’s plan to finance welfare through the finance industry is purely coincidental, I’m sure

A Marxist Reinterpretation of the Chronicles

Last night I watched the second movie in the Narnia chronicles, Prince Caspian. I have read the books, but it was so long ago that I had completely forgotten the story, so it was just like watching a fresh fantasy movie. Overall it was fun with serious flaws: the children were unlikable at best, the ending is essentially deus ex machina, Aslan is a really dicky lion, the centaurs looked really crappy, and the story has that underlying feeling that a group of dippy white kids can inherit the earth for no reason but that they were born lucky, which seems a common problem in British fantasy[1]. In its favour, the action scenes were fun, that Susan chick was cool, Prince Caspian was very handsome, and the bad guys were really bad. Not only was the bad king genuinely bad, but the manner of his demise was a perfect piece of comeuppance. So that was all good. However, the final final ending scene made my head explode with rage, and I think I have to elevate it to the pantheon alongside Titanic and the Breakfast Club for cynical endings. I’m now going to describe why, but be aware: this is spoiler central. If you have never read the books or seen the movie, you should probably stop here.

.

.

.
.

[WARNING: Spoilers] So, the kids have won their war against the evil humans (let’s call them the Dicks, because I couldn’t catch their full name). The Dicks are all gathered in a town square, being addressed by the universe’s dweebiest god, Aslan, who tells them that they are welcome to live where they are, in peace with the good folk of Narnia, but they can also go back where they came from, which is apparently some tropical island on earth. He will transport them there with his magic powers that are sufficient to teleport whole populations across time and space but insufficient to bring peace to Narnia. At first they look askance on this offer, somewhat in the way that German soldiers might have looked askance at their Russian captors in 1944 when they were told “This train will take you to somewhere warm.” But at last the general from the army steps forward and says he’ll go, and then the dead evil king’s wife steps forward with her son. Aslan says “because you spoke up first, I will ensure your life is extra good on the other side.”

This really, really pissed me off for two reasons. First of all, it’s that classic christian needy-god rubbish, in which Aslan is so powerful that he can transport you across universes but so insecure that you if you don’t immediately jump at his bidding he will punish you for not trusting him. So the first people to show they trust a lunatic talking lion get special treatment, and all the completely rational and reasonable people who are standing in the crowd, recently traumatized by losing a fucking war, are going to be made second-class citizens in this new world because they didn’t show quite the trusting spirit that a deific lion might want them to. Why would you not trust a lion when it tells you it’s going to be nice to you? Can’t think of a single reason … Anyone who has read the bible knows that needy gods are also genocidal, capricious and wrathful gods. Best not to do what that god wants.

But the next pissy thing about this is the people who got the benefit: the general and the wife of the king. So they go from wielding maximum temporal power in Narnia, to being granted special boons in the next world they go to by the guy who defeated them. This is a classic example of the powerful looking after each other even when they do wrong to each other. Why reward the general for being trusting, after he just tried to exterminate your race? Why not instead offer him the dingiest farm in the hardest place? Because having once been in power, he will always be treated better by others in power, while his footsoldiers – who slogged through the mud for him just days earlier, being beaten by minotaurs and rained with arrows – get second place in the next world too. Oh, how the mechanisms of power reproduce themselves even in adversity …

The ending gets even worse at this point though, because now the crowd reveal they don’t trust Aslan, and demand proof that the gate he has created is safe. Rather than pointing out to them that a god who can open gates will always be able to fool them with tricks to reassure them, the eldest kid decides that the four kids should all go back through the gate to prove it is safe. Aslan agrees, and furthermore points out that two of them won’t ever be able to come back because they’re too old. He also basically tells his favourite, Lucy, to fuck off and not come back.

So basically Aslan is telling these kids that instead of being kings and queens in a world of magic and talking badgers, they are going to be kicked out and forced to go back to living as ordinary kids in London during the blitz. Your reward for helping god? Forced to return to live in a cramped hell-hole of a city that is on fire. And they agree, because of some weird power that Aslan has to convince people that they aren’t able to control his power or the workings of the world, even though he’s standing in front of them negotiating.

I’ve always been confused by the ending of these world-crossing books. It would take me precisely one second to decide that no, I am not going back to being a sales assistant in a bookshop after I just spent months wielding mighty magics in the Land of Phallusia. I think I’ll stay here, thank you, and you can line the vestal virgins up in the hallway outside my penthouse room. Oh, and bring me some of that elixir of youth while you’re at it, I’ll be bedding them until the dawn of the next age. Oh, how cute! A talking lion! There there little lion, why don’t you go and lick your balls over in the corner while I rule this kingdom wisely, and make myself very rich? Because I can tell from the abject state of its denizens, and the fact that a mere bookshop assistant from Croydon can sort all this shit out, that you are neither a wise nor a good god. Now, go and eat your din-dins like a good pet while the adults get on with sorting out the mess you made of your world.

That‘s how Prince Caspian should have ended, not with the plebs being deported to another world to be ruled over by exactly the people who got them into their situation in the first place, and Susan the mighty archer princess having to steal a kiss from a very very handsome Prince whose kingdom she could be ruling before a talking lion whisks her off to study O-level chemistry in a city being bombed by Nazis. That, my friends, is a cynical ending par excellence.

fn1: I wonder why? Actually the Narnia chronicles strike me as potentially very colonialist. At one point a talking animal admits that Narnia has never been happy except when a son of Adam – i.e. a white man – is sitting on its throne. That’s right, Narnia’s swarthy and animalistic hordes will never be content until they are ruled by a member of the British elite.

image

Do Japanese cats understand cats from Australia?  Is feline a universal language? Do they understand “get off there you bastard” in any language? This birthday card from my cat to me shows he speaks the language of his household , though hiragana are visible if you squint. Perhaps he is bilingual but lacks the manual dexterity for kanji?

Note also the single cat biscuit under the ribbon. Who says cats  can’t feel love?

image
Tonight I discovered a restaurant called sharaku (projecting happiness) in Shinjuku, near the southeast exit, that sells 10 types of Japanese craft beer. Sharaku is the name of a famous ukiyo-e artist from the middle of the Edo era (I didn’t know this till I looked it up in Wikipedia). They also stock a range of imported beers, but my interest was in the local stuff (I can drink Belgian beer anywhere, but the Hideji beer company almost certainly doesn’t have sales outside Japan!) Their selection of local beers changes by the month: this month they had 10 beers from three companies, in Miyazaki, Fukuoka and Miyagi (I think). The beer pictured is a pale ale made with Cascade hops, a nice aromatic number. The chap at the bar gave me a leaflet for Hideji Beer Company that rated each beer in five dimensions and also gave a serving guide – information for the true connoisseur. The beers were good (I also tried taiyo raga, sunshine lager) and the shop’s explanations matched the taste of the beer perfectly. If you’re in Japan, don’t have time to speed on down to the far end of the country, and want to try some regional beers, I recommend this place (the food was really good too). Japanese craft beers can be a bit intense, but there’s a really interesting culture of local beers here – you would never guess from the common picture that the big companies present, but I’d say it’s close to the US in its diversity, and some of them are really cool. Plus, some of them incorprorate really nice Japanese design, and they have a strong seasonal motif (as does everything in Japan). If you’re in Japan, obviously the best thing you can do is try the sake, and if you visit a restaurant like Kujirayama (whale mountain) you can try a wide selection of regional sake, along with amazing food[1]; but it’s also worth seeking out some of Tokyo’s craft beer sellers, and sharaku does a very good job of show-casing the industry. Try it if you can find it!

Turtles also adorn beer!

fn1: I cannot recommend kujirayama highly enough, and in fact I would say that if you come to Japan and you can only spend time in Tokyo, the best decision you can make is to book a hotel in Kichijoji (try the Toyoko inn) and eat in Kichijoji every night: the Thai food here is awesome, Bloomoon has an atmosphere that craps on anything in your country, and Kujirayama has some of the best examples of Japanese food that you can find for a reasonable price. Kichijoji also has a beer bar (holic) with a crazy robot-salvation game, and of course you’re near the studio ghibli museum and on the central line, so you can visit all the boring places (sky tree, museums, whatevah!) quickly and easily. There’s no cat-bus, though.

Praying While Tokyo Burns

Takao Mountain (高尾山), on the western edge of the Tokyo metropolis, is a low (approximately 500m high) peak on the edge of a small nature reserve, easily accessible on the Keio line or the Chuo line. The mountain top hosts a temple, Yakuoin (薬王院), and some hiking paths, and although it is a steep climb it is easily reached by foot in 40 minutes, on paths that zig-zag through light forest. It’s also accessible by a ropeway (essentially a ski-lift) or a cable car (that is really a type of train). At the base of the mountain is a small and cute village of tourist shops, noodle stores and another small temple. As such it is a popular tourist destination, and also popular as a place to do hatsumode (初詣), the traditional new year shrine visit. My friend went with a billion other people to see the first sunrise of the new year, and I went with some friends in the afternoon for the traditional shrine visit.

In addition to being an excellent tourist day trip, Takao Mountain is also a viable zombie survival spot, offering short term defensibility, an easy escape route, and some possibility of sustainability. It’s probably not entirely suitable to a solo survivor, but a good choice for a group.

Review

Defensibility: The mountain itself is accessed by three pathways on the Tokyo side, at least one of which is wide enough to drive cars up. As far as I know there are no direct pathways on the Western side, which in any case faces onto low population density areas and a wide range of bushland. There is a single railway line leading up to the summit (for the “cable car”). All three pathways have a series of steep switchbacks interspersed with periods of long, straight, steep climbs, they are narrow, and there are regular viewing spots on the higher sections of these paths from which defenders can look down on the lower sections of the slopes. Other hillsides are steep, heavily forested and slippery, scattered with sheer climbs or scree slopes that make climbing extremely difficult for mindless undead. Any of these paths would be easy to block off at lower sections, and easy to defend with suitable firearms. From higher vantage points, with a large supply of ammunition, it would be easy to pick off approaching zombies in complete safety. The main difficulty with defensibility is in monitoring all these approaches: to properly defend the mountain would require maintaining constant vigilance over all the access paths and the forests of the western side, and opens the risk that occasional lone zombies would make it up to a higher location without being identified. This would necessitate continuous caution and the establishment of safe inner bastions. Fortunately the Yakuoin temple offers just such a bastion, as does the monkey park. Overall, the area is highly defensible, if your group contains more than 5 people.

Escape routes: Although not ideal, the forested slopes of the western face offer a last-ditch escape route in the event that the temple and the path to the higher slopes are cut off simultaneously. Furthermore, the ropeway offers an ideal rapid escape route. In the absence of electric power, one could use a simple flying-fox type arrangement to return to the base of the mountain in just a few (hair-raising) minutes, and it’s likely that zombies will lose track of you due to the speed of descent. Even if a zombie horde had come up from the base station, it’s likely given the defensibility of the setting that the zombies would have all left the base area by the time evacuation became necessary; thus, one would arrive at a relatively depopulated lower camp area, and be able to escape rapidly – possibly to a pre-established safe house in the lower town, there to wait until the mountain could be retaken after the horde dispersed or moved on.

Location: Far removed from central Tokyo, Takao Mountain is also slightly separate, being located on the far side of a small rural area. This means that its local zombie population is likely to be small and scattered, and it is less likely to have been raided extensively by non-local populations. Additionally, it contains significant supplies for the tourist industry, as well as a non-transient local community likely to have themselves stocked up on food, leaving more supplies for scavenging. The mountain is not on any major road transport routes, though it is near(ish) to an expressway. It’s also on the end of a train line, which is likely to be the only way to get to the location – roads in Tokyo will be blocked and car transport over long distances likely impossible. But a railway line is a relatively safe and easy way to move across Tokyo – it is elevated and likely clear of obstacles. The mainline to near Takao is the Central Line, which is about 8 tracks wide – it may be possible to drive small cars along this line, enabling transport of supplies and rapid escape from central Tokyo. The mountain also has a tourist centre and various restaurants at different elevations, so even if one arrives without supplies it may be possible to go straight to the top and subsist on scavenged foods for a few days while the world goes to hell.

Concealment: From the base of the mountain, almost nothing is visible of the human habitations higher up, and many of the main tourist attractions – especially the temple – are set back from the slopes of the hill. The sounds and sights of a functioning group of survivors would be virtually unidentifiable from the ground, especially in the temple, so it would be possible to have lights, cooking and reasonably normal human interaction without fear of alerting zombies or humans. This means the necessary preparations for survival over a Japanese winter could proceed fairly smoothly, and even an electricity generator could be used without alerting zombies. Movement between locations on the mountain would also be fairly unlikely to attract attention from zombies at the foot of the mountain, which would make defending the mountain very easy.

Sustainability: The mountain holds several tourist restaurants, a monkey park, visitor centre and temple. Even if a group arrived on foot carrying only the supplies in their backpacks, it would be fairly easy to subsist on the mountainside for a few days. The temple almost certainly contains a generator, and it’s likely (though I didn’t see any) that there is at least some solar power somewhere on the hill, so at least some lighting would be possible. There is a parking space containing some snow ploughs, which means that they also have batteries and fuel (and probably some spare fuel). The mountain is riddled with vending machines, but the restaurants sell dango and fresh soba, so likely hold stocks of buckwheat and barley flour, oil and – if they had been evacuated rapidly – eggs. For the first few days, supplies of water could be obtained from vending machines and kettles, until the first rain filled up some buckets. Of course, buckets and water storage mechanisms are commonplace in a temple, and easily converted to survival. There is enough flat space higher up the mountain to plant potatoes and possibly even a rice crop, and the monkey park comes readily supplied with cages for raising and protecting chickens and goats. In the longer term, the area is already supplied with buildings and a defensible temple, but there is one significant long term problem: water. Being on the top of a mountain, most water will be flowing down, and in dry periods there will be little freestanding or potable water. The best solution to this is to use the higher parts of the mountain to set up a water course for trapping and channeling water. Nonetheless, water storage – in a tank of some kind, and perhaps also in containers looted from the restaurants – would likely be a very wise plan. Otherwise, regular trips down the mountain to collect water would be required, and this would be both dangerous and exhausting.

Longer term, the mountain offers a lot of opportunities to establish a sustainable community. It is reasonably close to Tachikawa, a suburb with large stores, and houses in the nearby town could be looted for solar power supplies. With the elevation of the mountains, it could be possible to set up a solar storage system using pumped water. Plentiful wood means that even when fuel and electricity ran out it would be possible to stay warm for at least the first year, and to build fairly solid barriers against zombie and human infiltration – some forest clearing would even be necessary to establish kill zones. The higher viewing points hold a number of coin-operated binoculars that could be used to ensure that zombies can be spotted at very long distances and monitored, and gun nests with good viewing points could be built around these viewing machines. The mountain holds all the necessities of medium-term survival for a reasonably large group, provided that the water problem can be solved fairly rapidly.

Natural Hazards: Although it contains no sizable buildings capable of collapsing in an earthquake, Takao mountain is obviously vulnerable to landslides, which could be dangerous for those on the lower slopes. However, it’s most significant problem is the risk of forest fires, which could wipe out a community very rapidly. The rope way provides a method for rapidly escaping during a significant fire, but keeping it clear of trees would be essential in order to use it successfully. With roaming gangs of humans likely to spot them, back burning to reduce fire risk is not likely to be an option at first, and in any case water supplies may not be sufficient to do this safely. Constant caution and evacuation planning would be necessary to keep this risk under control. The best solution to this problem would be water and forestry management, and any group unable to do these two things would likely ultimately be driven off the mountain by the difficulties of supply and the risks of fire. But if this problem can be solved, the mountain would no doubt be safe for habitation by even up to 100 people.

Tactics

Takao Mountain is highly defensible, and with suitable tactics potentially close to impregnable in a zombie holocaust. If defenders are armed with rifles, it would be easy to defend against a very large horde of slow-moving shambler zombies. Even if guns were not available, a suitable set of barriers could be established on steeper pathways to enable, for example, a single person armed with a pike to kill struggling zombies in relative safety. At the switchbacks, it would be possible to stand in the crook of the switchback and beat down zombies with a pole or pike. Alternatively, traps could easily be set for mindless undead: establish a barrier at a point on the path just past one of the steeper slopes, and present oneself on a high point of one of the slopes to the side of the path just before the barrier. Zombies then reach the barrier and, unable to pass it, attempt to climb the slope on the side of the path. While they slip and fall on the scree, the defender can easily kill them using a suitable pole weapon.

The railway line is even easier to defend, because the top- and bottom-most extents pass through a smooth tunnel. Using a human target, zombies could be funneled into this tunnel and then trapped against a barrier on the upper side; from there, fire could be used safely inside the tunnel to kill large numbers of them. Alternatively, if active defense is not desired, the lower tunnel could be filled with scree, logs and debris, and a series of large rocks – or even, possibly, the train car itself – used as weapons to clear the upper tunnel. The upper platform itself also has a series of fairly solid barriers for passenger control, and is on a steep slope, so it’s possible that even large numbers of zombies wouldn’t be able to get the momentum necessary to push through them. The station itself thus forms another strong defense point, and suitable use of human bait could enable zombie hordes to be funneled into this killing zone, then beaten, burnt and shot into oblivion.

As the linked map shows, there are multiple stages on the mountain; first the lower peak with the temple, then an upper peak with visitor information centre, and then several more, higher peaks, each accessible by a decreasing number of paths. If a zombie wave overwhelms the lower slopes, the higher sections are all highly defensible, enabling even the most exhausted defenders to repel a numerically superior zombie horde with relative ease. With proper preparation, barriers could be set here and used to slow zombie approach while fleeing. With the steep sides of the mountains a constant threat, it could also be possible to break up hordes by throwing members over the slopes, or using rope traps to drag large numbers off the trail. This wouldn’t stop them permanently, but would break apart the horde so that it would be easier to kill as its members attempted to stagger up the steep mountainsides.

Finally, if long-term defenses were needed it might be possible to use back-burning techniques to establish zones higher up the mountain that are safe from fire. In the worst case scenario, with a huge horde approaching, the lower slopes could be fired – possibly using projectiles lobbed beyond the zombies – and the defenders could then retreat into the back-burnt zones. The zombies, struggling up the steep slopes, would be overrun by the fires and potentially destroyed en masse. This is an extremely risky tactic and only useful in summer, and would obviously attract attention from nearby survivors.

Conclusion

A highly defensible, concealed community can be established on Takao Mountain, capable of defending itself capably from even very large zombie hordes, and able to escape rapidly if overwhelmed. The community could potentially be sustainable and even maintain some of the luxuries of modern society – especially, hot water and some lighting – and, although the early years would be hard work, could become a thriving base for recolonization of the world after a zombie apocalypse. If you’re living in Tokyo and worried about the zombie apocalpyse, you should visit Takao Mountain and familiarize yourself with an escape strategy to this excellent post-apocalyptic base.

Wikileaks member Julian Assange has put up an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, decrying the findings of a recent court victory over right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt, by a group of Aboriginal Australians. The court victory is being widely spun as an attack on free speech, because the Aboriginal Australians in question (henceforth, the appellants), won a victory over Bolt under the terms of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). Rightists everywhere love to hate these kinds of laws, and they love to hate them under the cloak of “free speech,” even though anyone who cared about free speech would not have written the blatant lies that Bolt wrote about these appellants.

Anyway, this post isn’t about what Bolt wrote or the court decision – I don’t want to have debates about Australian race relations here – so much as how Assange’s poorly written piece of fluff represents the failed legacy of Cyberpunk, and is a good indication of how intellectually weak it was as a social movement. Obviously first I need to discuss the outlines of the court case, but my main concern here is not the issue of the court case itself.

The Court Case Against Bolt

For my reader(s) who are unfamiliar with Andrew Bolt, race relations in Australia, the court case itself, or free speech in Australia generally, here it is in a nutshell: he’s a wanker, it’s not pretty, he was forced to correct his outright lies, and we don’t have a tradition of free speech. Happy? Here it is in more detail.

Bolt’s a Wanker: Andrew Bolt wrote a piece a while back in which he claimed that some “fair-skinned” Aboriginal Australians were “choosing” their racial “identity” in order to get special privileges denied to white people. He didn’t bother checking the facts of the heritage of the appellants, and wrote the whole piece in a vicious and mean-spirited tone, and used it as a springboard for an attack on Aboriginal identity in general.

It’s not pretty: Australia has a history of attempted genocide against Aborigines, culminating in a 70-year long program of stealing Aboriginal children from their parents in order to “breed out the colour.” Aborigines were granted the right to vote in 1962 and in a powerful referendum in 1967 the Commonwealth was granted the right to pass laws on their behalf. In order to roll back some of the egregious racist ideas floating around in the community, and reverse generations of deliberate social exclusion, many such laws were passed in the following years. The situation of Aborigines in Australia is still bad and much still needs to be done; only in 2007 did the government apologize to the Stolen Generations.

He was forced to correct his lies: Having failed to check the actual heritage of the Aboriginal complainants, Bolt was found against by the Federal Court. The Court found that Bolt’s two articles

contained erroneous facts, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language and that as a result, the conduct of Mr Bolt and HWT is not justified

The court’s recommended relief was not that the articles be banned, and the court explicitly states (in section 461)

It is important that nothing in the orders I make should suggest that it is unlawful for a publication to deal with racial identification including challenging the genuineness of the identification of a group of people

The court simply requires that you get your facts right and not write in a racist tone if you want to talk about people’s racial heritage. The relief the court recommended was very simple: that both of Bolt’s columns could remain online on the newspaper site, but would have to have a correction of his lies published next to them, and that the newspaper would also have to publish a correction near his printed article. The court did not recommend banning the articles themselves or even an apology. No punitive damages were levied and in fact Bolt is lucky – the appellants could probably have nabbed him on a defamation charge and screwed quite a lot of money out of him, as well as getting the articles taken down.

We Don’t Have a Tradition of Free Speech: which is just as well, when you consider what our accents are like. Like most Westminster systems, the Australian political tradition is based on balancing rights, not absolute rights. The judgment on this case is a good example of this tradition in action, and bleating about being denied the right to say anything you like is a very American import to Australian political debate. You might be able to get away with it, but it’s not generally assumed that you should be able to get away with telling lies and saying racist things in public in Australia.

Assange’s Intervention

Since he’s a celebrity now, Assange gets to have an opinion on stuff that is well above his pay grade, and this is a classic example of a man with some fairly poorly-formed libertarian views holding forth on stuff he really isn’t very capable of analyzing. Andrew Elder at Politically Homeless gives a fairly solid analysis of Assange’s op-ed and shows it for the flimsy undergraduate thinking it is, so there’s no need to go through it in detail here. Basically, it’s a combination of straw man, slippery slope, and exaltation of the market. But the particular part that bothers me is his complete failure to take into account the way power relations shape the media landscape, and his foolish understanding of the structural barriers to free speech in Australia (or anywhere):

Democracy depends on the free flow of information and ideas. Opinions must be shared in ”a free and open encounter” because it is the competition between ideas that produces the truth. As Fredrick Siebert explained: ”The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other.”

This is just, well, ridiculously naive, and as Elder points out, if only the true and sound survived in an environment of true free speech, why is the notion that Aborigines are inferior to whites so commonly held in Australia? And why has it only begun to decline in popularity since the passing of the racial discrimination act? The key is in the first part of this shallow statement: the free flow of information and ideas.

There is no free flow of information and ideas in Australian public discourse, because the channels through which ideas “flow” are controlled by powerful interests, and some groups have more control over speech than others. This is why Ms. Eaton had to take Bolt to court: because he is a columnist in a national newspaper, with a very popular blog, and she is not. Without this court case, what option does Eaton have to engage in a debate with Bolt? Maybe she could write a newspaper column? No …  a letter to the editor? If the newspaper was willing to publish his lies, why would they willingly publish her correction? Perhaps she could turn up on his blog in comments to defend herself? Putting aside the kind of screaming monkeys who inhabit the comments section of Bolt’s blog, and the fact that he deletes comments he doesn’t like, this last option should make clear the nature of power in “free” speech in the modern world: Bolt as lying bastard, running a blog read by thousands; the woman he lied about, supplicant in his comments section being set upon by his readers. Who is going to win this encounter? How will the truth prevail?

The “true and sound” do not triumph in a marketplace of ideas; they drown in the sewage that is pumped out by people like Bolt. The only way the “true and sound” triumph is if someone or something – some instrument – exists to offer redress in the most egregious of cases, and to prevent the powerful from saying anything they want and silencing those they tell lies about. In Australia, this something is called the law and one of its more sensitive instruments is the Racial Discrimination Act. It’s thanks to this system that Bolt can’t get away with telling vile lies about a woman who never did anything to wrong him, and if his newspaper wants to benefit from his controversial positions they will occasionally be forced to publish retractions or corrections, and privately thank their lucky stars that their victim had the decency not to do them for defamation as well. Not that you’ll find Bolt showing so much introspection…

But Assange, undergraduate thinker that he is, thinks that Bolt and Eaton can compete on equal terms, and that any instrument which might serve to actually equalize their power is a dangerous attack on Bolt’s rights. Bolt, the man who still has his highly paid job at the centre of a major media machine, feted by rightists around the world and with his own tv show to boot. A man who gets to this position by snarling lies about ordinary people who cannot say anything in response, is forced to correct some of those lies long after the original damage was done. This, apparently, is the slippery slope to being woken up in your bed by armed thugs (really, this is what Assange says!)

Cyberpunk’s Failings

In the 90s there was a lot of talk about cyberpunk’s political and social critique, and even a documentary about the political program underlying it and its connections with the (then new) world of the internet and hacking. It was hailed as a new political idea, with a sense of the zeitgeist, a critical framework for viewing the new world of corporatization and hyper-consumerism, and – perhaps most importantly – a new way of viewing the role of information and media in a diversifying world. I think more than most other elements of science fiction – and definitely fantasy – cyberpunk was seen by its admirers and detractors as having a coherent political basis. Where sci-fi generally could claim pretensions to being “speculative” cyberpunk could be seen as – and indeed sometimes claimed itself to be – a transformative, political and cultural critique. Science fiction was concerned with lessons about humanity that could be gleaned from imagining the far future; cyberpunk was more interested in lessons about the near future that could be gleaned from analyzing the changing power structures of humanity’s present.

If any genre movement can be said to have a real-life political legacy, then cyberpunk’s can be seen in the world of the hackers, the politics of the internet, and new notions of the power of information. Long before health systems were discussing privacy measures, William Gibson was tackling the issue of privatized data with work like Johnny Mnemonic; the hackers and computer collectives of the 90s left a legacy of efforts to decentralize and democratize information, and the early activists of the newsgroup and blog world were hoping to democratize access to information and media. The ultimate expression of this political legacy is wikileaks. Obviously no one can claim that cyberpunk drove this, and we won’t find one day Assange saying “I got rendered to an American prison hulk because I read a William Gibson novel.” But this was the politics of the cyberpunk era, and the concept has currency as a basis for understanding these political movements.

So where have these movements come to? Wikileaks has fallen apart because of disputes about the way it used information[1], and perhaps now with Assange’s incursion into the mainstream media we can see why: its poster boy has a boy’s understanding of power and information. Cyberpunk’s central view of the future of society was a community where government abrogated its responsibilities and the economy was run by oligarchs; corporations compete ruthlessly in unregulated market places, and people are reduced to consumers, competing in a vicious labour market with no safety net or protections. In general, I think we were meant to interpret this as a bad thing; but it seems like the modern incarnation of cyberpunk’s information gurus are trying to present the same model for the exchange of information as if it were a good thing. Is this what the ideas of those original heady years of cyberpunk have brought us to? A reckless data dumper lecturing us from the bully pulpit about how we should let corporatism’s attack dogs say anything derogatory they like about anyone, because “information needs to be free” – even if the information is less than worthless and its victims have no recourse through a stacked corporate system? Is this what rebellion means, cyberpunk style – demanding that the government reveal everything it knows about everything, while insisting that anyone who is victimized by the world’s largest media corporation should be restricted to defending themselves anonymously in the comments section of their most odious commentator’s blog? Or perhaps Assange thinks that Ms. Eaton should just set up her own zaibatsu and have at it? And that’s not to mention, of course, that Assange tried to get his own unofficial biography pulped.

Cyberpunk was always presented by its defenders as a criticism of unbridled corporatism, but I was never 100% sure about that. Sometimes reading Gibson, you get the impression that he’s just a bit too impressed by what the corporations could do, that he’s carrying a boys-and-their-toys appreciation of hi-tech violence into his writing about their nefarious deeds. Maybe Assange’s problem with the elite controllers of information is that he admires them and wants to be part of their super-groovy world, but wasn’t let in. Maybe that’s what cyberpunk has always been – a bunch of boys crying at the gates to be let in so they can play with the cool toys, instead of having to retrofit the older versions down here in the slums with the rest of us.

A Brief Aside on Cyberpunk and Anarchism

I think that cyberpunk, libertarianism and Assange both have their philosophical roots in anarchist theory, which also posits the role of the state as a kind of magical short circuit on all forms of creativity and expression. Assange – like a lot of cyberpunk’s remnants – appears to be a libertarian, and libertarianism and anarchism share common roots, like elves and orcs. So it’s no surprise to find some support for Assange’s position amongst the semi-anarchist Australian left, though from a slightly different direction. Assange supports data freedom as a kind of creative destruction, in which we all get to find out everything we want to know about everything (I bet he craps in front of his girlfriend, too?); the Australian far left’s position on things like the Racial Discrimination Act appears to be that we should leave it unused, and fight the purveyors of lies on their own ground, through a kind of conflict of information exchange. This would be done through the formation (of course) of a mass movement (anarchists cooperate where libertarians compete). Dr Tad at Left Flank sees this as a chance for the Australian left to

start thinking about how we create facts on the ground that will delegitimize and sideline the likes of Bolt

He sees a chance for conflict, but doesn’t want that conflict settled by the state intervening. Dr Tad shares a similar view about the state intervening in industrial disputes, because without the state to restrain the corporations, the industrial left will get the kind of creative destruction it needs to remake society. I see both Assange and this form of anarchist hard leftism operating from the same ideological roots, though they see the means of winning the resulting battles differently (Assange wants individuals to compete with each other, while the anarchist left wants us to cooperate against the corporate controllers of power) and have different goals (Assange wants an op-ed in the Herald; the anarchist left wants to overthrow the government); but ultimately I think they both believe that their political goals of absolute freedom, though very differently constituted, will triumph only through a form of unbridled competition, even in the world of information. But history tells us that only the rich and powerful win in these situations, and that the most stable and rewarding societies to live in are those where the balance of interests is managed by a small but powerful state, controlled by a well-constituted democratic polity.

The Final Irony

The reality is – and let’s not gild the lily  here – that Assange is only able to write that op ed, rather than carving his name in the wall of a US prison hulk somewhere, because of the rule of law. The US doesn’t observe the rule of law that well, but the countries that Assange moves through expect at least a modicum of respect for their own, and so demand some kind of due process before their citizens can be treated like animals[2]. One would think, at this delicate time in Assange’s life, that he would put a little thought and reflection into that fact, and ask himself whether there is some analogy to be drawn between how he would be treated if this protection were withdrawn, and the way people like Ms. Eaton would be treated if their protections were withdrawn. He clearly hasn’t bothered to see in himself any parallels with Ms. Eaton – after all, he has an opinion piece in the Herald, while she has never had any fame and thus had to appeal to the state to secure her rights, like some kind of weakling – but perhaps if he showed a little more introspection it would occur to him that power can be misused in any area of society, and his case is not really so special in the end. Perhaps he could even dwell on that while rich friends fund his multiple legal defenses against what he considers to be egregious misuses of power. But my guess is he won’t get to think properly and clearly about that until he’s inside the aforementioned prison hulk …

fn1: and a focused US campaign of cutting off its funding

fn2: well, mostly

Manifest Destiny

Returning to Hearts of Iron 2 after a long hiatus, I finally struck the motherlode and annexed the USA after months of trans-atlantic hide-and-seek. The forces of imperialism and racism refused to surrender, showing much more bravery and persistence than my top social researchers had credited them with, and after I captured all of mainland USA they moved their capital to their offshore imperial holdings: first some godforsaken place on the Atlantic coast of latin America, which of course I liberated; then Greenland, which is easy to invade because there is nowhere for US soldiers to hide; then their colonial possessions in Iceland. Getting to Iceland required that I declare war on Portugal and capture the Azores, sinking the Portuguese Atlantic fleet in the process. This was unfortunate, but ultimately my continental European campaign will be made easier by the availability of a second front – I am after all at war with Republican Spain, and a second leaping-off point for the invasion of Britain will be handy.

Once I had overrun Iceland the USA continued its flight, like Gaddafi or Hussein; they moved their capital step by step across the Aleutians and the Manchukuo 8th Division followed them, in concert with one of my more hardened units of marines; after the Aleutians had been entirely occupied they disappeared for a month or two, but I finally discovered them cowering on a slip of land in the Pacific called Tinian Island – right under my nose, in fact, because the neighbouring islands were garrisoned by my home guard. So, in went Manchukuo’s famous 8th, once again, and the final battle was joined. This was a battle of bureaucrats as much as anything else, because the US lacked soldiers, industry or equipment, and was hiding in what was essentially a coral atoll. The president himself, his family and the few retainers and functionaries of the surviving government of the USA were all that remained and, I’m sad to say, they fought to the last family member. Or so the grizzled veterans of the Manchukuo 8th told me. Only the most barbaric of peoples would force even primary-school aged children to fight! Such a shame they all had to die … though I hear there was rejoicing on the streets of America (or what’s left of them, in most cases) after 6 years of war were finally brought to an end.

So now I find myself facing off against China, who declared war on me 2 years ago and in the first heady stages of that war managed to seize huge amounts of territory from me – all of India, Burma, Nepal and Tibet, in fact. I hold them in a line from the border of Burma through Guangzhou and up to Qingdao, and also the northern areas around Beijing, but it’s been a desperate slog for both sides, as huge numbers of my soldiers have been tied up in the USA and getting them back can take months of reorganization. I’ve now started landing forces around Qingdao and western Thailand ready for the big counter-attack: my aim is to cut off huge chunks of the Chinese army at Tianjin in the North and Sittang in the south, and then destroy them, before pushing into the inland from Beijing and Guilin and working an encirclement the size of a continent.

In many ways China have been harder than the US, because they US focused its industry on naval and airforce units, and when I finally landed on the mainland they had very little infantry for me to roll up – in fact a good 3-6 month period of the war on the west coast was taken up with defeating a large Canadian land army. But the Chinese have an enormous land army, that is fielded in great clots of men – 100,000 here, 200,000 there, maybe a million in total camped around Beijing and Tianjin and constantly trying to break through that poor beleaguered city. Every victory is followed by a defeat, and battlezones like the plains south of Beijing or the karst landscapes of Guilin have seen our armies crossing and re-crossing the killing zones for months. The nature of the Chinese campaign, with so many soldiers, makes it very hard to conduct encirclement operations, because they have so many soldiers that they have an excellent defense in depth. I have to wait for them to push a salient towards the sea, then snap it off in counter-attacks that are costly in time and men. So far I think I’ve captured about 100,000 men (10-12 divisions) at the loss of 20,000 of mine, and I have the enemy teetering on the brink of collapse. I regularly devastate their industrial centres, and their capital is a smoking, radioactive hole – Chengdu and Chongqing have both been nuked, and thrice hit with conventional missile attacks, as have many of their industrial centres. I’ve captured Nanjing, Guangzhou and some of the mountain approaches to the South, and hope soon to overrun Guilin. I know that they’re unable to maintain reinforcements for their army, feed their populace and keep dissent under control without abandoning all other industrial tasks. I think soon they will lose the ability even to control dissent and reinforce their troops.

In anticipation of this, I’m now reorganizing my naval forces to start starving the British, with a naval blockade of Britain itself and a submarine force set to prowl the Caribbean. China is going to take another year to beat, and I’m going to need to leave a huge force there in readiness for any aggression by the Soviets, but I think in a year’s time I’ll be in a position to start attacking Western Europe. I hold the Azores and Iceland, so a simultaneous attack on Portugal and the UK is a distinct possibility. But first I’m going to clean up the UK’s Caribbean territories, to ensure there is no way they can stage counter-attacks on the US.

The big problem I’m having with this game is that the computer never surrenders. Even when I have reduced it to a rump of two provinces, with no military or industry, it still refuses to surrender. This drives me crazy, because it means I waste months trying to find and capture every single territory the enemy possesses, even coral atolls like Tinian. I even once tried starting the game from a saved game as my enemy, and suing for peace with myself, but the computer wouldn’t accept my generous offer. This makes the endgame of every war unrealistic and is going to be a particular pain in the arse with Britain – conquering Africa is sooooo tedious.

Other than that, though, I’m having  a great time. The main question I have to put to my readers: what shall I call America? It’s clearly no longer the USA, so what should I call it?

« Previous PageNext Page »