23 June 2009

Lads and Losers

Imagine a group of drunk men sitting round, watching pornography together. Imagine the jokes they tell to distract from the fact that they’re sitting in a room full of other men, all with erections. Now imagine 150 illustrated pages of it. This is known as a “lad-mag”. Not only is the writing shit, they can’t even publish their artistic photography without putting a joke caption on it. Not a funny caption. Not even a caption intended to be funny. A caption that readers will simply recognise as a joke, therefore rendering any semi-on sustained by the reader ironic. What I’m trying to say here is, I don’t really like lad-mags. My old flatmate’s Maxim still ranks as the worst document I’ve ever read. I don’t like them. They’re shit. Really shit.

So Feminazery. Brace yourselves. You’ve got an open goal here. Please don’t fuck it up. I mean, look who you’re up against: Piers Hernu, who says his teenage readers are being
slowly broken in, as it were, to the harsh realities of the sexual world
The harshest thing I’ve ever seen in a lad mag was the revelation that not every woman will have anal sex with you whenever you want it, and, well, I don’t think reality has ever really featured in his publications. So not only are we playing with a tennis ball here, he’s throwing it very gently to you, under-arm. And don’t think this is going to be an allusion to girls being rubbish at sports. This isn’t really cricket. This is intellectual debate. You’ve got Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler and Monique Wittig waiting in the pavilion, he’s got a plastic bat from Woolworths, held upside-down. You can do this, Feminazery, you can do this. And with 98% of the population on your side, you could even get away with cheap “you-wish” gags, snobbishly writing stuff in a plebeian accent, confusing ‘sexually explicit’ with ‘sexually arousing’ and mocking your opponent’s body-shape. You could even save quality one-liners like “me tarzan, you fuckbucket” for the comments section and you’d still be doing fine.

Oh, but you trod on your stumps. Nice one:
An airbrushed, submissive, surgically-enhanced, Aryan model flaunting her knickers and knockers isn’t sex; it’s wank-fodder. Wank-fodder, no less, for the spotty teenager who can’t get a real girl because he doesn’t know how to – and Nuts and Zoo sure as hell aren’t going to teach him.
Pretty much everybody masturbates. I had one friend at school who claimed, claimed not to. And if someone tugs one out over Nuts it’s probably not because they can’t get a real girl, it’s probably because they can’t get better pornography. So, why the cheap dig at spotty teenagers who don’t know how to pick up girls? Is it so hard to maintain a light-hearted, humorous tone without laying into some outsider or other? Would you respect them more if they were better at procuring the use of a vagina? And let’s be honest, “How to Make Every Girl in the Room Beg for It” and “How to Make Her Come like a Steam Locomotive Using Only Your Knees” run in alternate issues. While that might not get you the kind of woman who writes Feminist media blogs, I’m guessing they must have a reasonable success rate to get churned out so regularly. So even the expression of sympathy tacked on at the end doesn’t work.

I boggled when I saw that quote, I really did. And I almost never boggle. Is a so-called ‘Feminist’ blog really using “can’t get a real girl” as a casual insult? Is its supposedly progressive author really equating male social worth with sexual conquest? Because it looks an awful lot like it. And this isn’t just stupid in terms of theory, it’s a colossal strategic blunder. The involuntary celibates who the writer, Who Knows, looks down on from the privileged position of ever having had a sexual partner, are natural allies of the Feminist movement. They’re not only outsiders to the system, they’re conscious victims of it. Really conscious, trust me. Feminists and Daily Mailists might worry about teenage girls with low-self esteem seeing the women in FHM, but I rarely see concern for the teenage boys being indoctrinated to go through bisexual lingerie models like James Bond, or their self-esteem when they inevitably fail to do so. Because lad-mags abuse men, and especially boys, too. More so in fact – as well as bombarding us with fantasy images of women we can never have, they push an ever-narrowing definition of masculinity on us, limited to guns, cars, sports, gadgets, fucking and drunken banter. What’s oddest is that Who Knows goes on to say that
if we really had a problem with “sexually repressed morality”, we might have less of a problem with teenage pregnancy
Now come on: do you want your teenage boys fucking or not? Will you chastise them for losing their virginity too early or disdain them for losing it too late?

Anyway, speaking from experience, us losers can go either way as regards gender equality. On the one hand, we end up resenting other men as competitors: successful, undeserving and secretly, if not openly, disdainful of our failures. Even other losers become rivals, as we hope and pray they don’t find happiness before us, leaving us still further behind. On the other hand, after repeated rejection you can find yourself hating women more than life itself. So we don’t really feel we have any allies. Now do you see what this is Feminazery? This is a group of people, disgruntled with the state of things, hostile to typical masculinity, resentful of the effect binary gender identity has had on their lives, feeling largely under-represented and, to be honest, with a lot of extra time on their hands to read stuff and think about the world. This is another under-arm tennis ball sailing slowly towards the middle of your bat. You just have to pick your approach. You can argue that prescriptive norms of gendered behaviour are the root of our frustrations, or you can use potential allies as an offensive byword for male inadequacy. But just remember, we’re emotionally fragile creatures, not to mention horny, and your opponent’s offering pick-up guides and naked breasts.

15 June 2009

Compulsory Nationhood: “Cultural Imperialism” Part 2

What with nationalist parties both extreme and petty making such gains in Europe recently I’ve dusted off an old ramble on their bizarre modern creed.

What country was Otto von Bismarck born in? If you said a country beginning with G that he is famous for creating and that therefore, by definition, didn’t exist at the time, dock yourself five points. You tried to define another, historic region in terms of your own, modern, nationalist one. You do it all the time. We are taught that for over a hundred years, France and England fought bitterly over land in France, but in reality, the fight was between French and English (or rather Norman) kings and their private armies, as that was largely how these things worked back then. We see Columbus and Da Vinci as Italians and Kafka as a Czech, despite these places not existing during their lifetimes. We sometimes use the phrase “in what is now” to pay lip-service to historical accuracy, but the idea of the nation state is so deeply entrenched that when we look at history, we can’t help but draw our modern borders on a sheet of mental tracing paper and tape it over the map. This notion is deeply entrenched in Western culture, and more so than ideas of free-market capitalism or republican democracy – while we’ve slipped into dictatorships, protectionism, monarchies and planned economies, no country in Europe has abandoned nationhood except to allow the secession of further nations. Even the Soviet Union and its allies quickly slipped into Nationalism, often more so than the capitalist lands. Since having the idea of nationalism, the West has both expected and forced everyone else to adopt.

Let’s start with the Middle East. Ba’athism has been largely Arab-led and often anti-Imperialist national movement, Iranian nationalism draws on the country’s long history, Turkish and Kurdish nationalism are similarly home-grown. However Ataturk consciously copied European republican values, and Ba’athists drew heavily from European Fascists and proto-Fascists such as Fichte (fatuous as comparisons between Saddam and Hitler always are, they are rooted in truth). The European concept of nationhood has essentially spread to this region by the book rather than the sword, but there are notable exceptions. Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, three of the countries most marred by inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict were all invented by Europeans: French imperialists, British imperialists and a largely Austro-German colonist movement respectively.

Africa is a more straightforward example. Its conflicts and corruption are quite often blamed on “tribalism”. Africans bring their problems on themselves by favouring petty tribal divisions over loyalty to their unified country’s governments. Is this not imposing our standards? Africa is supposed to abandon its own irrational divisions between human beings, and start using ours. And these are very much our irrational divisions – Africa’s national borders were drawn by European imperialists at the height of European imperialism, and have remained as Africa tried to integrate itself into the international community. It is quite obvious then that this is imperialism, but in light of what has happened Rwanda and the Sudan, is it such a bad thing to force Africa to abandon its savage ways and join the twentieth century? Well, look at Germany and Yugoslavia. Little is different – national borders were drawn by the Belgian and British crowns, Bismarck and the League of Nations, and encapsulated several tribes within them. And just as the ruling Sudanese Arab tribe slaughtered the Black Sudanese tribe within its borders, so the ruling Aryan German tribe slaughtered the Jewish German tribe within its rapidly expanding borders, so as to adapt the real, living German population to the invented idea of the German Nation. How many of Africa’s difficulties with ‘tribalism’ are down to the inherent backwardness of the system and how many are down to its incompatibility with the nationhood it was actually forced at actual gunpoint to adopt? I’m honestly not sure where to start with that one. But I imagine having a state with starkly split ethnic identity – or rather a government whose jurisdiction is arbitrarily extended over several disparate self-identifying groups – can’t be healthy, especially when one group acquires power over the other. Ethnic cleansing is an extreme example but provoking distrust for and favouritism among the government would be more banal problems. This is hinted at in articles by the BBC and New York Times, and this African writer says pretty much the same thing (though I’d advise him that lemonade is sweeter than lemon juice). And I know that, despite the horrific and brutal ethnic conflicts that have scarred the continent since independence, primitive African tribalism has caused far, far less division and bloodshed than our modern, civilised model for arranging tribes.

There are of course exceptions – the racism of Imperial Japan was not, as far as I know, imported from Europe, South American Bolivarian nationalism and the USA’s flag-wavers were far more a reaction against “old” Europe, indeed the latter inspired our values far more than it aped them. But cultural imperialism even penetrates into post-Imperial Europe: in our dealings with ethnic and religious minorities. We expect them to “integrate” to the culture of their adoptive nation. Very often, this is stupid and petty, for example Norman Tebbit’s infamously stupid “Cricket Test”, and in Germany, a match against Turkey in the recent European Cup was considered an “Integrationstest”. We’re so fascinated by female Muslim hair that we constantly discuss how to make them show it us. However we also focus on practices that even the most tolerant Islington liberal would not accept: female circumcision, violent homophobia, honour killings, brutal Sharia punishments and so on. The focus of these debates is seldom feminism, sexual liberalism or human rights, but in terms of integration and the culture of the host nation. Rather than expecting foreigners’ oppressive traditional values such as chastity, manliness, honour and piety to give way to our modern, liberal, secular ones, we expect them to be sacrificed for petty national loyalty. We do not expect them to take on our values of tolerance, equality and individual rights, but one single value of the homogeneous nation state. Naturally, we use the contrast between illiberal and reactionary aspects of immigrant cultures and our own civilised sensibilities to drive the debate, but we tend to do so to further our demands for assimilation, rather than openly using integration as a means to promote our progressive values.

When it comes to things like human rights, open government, religious freedom, women’s liberation or outlawing child labour, we hum and haw and wring our liberal hands about imposing our cultural values on other parts of the world. Yet for some reason the most divisive, irrational and consistently destructive cultural value in European history, our arbitrary method for dividing people into peoples, has got under the radar and imposed itself indelibly upon much of the world.

Part 1

13 June 2009

Blocking Ambulances

A Leicester woman has gone to prison after blocking an ambulance and, probably indirectly bringing about a man's death.

Why am I not expecting similar sentences for this?

11 June 2009

Which Wing?

A lot of internetting about whether Brussels’ shiny new Hitler wannabes are far-left or far-right. Some detailed and rather scary, some zany metaphors, some pragmatic, some self-entitled and demanding and one spot on. Predictably, all the left-wingers are claiming that the BNP are extreme right-wingers and all the right-wingers are claiming they’re extreme left-wingers. The left-wingers also seem to be arguing it as well as claiming it. But generally, everyone’s chucking in those all-important caveats about how the BNP have a mixture of some right-wing and some left-wing policies before hitting their usual opponents over the head with them.

At the root of this debate is the inability to define left- and right-wing. Each side has its own criteria for the divide, based on its own rhetoric and core values. The modern, libertarian-leaning, capitalist right, despite flirtation with traditions and identity and so forth, defines itself largely in terms of freedom, almost exclusively freedom from large government. It therefore sees the left as controlling and statist. The left, as ever, defines itself in terms of equality and sees the right as maintaining and encouraging inequality. What we have with the racist authoritarians of the BNP is quite a conundrum. Their beliefs, if not their policies too, basically amount to state-enforced inequality. We’ve got a party that openly embraces the two concepts that left and right most abhor. So it’s expectable for both sides to try and push the British definitely-not-Nazi Party off on each other. But defining the split exclusively in your own terms is not just silly and ineffective, it’s also getting unbearably tedious.

Aside from that, their ‘left-wing’ policies – nationalising the railways, bringing the troops home and something that looks a bit like homesteading – are generally fairly moderate. Their “extremism” is largely expressed in their attitude to immigration, crime and Islam. So perhaps “centre-left-cum-far-right” would describe them better. Even the BNP’s moderate rhetoric betrays it. Their bugbears are Marxists and political correctness. When anti-fascist protesters delivered Nick Griffin’s breakfast directly to him, it was mostly Labour he alleged to be conspiring against him. Richard Barnbrook has dedicated his life to never shutting up about the ‘liberals’ and they smear their opponents as unpatriotic, self-hating and active supporters of anything we fail to hate sufficiently. So even if right-wingers consider them left-wing, I expect the BNP would disagree rather strongly. Must be left-wing then.

09 June 2009

Bad Humanities

I like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. I think it’s one of the best and most important blogs on the internet, with a really good set of well-updated links. I think the scientific method and post-Enlightenment rationalism are quite easily the best and most reliable ways to understand the world, and I agree that where there are limitations and human error involved, for the most part it is scientists who are the first to acknowledge and fight them, for example with double blinds and high sample-sizes.

But a lot of its readers, and occasionally its writer, have fallen for the post-postmodern backlash. Now I’m a humanities graduate, French and German language and literature, and as such I wouldn’t dream of claiming another branch of humanities, say, Women’s Studies, was all bollocks because I didn’t understand it. Nor would I criticise the Russian department for not taking into account French grammar. I certainly wouldn’t have the danglies to wade into something as far removed from my field as the sciences by, say, reading one or two bad nuclear physics texts then claiming that the entire discipline was smoke and mirrors/the Emperor’s New Clothes/mutual mental masturbation because it used big words I didn’t know. Yes, I’ve put forward tentative theories about physics, but I’ve not actually rubbished the entire science, and to my knowledge I’ve never used ‘scientist’ as a synonym for ‘cretin’ as has been done for ‘humanities graduate’.
But there’s a nasty little thread running through, for example, this nasty little thread, that levels exactly those accusations against “postmodernism”. For example:
I always wonder whether people writing this type of thing mean what they say - or whether it is just an exercise in wordplay. Or maybe i'm just not clever enough to see the point.
Which is why science is the greatest of human achievements and pomo is a ridiculous verbal construct, a bunch of words (many of which are given arbitrary or false meanings) masquerading as philosophy. Oh, and these guys are professors and assistant professors for the same reason Chomsky is regarded as a linguistics expert and homeopathy degree courses are offered. All narratives are equally valid... Whether intended or not, that's exactly how post-modernists present themselves, and in an obfuscatory literary style that so befits the pointless idiocy of the term "post-modern". It's what happens when physical reality becomes too difficult or distasteful to follow and it becomes necessary for some to invent alternative "realities" and delusions (fairytale castles of which to elect themselves King). The Emperor's new clothes...
The telling part in that last one is the “pointless idiocy of the term”, basically a self-righteous admission that you don’t understand. Like shouting at your waiter for speaking Spanish. A couple of posters also demonstrated a clear lack of understanding of the entire branch of academia that they were railing against:
Just noticed that the paper's first author, Stuart J Murray (PhD) is: "Assistant Professor of Rhetoric & Writing" and "Trained in philosophy and rhetorical theory and criticism"
- I think "rhetoric" is the word that stands out here. The whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as the kind of convoluted and turgid speeches the old Iron Curtain politicians were wont to give.
This one has confused the older, more academic sense of ‘rhetoric’ as a part of the medieval Trivium and the newer, popular sense of ‘empty but pretty speech’. And is rather smug about it.
“What are the current social and political conditions under which scientific knowledge appears to be ‘true’?”
Eh? If we elect a new government will medical treatments stop working? Is that the kind of thing they're getting at? Will gravity stop working and pacemakers fail to keep heart attack victims alive? I think what they are saying is there is no such thing as absolute truth and the views we have of EBM are wrong, because the evidence actually depends somehow on what state the country (or the world, I suppose) is in and if things were different then the evidence would therefore show us a different truth. The truth is bent to (or by) political considerations and social conditions. Possibly. Sounds like bollocks to me, anyways.
This one seems to have oversimplified and misunderstood the whole idea of subjective truth, and assumes that the evidence will change rather than our reading of it, and that postmodernists think the earth and sun moved differently in relation to each other when the Catholic Church had Galileo under house arrest.
They seem to be arguing against Evidence Based Medicine using philosophical wordplay without providing any concrete examples of it's failure or any example of something better.
I have picked up the occasional sociology text and once struggled my way through a Foucault primer. I have to confess I struggled with it, it just seemed to be a collection of anecdotes used to inform an argument that made unprovable assertions.
But these two have made a more subtle mistake. The discipline they are attacking is not about drawing conclusions from data, but applying principles to texts or observations. It might not seem very scientific, but it’s not exclusive to “PoMo”. You could just as soon demand statistical evidence for the Platonic Ideal or Hegel’s dialectics.

The Sokal affair, incidentally, makes a similar mistake. The scientific accuracy of his essay was, unsurprisingly, not so important in a humanities journal. The principles he puts forward are consistently and rigorously argued in relation to physics, and furthermore, he had taken a particularly unorthodox point of view. While it may not be acceptable in the sciences to say something unusual and provocative purely to open debate, this is common in the humanities, Social Text’s open editorial policy even actively encouraged it. The humanities place far more emphasis on rebutting and refuting arguments than the sciences, publishing an ineptly-argued or shoddily-researched essay in a Deconstruction journal is equivalent to publishing a failed experiment in Nature, though not factually accurate, it is still a valid contribution to the discourse. He has in fact shown, explicitly and tacitly, that he doesn’t really understand postmodernism. What he and many other anti-postmodernist scientists do by this, is criticise the humanities for not using their methods. Or, in more PoMo terms, he has falsely presented his social norms as universal, and become confrontational after suffering severe culture shock.

Basically, what we’ve got here is a large number of scientists, first getting angry at a branch of the humanities for criticising science without understanding it (in their defence, the specific abstract they were discussing did seem to know very little about science), and then attacking a very wide branch of the humanities, and sometimes the entire department, because they don’t understand it. Sometimes, of course, they don’t bother waiting for the humanities to criticise science. This massive display of hypocrisy taps into one of the particular problems facing science and evidence-based medicine, and one of the areas where alternative medicine, homeopathy, snake-oil and nutriwoo have an advantage.

There are no limits to what science will investigate, to what, in theory, can or can’t be disproved with dispassionate, empirical investigation. Science is, in that sense (the philosophical, rather than the political), totalitarian in its aims, in that it claims to apply to the totality of human thought. For those less familiar with its usage in postmodern discourse, the word can seem a lot more aggressive and critical than it actually is. But the obvious limit to what empiricism can prove is the validity of empiricism. Claiming that evidence-based medicine has been proven to work is as pointless, tautological and circular as arguing that evil is bad, that sexual perversion is immoral, or that the Bible is true because it says so in the Bible. Basically, any argument in favour of science is either pragmatic or entirely epistemological, and so has always been the territory of philosophy. The problem with empirical science’s dominance in this area is that it has developed as an entirely different mode of thought, and scientists, as a rule, do not concern themselves with the philosophical mode of thinking as part of their profession. Alternative healers do: philosophy, magical thinking, associations and spirituality are usually key to their methods in one way another. This means they are usually better schooled in the epistemological argument and thought needed to debunk and defend medical practices than proper doctors.

Rubbishing areas of the humanities because you don’t understand them is not just ignorant, arrogant and unscientific, it’s bringing a knife to a gunfight because you think guns are an illusion. Ben Goldacre, and especially his more arrogant readers, need to remember that Bad Science is not actually a science blog, but one on media studies and politics, and that they are basically scientists wading into the humanities. Although Goldacre generally does a very good job, this wilfully ignorant disdain and distrust for any recent development in the humanities (as one poster put it, ‘postmodernism’ is “a bit of a catch-all phrase for anything, well, after the modern times of the 80s”) does neither science journalists like Goldacre nor the cause of evidence-based medicine any favours. If you don’t believe me, try thinking up a logical, evidence-based counter-argument to this.

BBC Bias

Yet more mounting evidence that the BBC is insidiously pro-spider.

Update: Even more!