Evolution of a New Atheist

Evolution of a New Atheist

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

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

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

The New Atheists will never change anything

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

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

Scientists are not good Atheists

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

The New Atheists are poor scholars

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

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

They give atheism a bad name

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

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

Atheism is not a movement and never will be

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only what you see man, only what you see

Only what you see man, only what you see

Today a friend took me, without explanation, to see Sophie Calle’s The Unsold (売り残し) at Koyanagi Gallery in Ginza. I don’t often attend art shows – let alone modern art installations – and I almost never visit Ginza, so this was a real novelty for me, but despite my initial misgivings it was definitely worth it. Here is my review.

When I entered the gallery my first glance revealed an installation of everyday objects, including two dresses, that to my jaundiced and cynical eye immediately resembled Tracey Emin’s execrable bed-type stuff, and I was immediately disappointed. However, right at the door there is an introductory explanation (in Japanese and English) of the premise of the work, which changed my mind. Basically, three artists set up a flea market in the grounds of Yasukuni Jinja. They laid out their wares on three squares of cloth, as shown in the picture. One (I don’t recall which) sold worthless every day items, to each of which was attached a story that actually happened (i.e. a real story) with some relationship to the item but in which the item itself was not directly involved (so e.g. the typewriter on sale is not necessarily the typewriter from the story). Another sold a mixture of semi-antiques (cutely mis-spelled as “semi-antics” in this exhibition) and ordinary items, to which were attached completely fake stories with apparent emotional content[1]. The third sold actual antiques, and one of his original photos. For example one person was selling a completely normal bra for about 25,000 yen, and another person was selling a picture of a psycho-analyst (freud?) for 38,000 yen. One of the antiques was an ancient ceramic hot water bottle, and the picture was a pretty cool sea/sky thing. Each artist catalogued what they sold and the amount of money they sold it for – which was surprisingly large. Apparently an American tour guide passed by as this sale was going on and told his charges “there is nothing here, ignore it.” (Cute). The explanation finishes with the simple, curt phrase “These are the unsold.” So the exhibition consists of the material that was not sold.

This exhibition consists of three pieces of cloth on which the remaining items are laid out, attached to each of which is a tag with the price and the story. Behind each installation, on the wall, is a photo of the original setup, so you can see what was sold. On the opposite wall are the tags for the sold items, with their corresponding story. These tags have no information about the item to which they correspond, so you have to wander across to the original picture and guess. The stories are really interesting and believable, though whether they are actually true or not I have no clue. Investigating on wikipedia I discovered that the Eiffel tower story is true, and just as unbelievable as it sounds – Sophie Calle certainly knows how to do crazy things (I can’t remember if the item attached to this story was sold or not).

I’m an uncultured barbarian, so I have no idea what this installation was trying to tell me about whatever, but I thought it was really cool. Trying to understand why people bought these ludicrously overpriced objects because of their vague stories, or didn’t buy some object even though its story was cool, was an exercise in intruding into someone else’s private life. The stories themselves were fascinating, disconnected monologues, none of which I believed (but some of which I have subsequently learnt are real!) I can’t speak for the Japanese but the English used in the broader narrative descriptions – what the exhibition is about, how the artists met – is clear, sparse and strong. The structure of the main introductory sign and its finishing statement, “These are the Unsold” is particularly powerful, and suits the style of the exhibition. It’s a simple idea done well, and it holds your attention. Why did the passersby leave the charred bedspring and buy the useless typewriter? This, I cannot fathom. I wouldn’t buy the red bucket some guy pissed in, but why would someone else buy the bottle. Also the story of the horn is acutely sad and the horn is quite cheap, but apparently un-sellable. What does that mean?

I didn’t know anything about Sophie Calle before this exhibition, but reading her Wikipedia page I get the impression that she is a powerful, prodigious and generally unethical talent. My friend has also seen the exhibit Take Care of Yourself, which as the quoted reviewer says seems to be both shallow and deeply engaging. Her attempt to get blind people to define beauty sounds like it has the potential to be very powerful (I don’t draw any conclusions!) and the work where she gets a guy to shadow her and then presents pictures of herself sounds really interesting. Invading others’ privacy, not so much. How come medical researchers have to get ethics approval, but French artistes can pursue some guy across the world, or hijack a stolen diary for money?

Don’t answer that.

Anyway, I’d never heard of Sophie Calle before today and I think her work is a genuinely interesting and challenging example of modern art at its finest. I don’t know what she’s trying to say with this exhibition and I can’t really say what I think of it, but it’s really cool. It would be better if she followed it up with some kind of article in a peer-reviewed journal giving her conclusion about what the purchases and non-purchases mean, instead of leaving it to an ignorant rube like me to try and understand, and if she had found a way to summarize what was bought and wasn’t (e.g. rankings with stories, or a website where you can see all the objects with what was bought and what wasn’t, and its story) then the exhibition would have been even cooler. But despite these missed opportunities this exhibition is very cool, and in general I have to say Sophie Calle’s work seems pretty interesting. I hope more of her stuff comes to Japan, and I recommend visiting it if you are in Japan, or keeping an eye out for her work if you are not.




fn1: I may be mis-remembering the exact nature of what these items were, but I hope you get the general gist.

The 2013 Booker prize shortlist was released recently, and to my surprise I saw a book on the list that looked appealing: Jim Crace’s Harvest. I’ve never read a Booker prize winner and only read two books ever nominated – both by Margaret Atwood – so I thought it would be interesting to see if the prize functions as any kind of recommendation.

I won’t make that mistake again.

Harvest is a novel supposedly about the period of Enclosure in Britain, when land previously held in common was enclosed and privatized. As far as I understand it, the common view of history (and certainly the one I was taught in school in the UK when they taught this) was that Enclosure was an enormously important and beneficial land reform that improved productivity and wealth, and led to the modernization of Britain. An alternative theory of history that I think has some popularity amongst radical leftists (especially anarchists) and eco-radicals is that Enclosure was an act of theft, in which the wealthy and ruling classes of Britain expropriated land from their tenants, drove them out to form a landless labouring class, and then exploited them as cheap labour. I think there is some truth to this claim, though it needs to be counter-posed against whatever horrors subsistence farming on the feudal commons brought about for the peasantry; certainly when I was taught Enclosure at school in the UK, nobody mentioned sheep – it was presented as a way of improving productivity and the lives of peasants, and presented as having been introduced alongside the agricultural advances of crop rotation.
So I was interested in a novel which explored a social drama against this context, of a village life being rapidly changed through Enclosure. The basic story is summarized at the Picador website:

As late summer steals in and the final pearls of barley are gleaned, a village comes under threat. A trio of outsiders – two men and a dangerously magnetic woman – arrives on the woodland borders and puts up a make-shift camp. That same night, the local manor house is set on fire.

Over the course of seven days, Walter Thirsk sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbours held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it . . .

Told in Jim Crace’s hypnotic prose, Harvest evokes the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed. Timeless yet singular, mythical yet deeply personal, this beautiful novel of one man and his unnamed village speaks for a way of life lost for ever.

The story proceeds very quickly from the harvest to the events described above. It is a straightforward plot, viewed through the eyes of a man who slowly gets excluded from his community as events turn nasty. It’s well written and evocative, although one quickly begins to see the technical devices Crace is using, so the prose becomes a bit same-same after a while. This isn’t a bad thing though, since the consistent style and the nature of the imagery are evocative of a late summer in the country of the distant past – you do feel like you’re reading about a different, simpler world of growers and spinners. Crace also manages to very solidly ground the lead character, Thirsk, in the foreground while making many of the villagers distant and washed out figures, not really described in detail and their inner lives hidden, in such a way that you do feel like you stand only with Thirsk, that you are something of an outsider, and that the village has an inner life you don’t understand. I think this is good for looking back at a time that we can’t really understand or feel any common cause with.

However, the book has serious flaws. First and most importantly, the ending is completely unsatisfactory. You don’t find out most of the reasons why most of the things described in the blurb happened, and you certainly don’t get to see any kind of resolution of any of them. Maybe it was Crace’s intention to have 7 days of chaos fall on a village for no reason, to be left unresolved and confused at the end … if so, he’s a punishing and mean writer. I think more likely he thought that he had resolved the story, and didn’t realize he hadn’t at all. Walter Thirsk’s final actions are also incomprehensible and weak, and we don’t see in them what I think Crace intended us to see. The plot is building to an interesting resolution involving several forces – the villagers, the strangers, the two lords and Walter – but instead all these separate threads go basically unresolved (except perhaps the strangers). To the extent that any of these people are built up as characters in the novel (and most aren’t, or drift through it as archetypes), Crace betrays them by showing a complete lack of interest in their fate.
Second, Enclosure plays almost no role in this story. Enclosure does not happen to the village, and the technician charged with the central task of implementing it is treated in such a way as to give the reader the impression that no one is interested in Enclosure and it is not going to happen. We are told that the strangers are fleeing from the enclosure of their own lands but we see no evidence of this, and because we never meet those strangers properly we cannot hear their story of Enclosure or know if their flight was the correct response – maybe they were criminals at home, too? Much of the resistance to Enclosure described in the book is also based on cultural objections, with no deeper political or structural analysis. We don’t hear any hint of empoverishment or land theft, though there is the impression given that some villagers will have to leave; nonetheless the villagers’ objection to Enclosure (described entirely through the opinions of Walter Thirsk) is primarily cultural: they have a way of life they don’t want to change, and they don’t like sheep. I don’t think, given this, that it can be said that “Harvest evokes the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed.” There is nothing irrevocable about the enclosure in this book (that doesn’t happen), and the reasons the community is scattered are to do with witchcraft and feudal terror, not enclosure – which most of the community are still ignorant of when they leave. Even the three we supposedly know are on the lam from their previous community are clearly criminals, and could be fleeing for that reason as much as any other. I guess we’re meant to see the interaction between village and strangers as a clash between the new, threatening post-enclosure world and the Britain of the rural past, but I don’t see it, and the villagers respond to the strangers solely on the basis of their foreignness – their response is that of old Britain, and not motivated by (or even aware of) the possibility that these strangers might be a new class of dangerous, land-less worker. There is no political struggle in this book. Which is fine, but I think the role of Enclosure in the story has been completely over-egged.
Finally, this story has no special underlying thread or deeper plot: it is not the case that “something even darker is at the heart of [Walter Thirsk’s] story.” It’s just a tale of stupidity and nastiness on the edge of the earth, and the nastiness is so disconnected from sense and so pointless and stupid that it’s hard to credit on its face, let alone as the surface manifestation of “something even darker.” This is a story of a bad lord and some stupid villagers. Maybe the bad lord has a bigger plot to what he is doing, but we don’t find out because his story is not resolved; and if he does have a bigger plot, it’s clear what it is, and it’s not “something even darker,” it’s just plain old-fashioned viciousness deployed in the economic interests of the ruling class – something the book studiously fails to draw out in any great detail.
So in the end I just can’t see what is special enough about this book to win it a nomination for a Booker prize. It’s just a simple though well-written story about some trouble in a village. What are their criteria? Why is this prize special? Certainly some of the winners look like insufferably self-conscious attempts at literary fiction, and I guess that being on the panel must be unrewarding drudgery if you have to read through 6 or 8 novels desperately trying to be “weighty” without offending anyone. Harvest certainly gave the impression of trying to be weighty and literary without actually having anything resembling a decent plot or systematic under-pinning. It’s good, but it’s not exceptional and it’s certainly not well-crafted.
I’ve noticed that the Booker prize has come in for a fair bit of criticism on the grounds that it is really just a sheltered workshop for a dying and falsely ring-fenced genre, “literary fiction,” and I think I’m inclined to agree. This blogger describes the panel as an “ethnically pure, upper middle class cartel” and bemoans the lack of science fiction or fantasy in the prize. Certainly, looking at the lists of past short-lists and winners it seems pretty clear that the “cartel” are restricting the prize to an in-group of a few authors. For example, the 1985 list includes Doris Lessing, Peter Carey and Iris Murdoch – 50% of the list are past winners or regular short-listers. How is it possible that amongst all the literature of the Commonwealth for a single year, the same three people can end up getting in the top 6? Is the pool of good literature in the Commonwealth really so limited? Iain M. Banks’s The Wasp Factory was released in 1984, and he has published almost every year since – yet he doesn’t appear in a single short list, and I can’t see any evidence that this novel made the longlist either. Similarly Mieville’s best-constructed three works (The Scar, Perdido Street Station and The City and The City) don’t appear, neither does Philip Pullman, Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and of course nothing from the crime and mystery genres. I would say that The Rivers of London is a better work than Harvest, yet nothing like it appears on the short list. As others have observed, this prize exists to police the perimeters of a dying genre of literature, whose purveyors are labouring under the false impression is not a genre, but somehow the essence of fiction. It isn’t – it’s a dull backwater for people who take themselves too seriously.
From next year, the Booker will be opened to American writers, and some see this as the end of the prize. I’m not a big fan of contemporary American fiction, so I don’t see that as a likely outcome, but were the Booker panel to consider science fiction, fantasy and genre fiction then yes, that would be it for the Commonwealth writers – and certainly for British writers. How amusing, then, that a Guardian critic of this decision writes:
When eligibility shifts from the UK, Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe to English-language novels published in the UK, it is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic super-power exerting its own literary tastes
Well, whether it’s an economic super-power exerting its literary tastes or a white upper middle class conspiracy theory, we’re not going to see a shift to any kind of recognition of actual quality in literature. At least if the Americans are let in, there might be a chance of introducing a bit of democratic diversity to the judging. Or will there? I bet next year’s prize will contain the same narrow range of “acceptable” lit-fic blandness, and not a whiff of genre fiction in sight. Which is a great thing for all 6 lit-fic authors still plugging away at that stuff, but a shame for all the unsung novelists who write genuinely good stuff that people actually want to read.
At least until it diversifies we can be fairly confident that the Booker prize is a warrant of mediocrity, and avoid wasting money on its nominees …

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

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

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


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

and maybe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today we heard word of a scandal overtaking the modern Tokyo phenomenon of AKB48. Their 14th most popular member, Minegishi Minami, was caught by a journalist leaving the house of a “boyfriend,” a 19 year old member of some random boy band (compared to AKB48, the boy band in question is largely irrelevant). The pictures were published in some scandal rag, Shukan bunshun (週刊文春), a magazine which basically makes its income from printing shit. As a result of this indiscretion, Miss Minegishi has been demoted to research student (kenkyusei) status, meaning a massive loss of pay and  that in the strange heirarchy of AKB48 she will have to climb back up the ranks to reclaim her position as an enormously popular public figure.

The heart bleeds, doesn’t it? Actually the apology is a beautiful and heartfelt thing, and it’s clear that Miss Minegishi is under a lot of pressure, as one might expect if one were published leaving the house of one’s lover the morning after a trist and published in a magazine read by millions of people, in a country where everyone (well, not me!) is watching you and discretion in sexual encounters is paramount. This is a nation where holding hands in public is still frowned upon by many young people, and kissing generally avoided at all costs. Being photographed the morning after a shag is obviously going to be very embarrassing.

AKB48 sold $200 million of records alone in 2011, and endorse everything from elections to instant coffee. They are the very definition of a household name, and getting into the top 48 of this weird little business enterprise is a license to print money for the young women involved. It’s also not easy: their recent documentary carries the subtitle no flower without rain, which draws on an old saying about how beauty and/or success depend on suffering. The structure of the AKB48 system is redolent of university and the early years of the corporate system: it is intended to reproduce the sense of having to strive to make it, being indebted to one’s seniors, and being vulnerable in the face of life’s challenges. In many ways, AKB48 are perfect representatives of the Japanese notion of gaman, of having to suffer through adverse circumstances to achieve: this is the same spirit of gaman that enables Judo masters to bully their charges[1], but which makes a Sumo wrestler like Takanoyama enormously popular because he tries so hard. Two sides of the same coin … I don’t know if it could be said that Miss Meinegishi is being bullied in this instance, though … what she did do is fall foul of a contractual obligation not to go on dates. That’s right – AKB48 girls are not allowed to go on dates! The Guardian article makes it appear as if this rule is based on “the strict rules to which Japan’s young pop stars must adhere to project an image of unimpeachable morals” but this isn’t the reason at all – that’s just bullshit western misinterpretation of east Asia’s so-called conservatism. The real reason that Miss Minegishi has to live a sexless (or at least secret) life until she “graduates” from AKB48 is that her band is idolized by nerds and pre-sexual teenage girls, and to both groups of fans they have to appear pure and single. These are girls next door who are struggling through a metaphorical high school/university/early corporate life, and girls like that don’t get DP’d in love hotels.

Miss Minegishi’s extreme haircut is also not forced on her by her contract: she did this all by herself, to symbolize her abasement. This means she’s going to be trying extra hard to regain the favour of her fans, and my prediction is that this little cock up is going to be a goldmine for her and for the AKB48 business: she’ll soon be returned to the top ranks, fans will love her more for having fallen and strived, and there’ll be another documentary with tears and struggle – a genre that AKB48’s fans love.

Which brings me to my William Gibson-esque point: these girls are Japan’s modern shrine maidens, the modern equivalent of western nuns of yesteryear. They’re required to swear themselves to celibacy, live lives of constant self-flagellation and torment, and simultaneously have to symbolize everything that is admired in the women of their time: chastity, beauty, sexiness, innocence and endurance. They also have to tread the line of hypocrisy that characterizes modern attitudes towards young women: at the same time as they are making swimsuit videos and soft porn, these girls will get demoted if they are caught having sex. And because it’s Japan they also have to be educated: there’s currently a TV show about some of these girls going to college and trying to get a qualification. William Gibson has a few short stories about these kinds of characters in the cyberpunk world (I think Idoru is the most apt, though I haven’t read it): women whose celebrity depends on their embodying all of the ideals of femininity of their time, and whose personal lives are warped or ruined as a result of it. So let’s hear it for Minami Minegishi, embodiment of all the trials and tribulations of modern womanhood – and of the complexities of the cyberpunk era. Ganbare, Minegishi san! The hopes of a generation, and the weight of an entire society’s sexist expectations, are resting on your skinny shoulders …

fn1: though maybe not anymore: watch the video of the coach apologizing and listen to the cameras – the girls he bullied weren’t willing to tolerate it and his humiliation is pretty much complete. These guys’ world is changing, and it’s apparent that they aren’t catching up…

This week Crooked Timber seems to be on a bit of a thanksgiving roll, and has various commentaries on the greats of the revolution and the civil war, mostly negative. In amongst them is a nasty little piece on Thomas Jefferson as prototypical fascist racial theorist, which is stirring some aggressive debate. As always there’s some really interesting material in the comments, and it appears that some genuine historians of that era are stalking the comment thread, dispensing their wisdom. At the same time, various defenders of Jefferson are rocking up and throwing stones, and I note that (rightly or wrongly) the response over there to the suggestion that one of the founding fathers was a racial essentialist is very similar to the response that I sometimes see here to my accusations that Tolkien’s work presents a model of inter-war or Nazi racist theory. We get quotes from his letters presented as proof against his public utterances; we get elision of the central question of the debate (did the man propound a racist theory?) with other, less relevant questions (was he a bad man?); we get accusations that it’s all just do-gooding liberal self-haters hating; we get told to leave off because he was just a product of his time[1]. Admittedly the debate as presented there is simultaneously murkier and clearer: Jefferson’s writings are political writings, and he held political influence, so any racial theorizing in his writings is rather more relevant to black people in America than anything in Tolkien’s; but at the same time Jefferson enacted good laws to free slaves, so we have to find a way to understand the laws in light of the speech, and this is not a problem that applies to Tolkien. But I sense that a certain proportion of the American populace, including academia, hold the founding fathers in a similar degree of reverence to that with which the nerd world holds Tolkien, and for those people the challenge of reconciling Jefferson’s private words with his public acts induces a level of distress that is interesting to observe, and I think similar to the distress some nerds feel when they realize that their central, canonical text is also a racist guidebook.

For my lights, I haven’t a clue about Jefferson and I don’t think the founding Fathers should be held in any esteem – we’re 300 years past their due date and the constitution they wrote is a flawed business, as is the Republic they founded. But the debate is interesting[2], and it seems that Jefferson’s defenders can’t cope with the central thrust of the post, which is that Jefferson believed it right to free slaves, but was preparing a quite unpleasant racial theory to justify nasty measures in the aftermath. There’s a lot of evidence presented in comments that having unpleasant views about black people is not inconsistent with being opposed to slavery, so for example Lincoln is quoted as having said:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgement will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality… I agree with judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. (emphasis in original)

I think that this kind of position – standing up to your fellow racial equals for the rights of people you think are inferior, in a situation that is rapidly heading towards war – is an enormously brave and noble undertaking, although the stupidity of the beliefs presented there should be self-evident in the modern age. But it shows that we can judge people of previous eras by our modern lights: Lincoln, though he thought black people inferior to whites, still understood the importance of compassion and basic dignity, and his actions and words show that it is possible to demand a certain basic universal compassion at all stages of history. And from what’s written in the main post, it’s not clear that Jefferson was on board with that compassion, and his defenders aren’t able to make a clear argument to state that he was[3]. This is rather disappointing for an academic blog, but not unexpected given the topic.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see that similar defensive strategies appear in both debates. I guess it’s a universal hallmark of the fanboy …

fn1: though Chris Y at comment 24 deals with that nicely:

Samuel Johnson also: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

fn2: There’s a cute side-note about Washington in the comments, that players of my Compromise and Conceit campaign will love: during the retreat from New York the British evacuated all their black allies, and Washington, charming soul that he was, made repeated demands of the British that they leave behind “American property” (i.e. several thousand human beings). That’s exactly what the Washington in my campaign would have done too, had he lived. Or perhaps in suing for peace he would have demanded the repatriation of his “property.”

fn3: Though neither his defenders nor the writer of the post seem to be interested in making an effort to reconcile the conflicting opinions Jefferson seemed to hold, which I would have thought was a key part of the task of defending or damning him.

In today’s Guardian is an article by Naomi Wolf that attempts to link the growth in anti-abortion laws in the US to its imperialist foreign policy. A lot of feminists poo-poo Naomi Wolf as “feminism lite” or politically suspect (I think this having something to do with a prior excursion into the US’s overly-fraught abortion debate), but although I don’t often agree with her I think she’s worth reading, and has some interesting ideas. She also, as in this article, occasionally manages to look beyond the interests of middle class Americans when discussing feminism and politics, and I think that’s rare, so it’s worth reading. In this article she attempts to suggest that the US’s enactment of draconian and oppressive policies overseas is coming back to bite women domestically, as the state begins to enact domestically the same kind of surveillance and control laws that it has been using overseas. In support of her argument she gives this historical example from Imperial Britain:

I had an “Aha” moment recently in Oxford. I was speaking about the British Contagious Diseases Acts – legislation passed in the 1860s that caused thousands of women be arrested and locked up for up to eight months at a time for looking as if they might have had sex. A graduate student asked me, perceptively, if I had looked at this issue in relation to issues of empire at that time, and another student noted in response that imperial British forces had, at around the same time, set up a complex and expansive equivalent of “lock hospitals” to incarcerate and manage prostitutes in colonised regions.

This is an example of policy trialed overseas (“lock hospitals”) and then implemented locally. But I don’t think that her example is a correct interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act or its purpose, and I think her overall thesis is wrong in its broad strokes and its precise details. Specifically: Imperialism is not a kind of sympathetic magic that corrupts its originating body; and (more relevantly) the US does not have an empire. Let’s tackle each of these points in turn.

Was the Contagious Diseases Act an imperial import?

I would dispute Wolf’s interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act (CDA), which did not aim to arrest women who “looked like they had sex.” It was aimed at sex workers, and the targets of the law were women who looked like they were soliciting or had been soliciting sex: poor women out alone at unsavoury hours. This law’s victims were Thomas Hardy’s women, not Jane Austen’s. We shouldn’t confuse the act’s main female opponents (high-born women) with its main female victims (sex workers and poorhouse girls). I wrote a post some time back about the CDA and its subsequent reincarnations, and it should be clear that its intended target was poor women and sex workers, and its purpose, though fundamentally nationalist, was not directly related to the imperial project: it was aimed at protecting the moral health of the nation. If we look at other nations of the same era, they were equally obssessed with this nebulous concept, without having any imperial projects under way: Japan at that time was pursuing a policy of isolation for “the health of the nation,” which is precisely as far removed from imperialism as it’s possible to get. We also don’t need to go looking for secret imperialist influences on the CDA: its motivating moral force, and the concerns underlying it, were clearly stated in the public utterances of its supporters, and though they had a lot to do with national power they weren’t necessarily directly linked to imperial projects. It may be that the authors worked out how to run it from the experience of colonial officers, but that’s not proof of anything more than bureaucratic experience. Which brings us to the second problem with Wolf’s thesis: the idea of imperialism as exerting a corrupting influence on the culture of the core.

Imperialism is not sympathetic magic

Although it’s tempting to present a moral argument against institutions like slavery, mass incarceration and imperialism by arguing that they corrupt the body politic through the evil deeds that they demand of society, I don’t think the argument is actually realistic. In the case of imperialism, it’s perfectly easy to see historical examples of empires where the periphery was largely left to itself or managed quite independently of the politics of the centre (Rome springs to mind), or where the periphery could have a lot of political and economic freedom provided it didn’t rebel – I think British India is an example of this. The soviet empire could probably safely be said to have done nothing so bad in the periphery as it had already done to its own people in the centre, so it can’t really be said that the actions at the periphery changed the politics of the core for the worse. Aside from a couple of weeks in 2007, it can’t be said that Britain ever experienced the kinds of harsh policing measures developed so effectively in Northern Ireland between 1967 and the early 1990s; nor would it be fair to say that the only cultural imports from the colonies to Britain were negative racial and political segregation or oppression – much of the cultural flow was positive. Furthermore, British actions towards the Indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand, which occurred in roughly the same historical period, were completely different in both policy justification, implementation and outcome. Why, if the repressive policies of the colonies affect the political framework of the colonizer, did Britain not implement the same policies in two neighbouring countries at the same time? Britain’s colonial policies were never so centralized or monolithic – they were determined on the basis of local conditions, available manpower, political support, practical value and the personalities and political conditions of the local administrators. This is why New Zealand never received the punitive treatment meted out to Ireland, or the patchwork genocide planned for Australia. Finally, and most relevantly, if we concede that the USA maintained some kind of empire in the 19th century (in the Phillipines and Central America), it’s hard to see how the people there were treated worse than people in the USA. There was no widespread institution of slavery, and the only genocide I’m aware of the US ever practicing was in the USA itself. It’s not like they got the idea of exterminating the natives from their projects in the Philipines. I would go further and say, imperialism doesn’t corrupt the imperialist: the imperialist must have been already corrupted to think of such a thing, and anyone who thinks that stomping another nation into the dust for your own gain is likely to be willing to overlook a little collateral damage in his own backyard too.

The experience of many colonial powers is that the politics practiced on the periphery never comes back to the core in any meaningful way, and in more recent times it has been essential, in fact, to hide the worst excesses of the colonial branch of government, lest people begin to feel squeamish about the program. From about the mid-19th century onward, people wanted to believe they could have the material benefits of empire without suffering the political and cultural costs that Naomi Wolf wants us to think were inherent in the project, and governments went to great lengths to ensure that this happened. Why should modern America’s “empire” be any different? But then, does modern America have an empire at all?

Does America have an empire?

If you listen to the right people, you’ll soon discover that almost all of America’s foreign policy actions can be explained by its imperialism. But does America have an empire, and is “it’s the imperialism, innit?” a good approach to understanding America’s (generally terrible) foreign policies? I differ from a lot of my bleeding-heart, do-gooding, pro-gay-abortion islamofascist leftist brothers on this issue: I don’t think the USA has an empire and I don’t think “imperialism” explains its actions. Imperialism is a bad habit of old nations, not the new world: we have our own problems, and we’re certainly not immune to the temptations of territorial acquisition (see e.g. Indonesia), wars of choice (America) or wars for political convenience (Australia) – but we don’t generally engage in imperialism. Sometimes America’s foreign policy delivers outcomes (such as in Iraq) that look like imperialism, but that’s just a coincidence. And sure, there are probably some far, far right loons in the USA who don’t see anything morally wrong with establishing an American empire, but they almost certainly would think it’s too much trouble and in any case they don’t represent America or American politicians. If we could characterize America’s motives more realistically, it would be as a nation that wants to establish the right to do whatever it wants whenever and however it wants. So, sometimes this means being able to act like an imperialist (Iraq), an arsehole (Grenada) or an interfering little shit (most of Central America) but this is not the same as imperialism. One could probably talk about American cultural and trade empires, but that’s a different use of the E-word. Basically, America has established a pre-eminent place in the world through good deeds (WW2) and bad (Vietnam, etc.) and through a remarkable 100 years of dynamism and wise decisions (let’s not overlook this!), and in order to protect its position will sometimes do terrible things. But it doesn’t currently have an empire, nor does it have anything even remotely resembling imperial policies in its periphery that could be imported to the core or even influence it much. A few seedy and unpleasant policies enacted in areas beyond the rule of law (Afghanistan and Yemen) do not constitute an institution, either. We’ll

So what is it with all this loony anti-choice stuff?

What this means is that America’s domestic political problems are the result of its domestic political culture[1]. I am no expert on US politics or culture, but my guess would be that the upswing in anti-abortion laws in the US simply reflects a combination of growing religious feeling, the fruits of 20 years of right-wing dominance of political forums in the states, and – probably most importantly – the coalescing of grassroots right-wing activism around a large amount of elite money. In order to get their free market and anti-AGW politics widespread, certain political interests have funded a strong right-wing movement and been more than happy to overlook its religious and racist fringe. This is naturally going to have some consequences in social policy.

An alternative explanation – and the one that I suspect Naomi Wolf is building up an intellectual edifice to protect herself against – is that a lot (or a majority) of Americans are genuinely, deeply committed to an anti-abortion politics, that this is their real heartfelt belief, and they take the issue seriously enough to be willing to pay a political price (in supervision of women’s behavior) to get their way on the issue. Although to me the contrast between the pro-life movement’s stance on abortion and war is hypocritical and sickening, I don’t think there’s any cognitive dissonance or intellectual challenge to holding these beliefs, and I don’t see a need to come up with a complex story of sympathetic cultural magic to explain the apparent contradictions within the right-wing anti-choice movement[2]. In fact, I find the left-wing anti-choice movement much harder to comprehend. So Naomi, rather than looking to your country’s nebulously-defined foreign policy imperialism as an explanation, look somewhere simpler: you need to find a way to change your compatriots’ minds on abortion. You probably won’t, but that’s not the fault of imperialism or George Bush: it’s because a lot of Americans deeply believe something you don’t.

A final note on imperialism and role-playing

Obviously this blog has branched out a little from talking about only RPGs in the last two years. This is partly because I like having a forum to talk about whatever I like, and it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want; it’s partly because I’m not doing so much role-playing now I’m so busy. It’s also partly because my framework for analyzing cultural stuff (both within the fantasy/rpg world and outside of it) is heavily influenced by post-colonialism, which is I think quite a natural perspective for a modern Australian (though I don’t claim it’s the only one). But bear with me: I think imperialism and colonialism are relevant topics in the gaming world, in the sense that a lot of fantasy RPGs and fantasy literature are set in a world where colonialism and imperialism are either good things or accepted, and quite often colonies are a core part of the story. In fact recently I saw an advert for a new computer game with the slogan “Explore, Exploit, Exterminate.” So whether peripherally (through the culture that influences the games) or directly (through game settings) I think imperialism and colonialism are still relevant cultural concepts in the fantasy world. In building our worlds and understanding other people’s game settings and worlds, these concepts can be relevant and interesting.

fn1: Here at the faustusnotes academy of political science, we love to state the obvious in 1000 words or more.

fn2: I would also go back to my previous comment about my disagreement with my islamofascist brothers, and suggest that if “imperialism” is your explanation for a political problem in a new world country, you haven’t thought about the problem enough. It’s probably something else.