When I was a child Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon had a huge influence on me. I read it very young, perhaps at the age of 10 or 12, and I think it was the first fantasy I read after A Wizard of Earthsea. I think I already knew the Arthurian legends (most kids growing up in Britain did) but this novel introduced ancient “pagan” elements to them which profoundly changed my view of religion. I didn’t become a pagan of course, but growing up in deeply misogynist Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s, when everything was still steeped in traditional Christian ideology and Britain’s history was only taught to us as a story of greatness and righteousness, the idea that Christianity was wrong and that Arthur was really a pagan compromise, or that there was another, non-christian history to Britain, or that there was a woman’s side to a story, made a huge difference to the way I thought about the world around me. I’m not alone in this: generations of science fiction fans report MZB’s Mists of Avalon as a crucial and eye-opening book. MZB’s work is also heralded as an important milestone for feminism in science fiction and fantasy, and many people report its influence in this regard.

Since then of course we have discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley sexually abused her own daughter, and appears to have been an ideologically committed sexual abuser, who sheltered and supported another sexual abuser and was active to some degree in furtherance of a political ideal of pederasty. All this should have been common knowledge by the time her books were published, but it seems to have remained strangely unreported even after her death, only becoming common knowledge when her daughter disclosed the information to the public in 2014. MZB was a hugely influential figure in modern cultural circles: she founded the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) and was also involved in the early establishment of the modern western “pagan” religious movement through her Darkmoon Circle. She also had a huge influence on science fiction and fantasy. But what does it say when a known, ideologically committed child sexual abuser influences your cultural world? Does it have any echoes or influence on the ideals of that movement? I have written before about Jimmy Savile and growing up in a society steeped in child abuse, and how the things that were considered normal when I was young look deeply, deeply creepy in retrospect, so I thought: I’m going to re-read MZB’s work – which so influenced me as a child – and see what it looks like now, in retrospect, and what kind of feminist text it really is. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think it’s possible to be a feminist and be an ideologically committed sexual abuser of children, and I expect that this should show up somehow in her works. I found this (possibly anti-feminist) rant online about how the books always were creepy, and finding out MZB was a sexual abuser of children suddenly made the creepiness comprehensible, but I decided to do it for myself.

So, I’m going to reread these books, and see what they look like now, in retrospect, as a 48 year old knowing what I know now, revisiting books I haven’t read since (at the latest) my very early teens. Every novel requires the author to make choices, and in this case we are dealing with a novel based on an existing story, so decisions need to be made at every turn about how to present the story and how to change it. For example, MZB makes the decision to blend the characters of Galahad and Lancelot together, which isn’t accidental: for some reason she decided to do this. Her decisions about how to represent key parts of the story, key relationships, and the context of the story, should tell us something about the relationship between her politics of sexual abuse and her writing, just as it does about her supposed feminism and her writing. How does the sexual abuse affect the writing? How does a modern adult interpret the story and what do they feel? Is it creepy? Is there a particular stance or depiction of sexual abuse and of children that is depicted in the text that I did not notice (obviously) when I was 10? This post is just the first attempt to investigate and understand this – there may or may not be more. Also please be aware of the content warnings: These posts will involve extensive discussion of rape, child sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, incest, and general arseholery, as well as some fairly serious levels of personality disorder, parental abuse and shittiness. So brace yourself.

Oh, also this post contains spoilers, because I assume the people reading this have read The Mists of Avalon in the past and are familiar with the story (though like me you may have forgotten details).

I will begin by describing the controversy surrounding MZB and her husband’s sexual abuse, to give a little more history to the tale. I will briefly describe what I understand of the politics of paedophilia in the 1970s (yes this was a thing!) as a background to understand how a paedophilia advocate might represent sex and children in their work. Then I will begin describing my key impressions from the first part of the story. I will use some quotes, which I am transcribing, so apologies in advance for any small errors. Brace yourselves, kids.

Outline of the controversy

The general public became aware of MZB’s sexual abuse history after the publication of her daughter’s revelations in 2014, but SF fandom should have been aware of them for much, much longer, because MZB’s husband Walter Breen was a known sexual abuser in the 1960s, and she was known to be facilitating his activities. The early history of Breen’s abuse is laid out in an awful document called The Breendoggle that can now be read online. This document outlines Walter Breen’s history of sexual abuse of children in the “fandom” circles of 1960s Berkeley, and the efforts to get him expelled from a convention. It’s absolutely shocking to read about how publicly and flagrantly he sexually assaulted children, and how sanguine the people around him were about it. At the end of the document we find out why: If they exclude Walter from fandom for openly abusing children, MZB will stay away too.

This is the first hint of MZB’s deep commitment to sexual abuse of children, but it isn’t just a hint. Her husband Walter Breen wrote a book about abusing children, called Greek Love, and also edited a journal devoted to pederasty called the International Journal of Greek Love. MZB wrote an article for this journal about pederasty among lesbians, so she was obviously aware of her husband’s political activities and supportive enough of them to write articles for his journal of child abuse. This journal and Breen’s book, by the way, were cited by the editors of the magazine Pan, which was connected to the North American Man Boy Love Association (a paedophile advocacy group in America) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (a similar and at one stage radically activist group in the UK). It’s hard to find Pan online but the index of the site holding MZB’s article includes links to some of its articles. Following links through the articles linked above will also lead to more information about MZB’s open support of child sexual abuse, such as helping Breen to adopt a boy he wanted to abuse, sexually abusing a friend’s daughter, and supporting Breen even after they divorced despite his repeated legal troubles over his paedophilia.

I hope from this that it’s clear that MZB was an ideologically committed child sexual abuser, who was definitely supporting at least one other committed sexual abuser and may have been part of an international network of sexual abusers that was active in the 1970s in the USA, Canada and the UK. So let’s see what the introduction of her first novel in the Mists of Avalon series is like. But before we do, let’s briefly look at the political paedophilia movement in the 1970s.

The politics of paedophilia in the 1970s

I can’t believe I had to write that line, but there it is. Believe it or not, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement to normalize sexual assault of children, which had its own political organizations, journals, magazines, meetings and rhetoric. Sadly the most famous part of it was connected to the gay rights movement, and the attempts by these people to insert themselves into the gay rights movement and turn it into a kind of pan-sexual liberation movement were seized upon by conservatives as ammunition against gay rights generally. The most famous organization is the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which is well-described in the documentary Chickenhawk, but there was also a British organization and some groups on the continent.

These groups operated on a couple of basic principles, which are worth bearing in mind as we interrogate MZB’s work. They believed that children had sexual agency, that childhood is not a period of innocence, and that children actively solicited and enjoyed sex with adults. Breen in his journal of Greek Love, and other advocates in the magazine Pan argue that these sexual relationships help children grow and mature, and the exchange of sexual affection from the child for adult wisdom from the man is important for child development – they don’t just believe paedophilia is harmless, but actively beneficial to children. They also believe that these paedophiliac relationships were a normal part of most of human society and have only recently been cast into disrepute, usually due to Victorian prudishness, christian interference, or some form of communist or fascist political program (it seems it can be either). Some people writing in the journal Pan seem to hint that adult homosexuality is wrong but same sex relationships between a man and a boy are okay. They also adhere to strong principles of free speech, both for their political advocacy and for their kiddy porn, which they don’t believe harms anyone. Some of them seem to think assaulting infants is wrong but children above a certain age are fair game (or, as my father used to say with a straight face, “old enough to bleed, old enough to breed”). Most of the advocacy seems to have been focused around same sex male relationships, but there was no particular political preference in this regard – I think they just had a clearer voice because briefly in the 1980s and 1990s they were allowed some affiliation with the gay rights movement, to its detriment.

It’s worth remembering that the 1970s and 1980s were a time of sexual awakening in the west, with lots of new ideas beginning to circulate and important efforts being made to cast off the prudishness and sexual stifling of the last 30 years. This new awakening led to lots of mistakes, including things like manipulative and sexually abusive cult leaders, open marriages, political lesbianism, and a lot of abuse in plain sight. Music magazines, for example, did not ostracize or criticize people like Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, who famously had a “relationship” with a 14 year old girl (and who remains famous and well respected despite his long history of sexual abuse of minors). Along with the sexual awakening that was happening at that time came an atmosphere of not judging people for doing things differently, and care about ostracizing or casting out fellow travelers who had some unsavoury ideas. This is why we see Alan Ginzberg defending NAMBLA in the Chickenhawk documentary, and it briefly allowed NAMBLA to have some political influence. But none of this explains the horrendous attitudes described in the Breendoggle document, or MZB’s continuing success when the people around her knew what she was doing. So bear this in mind, and the politics of paedophilia activism, as we delve into the story.

Igraine’s story: A terrible slog through sexual abuse and violence

Arthur’s story always starts with Uther getting Igraine pregnant. In the usual story Merlin puts a spell on Uther so that he looks like Igraine’s husband, so Uther basically rapes Igraine. In the Mists of Avalon we take about 8 chapters to get to this point, and to get there we have to slog through a long and brutal period of Igraine’s life. In this version she was married to her husband Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, at the age of 14 and by the time the book starts has been with him for five years, has a child of 3 years age, and is looking after her 13 year old sister Morgause. She never wanted to marry Gorlois and we are reminded repeatedly that she has just had to put up with five years of unwanted sex and has only just come around to appreciate him as a man and a husband – she has very mixed feelings. It should be mentioned that she was sent to Gorlois by her mother, Viviane, Lady of the Lake, the high priestess of all pagans in England, to seal a deal. Watching her deal with this circumstance is, frankly, a slog, and it is made worse when Viviane and the Merlin rock up and tell her that actually she needs to fuck Uther, because Uther needs to give her a son. It’s unclear if this ends up being done by magic or just bad luck, but Gorlois notices Uther’s interest in Igraine (which may have been manufactured by a magic necklace) and starts a war. At this point he is mad at Igraine, has become impotent in her presence, blames her and thinks it is some magic (which it may be, though not Igraine’s) and beats her savagely every time he tries to fuck her and fails. It’s hard going!

Igraine spends all this time – which seems to cover about a year, though it’s hard to tell – as a sex slave of Gorlois and a vassal to Viviane and the Merlin, who decide her fate. They tell her who she is to have sex with and who she is to have children with, and they have no care for her feelings or needs. In fact the only moment of this entire period when she has any agency and joy is the moment when Uther comes to her in Tintagel, under disguise: she sees that he is not Gorlois, but Uther, and finally gets to enjoy sex she wants. This is a radical turnaround on the traditional story, and ensures that the first 6 – 8 chapters of this book are basically a slog through domestic violence and rape, with one woman being fought over by two men who will do with her as they choose.

Once Gorlois is dead Uther takes Igraine as his wife and you might be thinking that the rape and domestic violence and use of women as vessels for political purposes is over – after all, this is meant to be a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend in which the isle of Avalon offers women freedom and empowerment – but you would be wrong. Before we get to the rape of Igraine’s daughter by her son Arthur, effectively organized and implemented by Viviane, let’s talk about some other aspects of the gender relations and sexual ideology in this book.

Morgause and children as sluts

It is very clear in this book that MZB thinks children have sexual agency. Igraine repeatedly bemoans her marriage to Gorlois at the age of 14, not because she was 14 but because he wasn’t the man she wanted. But we also hear some damning insights into the sexual nature of children during the early stages of the book. For example, Gorlois says about Igraine’s 13 year old sister Morgause:

We must have that girl married as soon as can be arranged, Igraine. She is a puppy bitch with eyes hot for anything in the shape of a man; did you see how she cast her eyes not only on me but on my younger soldiers? I will not have such a one disgracing my family, nor influencing my daughter!

Igraine agrees with this assessment of Morgause’s behavior, and later cautions her against Gorlois’s attentions, which the book describes her seeking out, and later on Morgaine (Igraine’s daughter and the key narrator in this section of the books) also writes about Morgause that

I knew my mother was glad to have her married and away, for she fancied Morgause looked on Uther lustfully; she was probably not aware that Morgause looked lustfully on all men she came by. She was a bitch dog in heat, though indeed I suppose it was because she had no one to care what she did.

Morgaine is, I think, meant to be the feminist hero of this book. Is this how feminists describe other women, or in this case girls?

There is another scene later in the book, during a pagan ritual, where a young girl who was playing an auxiliary role in the ritual is drawn into the sexual activity that the ritual triggers. It is very clear that this girl is very young, and this is described as

The little blue-painted girl who had borne the fertilizing blood was drawn down into the arms of a sinewy old hunter, and Morgaine saw her briefly struggle and cry out, go down under his body, her legs opening to the irresistible force of nature in them.

So even very small children are sexual beings in this story, and their subjugation to older men an inevitability of their sexual nature. I’m 17 chapters (about 22% of the way) into this book and I have been repeatedly told by the main feminist icon of the story that girls (i.e. female children) are sexual predators who seek out men and need to be constrained for their own good. Which brings us to …

Virginity as a sacred duty

Feminists have spent a long time trying to demysticize virginity, to stop it being seen as a special and precious and sacred property of women that is “lost” or “given up”. In this supposedly feminist text the preservation of virginity is an essential goal, taught to young women by older women as a duty and a necessary form of self preservation. Morgause is warned by Igraine that if she fucks Uther and doesn’t get pregnant she will be worthless, and he will force one of his men to take her as a wife, and that man will always resent her for not having been a virgin. This restriction isn’t just a christian trait though: Viviane forces Morgaine (the main character of the story) to stay a virgin until she can participate in an important ritual, where her virginity will be sacrificed for the good of the land. Morgaine almost gives it up for Lancelot/Galahad, but he promises not to push her for sex, and so she preserves it (she of course being just a young woman of 16 or 17 is unable to control her lust and needs a man to control it for her).

17 chapters into this supposedly feminist book, I have not met a priestess from the matriarchal isles who has been able to decide for herself when and how she first has sex. This is an important part of this story: matriarchal society is extremely heirarchical and abusive.

The abusive society of Avalon

The original pagan survivors of England are all gathered in the Summer Country, on the misty isles, which float in a kind of separate world overlaid over christian England, separated from it by mists. This is very cool! On the central island of Avalon (which I guess is approximately Glastonbury in the real world), the priestesses of the old pagan religion reign supreme. Or rather, Viviane, High Priestess, Lady of the Lake, rules as an absolute tyrant over all the girls and women who live there. She dispenses them across the land to be used as sexual bargaining tools for the restoration of pagan culture in England (as Igraine was); she tells them when and how they can have sex and who with; and she subjects them to whatever torments she sees fit as part of her religious dictatorship. For example she makes a priestess called Raven take part in a ritual which leaves her vomiting and pissing blood for days, just in order to have some random vision that doesn’t make sense. No one is allowed to speak before she speaks, and junior priestesses in training have to wait on senior ones like slaves.

When she first brings Morgaine to the island to begin her training as a priestess, Viviane repeatedly considers exactly when to begin tormenting her, and we discover that she was initially considering beginning the torments the same night that they arrive, when Morgaine is tired and hungry. We are repeatedly reminded that Morgaine is used to going without sleep or food, and to being cold. It is very clear that Avalon’s matriarchal society is intensely heirarchical, and all the women on the island are Viviane’s to dispose of as she wishes – and we will see this is exactly what she does.

Competition between mothers and daughters

A particularly unsavoury element of the story so far is the competition between mothers and daughters, and between older and younger women. Igraine is jealous of Morgause (her younger sister) and in a very telling moment, Morgaine is deeply jealous of a very young girl, Guinevere, who is lost on Avalon. She had been having a nice moment stripping off for Lancelot (who ostensibly isn’t going to fuck her) when they hear Guinevere’s cries of distress and go to rescue her. Lancelot helps the girl out of some mud, and we read that

Morgaine felt a surge of hatred so great she thought that she would faint with its force. She felt it would be with her until she died, and in that molten instant she actually longed for death. All the color had gone from the day, into the mist and the mire and the dismal reeds, and all her happiness had gone with it

This is how our feminist icon reacts to Lancelot helping a female child escape some mud! This is interesting because we outsiders reading this just see a man being nice to a distressed girl, he really is just being a good samaritan. Yet Morgaine is dying inside at the sight of it! We will come back to this later, because a big issue with this book is that every character is a horrible person.

This jealousy is repeated often, with younger women seen as competitors and replacements for older women, who are always angry at them for their youth. This includes children, who remember are treated in this book as sexually active agents of temptation, and thus need to be guarded against. Every older woman needs to be on her guard against a younger woman taking her place! The ultimate expression of this comes after Uther Pendragon dies, and in his death moment appears to Viviane as a vision. In that moment she realizes that they have been tied together through many lives, and becomes jealous that her daughter Igraine got to have Uther rather than her:

She cried aloud, with a great mourning cry for all that she had never known in this life, and the agony of a bereavement unguessed till this moment

The only pleasure she gets from this vision is the knowledge that in his dying moment Uther thought of her, and not of the woman he loved (Viviane’s duaghter). That’s right, the feminist leader of the matriarchal island is jealous of her own daughter.

Men eat, women pick

Quite often this book reads like a Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) re-enactment, with a lot of focus on what people wear and eat in a mid-century American’s idea of “authentic” mediaeval British culture. Actually when I was reading the early parts of the book I thought to myself “this reads like an SCA document”, and only discovered later on reading her wiki entry that MZB started the SCA – it stands to reason I guess!

As part of this there are a lot of eating scenes, and it is noticeable that in every eating scene, women pick at small amounts of bread, honey and a little milk, while men eat fresh meat, bread, ale and other richnesses. I swear every time they eat, women are picky eaters who take as little as possible while men pig out. This is also seen in the sex: 17 chapters in and no women has had sex for fun with someone of her choosing, while multiple men have reputations for having fucked anyone they fancy. This might be excusable as a consequence of the christian world, but we are repeatedly told that “on the Isle” women are free to choose who they want to be with and men respect women as sexual equals. Except we never see it happen! Women in this story never get to have any fun, and the least enjoyable lifestyle is reserved for the “free” women of the supposedly sexually liberated isle, who are constantly fasting, going without sleep or warm clothes, and never having sex with anyone they want to.

Some utopia!

Everyone is horrible

I’m 17 chapters into this book and I haven’t yet met a nice character. I know it was written in the 70s when everyone wore brown, but these people are just awful. Igraine is a powerless wretch who is constantly crying; Morgaine is a jealous and angry woman who is also a complete sucker for Viviane’s power and is easily fooled by everything Viviane says; Morgause is a dirty slut who just needs to be rutted constantly and kept out of sight of men; Viviane is a manipulative, power-hungry and arrogant horror show who never accepts she is wrong and only ever sees people for their uses – she has no humanity at all. The men are all idiots, even the Merlin, who also have uncontrolled appetites and weak minds. Some, like Kevin the Bard, who is supposedly going to be the next Merlin, openly hate women. The most likable character so far has been Lancelot, who rescued Guinevere from the mud and promised not to despoil Morgaine even though she wanted him, but he also seemed to transfer his attentions from Morgaine the moment he saw a blonder, prettier girl, so who can say? Everyone is completely awful, and I have to read 600 more pages of this!

Ritual incest

The most shocking part of the story though is the ritual in which Morgaine is supposed to sleep with a future king of England in a ritual after he kills a stag with a flint knife. Viviane arranges this ritual, which is an ancient thing that is supposed to bind a king to the land. It’s also a kind of test (maybe the Stag would kill the king) and the only time you see a woman eat meat (Morgaine does, at the end of the ritual). Viviane set this whole thing up as a way to bind Arthur to the pagan parts of England, so that all the pagan cultures will follow him and he won’t be able to turn his back on the old ways even though he was raised a christian.

But the thing is, she doesn’t mention to Morgaine that Arthur is the king who is being tested – and Arthur is Morgaine’s half brother. So they go through the ritual, Arthur kills the stag, they fuck in the darkness of a cave covered in the stag’s blood, in the morning they wake up and fuck again, and then and only then does Arthur realize the girl he’s fucking is Morgaine (they haven’t seen each other for 10 years, and they’re both about 16 or 18, so it makes sense they don’t recognize each other immediately).

Morgaine of course is heart broken, because she has been tricked into incest with her half brother. What does Viviane say 10 days later when she finally allows Morgaine to speak to her about it?

“Well there’s nothing we can do about that now,” she said. “Done is done. And at this moment the hope of Britain is more important than your feelings.”

Did I mention that in this story everyone is horrible? There’s exhibit A. And also exhibit A of the idea that women’s sexuality is only there to be used for a purpose, women have no free agency over it, and it should be tamed and put to work for the greater good.

Conclusion

So far I am 17 chapters in and this is what I have seen so far: a bunch of horrible people who think children are all sluts who need to be controlled, virginity is a gift that should be preserved and given away only to the right man or for the right purpose, who see women’s sexuality as a tool to be deployed in the interests of family or nation, and who think incest is completely okay. The older women are all intensely competitive with and jealous of younger women, and no woman is free to be herself on a supposedly feminist island that is actually an authoritarian dystopia where everyone exists to serve a religious dictatorship led by a brooding, narcissistic, tyrannical old woman who is jealous of her own daughter for the marriage she arranged.

It’s hard going.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist, and I don’t think men should claim to be feminists or to have some great insight into feminist theory, but I really don’t think this is a story that is consistent with anything I know of feminism. It’s a hard slog in which women are abused regularly and viciously by all men, and by any women who is older than them and has power over them. This social circumstance isn’t presented in a context of overthrowing or critiquing it though – the goal is clearly (so far) to preserve the power of the matriarchal theocracy by brutally using its junior female members’ sexuality in any way necessary. If this is feminism, it’s a kind of lesbian separatist, almost fascist vision of feminism that was briefly in vogue in the 1970s but quickly died out. It’s the feminism of the anti-sex work activist Julie Bindel, who advocated political lesbianism (in which heterosexual feminists have lesbian relationships so as not to betray the movement), or of the anti-trans movement of the 2010s, which is spearheaded by older women insecure in their aging. It’s the kind of feminism we sometimes hear now from some second-wave feminists, bemoaning the fact that young women like to have sex with whoever they want and get Brazilian waxes, the feminism of women who distrust and don’t respect open expressions of female sexuality.

However, this ideology is tempered in this case by a foul attitude towards (female) children, in which they are seen as sexually permissive, sexually active predators who need to be constrained or married off early, and who are easy prey for older men – and who deserve it if they suffer bad consequences of their sexual activity. There is no mercy or pity for girls taken by older men, indeed no sense that it is wrong at all for girls to be given away to men to be used. It is unsurprising to read this attitude from a woman who actively supported the sexual predations of her husband, wrote articles in his paedophilia journal, and sexually abused her own daughter.

There’s a lot more of this book to go, so I will revisit this topic later. I am interested in how she influenced those who followed her in the genre, how she has misused paganism and pagan concepts for her own political purposes, and what her final conclusion will be about the Arthurian tragedy. I also don’t think the child abuse and incest will stop with Arthur’s unknowing rape of his half-sister (and I guess his being raped by her). My guess is there is worse to come. Let us see what horrors this paedophile activist is capable of conceiving of as acceptable, how she butchers the Arthurian story, and what influence she had on subsequent generations of fantasy writers and feminists. Stay tuned!

How it should have ended

I just finished reading A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, an entertaining story about the collapse of a small American town by a local journalist, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It was a fun and engrossing tale with a lot of good points which I really enjoyed reading, but ultimately it failed to live up to its promise, and here I want to explain what was great about it, and why it ultimately failed. Unlike many of my reviews, I think this one is mostly spoiler-free.

The book is a recounting of real events in the town of Grafton, New Hampshire, USA, between about 2004 and about 2018. Grafton is a small rural town in backwater New Hampshire, with a history of opposition to taxes, low property values and rural individualism, and in about 2004 a bunch of libertarian activists decided to take it over in what they called the Free Town Project. This project – which apparently once had a website and a dedicated political program – recognized that the town was politically vulnerable and potentially ideologically sympathetic to their goals, and decided to buy up land, move in, and take over politically. This mean stacking the school board, the local town council, and any other institution that they could democratically invest. They would then implement libertarian policy: defund local government agencies, remove any planning laws and zoning rules, and open the entire town up to the liberating effect of small government politics at its most extreme.

In the book’s telling, as a result of these changes the town’s social services failed, and in the chaos that followed the New Hampshire bear population overran the town, stealing food and terrorizing the locals, killing cats and livestock, and ultimately severely injuring several humans. The bears’ invasion of the town happened slowly, encouraged by poor trash management, ineffective local infrastructure, lack of regulations on how humans and the environment interact, and a breakdown of basic social order which prevented people from living according to common rules. In the book’s telling this is primarily the fault of the libertarian takeover, but I don’t think the book makes the case very strongly, and its disordered framework, combined with a lack of political sense by the writer, means that the libertarians get blamed for the much bigger, much more insidious problems that really drove the confrontation between bears and humans in this small town.

A light-hearted series of anecdotes telling a powerful story

The book is basically a loose history of the town’s last 10-15 years, hung in a fairly loosely-structured way over some key anecdotes from the time when the libertarians invaded. These anecdotes hold up the stories of several key figures in the town’s recent history, either libertarian invaders (like John Connell in the church), libertarian sympathizers (the Barbiarzes), or town residents with various relationships with the bears (like “Doughnut Lady” and Jessica Soule. These people themselves have interesting and sometimes complex back-stories, in some cases having their own part to play in other important historical events (like Soule’s connection to the Moonies). They are often given sympathetic and rich depictions, and their stories, though sometimes sad, are presented relatively objectively. The writing style is light-hearted and chatty, with frequent asides and a careful awareness of the perspectives of everyone involved in the story, including the bears. In this sense I think it is good quality journalistic writing, easy to keep reading and engaging. In between the anecdotes and character histories there are interesting discursions on the politics of the town and the state of New Hampshire, with broader political and economic context presented clearly and simply so that the information is easy to absorb and doesn’t distract from the fundamentally personal nature of the story. Even with obvious arseholes like Redman (or in fact most of the libertarians in the story) it tries to hold off from being openly judgmental or scornful, to the extent for example that the constant threatening, heavily-armed atmosphere of the town is simplified to the concept of Friendly Advice (capitalized), rather than depicted as an openly menacing wild west trashpit (which is what the town seems like to this reader).

This is good work, because what Hongoltz-Hetling is ultimately doing here is telling a story about how a bunch of dickheads walked into town, co-opted its political institutions, destroyed them, physically destroyed the town environs themselves, refused to do anything to help the town or each other, then upped and left the ruins they had created when the going got tough (i.e. when the bears came). They left behind them an elderly, poor and vulnerable population whose social services had been gutted, and whose gardens and roads had become, where they were still passable, dangerous bear-infested wilderness. And make no mistake, a lot of the people described in this book are quite unpleasant: the aforementioned Redman, who can’t shut up and can’t keep his gun in his pants; Pendarvis the paedophile who gets booted out early not because anyone disagrees with his stance on children, but because it’s a bit too publicly embarrassing; John Connell, who took over a 300 year old church, destroyed the local religious congregation and then trashed the church itself; and pretty much everyone involved in the Campfire incident. Other characters, like Doughnut Lady, were at best clueless and at worst actively dangerous, and nobody involved in this story seems to have any sense about how stupid what they’re doing is. It’s really a rogues’ gallery of idiots and arseholes, living in their own filth. Despite this – and the fact that the bears are the most endearing characters in the book – the book manages to keep you involved, and it really is fun to watch, like watching a car crash if the car was full of clowns or something. It’s definitely worth reading, and enough of a page-turner that I tore through it very quickly.

But, it misses the point: through a combination of poor structure and politically naivete typical of journalistic writing, it obscures the real problems in the town, and fails to draw the obvious and deadly important lessons that are there to be learnt if one looks at the story with clear eyes.

The problem of unstructured narrative

There is a timeline and a story in this book, which works something like this: in 2004 a bunch of libertarians took over the town, over time they ground its social services into the dirt, and by 2016 the whole project fell apart and they drifted off to take on other tasks, or died. But within this basic framework there are a lot of stories and events that aren’t clearly placed, and the narrative jumps back and forward in time a lot, so that it is difficult to tell how all the events relate to each other. This isn’t a problem for holding together a fun story (which it definitely does) but it doesn’t help to support the book’s central thesis. For example, it’s not really clear exactly when people turned up and when they left or why, or when exactly key events happened that we are supposed to take as indicators of societal decline or ursine growth. It’s also unclear when exactly the author met these people and where he gets his anecdotes from – it isn’t until the very end of the story for example that we learn he only met the Doughnut Lady in 2016, and it’s not clear how often he met her. A related story takes place in 2017, but somehow through the rest of the book we’re suppose to believe things happened much earlier. The story of Mink the bear (in Hanover) takes place in 2017-2019, while the primary bear situation in Grafton is supposed to have happened in perhaps 2012, after the drought, though it’s not clear. At another point the author pinpoints 2016 as the point where the bears got out of control, and implies it is a state-wide phenomenon, but in other places we’re led to believe it happened much earlier.

This wouldn’t be a problem for a standard story, but it complicates the narrative here because the author is trying to construct a tale of decline linked to the 2004 invasion, but can’t seem to put it all into order so that we can see the degeneration. My suspicion is that this is because the order doesn’t work, and it’s not the libertarians’ fault that the bears got out of control, though they may not have helped. There are bigger problems at play here, but the author has either failed to notice them or did not want to damage his story by telling it properly, and drawing out a darker, much more threatening and much less patriotic story, with much more frightening implications.

The problem of political naivete

In the beginning of the book the author devotes some space to describing Grafton’s long-standing anti-tax atmosphere and its feuds with state and federal authorities over this issue. In other parts of the book he describes New Hampshire’s lax attitude towards regulation and taxation – they have no seatbelt laws, no mandatory car insurance laws, and no sales tax – and at the end he notes the success of libertarians in local and state politics, which did not happen overnight. The obvious sub-text here is that Grafton has never had good social services because it has always been anti-taxation. It has always been poor, and its land values are low, and it has always had poor social services because its residents have always refused to fund them. The libertarians kicked this along a little – probably the Grafton residents by themselves wouldn’t have voted to defund streetlights, for example – but it was always there. And this accelerated defunding of public services comes against the backdrop of a state that refuses taxes, and has the motto Live Free or Die. The problem here isn’t a few libertarians taking over a town, but an entire state that has a long history of libertarian ideology, and more broadly a nation that won’t support social services and won’t accept social responsibility or regulation. Bears are a problem throughout New Hampshire, because Americans refuse to take social responsibility or work together to solve problems, as is now abundantly clear from their absolutely appalling response to coronavirus. The defunding of public services in Grafton is a result of a much longer, slower and more ubiquitous pattern of anti-government, “individualistic” politics that is common throughout the country. It’s just more noticeable in Grafton because Grafton is a poor town in a rich state, and these problems always affect the poor first. That’s why Grafton was dealing with bear attacks on humans in 2012, while Hanover (the rich town that is home to Dartmouth College) only started to notice them after 2017. That’s also why the libertarians targeted Grafton in the first place – they would fail to overturn political structures in a richer and better-connected town, and they guessed that when they arrived.

This isn’t just about a small town either. The behavior of Grafton residents was a microcosm of America’s approach to global warming. They knew what they were doing would cause environmental problems but they kept doing it, and then when the problems began to become evident they refused to take the correct measures or work together to solve it, and then piece by piece the town fell apart. Essentially the people of Grafton became environmental refugees, leaving the town in large numbers since the first bear attack of 2012 and abandoning it to its poorest residents – who of course were then even poorer. This is exactly what is beginning to happen across America, as people who can afford to move abandon low-lying and vulnerable coastal areas or drought-stricken inland areas and move to more climatically viable areas. Yet even as people begin to suffer the consequences of a slow-growing crisis that they were warned about for years, and voted not to stop, they continue to argue against any action to either mitigate or adapt to the coming problems. This is Grafton in a nutshell.

But nowhere in the book does the author discuss this. He does not place Grafton’s libertarian politics within the broader context of Republican politics in America; he doesn’t relate it to climate change at all, or draw the obvious links between the small happenings in Grafton and the larger national and global issues we all face; he doesn’t discuss at all what in America’s culture drives people to this intensely sociopathic politics. He misses the opportunity to really interrogate what is happening at this crucial juncture in global politics. And in this sense he is perfect mirror of American journalism more generally, which consistently fails in its responsibilities, and boils huge global problems down to personality politics, cutesy anecdotes, and debates stripped of context, history or class struggle. Just as his book presents us with the failing of American politics in a microcosm, so his writing presents us with the failings of American journalism in its perfect, decontextualized essence.

This is an excellent book and a fun read, but ultimately it failed to rise to the opportunities the story offered, and is yet another example of the millions of ways that American journalism has failed its own people. Read it if you want to enjoy fun stories about idiots ruining their own lives, but don’t look to it for insight into the political challenges America faces, because that opportunity was missed.

America is currently Having a Moment, and various historical works have been identified as having predicted or foretold her Current Predicament, including Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Since I am interested in tracing the cultural and historical origins of the Present Unpleasantness – and since I have already made the effort to read the US fascists’ utopian vision so you don’t have to – I thought I would give this book a go and find out how prescient it was. I was interested in seeing how much of the current trends in the Republican party had their roots in longstanding cultural phenomena that Americans themselves could identify, what mistakes they though the left wing opposition made to allow this to happen, and how they got out of it. Unfortunately, this book was largely a disappointment on all of these counts.

The book chronicles the rise of an all-American dictator, Buzz Windrip, as he first wins the presidency in an election and then proceeds to rapidly dismantle all America’s constitutional protections and political institutions on a rapid road to dictatorship. The story is told through the perspective of Doremus Jessup, editor of a small-town newspaper in rural Vermont, as he tries to first understand, then live with, and finally fight back against the regime of the Corpos, as Windrip’s party come to be known, and the struggles of his family and friends as they try to accommodate, collaborate with, or oppose the new order. Doremus is near retirement when the Corpos come to power, and is presented as the kind of soul of America or something (it’s not very clear); his viewpoint is given authority and superiority even though he is obviously a blinkered, naive man with a massive investment in exactly the system of capitalist exploitation that Windrip pretends to want to tame but ultimately takes over. He is a biased and self-serving narrator at best and, compared to the ideologically pure and driven characters at the centre of the Turner Diaries, very ignorant about how class and race interests drive American society. He is also, in the context of modern America, something of an anachronism. There is very little independent local media in America now, the entire media industry is now much more dependent on advertising revenue and corporate interests than it was in the 1930s, there is now a major mainstream media organization directly dedicated to promoting fascism in the USA[1], the editors of most major newspapers in the USA are now openly right-wing and happy to enable the kind of illiberal politicians that Windrip is modeled on, and it is highly unlikely that someone of his age and class position in the USA now would be “objective” or “open-minded” or have a balanced view about things like unions, which Doremus pretends to do in this book.

Doremus’s class position makes him a poor judge of Windrip, and a bad character through which to view the political realities of Windrip’s ascent to power. He doesn’t understand class politics, is completely ignorant of the racial character of American oligarchy, and is deeply wedded to an ideal of free speech and debate as valid tools for resolving conflicting social interests. He also has a sneering disregard for poor and working class people and is openly dismissive of people who go off the rails or live differently to a very straight and narrow vision of work and family. It’s really obvious why his handyman, Shad Ledue, hates him and why he is viewed with so little respect by the local fascists once they have America in their grip. Right to the end he seems to think that running a printing press and handing out a few pamphlets about how bad Buzz Windrip is will convince people in the grip of a fascist terror regime to rise up and restore democracy; and he genuinely seems to believe that America can return to its old settled system after Windrip is gone as if all the class and race conflicts that divide America will just disappear overnight – because fundamentally he doesn’t understand where they come from. The protagonists of the Turner Diaries don’t have any such difficulties: they have analyzed all of America’s situation on race lines and have a very clear idea of where it is going wrong and what is needed to fix it. Doremus is almost the perfect depiction of the stereotypical liberal that Twitter leftists despise, or the embodiment of the kind of squishy liberal Lenin would sneer at (or King would warn black Americans against). Wikipedia tells me this book is meant to be a satire, so maybe this choice is deliberate, but I’m not sure – the book ends with a paean to Doremus’s fundamental importance to the American condition, so I suspect it is meant to be lauding him while gently laughing at his more sedate personal characteristics. Whatever it is doing, it doesn’t work, and it is hard to have much sympathy for Doremus as the fascist regime closes its grip around him and the only effort he makes to struggle is against the ruddy crassness of it all, until it is too late and he realizes how he has been done in.

The book does find some interesting similarities with Trump in Windrip’s pre-dictatorial rise. He is supposed to be crass and lewd, a witty entertainer who is capable of bewitching people at his rallies (yes, he holds lots of rallies) and swaying skeptics with his folksy speeches and ribald style. He rises through the Democrats (who were the party of racists at that time I think), and some think of him as a communist because he promises to improve the rights of workers and the poor, with vague promises that Jessup is sure will never be delivered on; at the same time he is appealing to corporate oligarchs with promises of increasing their strength and control and removing the fetters on their business, and appealing to religious conservatives with a promise of a new American dawn. In this he is very much like Trump, who somehow managed to get away with being seen as more left-wing than Clinton (remember “Hilary the Hawk, Donald the Dove”? Or that primary debate where he somehow managed to convince otherwise Serious People that he was serious about healthcare reform?) When he gets into power of course he doesn’t deliver on any of this: the $5000 each household has been promised never materializes, unions are destroyed and all the oligarchs become his personal agents, in a perfect recreation of European fascism in America (perhaps we could call it Fascism with American Characteristics). Doremus seems to just dismiss this obvious fakery as typical politicians’ dishonesty, which is exactly why he is such a dupe for this shit. Another similarity between Trump and Windrip is Windrip’s slimy advisor Sarason, who is a bit of an enigma and is sometimes seen as the real power behind the throne, with some vague parallels with Stephen Miller. It also implies that Sarason is the real force behind Windrip’s politics, and Windrip is just a blowhard – this is exactly the same stupid and naive idea that gets people thinking Trump isn’t really serious about his racism, or that he doesn’t believe in the fascist stuff he’s doing. But this implication at least isn’t clear in the book, unlike in the Twitter feeds of modern pundits who are always so sure that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. Windrip’s regime is also incompetent and chaotic, with senior leadership constantly changing and also fighting with each other for promotion and favours, and it’s just as corrupt as the Trump regime (more, obviously, once it gets full and unfettered control of all branches of government). Windrip has also written a book, which I guess is the same as Trump, who has a book written in his name.

But here the differences also become clear. Windrip’s book – and his speeches generally – are coherent, he is not a man sliding into dementia. Windrip didn’t run for office to cover up his tax fraud and to close off the tightening investigations into his Russian money-laundering, but to actually implement a full fascist program, which he does. Windrip is not enabled by a corrupt party, he doesn’t win senate or house and has to take power from them by imprisoning his political opponents “for their own protection”. Windrip is backed up by a huge and very well organized stormtrooper organization called the Minute Men who he deploys almost immediately to destroy all political opposition, including the Supreme Court – in 1935 America the political institutions are much less supine and partisan than they are for Trump, and Windrip has to destroy them rather than relying on them to do his bidding. Windrip is, in short, much more competent and organized and coherently fascist than Trump. He has a network of secret prisons and concentration camps set up pretty much immediately after dissolving congress, and after that he quickly completely reorganizes American life beyond recognition. So no, he’s no Trump.

The book is also strangely vague on the actual reasons for Windrip’s appeal or partial electoral success. What exactly about him do people like, and what about his appeal is so slippery that the supposedly all-powerful media organizations can’t see and counter? He promises everyone $5000 and the media point out that this is obviously bullshit, but everyone ignores them, and there is no explanation for how he hand-waves away all these problems in his platform or with his obvious slide into fascism. At the beginning a lot of people in Doremus’s circle dismiss the worst possibilities with the eponymous phrase “it can’t happen here” but nobody at any point bothers to explain why it can’t or why it did. The only clear “political” opinion that flows through the book is the scorn everyone in Doremus Jessup’s social circle feels for poor and working-class Americans, and the huge gulf between his class and theirs. Windrip appeals across this gulf to the “forgotten men” of America but the book cannot explain why this contempt is so clear (and can’t seem to judge it, except perhaps to gently rib it) and can’t explain why or how Windrip has seen it or how to manipulate it. It can’t really even say if this is what helped Windrip win – there is no analysis of what coalition of voters he built, who he appealed to, or how the vote worked out, so we have no idea how this supposedly vulgar and empty suit managed to pull off his coup. The centre of the book is strangely empty of any attempt at analysis. It’s just a story, and not very well told. Compare this with Orwell’s description of the collapse of the Republicans in Homage to Catalonia, or his explanation of the ideology of the Party in 1984; or consider Koestler’s description of the party and its ideology in Darkness at Noon. There’s just nothing to explain anything at the heart of the political events in this book. I was recommended it as a way to make sense of how Trump rose and won, but this is exactly the only part of the story where there is no information. In the end the book is as much of an empty shell as Windrip himself.

It’s also quite boring. It’s not particularly well written, aside from a few nice descriptions of Vermont countryside. The characters all have awful and weird names, and are generally insufferable. I’ve never read Dickens but I think this might be riffing on that style? In any case it’s just horrible and I can’t take them or their opinions seriously, nor can I care about their fates when they’re so stupid and vacuous and judgy. There is essentially little plot – Windrip wins, then there is some faffing around with watching America fall in line, then Jessup finally loses his shit (for no special reason) and writes a stirring editorial that gets him arrested (and of course achieves nothing); he is spared and starts to secretly work for a comically inept opposition coordinated from Canada; finally gets caught and put in prison; then is rescued improbably and ends up fleeing to Canada to recover before returning as an agent to America, when the story ends. Boring. Even when his son-in-law is killed no one seems to really get roused, and you just can’t get much energy to side with these characters. It’s all just weak. If a book was intended to make you side accidentally with fascists it would be this book when Jessup’s former handyman Shad Ledue gets the chance to lord it over scornful, contemptuous and patronizing Jessup (who thinks himself so good and decent).

As an example of this inspidity there is one section where Jessup takes it on himself to attend a Windrip rally before the election, during which he describes the violence of the Minute Men and the fervour of the crowd. In the audience he is almost beguiled by Windrip despite having seen his men beat up people outside (and knowing what is happening in Germany and Italy); he goes home without much further comment and doesn’t make any attempt to join any dots or inquire any deeper into what is happening to make this movement grow. He simply doesn’t have the critical tools to understand what is happening in his own country, and doesn’t have the curiosity to figure it out. He then writes an editorial that basically just boils down to “isn’t this guy and his followers a bit of a crass oaf, who could support that?” He is an empty shell, and the book doesn’t offer anything to flesh him out personally or politically.

So, this book is very boring and poorly written, with annoying and frustrating characters who don’t seem to have a clue or get one at any point in their political and personal journey. As an insight into America’s Current Predicament it is of little use, since it comes from a different time with different politics and it is, in any case, politically shallow and incurious. It lacks any of the passion and invective – or the insight – of its better peers from Europe and the UK. Attempting to understand what’s going on in America from this book would be a waste of time. There is no insight here, so don’t bother.


fn1: Which, incidentally, is why Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is now irrelevant

I have just had a knee reconstruction and have spent the last 6 days wallowing in self-pity in a hospital bed in Tokyo, completing the last (I hope) uglinesses of three months of body horror (report to come). With little else to do I have resorted to Netflix, and of course I have watched Tiger King. So far I have just finished episode 5 (I was distracted by The Innocence Files, which I strongly recommend), but by the end of Episode 5 I was convinced that the main character of Tiger King, Joe Exotic, is very similar to Trump, and his public and political reception in America is an example of why Trump was not an isolated phenomenon. Americans, I think, have a problem with people with narcissistic personality disorders – too many Americans admire them – and are way too easily fooled by conmen. Here, I will explain why I think Joe Exotic is similar to Trump and what his public reception says about Trump’s rise.

First some basic background. Tiger King is a documentary about these super weird Americans who keep big cats as pets and money-machines, in these weird and horribly shitty rural zoos that should be closed down with extreme prejudice. The story is that it was meant to be a doco about one particularly weird and flamboyant member of this strange society, Joe Exotic, but during the making of the doco Joe tried to get a rival killed and so the whole thing spiraled out of control. I haven’t got to that bit yet, but everything leading up to is pretty disturbing. The main character is Joe Exotic, a gay gun-toting zoo owner from Oklahoma who has two husbands (not legally I guess?), both of whom are straight, and has a menagerie of something like 220 lions and tigers that he shows off to the public in flamboyant performances. He makes a lot of his money from cub petting, in which he takes newborn cubs (before the mother can lick them!) and allows customers to snuggle and play with them, until they reach about 12 weeks old, after which he dumps them in the zoo with the rest of the adults, where they become mostly just a financial burden (so he killed them or trafficked them). His opponent is a woman called Carole Baskin who runs a (rather dubious looking!) animal sanctuary for abused big cats, and has spent years trying to shut down Joe’s operation, including using a sneaky (according to the doco!) copyright trick to force him massively into debt. Rumour has it that Baskin killed her first husband and fed him to a tiger, information the doco does very little to dispute even though it seems pretty obvious that her husband was up to something shonky in Costa Rica and probably got himself killed down there. There are a few other tiger owners – one called Antle who has a sex cult and another who is a dodgy former criminal – and there is a ragtag crew of people who work for Joe Exotic and go to enormous lengths for him (one of these, who apparently was misgendered in the doco, lost an arm to a tiger and kept working for Joe). In his little menagerie-kingdom Joe keeps a lot of guns and explosives (he is clearly not one of those super-rare “responsible gun owners” that his libertarian political campaign manager would have us believe is the norm), meth and pot, and a lot of boys toys. In general Joe treats the tigers badly, and his relationship with his cats is emotionally very hot and cold and is basically transactional. They make him money, and he plays with them, but he doesn’t trust them and he doesn’t particularly seem to respect them.

It should be added that this documentary is really not very objective and although it’s great viewing, as a documentary it’s shit. It obviously has taken Joe Exotic’s side (at least in the first 5 episodes) and doesn’t show much objectivity about its subject at all.

So how is Joe like Trump? Let us count the ways:

  • He has the same personality disorders: He obviously has narcissistic, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, just like Trump, or as some might put it he has the Dark Triad. His relationships are entirely transactional (he basically buys his straight boyfriend with meth) and everything is all about him. This is most clearly seen at the funeral for his second husband, which he makes all about himself, and the subsequent marriage to his new boyfriend within two months, which he uses to humiliate and break his dead husband’s mother. It’s visible in the way he treats his animals, his insatiable need for fame, the way he treats his staff, and the way every emotion he ever shows is clearly and obviously a performance. He can never be wrong, nothing is ever his fault, and the whole world is out to get him.
  • He is deeply misogynist: The videos he makes of Carole Baskin are really shocking, and he cannot control himself when he is talking about her. Even when he is running a political campaign he is making campaign videos calling her a bitch and a whore, and on his youtube channel he put videos of her as a sex doll being face-fucked with dildos, and being fed to his cats. He has the same reaction to a woman challenging him as Trump does to female journalists.
  • He is messy and disorganized and terrible with money: Just like Trump, he is incapable of running or organizing anything, and only gets anything done because a group of strangely loyal misfits jump at his every order and do everything he wants, even when everything he wants is constantly contradictory and changing. He also obviously can barely keep the farm afloat, where a better manager would turn it into a cash-making machine. Whatever money he does get he squanders on bullshit, like meth and trucks for his straight husbands or guns and ammo. This is no clearer than in the stupid brace he wears on his knee for much of the series – he obviously has not got health insurance and hasn’t paid for it for his staff (likely the real reason Saffer chose to have his damaged arm amputated – with no health insurance he could not pay for the reconstruction surgery). He would rather flamboyantly suffer than buy one less truck a year for one of his husbands and pay for health insurance for himself, let alone his crew.
  • He has dodgy mob connections: He obviously has access to a regular supply of meth, and is able to traffick lions and tigers however he wants, and in the first (?) episode we see him cozying up to a drug dealer who is so shady it’s hard to believe. Not only does he have these dodgy criminal connections, but he also obviously admires them – and they obviously see him as an easy mark.
  • He is an easy mark: Like most of the senior figures in the GOP, while he is running a long con on his friends, associates and supporters, Joe Exotic is also easily being conned by others. He got done like a dinner by the Kirkham guy, and when Jeff Lowe gets to him he is so easily tricked into giving up control of everything. Trump is the same – this is why he is owned by Russia. The biggest con-artists are also the biggest marks.
  • He has no interest in truth: He is a classic bullshitter, just like Trump. Whatever he says is true, and if he contradicts himself two days in a row it doesn’t matter because he does not recognize the difference between truth and lies. Words don’t work for him as they do for us.

So of course, just like Trump he runs for political office. First of all he tries the presidential campaign but then failing that he runs for Governor of Oklahoma, with a libertarian (idiot) for a campaign manager and a platform of low regulation. His platform and campaign imagery are so Trumpian – there’s even a scene where he tells some shlubb that if he is elected there will be “someone as broke as you” in charge, trying to market himself as a man of the people. Unlike Trump he doesn’t win, but he does get 18% of the vote. And when people are interviewed about why they will vote for him they give exactly the same reasons as people give for Trump: he’s just like us, he tells it as it is, he’s not politically correct and that’s good, etc. The interviews with his supporters could have just as easily have been at a Trump rally.

Furthermore, his chief enemy (in business, not politics) is so obviously identifiable as a Hillary Clinton-like figure: an older white woman with a real set of goals, who is methodical and prepared and speaks clearly and with intent, who every single media outlet seems to have described with the same adjectives as Clinton – desperate to be liked, unlikable, untrustworthy, etc.

This is the enduring puzzle of American politics. How could an obvious fraud, grifter, gangster, womanizing rapist psychopath like Trump be popular in America? We see the same thing with Joe Exotic: in a Morning Consult poll of 400 viewers of the show he had the second-highest favorability ratings and Carole Baskin had the lowest, and her husband the second lowest – below a libertard gun nut, a tiger-killing narcissist, his meth-head husband, another tiger trader with five “wives” in a sex cult, a rich fraud from Vegas who uses tigers to fuck models (or at least put their pictures on instagram), and another tiger trader who wishes he could learn how to “control women” the way the sex cult dude does. How do Americans judge older white women on a mission to be at the bottom of this pile?

I previously described the Trump campaign as similar to WWF, a giant fraud that all its fans know is a fraud but love anyway. Tiger King is another insight into this strange cultural phenomenon that seems to be unique to America, where people fall easily for frauds and gangsters and love them even after their obvious shonkiness is revealed. There is nothing authentic or real about Joe Exotic – he is a narcissistic, manipulative and vicious bastard who uses people for his own ends, and has never shown a true part of himself in his life – but despite the rest of the world watching this doco and recognizing this immediately, somehow to Americans he is authentic and serious in a way that a softly-spoken older white woman can never be.

America has a problem with grifters, psychopaths and narcissistic frauds. Too many Americans cannot understand when they’re being taken for a ride, and too many Americans enjoy being fleeced. This is the essence of Republican politics – it’s a giant con job played on people who are eager to be fleeced by men the rest of the world would not consider fit to lick our boots. It’s terrifying, and if Americans can’t break out of this strange fugue state and start understanding the way they’re being conned, their country is done for.

My recent post on the case fatality ratio of the new Wuhan Coronavirus sparked a long discussion about the role of European epidemics in the colonization of the new world. There is a theory that after Europeans came to the new world (the Americas, Australia, etc) they brought with them diseases that went through the local populations like wildfire, killing huge proportions of the local populations because they were not previously exposed to these diseases, and so lethality was much higher and even simple diseases that Europeans were used to (like influenza) were highly destructive in these naive populations.

This theory sparked my statistician’s skepticism, and also my cynicism about colonial narratives. Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492, an era not known for its highly advanced demography, and when they arrived counting the locals wasn’t their primary priority. Epidemiology wasn’t particularly advanced at that time either, and medicine incredibly poor quality, not to mention the difficulty of preserving accounts from that time. Furthermore, I don’t see any evidence that the mortality rates due to diseases like smallpox and plague have changed over time in western populations, and because our recent encounters (in the past 500 years) with immunologically naive populations have been very hostile it’s hard to believe that people bothered to adequately (let alone accurately) record what happened in that time, and it’s hard to imagine that there have been any actual, valid studies of immunologically naive populations in modern times.

Furthermore, there has been a major revisionist movement in the west in the past 20 years, which has tried to deny the reality of genocide in the Americas and Australia, and to cast the white invaders as innocent of any crimes, or at worst having made a few well-meaning mistakes. In Australia this has been spear-headed by Keith Windschuttle, whose Fabrication of Australian History series explicitly attempts to deny violence towards Aborigines and recast the destruction of Australian Aborigines as a consequence of disease and demographic decline. This has been pushed by national newspapers (The Australian, of course, fulfilling their role as propagandists for Satan) and our former prime minister, and its “success” has no doubt sparked similar narratives in other countries. There is even a counter-narrative in the Spanish world of the “Black Legend“, which dismisses claims of violence by Spanish conquistadores as propaganda by England and France. It’s very convenient for these people if they can claim that immunologically naive populations are especially vulnerable, and population decline due to violence is actually the consequence of disease. They can even claim that mass movements of indigenous populations occurred due to disease, not genocide. Handy!

This led me to ask two related questions:

  1. Are immunologically naive populations actually subject to higher mortality rates when disease hits them?
  2. Did disease kill the majority of the population in the Americas, and was that disease introduced by Europeans?

The first question can be answered by looking at the history of black death in Europe, and by genetic studies. The second depends on demographic and epidemiological data, and as I will show, there is none, and all the accounts are extremely dodgy.

The history of diseases in naive populations

A population that is naive to a disease is referred to as a “virgin soil” population, although it appears that this name is never used to describe European populations affected by the plague (which was imported from Asia) – “virgin soil”, along with terra nullius, is a concept reserved for the new world. In fact Europe was virgin soil for the plague in the 14th century, and experienced repeated and horrific epidemics of this disease from the 14th century to the 16th century, with smaller plagues later on. In total the black death is estimated to have killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, and to have precipitated huge social changes across the continent. That was 700 years ago, and yet today the case fatality rate due to plague remains 60%, so 700 years of exposure to this disease hasn’t changed European susceptibility at all.

We can also see this in influenza. The H1N1 epidemic of 2009 killed only 0.01% of people who caught it, even though it was a new strain of influenza to which people could be expected not to be immune. The Spanish flu probably killed 10-20% of people it infected, but it did not do an especially greater job in isolated communities who had never experienced influenza before. For example in Samoa it probably killed about 20% of the population, having infected 90%, which suggests it did not behave particularly egregiously in an unexposed population. Smallpox, which has existed for 10,000 years in humans, had a similar mortality rate over most of its history, with variations in this mortality rate primarily driven by the number of people infected and the quality of the healthcare system. There is some evidence that the mortality rate is lower in Africans, who had been exposed to it for longer, but if so this has taken 10,000 years to manifest, which suggests that in general infectious diseases do not behave differently in “virgin soil” populations, though they can be much worse in populations with inadequate health care or infection control methods.

It’s worth noting that many estimates of the impact of these diseases rely on extremely dubious estimates of population. Putting aside demographic methods of the 14th century, Samoa in 1918 was a colony managed by New Zealand, with a colonial management so incompetent that they allowed people to disembark from a plague ship flying a yellow quarantine flag, and then mismanaged the resulting epidemic so badly that everyone on the island got infected. Did New Zealand’s colonial administration have any incentive to accurately count the population before the epidemic? Did they accurately register newborns and elderly people, or did they only record the working age population? How good were their records? If the Samoa population is underestimated by a small amount then the mortality rate plummets, and conclusions about the effectiveness of the disease in this naive population are significantly changed. And was the population even naive? Were the NZ colonial administrators previously recording every influenza epidemic on the island?

These problems are an order of magnitude worse when we try to understand what happened in native populations.

How many Spaniards went to Mexico?

Accounts of the effect of epidemics depend ultimately on our knowledge of the population affected, and population estimation is a very modern science. How was this done in 15th century America, by people who were busy slaughtering the people we now wish they were counting? What was the variation in population estimates and who was recording population, how and why? Fortunately we have a partial answer to questions about how population was recorded, because a historian called David P. Henige wrote a book called Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate, much of which can be read on google books, that makes a lot of strong criticisms of recording of population at that time. Sadly his specific chapters on over-estimation of epidemics are not available online, but he does provide an analysis of accounts by Spanish reporters of the numbers of Spanish soldiers present at certain actions on the continent. As an example, he reports on the number of deaths recorded during the noche tristes, an uprising in the city of Tenochtitlan in which the Aztecs rose against their Spanish occupiers and slaughtered them, driving them out of the city. Spanish accounts of that event – by people who were there – record the number of deaths as between 150 and 1170, with Cortes (the general in charge) recording the lowest number. Henige also notes accounts of expeditionary forces that vary by up to 10% between reporters who were on the scene, and may not even mention Indian attachments that probably far outnumber the Spanish forces. He reports on a famous Spanish reporter on the continent (las Casas) who misreports the size of the continent itself by a huge amount, and notes that a room that was supposed to be filled with treasure as tribute was given radically different sizes by different Spanish observers, as was the amount of treasure deposited therein. He also notes huge discrepancies (up to a factor of 10) in population estimates by colonial administrations in north America. He writes

If three record books showed Ted Williams lifetime batting average as .276, .344 and .523 respectively, or if three atlases recorded the height of Mt. Everest as 23,263 feet, 29,002 feet, and 44,083 feet, or if three historical dictionaries showed King William XIV as ruling 58 years, 72 years and 109 years, their users would have every right to be thoroughly bemused and would be justified in rejecting them all, even though in each case research could show that in each case one of the figures was correct. Yet these differences are of exactly the same magnitude as those among the sources for the size of Atahulpa’s treasure room that Hemming [an author reporting this story] finds acceptable

These are all relatively trivial examples but they make the point: almost nothing reported from the colonies in the 15th century was accurate. In the absence of accurate reporting, what conclusions can we draw about the role of infectious diseases? And what scientific conclusions can we draw about their relative mortality in virgin soil populations?

Scientific estimates of epidemic mortality in Latin America

A first thing worth noting about scientific reports of epidemic mortality in the Americas is that they often use very old sources. For example, this report of the environmental impact of epidemics in the Americas  cites McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples (1977), Dobyns’s estimates of population from 1966 and 1983, Cook’s work from 1983, and so on. It also relies on some dubious sources, using references extensively from Jared Diamond’s 1997 breakout work Guns, Germs and Steel. Some of these works receive criticism in Henige’s work for their credulity, and Diamond’s work has been universally canned since it was published, though it has been very influential outside of academia. Many of these works were written long before good computational demography was well established, and though it’s hard to access them, I suspect their quality is very poor. Indeed, McNeill’s seminal work is criticized for using the Aryan population model to explain the spread of disease in India. These works are from a time before good scholarship on some of these issues was well established.

Dobyns’s work in turn shows an interesting additional problem, which is that no one knows what caused these epidemics. In his 1993 paper Disease Transfer at Contact, (pdf) Dobyns reports on many different opinions of the diseases that caused the demographic collapse in south America: it may be smallpox, or plague, or Anthrax, or typhus, or influenza, or measles. Dobyns’s accounts also often note that people survived by fleeing, but do not ever consider the possibility that they were fleeing from something other than disease. Contrast that with accounts from north America 400 years later (such as the story of the Pince Nez reported in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), which make clear that native Americans were fleeing violence and seeking sanctuary in Canada. There is a lot of certainty missing from these accounts, and we need to be careful before we attribute population decline to disease if we don’t know what the disease was, and are relying on accounts from people who refused to consider the possible alternative explanations for the social collapse they are witnessing.

This is particularly complicated by recent studies which suggest that the epidemic that wiped out much of the Mexican population was actually an endemic disease, that jumped from local rats to the indigenous population, spread from the mountains to the coasts (not from European coastal settlements), and had symptoms completely unrelated to European diseases. In this account, a long period of drought followed by rain triggered a swarm of a type of local rat into overcrowded settlements of native peoples, where a type of hantavirus jumped from those rats to humans and then decimated the population. The disease started inland where the drought had been worse and spread outward, and it primarily affected indigenous people because they were the ones forced to live in unsanitary conditions as a consequence of slave-like working conditions forced on them by the invaders. Note here that the western invaders, presumably completely naive to this disease, were not affected at all, because the main determinants of vulnerability to disease are not genetic.

Further problems with the epidemic explanation for native American population loss arise from the nature of the transatlantic crossing and the diseases it carried. The transatlantic crossing is long, and if anyone were carrying smallpox or influenza when a ship left port the epidemic would be burnt out by the time the ship reached the Americas. In fact it took 26 years for smallpox to reach the continent. That’s a whole generation of people slaughtering the natives before the first serious disease even arrived. During that time coastal populations would have fled inland, social collapse would have begun, crops were abandoned, and some native communities took sides with the invaders and began to work against other native communities. In 9 years of world war 2 the Germans managed to kill 50 million Europeans, several millions of these due to starvation in the East, and created a huge movement of refugee populations that completely changed European demographics and social structures. What did the Spaniards do in 26 years in central America?

It is noticeable that many of the accounts from that time seem not to account for flight and violence. Accounts at that time were highly political, and often reported only information that served whatever agenda the writer was pursuing. Las Casas, for example, whose accounts are often treated as definitive population estimates, appears not to have noticed massive epidemics happening right in front of him. Others did not notice any possible reasons why natives were abandoning their fields and farms, and didn’t seem to be able to consider the possibility that something scarier than disease was stalking the land. The accounts are an obvious mess, with no reliable witnesses and no numbers worth considering for serious study.

Conclusion

Without good quality demographic data, or at least even order of magnitude accuracy in population estimates, it is not possible to study the dynamics of population collapse. Without decent information on what diseases afflicted local populations, it is impossible to conclude that “virgin soil” populations were more vulnerable to specific diseases. There is considerable evidence that disease mortality is not different when populations are naive to the disease, drawn from European experience with plague and global experience with influenza, and there is no solid evidence of any kind to support the opposite view in indigenous populations. Historical accounts are fundamentally flawed because of their subjectivity, lack of accuracy even when their interests are not threatened, and the unscientific nature of 15th century thought. A whole generation of conquistadores acted with extreme violence before dangerous diseases arrived on the continent, so many accounts of population collapse must reflect only war, but even after the diseases arrived it is likely that they were no more dangerous in native populations than they were in Europe, which by the 16th century was experiencing endemic smallpox that regularly killed large numbers of people (in Europe in the 18th century it killed 400,000 people a year). There is no reason to think that the Americas were special, or that their local population was especially vulnerable to this or any disease.

It is important to recognize that these issues – accurate diagnosis of disease, accurate estimates of numbers who died, and accurate population numbers – are not just academic exercises. You can’t put them aside and say “well yes, we aren’t sure what disease did it, how many people died, and what the population was, but by all accounts it was bad in the colonies.” That’s not how epidemiology works. You would never, ever accept that kind of hand-waving bullshit when applied to your own community. Nobody would accept it if the Chinese government said “yeah, this coronavirus seems bad, but you know there aren’t that many people affected, the population of Wuhan is anywhere from 1 million to 20 million, and we don’t even really know it’s not seasonal influenza or smallpox.” You would rightly reject that shit out of hand. It’s no different when you’re talking about any other population. We have no reason to suspect any special impact of epidemics in the Americas or Australia, and no reason to conclude that they were especially influential in the history of those regions compared to the violence inflicted on the locals – which we know happened, and we have many accounts of. To look at the accounts we have of disease in the new world, and conclude anything about them beyond “it happened” is to put undue confidence in very, very vague and very poor reporting. There is no empirical evidence to support many of the claims that have been made in the past 40 years – and especially, by genocide deniers, in the past 20 years – about the role of disease in the destruction of indigenous populations of the new world.

This matters for two reasons. First of all, it matters because it has interesting implications for how we think about the threat of disease, and how new diseases will affect naive populations when they jump from animals to humans (which is how almost all new diseases start). These diseases can be extremely dangerous, killing 30-60% of the affected people in some cases, but the reality is that for them to become pandemics they need to mutate to facilitate human-to-human transmission, and that mutation significantly reduces their mortality rates. It is rare for a disease that transmits easily to also be dangerous, and there is very little in the history of the human race to suggest otherwise. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is perhaps the sole exception, and if so it should show just how rare such events are. We should, rightly, be concerned about coronaviruses, but we should also not expect that just because we’re naive to them they’re going to be extra dangerous. Diseases do what they do, and that is all.

But more importantly, we need to reject this idea that the catastrophe that unfolded in the new world between 1492 and 1973 wasn’t the fault of its perpetrators, white Europeans, and we need to reject even partial explanations based on epidemics. It was not disease that killed the people of America and Australia. There is no evidence to suggest it was, and a lot of reasons to question the limited evidence that some people present. The epidemic explanation is a nice exculpatory narrative, which tells us that even if white Europeans had approached the people of the new world with open minds and hearts in a spirit of trade and collaboration they would still have been decimated by our diseases. In this story we may have done some bad things but it doesn’t matter, because contact was inevitably going to destroy these fragile and isolated peoples. And this story is wrong. It isn’t just uncertain, it is wrong: there is nothing in the historical record to support it. If white Europeans had approached the new world in this spirit, there would have been a generation of trade and growth on both sides before the diseases struck, and then we could have helped them to escape and overcome the diseases we were familiar with, that were no more dangerous to them than they were to us. Their communities would have been better prepared to resist the social consequences of those diseases because they would not have been at war, and would not have been experiencing social collapse, overcrowding, starvation and poverty because of western genocidal policies. They would not have been forced into overcrowded and desperate accommodation on drought-stricken plains as slaves to Spanish industry, and the homegrown epidemic of 1545-48 would not have affected them anywhere near as badly. It’s important to understand that the tragedy that befell native Americans was caused by us, not by our diseases, and our diseases were a minor, final bit of flair on a project of destruction deliberately wrought by western invaders.

This other story – of diseases we couldn’t help but strike them down with, even if we had been pure of heart – is a genocide denier’s story. It’s self-exculpatory nonsense, built on bad statistics and dubious accounts of native life presented by biased observers. It is intended to distract and to deny, to show that even if we did a few bad things the real destruction was inevitable, because these frail and noble savages were doomed from the moment they met us. It is a racist narrative, racist because of its false assumptions about native Americans and racist because of what it assumes about the balance of mortality in the continent, racist for trying to pretend that we didn’t do everything we did. It is superficially appealing, both because it adds interesting complexity to an otherwise simple story, and because it helps to explain the enormity of what Europeans did in the Americas. But it is wrong, and it is racist, and it needs to be rejected. There is no evidence that epidemics played a major role in the destruction of native American communities, no evidence that native Americans were especially vulnerable to our diseases, and nothing in the historical record that exonerates European society from what it did. White Europeans enacted genocide on native Americans, and just a few of them happened to die of some of our diseases during the process. European society needs to accept this simple, horrible fact, and stop looking for excuses for this horrible part of our history.

Australia has been burning since New Year’s Eve, with bushfires spreading across a huge area of the eastern seaboard. The entire New South Wales coastal region from the border of Victoria to north of Sydney has been affected, along with a big swathe of eastern Victoria (Australia’s most densely-populated state) and communities up and down the coast are slowly being consumed. The main highway linking Western Australia to the eastern states has been cut, and towns on the route are running out of food. As I write this 21 people are listed as missing in Victoria, and about two score people have died along with the loss of hundreds of houses. These figures are preliminary because fire experts predict the fires will burn for weeks still, and the emergency services have not yet had any chance to assess damage in many areas. The federal government has mobilized 3000 army reserve soldiers, troop transports are being used to evacuate entire towns, and in many areas the fires have been left to burn because there are insufficient resources to fight them. Today, 4th January 2020, multiple records for maximum temperatures were toppled, with Canberra setting a new record of 43.8 C, 47C in western Sydney, and all of the south east under a blanket of intense heat and strong winds. The fires may change direction later in the day as a southerly change moves in, though intense winds may spread them even then. From a personal perspective, multiple friends of mine have been marking themselves safe on Facebook, or updating social media with information about their preparations for the incoming fire fronts. Although Australia is used to bushfires, the biggest ones usually occur later in the year and they do not normally all occur at once, across the entire country. This is the effect of global warming, and there is much worse to come over the next few decades.

Australia is currently labouring under a conservative government. For the past 40 years – barring a couple of years in the early 1990s – this party has refused to accept the reality of climate change, has denied its human origins, has fought tooth and nail in international forums to prevent global action against climate change, and has refused to do anything to stop climate change locally. After the past Labour government introduced real measures to begin mitigating climate change the incoming conservative government reversed them, hobbled the renewable energy industry, and used accounting tricks to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Even when they admit that climate change is real they refuse to link climate change to any of the environmental challenges Australia faces, whether drought, storm, flood or fire, and they refuse to take action to mitigate global warming, insisting instead on adaptation.

Today is what adaptation looks like. Communities destroyed, tens of thousands of people evacuating from their homes, huge stretches of forest and national park burnt out, wild animals and stock burnt alive, infrastructure ruined, and the entire country brought to a standstill as it watches the fury of nature in helpless horror. There is nothing that can be done, and ultimately nowhere to run. Climate change has reached the driest, most fragile continent on earth, and its inhabitants are adapting: running, hiding, burning, gasping and hiding on beaches and boats as they watch the sky turn black with the ashes of their homes and communities.

This is what adaptation looks like. This is what the climate change deniers have been demanding of us for the past 20 years. Mitigation is too expensive or impossible, they say, it is better to adapt, to prepare ourselves for the warmer future. Instead of preventing what is coming we should build robust communities that are ready to deal with it. These communities certainly have shown how robust they are as they adapt to the coming firestorms, crouching in the midday dark on beaches or waiting hours in crawling traffic as they abandon their homes. Robust communities, fleeing for their lives from a storm they have been forced to adapt to by 40 years of inaction.

This is what adaptation looks like, and it will get worse. Not only will it get worse, but the people who refused to take any action to prevent this storm coming will also abandon you to its fiery maw. They said you should adapt, but they won’t give you any money to adapt, because when conservatives are faced with a community challenge their answer is always: there’s no money. The same people telling you it’s too expensive to prevent climate change will also tell you it’s too expensive to adapt. Don’t believe me? Look at this government’s response to requests for funding for fire prevention. For two years the fire chiefs have been pushing the government to increase funding for fire services by a mere $12 million per year, and they have refused because “there’s no money.” Today they released $20 million for emergency fire fighting planes, which will arrive two weeks too late and probably won’t help anyway. Up until yesterday they were refusing to consider funding firefighting volunteers. That’s what they think of adaptation. You can burn, for all they care. They and their rich mates will hide in the cities, pretending to be friends of the communities that are forced to adapt, while they refuse to spend a single cent of the money they have made selling coal to the world. They will let you burn before they’ll share the profits of global warming with you.

This is what adaptation looks like, for communities that in many cases were staunch supporters of these conservative governments. Many of the towns and rural areas burning this new year are in staunch Liberal/National-voting seats, people who voted for the governments that deny climate change, and are now running because those same governments won’t help them adapt. Meanwhile the rich columnists of the conservative media sneer at them for not buying insurance, or for not preparing properly, as their homes become uninsurable and undefendable in the face of global warming. Conservatives don’t care about their own rural electorates, and will throw them to the fires of their greed. Nor will they show them the respect of even pretending to care: the prime minister, who in his victory speech last year said he would “Burn every day” to make the lives of the “quiet majority” better was on holiday in Hawaii as his country burned, and hosting a party for cricket players by the Sydney harbour as the disaster escalated. These people will never burn for you, nor will they show you even a modicum of respect or compassion.

Conservatives are traitors, economic wreckers, and ecological vandals. They will destroy this country before they will admit they are wrong, they will watch it all burn down before they will give up their ill-gotten gains, and they will never ever show compassion to the people whose lives are destroyed by their policies. Conservatives are the biggest threat to industrial civilization that humanity has ever faced, and their political movement needs to be destroyed utterly before it destroys us. Wherever you are in the world, you need to get these preening, greedy cowardly traitors out of office. The only hope for the future of civilization as we know it is the destruction of conservative political parties, their expulsion from the body politic, and their complete humiliation intellectually, culturally and politically. Get rid of them, before they get rid of you.

Some commentators on Twitter and in the media are saying that Labour lost the 2019 General Election because it lost too many votes to remain parties, and that failure to retain support from remainers was the problem. Angry Labour activists on Twitter have been listing off the remain seats that were lost, and saying that a strong remain strategy would have saved the party.

This is completely wrong, and I will show this using data from the 2019 election and the 2016 referendum.

Methods

First I used the dataset of constituency-level results I assembled over the weekend, which contains results for 339 constituencies, semi-randomly sampled from the list of all constituencies on the BBC election site and linked to leave voting data from the 2016 EU referendum. The detailed methodology for assembling this dataset is given here. I then assembled a separate data set of only the seats Labour lost, using this handy (but not quite alphabetical) guide from the Metro newspaper. I merged these with EU referendum data.

Using the full constituency data set, I created a logistic regression model of probability of retaining a seat against constituency leave vote, for all the seats that were held by Labour at the 2017 election. I plotted the predicted probability of losing a seat against the proportion of the population in that seat. Then, I conducted a crosstabs and chi-squared test for the seats held by Labour in 2017, showing the probability of losing a seat in 2019 by whether or not it was a leave-voting constituency. I defined a “leave-voting constituency” as any constituency voting above the median leave vote (which was 53.55).

Next, using the data set of the 59 constituencies Labour lost, I calculated the mean vote in this set of constituencies, and the proportion of constituencies that were leave-voting constituencies. I compared this with data for all Labour held seats that were not lost in the 2019 election.

Results

In my constituency data set there were 142 seats held by Labour in the 2017 election, of which 30 (21%) were lost in the 2019 election. Figure 1 shows the cross tabulation of leave seats with seats Labour held in 2019[1].

Figure 1: (Hideously ugly) cross tabulation of Labour-held seats by whether those seats voted leave

As can be seen, 92% of remain seats were held, compared to 66% of leave seats. This is extremely statistically significant (chi-squared statistic 14.35, p<0.001). That’s a nasty sign that the main risk of losing a seat was that it was a leave seat, not a remain seat.

We can show this explicitly using logistic regression. Figure 2 shows the predicted probability of a seat being held by Labour in 2019, plotted against the proportion of the seat that voted to leave in the EU referendum. The red dots on this figure indicate whether it was held by Labour in 2019: red dots on the top of the figure are seats retained, plotted at the value of their leave vote; red dots at the bottom are seats that were lost, plotted at the value of their leave vote.

Figure 2: Probability of losing a seat in 2019 by leave vote

This model was highly significant, and showed that every 1% point in the leave vote reduced the odds of Labour holding the seat by 7%. Note that this figure includes Scotland, so the results might be slightly different if only England were considered, but even the strongest remain-voting seat that was lost – even were it in Scotland – is well above the remain vote of some seats that were held. This model shows that at the extreme end of the leave spectrum, up above 60% of the electorate voting for leave, the probability that Labour retained the seat dropped to around 50%. That’s terrible!

My constituency data set contains only 142 Labour seats, and 30 seats that were lost, but actually 59 seats were lost. Since my data set is semi-random, there is a small chance that it will misrepresent the results. So I checked with the dataset of all seats that were lost. This data set contains 59 seats. Here are some basic facts about this data set, and comparisons with the constituency data set and the full list of Labour-held seats:

  • Labour lost 14 remain-voting seats (24% of all seats lost) and 45 leave-voting seats (76%). This is very similar to my crosstabs, where 24 of 30 seats lost (80%) were leave
  • The average leave vote in the 59 seats that were lost was 57.7%, slightly above the median, ranging from 31.2 – 71.4%.
  • In contrast, the average leave vote in the 112 seats in my constituency data set that Labour held was 48.8%, ranging from 20.5 – 72.8%
  • The average leave vote in all seats held by Labour going into this election was 51.1%, ranging from 20.5 – 72.8%

This is clear statistical evidence that Labour went into this election having a slightly remain-leaning set of constituencies, primarily lost leave-voting constituencies, and emerged from the election even more remain-focused than when it went in.

Conclusion

Labour did not lose this election because of a large swing in votes to the remain parties. It did not lose a large number of remain-voting seats, but was decimated in the leave-voting areas. Labour held on to all of its most heavily remain-focused seats. In attempting to appeal to both leavers and remainers, Labour managed to retain most of the remainers and lose a lot more leavers. Labour emerged from this election even more remain-focused than it was when it went in[2]. There are some very simple reasons for this:

  • The swing to the Tories and away from Labour was much bigger in leave-voting seats
  • The Brexit party was only active in Labour-held seats, and got its largest vote share in the strongly leave seats
  • The swing to the Lib Dems was much less closely related to the leave vote than was the swing away from Labour (see my last blog post, Figure 4)
  • The intensity of the relationship between leave voting and swinging to Lib Dems was lower in Labour-held seats than Tory-held seats (see my last blog post, Figure 4)

In trying to please both sides of the Brexit divide, Labour failed to satisfy the leavers. Pro-brexit Labour voters were simply much, much more committed to Brexit than pro-remain Labour voters were to remain, and so Labour lost the leave areas. There are lots of remainers out there who want to claim that remain is wot did it, but they are simply wrong. I’m super pro-remain myself, but the data makes it very clear: British Labour voters want to leave, and they were willing to pack in their allegiance to the Labour movement to get that done. Whatever you might think of their politics, that is the simple hard fact of the electorates Labour represented.

It’s worth noting that in 2017 Corbyn campaigned on Brexit. The Labour manifesto explicitly accepted Brexit and said Labour would negotiate and leave. At that election Labour won a historically high share for a party in opposition, a higher share of the vote in fact than Blair won in 2005 (when he retained government). In that election they came within a bees’ dick of winning government, and in that period before Corbyn accepted the compromise of a second referendum two Tory PMs left, and Johnson only held onto government by the skin of his teeth (recall there was talk of a unity government). Blair and Cameron have both shown it’s possible to hold government with 35% of the vote, so it’s perfectly possible that had Corbyn gone into this election on a leave platform he would have seen a much smaller swing against him, and could have won it. We don’t know, but on the basis of all the evidence here it seems like the second referendum policy was a disaster for Labour.

This gives two clear lessons for Labour to take in over the next few years and as they choose a new leader:

  1. Labour’s policies and Corbyn were not the primary problem, and dropping them is not going to help. Obviously Corbyn is going to go, it’s traditional, but the manifesto’s policies were not the problem. The Labour right is going to push for the party to throw the Corbyn years down the memory hole (in today’s Guardian we have Suzanne Moore begging for a vet to “sedate” the Corbyn supporters!), because they are and have always been intent on fighting these genuinely left wing policies. Ignore them, and stick to the real Labour platform that will really help the country as it recovers from the horrors of this Tory leadership
  2. Labour – and the British left generally – have to get over Brexit. There is no option left to remain, and no chance it will ever happen now. The Labour right want to claim that Corbyn doesn’t understand working class voters but his original policy – of full-throated Lexit – was much more in tune with what ordinary working class Labour supporters want than anything that the Blairist rump have to say. The debate now for Labour has to be about the type of Brexit, and how to make it work. This means fighting Johnson’s bullshit deal, but on the basis that they can make a better one – obviously this doesn’t matter now but it is the job of the opposition to hold the government to account, and they should do so from the clear perspective of their voters, that Brexit has to happen. This is going to be hard for some of the urban remainers from the south and east, but that’s life if you’re a politician. Further talk of remain just has to end

For 20 years the EU was a thorn in the Tory side, constantly causing them trouble. Cameron ripped that thorn out with this referendum, and although May spent some time botching the healing process Johnson has patched up the damage and squeezed out the last remainer pus from the Tory body politic. If Labour don’t face the reality of Brexit and what it did to this party at the 2019 election, then the issue will fester for them – as it did over so many years for the Tories – and hold them back just as it did the Tories. It is time for Britain to move on from Brexit, and for the Labour movement to accept the reality of the disaster that is coming. Once people realize how Johnson’s Brexit has screwed them, they will turn to Labour – and Labour needs to be ready with a transformative, genuinely left wing agenda in order to recapture its heartland and do what is right for working people. Corbyn was right about Brexit, right about the policies Britain needs, and after he is gone he will still be right about what has to be done. Don’t repudiate those lessons, and in the process destroy the movement.


fn1: My apologies for pasting this as a picture directly copied from Stata, instead of making a nice pretty table – I hate it when people do this but it’s late and I hate making tables in html. Stata offers an option to copy as html but it doesn’t work. Sorry!

fn2: This final conclusion is shakey because it depends on my constituency data set, and I don’t know if it would still be true once all the remaining Labour-held seats are entered into the dataset. I think it will, but there’s a chance the final data set will end up the same level of leaviness as the 2017 constituencies, statistically speaking. But this conclusion is not a very important one anyway, so it doesn’t matter if it isn’t held up by the full dataset.

The UK General Election has just finished, with Labour losing badly to Boris Johnson’s Brexit-fetishizing Tories. The media are describing Labour’s loss as the worst since 1935, which is true if you look at seats lost but not at the vote – with 32.2% of the vote share it’s the best result for a losing Labour party since 1992, and although the swing against Labour was very large – 7.2% – this is partly because the previous share of the vote that Labour achieved, at 40%, was phenomenally high – Blair only beat 40% once, and many post-war Labour governments have ruled a majority with a much lower share of the vote than Corbyn achieved in 2017.

In the early post-election recriminations people are laying the fault entirely at the feet of Corbyn and the Labour manifesto, but I’m not convinced that a different leader or a less radical manifesto could have helped. The 2019 election was a historic election, similar to the 1945 election, with a huge decision about the future of the UK to be made and a major recent event hanging over the election. In the 1945 election the huge decision to be taken was the establishment of the modern welfare state, and the recent event was the war. In the 2019 election the decision is Brexit, and the EU referendum is the major event overshadowing the election.

This Brexit issue overshadowed the whole election, and in this blog post I will show that it had a huge impact on the Labour vote, which made this election almost impossible for the Labour party to lose. I will show this using a statistical analysis of 2019 election results.

Methods

I obtained 2017 election results and 2015 EU Referendum results from the UK Parliamentary Research Briefings website. I merged these data sets together using ONS ID (the unique number that identifies parliamentary constituencies) so that I had the percentage of each constituency that voted leave in 2016, and their 2017 election results, in one dataset. I then conducted a semi-random sample of the 2019 General Election results using the BBC Election results website. The sample was semi-random because there is no publicly available official dataset at this stage, so I had to enter them by hand looking at each constituency in turn on the BBC website[1]. I started by ordering my dataset by constituency name from A-Z and working sequentially through them on the assumption that I have limitless patience and 10 hours of my life to give to this, but gave up somewhere around “D” and took a random sample of another 100 or so constituencies. Because names are approximately random, this means I have 200 or so approximately random samples from the first stage, and another 100 or so genuinely random samples from the second stage. I may have had a hangover, but there are limits to how much time and effort I am willing to put into rescuing the UK Labour party from bad analysis!

I dropped Northern Ireland from my analysis because a) I don’t understand their political parties b) Sinn Fein’s decision not to enter parliament is weird and c) Northern Ireland should be part of Ireland, not the UK. I kept Scotland but excluded it from some of my figures (see specific figures for more details). I excluded the Speaker’s seat (which was Labour) from analyses of the Labour swing because there was no opponent so the swing was weird; I also excluded another Labour seat with a very high positive swing from these analyses, and dropped one Conservative seat (Buckingham) with the same problem.

Once I had done this I then calculated the swing against Labour, Lib Dems and Tories by subtracting their 2017 result from their 2019 result. I confirmed this works by comparing calculated Labour swing with actual Labour swing from the BBC website (which I entered as I went through my semi-random sampling). I obtained Brexit party vote shares from the BBC website, leaving this field blank if the Brexit party did not stand a candidate[2].

I then conducted several linear regressions of the swing:

  • A linear regression of conservative party swing as a function of leave vote in the EU Referendum
  • A linear regression of Labour party swing as a function of leave vote in the EU Referendum
  • A linear regression of Lib Dem swing as a function of leave vote in the EU Referendum
  • A linear regression of Labour party swing as a function of Brexit party vote

For all regressions I tested a quadratic term in leave vote, and I included a term for whether the constituency was in Scotland or Wales. I included a term for whether or not the constituency experienced a Brexit party challenge in the first three regressions, and tested an interaction with leave vote. I dropped any non-significant terms in order of their non-significance to get the best model. I also centered the EU referendum vote at its median (53.5% of people voting to leave), so that the constant term in all linear regressions measured the swing against the party in question in the median leave-voting seat.

I then obtained predicted values from all regressions to include in the plots of the swing against the leave vote or the Brexit party vote. Brexit party vote is effectively being used here as a proxy for Labour voters’ decision to abandon Labour over Brexit. I did not model the relationship between swing against Labour and Brexit vote because I think this swing is the Brexit party’s fault, but because I expect it represents the likelihood that Labour voters abandoned Labour over Brexit. One might suppose they abandoned Labour for Tory over general policy, or because they respect BoJo, but the only reason for abandoning to the Brexit party is Brexit, and so this acts a proxy for the possibility that they also jumped ship to the Tory party over Brexit. Because the Brexit party only stood candidates in Labour-held constituencies it is impossible to test what might have happened if the Brexit party stood against a Tory incumbent.

Results

I had data on 341 constituencies, just over half of all eligible constituencies. Among these 341 constituencies 146 (43%) had a Brexit party challenger. Of the 142 seats that were Labour held in 2017, 112 (79%) survived to be Labour-held in 2019. None of the 199 non Labour-held seats in my dataset switched to Labour in 2019. The mean swing against Labour in seats it held was 8.7%, and the mean swing against it in seats it did not hold was 7.5%.

Let us consider the relationship between the swing against Labour and the Brexit vote in seats where it was challenged by this party. Figure 1 shows the swing against Labour in England plotted against the proportion of the vote that the Brexit party won, with the predicted trend in the swing from my final regression model. The final regression model explained 54% of the variation in the swing against Labour, included a quadratic term for the Brexit vote, and included significant terms for Scotland (a 3.5% larger swing against Labour) and Wales (a 2.2% smaller swing against Labour). The intercept term in this model was -3.8, which indicates that in the absence of a Brexit party challenge these seats would have seen a mean swing against Labour of about 3.8% (95% confidence interval 2.6% to 5.0%). In this counter-factual[3], most of these seats would not have changed hands if there was no Brexit party challenge.

Figure 1: Russian Ratfuckery, in its most exquisite form

It is very clear from Figure 1 that the Brexit party had a massive impact on the Labour vote, pulling it down by a huge amount in the seats where they ran a candidate. The Brexit party did not win a single seat in this election, but they cost Labour a lot of seats. Once again, Farage had a huge impact on British politics without ever sitting in parliament. In some of the northern seats the Brexit party got a huge share of the vote, and it is very likely that almost all of it came from Labour. In the seats with a middling Brexit vote, between perhaps 5 and 15% of the total vote, Labour lost between 10 and 20% of the vote share. I think this is a strong indicator that Labour was bleeding votes due to Brexit.

We can confirm this by examining the relationship between the swing against Labour and the proportion of the electorate who voted for leave in the 2016 EU referendum. Figure 2 shows the swing against Labour in England and Wales plotted against the leave vote, separately for constituencies with a Brexit party challenger (red) and those without a Brexit party challenger (blue). Most seats with a Brexit party challenger were Labour seats, while those without a challenger were mostly Tory. The blue and red lines show the predicted swing against Labour from my linear regression model, which explains 39% of the variation in the swing against Labour. This model had a term for Scotland (which had a 2.4% larger swing against Labour), a quadratic term for the leave vote, and an additional effect on the swing due to the leave vote in areas with a Brexit challenger. In the median 2016 EU referendum leave-voting constituency, the swing against Labour was 6.5%, and this was 2.1% higher in seats with a Brexit challenger.

Figure 2: Relationship between the swing against Labour and the leave vote

It is clear from Figure 2 that the swing against Labour was smaller in seats with a Brexit party challenger that voted to remain in the EU. In seats not held by Labour, the swing against Labour was larger in seats that were either strong leave-voting seats or strong remain seats. In these seats – the seats Labour had to win to win government – Labour was being squeezed in both strongly remain and strongly leave seats. In the seats Labour already held (mostly with a Brexit party challenger), or that it did not hold but faced a Brexit party challenger and a Lib Dem or SNP incumbent, the party faced intense pressure due to brexit. In seats it held that had a large leave vote Labour was completely smashed. These seats are mostly in the famed “red wall”, the northern seats that Labour has always been able to rely on. Note the largest positive swing to Labour occurred at about the median leave vote, between 45 and 55.

An interesting phenomenon in this election is the failure of the conservatives to gain a large swing from Labour. The national swing against Labour was 7.9%, but the conservatives only gained a 1.2% swing. The primary beneficiaries of that swing were the Lib Dems and the Brexit party. Of course, these national figures hide major variations within constituencies, which are easy to see if we look at the swing to the Tories at the constituency level. Figure 3 shows the swing to/against the conservatives in England, plotted against the leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum. Red points are points where there is a Brexit party challenger, and blue points are those without a Brexit party challenger (mostly Tory-held seats) At the median leave vote my model estimated a swing to the Tories of 1.3%, with a further swing to them of 1.4% in Wales. This model included a quadratic term in the leave vote, and explained 57% of the variance in the Tory swing.

Figure 3: Observed and predicted swing to the conservative party, by EU referendum leave vote

It is noteworthy that in the seats that voted to remain the Tories experienced a swing against them of as much as 10%, but in the strong leave-voting seats they experienced a huge swing to them. This swing was larger in seats without a Brexit party challenger, presumably because there was no Brexit party to absorb the leave sentiment, but even in pro-leave constituencies with a Brexit party challenger the Tories gained a very large swing. Note, however, that in some pro-leave seats there was a swing against the Tories where there was a Brexit party challenger. These were Labour seats that saw all their pro-leave vote go to the Brexit party. But in pro-leave seats with no Brexit party challenger – the seats that Labour needed to win to form government – there was a consistent large swing to the Tories. We again see here the value of Farage’s decision to stand candidates only in Labour seats.

Finally let us consider the role of the Liberal Democrats, the greatest frauds in modern politics, in destroying the UK. Figure 4 shows the swing to or against the Lib Dems in England, plotted against the 2016 EU referendum leave vote, with the predicted swing from my regression model. Again, red points are for seats with a Brexit party challenger (Labour- or Lib Dem-held seats) and blue points are for seats without a Brexit party challenger (mostly Tory-held seats). This model has no quadratic term for the leave vote: in non-Brexit party seats every percentage point increase in the leave vote was associated with a swing against Lib Dems of 0.2%, but in seats with a Brexit party challenger this swing was only 0.1%. At the median leave vote the Lib Dems experienced a swing towards them of 6.0%, reducing to 2.8% in seats without a Brexit party challenger. Scotland and Wales saw large reductions in this swing to the Lib Dems, of 5.3% in Scotland and 2.1% in Wales. Basically, the Lib Dems performed best in Labour seats in England that voted to remain in 2016. In these seats the swing against the Labour party was often almost entirely towards the Lib Dems. This model explained only 29% of the variance in the swing, probably because the Lib Dems win by very local-specific campaigns, not so strongly affected by national factors.

Figure 4: Look at these arseholes spoiling the Labour vote

Note that in some Tory-held remain seats (the blue dots to the left of the figure) the Lib Dems had huge swings to them, but in many seats they did not win. A good example of this is Cities of London and Westminster, which was Tory before this election and did not have a Brexit Party challenger. The Lib Dems fielded Chuka Umunna, a class traitor who abandoned Labour to join TIG, then jumped ship from them to join the Lib Dems, natural home of fickle and untrustworthy people. He won 30.7% of the vote, scoring a swing to the Lib Dems of 19.6%. This enabled the Tories to hold this seat with just 39.9% of the vote, against Labour’s 27.2%. Had he not stood, it is possible that a large proportion of that vote might have gone to Labour. In the seat he used to represent for Labour, Streatham, Labour held on despite a surge of 17.0% in the Lib Dem vote (this seat is not in my data set so you can’t find it in Figure 4). Cities of London and Westminster voted 28.1% leave in the EU referendum, making it one of the least leave-voting seats in the country; Streatham voted 20.5% leave, making it the second least Brexity in the country. Thanks to Chuka’s “efforts”, the citizens of both these seats will now have to leave the EU.

What it all means

These figures and the associated regression models should make very clear that Labour was screwed by Brexit. The Tories scored huge swings in pro-leave seats, which shored up their vote in seats that Labour had to win and forced Labour to defend seats it could normally rely on. Worse still, Farage’s decision to stand Brexit party candidates only in Labour seats meant that Labour lost large numbers of voters to this no-good Russian con-job, while also facing defection to the Tories. At the remain end the Lib Dems were stealing their votes, so they were bleeding votes at both ends of the leave spectrum. The only way they could have averted this problem would have been to go to the election with a full-throated Brexit strategy – a Lexit manifesto – which would have shored up the red wall and ensured they didn’t lose many of those seats. However, even if this had been successful in the North, it would have cost seats in the cities, where the Lib Dems would have stolen many seats. This is worse than useless, since we know from experience that if they have the choice the Lib Dems will betray the country to the Tories, and will never form a government with Labour.

I don’t think a Lexit strategy would even have been that successful. Just as when Labour goes full racist, the people they’re trying to win back just don’t believe it, and vote for the Tories anyway. Had Corbyn gone to the election with a full-throated Lexit manifesto a lot of the people he was trying to convince would have assumed he was lying, and he would have lost the northern voters anyway, at the cost of the cities and the youth vote. Jo Swinson truly could have become PM!

Given this squeeze I think Corbyn made a sensible decision to run on a big left-wing manifesto and try to make the election about something other than Brexit. This was especially important given the Labour position on Brexit was consistently misrepresented by the media. I saw multiple media figures on Twitter claiming Labour did not support free movement (they did; it was in the manifesto) and saying their position on Brexit was “too complicated” (it wasn’t: they were going to negotiate a good deal and put it to a referendum). Given this their best bet was to try and turn the debate to one on honesty, the NHS, poverty and inequality. I think this is wise messaging and important: the UK is heading into the abyss, and at some point the Labour party is going to have to save the UK from ruin, so why not make this point at a time when you can’t win the Brexit debate?

I think it’s also important to consider what would happen if the party had made a choice to go full Remain or full Lexit. In the former case they’re abandoning their northern seats, telling them that they don’t care about their concerns and won’t listen to their democratic voice. In the latter case they’re abandoning young people, who are much more likely to be Labour supporters, and telling them they will destroy their future. Given that the future is all that young people in the UK have, this is political suicide. The only way to square this circle is to present a policy that offers hope to both these core groups. Labour is the party of the urban poor, industrial labour and young people, but when these three constituencies have radically different demands on the overwhelming issue of the time it’s impossible for Labour to win.

If Labour failed in this election I think it was in failing to convince the electorate of the value of their Brexit policy. But given they weren’t able to express it without the media mangling it and misrepresenting it, and given how dishonest and vicious the campaign was, I don’t see how any other leader could have done better. Even if you credit the notion that Corbyn is hugely unpopular, and assume some part of the swing was hatred of this genuinely decent guy, it makes no difference: the figures I’ve shown here make clear that Labour were fucked no matter who their leader was and what their manifesto was. This was a Brexit election, and the Tories are obviously the party of Brexit.

Three years after he exploded the Brexit bomb, and 30 years after he face-fucked a dead pig so he could win Johnson’s approval, David Cameron has achieved what he originally intended: the destruction of the Labour party by unleashing a racist monster in the UK. History will not judge any of these awful men well.

Where to now for the Labour party?

I think the Labour party should keep Corbyn and keep his manifesto. They aren’t going to win with another Blairist monstrosity – Ed Milliband tried that in 2015 and was sunk by a viciously anti-semitic media campaign that portrayed him as a Jewish communist with dual loyalties[4] who can’t eat a bacon sandwich. By the time the next election comes around the world is going to be desperate, trapped in the throes of global warming and looking for new ways out. Why throw away what the country needs? This election Labour’s manifesto was the best and most inspiring left-wing project in the UK for 30 years, and it was right. Jeremy Corbyn is right – he won the arguments. He just couldn’t beat Brexit.

I have seen rumours that some on the Labour right were cheering when MPs lost their seats. I have seen in the media and on Twitter Corbyn’s old enemies in the Labour party gloating over the Tory victory, laughing at the Labour movement’s disappointment and salivating at their chance to retake control of the party. Perhaps they envisage another illegal war, where they can kill another million muslims? Or perhaps they look forward to palling around with rich non-doms, being “intensely relaxed about people being filthy rich”. Oh, the larks! These people are not part of the labour movement. They’re scabs, and their obvious joy at this defeat is disgusting. They need to leave the movement, and leave it to those British people who actually want to save the country from ruin. During this period of reflection, we should be clear: it was Brexit that defeated Labour at this election, and the direction it was headed under Corbyn is the only future for Britain other than ruin. So these scabs need to get out of the party and leave it for people who actually care about the future of the UK and the future of the world.

Once Brexit is past, and these class traitors are out of the labour movement, we can hold the Tories responsible for what they have done. We couldn’t beat Brexit, but we can hold its architects responsible for the great evil they have perpetrated on ordinary British people.


fn1: It’s okay, I had a hangover and nothing better to do on Saturday

fn2: Or “chump”, to use the preferred terminology for these sad-sacks

fn3: Which is bullshit

fn4: Oh the irony …

Today the riots in Hong Kong seem to be grinding down to their bitter end. This week the fascist street thugs killed a 70 year old street cleaner with a brick and set a man alight for arguing with them, and now they are trapped in university campuses and running out of food and options[1]. Hopefully the people who killed that old man will be brought to justice, and this remaining hard core of violent thugs who have spent the last few weeks running around Hong Kong beating up mainland Chinese people will be taken off the streets.

A disappointing part of this whole saga of racist street violence for me has been the way many in the international left have supported the racist thugs. This started with a complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the extradition law that started the whole movement, and some on the international left even supported the movement as it spiraled into street violence and calls for independence – or even a return to colonial rule. Now obviously, in some times and places, it is necessary (from a left wing perspective) to support radical action on the streets for some political goal, but obviously if you’re going to support such actions you need to be thinking: what is that goal, and what left wing vision will it achieve? In the case of this violent movement – after the racist street thugs splintered off the original antiElab movement and started the five demands – the question has to be: What is the ultimate left wing vision for an independent Hong Kong? These guys are throwing molotovs on the street in pursuit of separating from China, so if they were to do that, what would an independent Hong Kong look like? What leftist vision do we have for that?

Hong Kong has very little industry, no agricultural land, no natural resources, even its water is piped in from Mainland China. If it separated from China it would basically have two industries: land speculation and banking. Now those are completely viable industries, I’m sure, and there is certainly a place for an independent financial hub in Asia, but how could this city-state be a left wing vision? We already have a kind of model for that, Singapore, and although it is a nice place and has some very strong socialist principles going on (such as the huge public investment in housing and the central planning of much of the economic activity) it is also a libertarian dream. It is not a great vision for an independent Hong Kong, and it’s also not possible for Hong Kong to achieve: a large part of Singapore’s success is built on social harmony and a lot of that is built on some repressive free speech laws and the strong public investment in housing. Given that housing speculation is one of Hong Kong’s main industries, it’s unlikely that an independent Hong Kong will suddenly nationalise 80% of the housing stock. Furthermore, Hong Kong is basically run by four families, and any left wing version of an independent Hong Kong would very quickly have to run into conflict with those tycoons[2].

I can’t see a left wing vision for an independent Hong Kong, so I wonder – what do left wing people hope to achieve by supporting these rioters as they run around Hong Kong beating up Chinese girls with iron bars? What is the future of Hong Kong that the left would support, if it split off from mainland China under the pressure of these thugs and their firebombs? And if you cannot see a path to economic security and an egalitarian society, why would you support independence, even if independence were in and of itself right?

Which brings me to the second part of my disappointment with western leftists’ support for the independence rioters. The return of Hong Kong to mainland China is an essential part of the decolonization process. There can be no effective, genuine left wing ideology that does not support decolonization, and although there are legitimate reasons to argue against violent decolonization, a peaceful decolonization – as happened when Hong Kong was returned to China – is something that all leftists should support. The National Liberation struggle may have a bit of a ’70s whiff to it, and it may be a bit beardy and uncool, but it is still a fundamental plank of any real left wing vision for a fairer and more egalitarian world. That means that Hong Kong needs to be part of mainland China and ultimately so too does Taiwan. Supporting an independence movement in Hong Kong means reversing that decolonization process, and if you are going to support recolonization, or oppose decolonization, you need a very good reason. “A strong, independent, left wing state” isn’t enough, especially given that’s exactly what China is anyway; but given Hong Kong has no possible pathway to becoming a strong, independent left wing state (or any kind of left wing state), you’re simply betraying left wing principles by supporting it.

Now you might argue that freedom is more important than decolonization. This might be true under some circumstances, depending on the nature of the state you’re supporting separation from, but I don’t think it’s possible to argue that under the one country two systems ideal; and it certainly isn’t possible given the vanguard of this movement are fascist street thugs who want to return to colonial rule. There is no freedom under British colonial rule, and any movement that advocates for that – and waves the British colonial flag – while beating up people on the basis of the language they speak, is never going to be a movement for freedom and democracy.

This movement of racist thugs is a dead-end for the left. It’s not a movement for freedom, it’s opposed to the decolonization project that is essential to modern left wing ideals, and its only end point is a right wing tax hell hole squatting on the edge of China causing trouble. Left wing people should not support this movement, and as its last dead enders stumble bleary-eyed out of the universities they’re holed up in, we shouldn’t give them our support!


fn1: Their decision to occupy the university seems to me to be a sign of how little connection they have to the international left. University sit-ins only work if the government is at least slightly willing to play along with the game, if there is the possibility that they are going to make concessions, and the government is only likely to do that if they think the activists are honest and aren’t going to engage in an orgy of property violence. Anyone who has done a university sit-in (as I have, once) will know that they are extremely hard to do well, and when the police decide to finish them up the process is ugly. Looking at photos of these kids’ activities in the university cafeterias and common spaces, I don’t get the impression they are very well organized or familiar with how sit-ins work. I don’t think they have much connection to the international left if they haven’t been able to learn these things.

fn2: These tycoons are the real reason Hong Kong’s young people feel so hopeless, and they have done a very very good job of distracting Hong Kongers into thinking mainland China is the cause of their problems.

The rule of law …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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