Category Archives: Maunderings
Polemics and tirades.
Comment on the American Election
Does Hillary Clinton face enormous amounts of misogynistic abuse? Without doubt.
Is this a major issue? You betcha.
The rhetoric that has been lobbed at Clinton in this election cycle, and back in 2008 as well, by both the left and the right is reprehensible in the extreme and needs to be countered in every instance. It is damaging to women everywhere, working to preclude eligibility to the highest office in America, and by extension, one of the most powerful positions in the world, purely on the basis of gender. Attacking Clinton on this level has rippling effects that reach far beyond this single presidential race.
This is not to say, though, that Hillary Clinton merits the Presidency. Her attackers may couch their positions in sexist rhetoric, and their aims are betrayed by this, but attacked she deserves to be.
What are the crimes of Donald Trump? Unscrupulous business practices, likely tax evasion, the whipping up of racial animus the likes of which haven’t been seen in a generation. These things have palpable, real consequences – hundreds of lives worsened or ruined, scores of individuals suffering physical assaults, businesses that people looked to for their livelihoods ripped apart. Donald Trump, while not a fascist in the ways we have known before, is a reckless, dangerous cretin, and to allow him access to the powers associated with the Presidency would be a grave mistake. What we have seen of him thus far, his blundering unpredictability, should give us pause.
How does Hillary Clinton stack up in comparison? The prospect of a Trump presidency is one that is all the more frightening for its mystery – we don’t know what he’d be able to achieve, how much damage he would be able to inflict. On the other hand, we know exactly what will come of an HRC presidency. She’s held enough high offices, been close enough to the power structure of the US now, for decades, to allay any questions one might still have.
Hillary Clinton is a murderous, corrupt, racist neo-con, and a presidency with her at the helm will be a continuation of the current murderous, corrupt, racist regime we’ve had for decades.
The damage that Donald Trump has been able to inflict upon the world pales to insignificance when compared with that of Hillary Clinton. When Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton supported the vicious military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Honduras, legitimating the violence and internationally-maligned illegal conduct of the actors. In the wake of this, violence against LGBTQ people has spiked, the economy has tanked, and organised crime has seized control of ever more of the country. Hillary Clinton has been hawkish for her entire political career – her opposition to regime change in Haiti in ’94 came not because she was averse to needless death but because the effort was ‘too disorganised.’ She voted for the war in Iraq in 2002, quibbling over her motivations only after the whole thing came apart at the seams. At the time, she vocalised her support for that most-American of policies, gunboat diplomacy: “I believe in coercive diplomacy.” Despite paying lip-service to not involving America in Pakistani engagements , the drone-strikes that have killed thousands of civilians since 2008, all reservations evapourated upon being confirmed Secretary of State. She was a proponent of the surge of troops in Afghanistan under Obama and was for regime change in Libya. In Syria, she has been a supporter of dumping ever-more weapons into the ring, supposedly to aid the ‘moderate’ militias, in truth untraceable once they touch ground. It is plausible that a Clinton Presidency will raise tensions with Russia to the point of disaster.
Racism, particularly against blacks, has been woven into the cloth of America from its start. That said, it was the policy choices of the Clinton administration in the 90’s that set the scene for the current rash of institutionalised violence playing out now – with 102 unarmed black people murdered by police in 2015, and, at last count, 36 this year. Adding those that were armed with anything deemed a ‘weapon’ causes both numbers to multiply steeply. The heightening of the racist war on drugs, the implementation of the fundamentally flawed 1994 crime bill, the scapegoating of urban ghettos and those forced to live in them as source of all of society’s ills – these actions have brought America to where it is today. And Hillary Clinton, with her talk of young, black “super-predators” vocally supported it the whole time. While it was Trump that took ‘the Birther Movement’ to it’s farcical extremes through Obama’s two terms, but it was her campaign in 2008 that sowed the seeds of distrust, questioning Obama’s status as an America. We saw the same tactic used this primary season, with the Democratic National Committee – which we know to have been in cahoots with Clinton’s team due to leaked emails – actively triangulating to undercut Bernie Sanders on grounds of his Jewishness and his atheism. Clinton has shown again and again that she is shameless in her use of racist rhetoric to achieve her aims.
Trump, with his “small loan of a million to get on his feet,” his multiple bankruptcies, his dozens of failed businesses, exemplifies what it means to be part of the moneyed elite. His conduct, the fact that he is not held to account, is symptomatic of the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. It is Hilary Clinton, though, who is complicit in the creation of this situation. Clinton has been the tool of Wall-Street for decades, participating in the repealing of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999 that lead directly to the financial crisis and world-wide economic recession of 2008. She has opposed efforts to reinstate it and has said that she will not do so if elected president.
In what has quickly become the take-away soundbite from Monday’s Presidential Debate, Clinton reeled off a list of her undoubtedly impressive accomplishments when questioned by Trump on her stamina. It is true, she is possessed of a strong fortitude, especially when we recognise that she has risen to her position in a system stacked against her as a woman from the start. But as we can see from the sample above, it is just these accomplishments that preclude her from deserving the Presidency. Or would do, if it were not the case that, in this day and age, the division of the American people, the grovelling abetment of the moneyed, the callous interventions into other nations’ governments is exactly what the President is meant to do.
Hillary Clinton, scion to war-criminal Henry Kissinger, canny fixer for Wall Street, inveterate racist, would, in any other pairing, be without doubt the villain. It is a sorry state of affairs that she looks the lesser of two evils.
In the continuing accretion of dolor following the Brexit Referendum, I’ve been reminded of something I read in the weeks leading up that might shed some light on the result. The result of both the referendum, and the shaping of society that has gotten us to this point, that is. Of all things, it was a puff piece on the actor Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout, for you Potterites). A short, Q&A style article, it spent the majority of its length ribbing received wisdom and PC shibboleths, but never to a truly threatening degree, which has become Margolyes’ trademark of late.
Amongst the various questions about her youth, her co-stars, her views on Western cultural practices and Middle-Eastern geo-politics, she referred to her class roots, saying ‘…my mother was uneducated and felt inferior. She was determined that I would go to university. She’d say, “I want you to be able to talk to anybody about anything” – and I can.’ Because I’ve a wide masochistic streak, I proceeded, upon completion, to read the first few comments “below the line.” Amidst the swathes of drek and sprinklings of misogyny, one commenter stated (well couched in sexist piffle) that ‘…the notion that only those who attend uni can debate and discuss any subject is not only inaccurate, but patronising to the vast number of working-class men who win any kind of argument with these individuals, even though they think they have an advantage over us because we’re not “educated”. Being vociferous and having the temerity to never back down or capitulate is a sign of a good orator, and Miriam hasn’t displayed these attributes, merely that she believes in social cleansing.’
I’m willing to give Margolyes the benefit of the doubt on this one, not in small degree because I would tend to agree with her, and assume that that is not what she meant, but our andro-centric commenter does have a bit of a point. At the very least, his invective taps into the sea of feeling that has driven us to these dark times, the frustrations of a large section of society made to feel lesser.
Earlier this week, I attended a pro-EU rally here in Cambridge. Weather was miserable, and the audio equipment was suffering, but the assembled local grandees were able to struggle through and pass along their message of condolence, of renewed effort, and all the rest. Everyone to speak was quite emphatic in saying that not all Brexiters were racists, not all were xenophobes. All the more jarring, then, the echo-chamber affirmation of disdain following the denunciation of prime-ministerial hopeful Michael Gove’s now-notorious line – “people have had enough of Experts!” Oh, yes, silly Gove and his distrust of experts, and silly Brexiters for being so gullible as to follow him. Because, of course, there is only ever one proper way to read things, statements only ever mean what they say on the surface, and Michael Gove and his ilk invariably deny the facticity of reality. That’s definitely what’s going on here. Let’s all have a good, self-congratulatory chuckle for knowing better than those clods, that facts are facts and that there are people who know them. Quite right.
Wait. What’s that you say? It’s not the facts people may have been tired of, but the hectoring, dismissive way they are so often delivered? Preposterous! People that know best know best after all! Leave everything to the professional professionals, and don’t worry your head about things you can’t understand anyways!
More seriously, you can see the overlap between the two issues without an overwhelming amount of effort, I think. The tacit assumption that those who haven’t been through the ivory-bound gates of the academy are precluded all knowledge, whether it be conversational or economic, is likely a bit overdone, but, as is often the case, it’s the way in which these subjects are presented that is at issue. The locking-out of people from the conversation, and the tone-deafness of the infrequent missives to these penned herds, have long been a problem, and it’s no surprise that it’s started to rankle.
As I said a moment ago, I would tend to agree with Margolyes – education is one of the few goods-in-itself, and I hope I’d be one of the last people one the list of anti-intellectuals. However (and I recognise that an off-the-cuff remark in a >500 word article isn’t likely to show nuance), I fear that the spirit of what she was saying about Universities, the ideal of them, doesn’t match the reality. Probably never has, unless for a very small slice. The blithe assumption that it does and that this is an effective way of cutting up society is, understandably, offensive. The idea, though, that University education ought to provide one with a richer, more vibrant life, a tool-set to explore deep interests and an exposure to the broader world, coupled with the universal access to these boons, now, there is something to strive for.
In his closing comments to the Oxford Student Union a year or so ago, Stephen Fry (another embattled anti-PC’er) quoted from Wilde’s De Profundis, the letter the poet wrote to his sometime paramour (and downfall) Lord Alfred Douglas, saying ‘That you failed to get a degree at Oxford is perfectly understandable. Many great minds have failed to get a degree. What is not forgivable is that you failed to acquire what is sometimes called the Oxford Manner, which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.’ So, we see that this conception of what Universities are for is not a new one, or rather, not one of the last half-century. While there are plenty of worthwhile careers built out of it, this is what a proper education in the Humanities is meant, or should be meant, to instill, the zest for life. The technical sciences, the professional courses, while they might have more obvious and immediate economic benefits, can only be augmented by the addition of this. Too much of the modern University, with its bloated bureaucracy and its efficiencies schemes and its slashed budgets, is aimed only at producing something quantifiable, and it is diminished by this in a fundamental manner.
Many of the people I’ve known who best exemplify the Oxford Manner, the ‘ability to play gracefully with ideas,’ the possession of a boundless curiosity about the world, have never had a lick of post-secondary. Conversely, I am acquainted with many people who have attended top-tier universities and are dumb as a stump, doubly uninterested and uninteresting. So, clearly a University education is not always necessary for these gains, nor does it always work. That said, it takes a very particular type of person to seek out such knowledge, to take on that mode, for themselves. Much more likely is it that, given the opportunity and the skillset to make good on it, people will take this on once shown how. While you may not be able to make a horse drink having brought it to water, it’ll certainly do better there than in the desert. We must expand education in our society, obviously for the concomitant economic benefits, but also to make of our society a collection of better humans, more involved with the world, more engaged with their lives and better able to take part in their communities. We cannot continue to shut the door on these opportunities and laugh at those locked out. We cannot continue to fob off on the economically disenfranchised the barest of educations, ‘streamlining’ them into becoming living tools for business’ gain and little else. We are beginning to see the unrest that this causes, the deserved distrust and anger that generations of this foolhardiness brings about.
Perhaps Brexit shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but hopefully it will provide the wake-up we so clearly need.
And so, here we are, in the Brave, New, Post-Brexit World. But not really – despite the slim majority (52%) on the side of the Leave vote, article 50 – the clause of 2007’s Lisbon Treaty that covers the exit of a member state from the EU – has not been triggered. And may never be so. Cameron, in a clever, if thoroughly spineless, move refused to act immediately on the results of the referendum, saying instead that he was stepping down and would allow the next Prime Minister to move the situation forward. Meanwhile, over in the Leave quarter, we’ve seen more back-pedalling. Nigel Farage has distanced himself from any firm statement on the allocation of that £350 million weekly delivered to the EU, not of course that he has the authority to do anything with it, but the suggestion that this might be redirected to the NHS played no small role in deciding the minds of many. Iain Duncan Smith, much closer to the levers of power, has also downplayed that particular “promise.” On the xenophobic side of the Brexit coin, the Conservative MEP that headed up the Leave campaign Daniel Hannan has admitted that, even with an exit from the bloc, they will not be able to stem migration. A gormless, squirming Boris Johnson has as much as said that he didn’t expect to win. All in all, a pretty pathetic showing from the Victorious.
And that is merely a portion of what’s going on with the Tories and UKIP. In the country more generally, we’ve seen a continually declining exchange rate for stirling – at a 12% drop last I checked, it represents the most abrupt depreciation for the currency ever, and the lowest rate in 35 years. £125 billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within 5 hours Friday morning, with continuing damage to the FTSE 250. At close on Friday, markets worldwide saw the loss of approximately $2 trillion, which has only increased in the new week. Last night, the country lost its Triple-A credit rating with Standard and Poor (the last major credit agency to rate them so, others having reduced their rating in response to austerity measures in previous years – though they too reduced their already slashed values). In Scotland, which voted almost unanimously (by area) for Remain, Nicola Sturgeon has begun the drumbeat of Independence once more, whereas Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland have called for a uniting with the Republic, and Plaid Cymru, in Wales, is calling for their own national referendum. The PLP Blairites have, in their wisdom, taken this time to stage a (failing) leadership coup. The arch-quisling Hillary Benn was sacked over the weekend for initiating it, and that rational move has set off a cascade of resignations from the shadow cabinet – 35 at last count.
I was, rightly, criticised for passing over the subject of migration in my last piece. To be fair, I didn’t intend to offer a comprehensive gloss of the situation, rather a background for my more academic concerns, but it has proven to be such a pivotal issue in the whole farrago that to not mention it was a glaring omission. As if we needed proof that, for many, this is the key issue of the referendum, we’ve seen a disgusting uptick in racist rhetoric and action since the results came in Friday. There have been instances of cars and homes leafleted with anti-polish slogans; groups of non-ethnic English verbally harassed up and down the country, even just outside Cambridge; there have been Muslims told “you’re next.” Reports are still trickling in from the weekend of multiple acts of vandalism, windows smashed and exteriors vandalised. Huffpo have an ongoing collection of reports, and it is troublingly long. People, people who have lived here for generations, are afraid in their own country. Although it occurred before the referendum was actually held, I would be remiss not to mention the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by a white supremacist – Jo Cox who headed the all-party group Friends of Syria, focussing on Syrian refugee response. ANTIFA brigades are suddenly looking a lot less LARP-like.
This is something I struggle with in discussing these matters in conversation, choosing the level at which to frame them. Often times, I will, while holding to one level in the back of my mind, say something that accords with another, and later on foul myself up on the contradiction between the two. More to the point, the question – what of the rights of migrants? – has many answers, depending on how the question is framed. At the most normative level, the level of “what should the world be like,” the question is easily answered – acknowledging the illusory nature of borders and illegitimacy of existing power structures, digging into what ought to be available for people, yes, it is easy to say that there should be free movement of people and that they should be extended the protection and rights accorded to all humans vis a vis their humanity. Unfortunately, and this is particularly important when trying to convince someone sceptical of such a position, normativity is not sufficient.
In the world realpolitik, basic human rights, never mind those that are self-evident or supposedly God-given, get short shrift. As ever, freedom issues from the barrel of a gun and force rules the day. The legalese is good for little else than assigning blame once the damage is done, and arguing from a position of how-the-world-ought-to-be when your interlocutor holds to this is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. Thankfully, we haven’t (yet) sunk to that depth. However, there are still the circumstances on the ground to be considered when we ask the question.
In answer to this, then, at least on the level of ‘the hard-nosed, disillusioned realist,’ we must recourse to law. What law protects the rights of European migrants in the UK? Obviously, that of the EU. A set of laws that, if ever the Tories choose to take the plunge, will be rescinded. In this instance, what laws would the migrants have? None, other than those ensured by the UN and whatever invariably-odious writ the Government draughts to replace the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It’s a safe bet that the rights – economic and otherwise – granted to foreigners in this yet-to-come piece of legislation will be sparse. It is, or will be, a fait accompli, and to have a conversation about it, framed with those parameters, is to accept this. What of the rights of migrants? The rhetorical question presents itself – What rights?
So, as rudimentary as the above all is, it does go some way to illustrating my trouble with the question. But, for we who hold to ideas of a better future, isn’t it our job to push against the ‘facts on the ground,’ to push against the way things happen to be, until they align more closely with they way they ought to be? It is ours then to make the case for why the laws need to be changed, to strive to realign the balance of powers such that we have the weight on our side, the weight enough to actually matter in the realms of realpolitik. Assurances have come from the like of Boris Johnson, saying that the status of EU migrants already present in the country will no change – but, looking at even just his track record of the last few days, you’d be a fool to think he won’t change with the wind. We need to push back against the racism, the scapegoating, the lies, and, in some ways most disheartening, the silence on the part of those who should know better (Lexit campaign, I’m looking at you).
All those are nice and stirring words, but that is about the sum of it without an actual, achievable, plan. Well and good to say that, after the Revolution, everyone will be treated justly and graciously, but it won’t be slogans alone that get us there. Demonstrations, and I stress that they are useful in some, limited, respects, don’t stop wars. We need to grapple with the situation, and that is one of parliamentary democracy. There is still hope for a Labour party run in a social democratic way – far from ideal, but this is about damage control now. There are accusations that Corbyn and his team didn’t do nearly enough for the Remain campaign, and even that they actively scuttled efforts amongst the Labour wing. The fact remains, two thirds of Labour voters, despite the obvious incentives of voting out (generational disenfranchisement, economic punishment by elites, continuing disposable status under the status quo – not all reasons for Brexit were racist) voted remain. Comparing this with 46% of Tory voters who voted to stay in the EU, it seems farfetched to say that Brexit was Corbyn’s fault, that he didn’t deliver (as if the votes of an electorate are some packaged object to be shuttled back and forth) the Labour constituents.
There is likely to be a leadership race within the Labour party, and, as far as the rights of migrants go, never mind a whole host of other issues, our best bet is to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn. But then we must hold his feet to the fire – it is not enough to simply elect and assume the job is done, we must hold him to his promises. Whatever his past malfeasances, large or slight, unfortunately, there’s no one else in the Labour party who is a better candidate.
While it’s true that I’ve been, for some time, in a state of flux when it comes to ethics and how I view the world, I’ll admit that I still find myself slightly allergic to ends-oriented systems. I’ve the gut feeling, the intuition – as much as I might disdain them as quanta of ‘proper’ knowledge – that the necessary causal link between the action and the desired outcome just doesn’t hold up. Nothing so far reaching as a Humean denial of the whole apparatus, I simply can’t put to rest anxieties cropping up from the unknowable nature of the future. We can at best guess at what our choices will result in, and that doesn’t cut the mustard for the big decisions.
That all said, recent political events here in Britain have (further) shaken my confidence in Kantian, maxim-based deontology. Tomorrow marks the day of referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union, riding under the rather facile portmanteau ‘Brexit.’ Appropriately, I would imagine, the vote is closed to Europeans living in Britain, but, and this I don’t quite understand, it is open to Commonwealth citizens who’ve been living in the country for the requisite period. Thus, I am faced with the three choices – Brexit, Bremain (and you thought the former was a neologistic nadir!) or abstain.
The run-up, while it has grown a bit tedious of late, has energised public discourse in a way that one doesn’t often see in usual elections. Perhaps this is explained by the largely-populist nature of the Brexit campaign – the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have for several weeks now been resorting to dog-whistle, and in some cases blatant, racist tactics to stir up opposition to the EU. The existence of UKIP as a party is based on the hindbrain vapours of a slice of the populace, and proof of this has only been reiterated over the last few weeks. But, depending on the day, the Leave side surpasses that of the Remain in the polls, so there is more going on here than just abject bigotry. Some portion has to be chalked up to the dismal, dirge-like nature of the In for Britain campaign, a campaign who have relied almost entirely on the tactic of economic fear mongering, delivered up by panels of rich business people, moneyed luvvies, and pompous bureaucrats – the very elites that set the average punter’s blood to boil.
There is, also, a principled reason to exit the Union. From its start, it has been and continues to be an inflexible, undemocratic monolith catering to the needs of multinational corporations. While some worker’s rights, some environmental and safety standards, some crumbs from the tables of our fiscal superiors are codified by the EU, every tangible gain for workers has come through struggle, as is ever the case. The EU, for all its vaunted protection of European citizens, has been systematically eroding the rights of workers for decades. One need look no further than the South of the continent for that, where the ongoing punishment of Greece looms particularly large. The EU, and its destriers, the IMF and the ECB, are not our friends. We would do well to be rid of them.
We would, that is, if their absence wouldn’t leave us even worse off. The country has a unipolar economy directed entirely towards finance, and most of that focussing on funneling money into Frankfurt. The Tories, though it has been amusing to watch this referendum split their party most acrimoniously, are still in power, and any arguments that we will be better positioned to argue against TTIP, to redirect the funds we send to the EU to shoring up the faltering NHS, are belied by that. We have no unified Left-opposition, as Corbyn/McDonnell continue to allow the Parliamentary Labour Party Blairites to run wild, and the radical Left remains in complete disarray, suffering delusions of mass insurrection every time George Galloway or Alan Woods feel dyspeptic. No, leaving the European Union in present circumstances would sink the economy of Britain (we’ve already seen sizeable fluctuations in the pound’s exchange rate, and there are rumblings of a second Scottish independence vote to come, should Leave triumph) and it is ever the working classes that suffer most acutely in such situations.
Returning to ethical concerns for a moment, my quandary becomes a bit clearer – can a maxim, in its successful execution, reflexively undermine the purpose that animated it? I’m not unaware of the irony here – that I should start by saying I’m wary of ends-oriented systems, and then problematise deontology by soiling it with the mere possibility of results. However, I still feel as if there is more to it than that, that this hangs more on Kant’s own formulation – to will the success of an event is to will the means for it – and if there is something mangled about those means, surely this is a problem. I suspect that the issue could be dodged by reframing – maxims are meant to be simple, categorical affairs, and the presentation I’ve provided here – even if boiled down to handy slogans like ‘Avoid acts resulting in Class collaboration’ or ‘Do not undermine the emancipation of working people’ – is incompatibly complex.
There are, of course, cogent criticisms of the maxims and, despite what Kant thought, their tendency to snarl one another and themselves. If the above count as proper maxims, this then looks like one of those cases. If not, then this particular snag is avoided, but at the cost of leaving us wondering how we build a useful system out of the infinitesimals maxims would surely be reduced to, to avoid fouling themselves up.
Whatever the fall-out of these systematic concerns, the fact remains that this is a no-win scenario. At best, we have lose-less and lose-more on the table before us, and, in the interests of damage control, I suspect I’ll be voting, with clenched teeth, for Bremain tomorrow. In the interim, I’ll try to dig out my copy of the Groundwork, and tighten up what is, I admit, a rather sophomoric interpretation of the situation.
Today I learned that Gord Downie, frontman of the Canadian band the Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
2015/2016 has been, and clearly, continues to be, a banner year for the Reaper. As many have pointed out, this is little more than a product of statistics – so many of the celebrities, musicians, actors and artists we idolise are, as with the rest of the boomers/x’ers, getting up to their dying days.
A few of the bigger name deaths, Bowie’s in particular, hit me harder than I had anticipated – I’m not really one to go whole-hog on celebrity veneration; more often than not I oppose it on principle – but none is quite so close to home as this one.
I’m no rabid fan of the Hip, I don’t have an exhaustive collection of their albums, I’ve not even seen them live, but they still feel like a piece of my life, in a way that Chris Squire, Lemmy, or Robin Williams, do not. I grew up listening to the Edge, a local radio station out of Toronto, when it was still playing properly alternative music. The Hip were on heavy rotation. I didn’t really need to own every album (though I’ve a fair few), as I was hearing them multiple times a week already.
More than that, though, they are of a generation with my parents – my Dad has stories of him and his friends seeing them, before they had made it, playing the college bars in Kingston in the 80’s. So, there’s a direct connection there that would be impossible with some foreign megastar. Just one of those things in the background, one you’d thought would always be around.
And maybe that’s part of it, too – the Hip, and Downie, have become cornerstones of Canadiana over the last three decades. Losing them feels like losing a part of that cultural identity. They embody some of the best elements of modern-day Canadian culture – irreverent, honest, straightforward without being simple, articulate. They’re not just a quality rock group – they, more than anyone other than Gordon Lightfoot, maybe, have made their work about the geography, the history, the people of Canada.
I recall interviews with Downie, listened to late at night in the dark of my room, radio turned down low, where he would describe those early days, the college bar days – they’d headed out on tour, out west, somewhere on the Prairies, and just totally blew the crowds out of the water. These, of course, were the days of synth pop, of new wave groups like Martha and the Muffins and the Spoons in Canada, all glossy, heavily stylised and heavily produced, and here come the Hip, with their long hair, their denim, their aggression – couldn’t have been more out of fashion – the locals didn’t know what to make of it. And yet, they’re the ones who’ve stood the test of time.
Later, it must have been in the early oughties, with their success cemented, they were safe, they had laurels to rest on – I remember an interview with Downie where he was asked to do some anti-drug PSA or something to that effect. He just looked askance at the camera, raised an eyebrow and said “Me, tell kids not do drugs? Yeah right!” Every reason to play it safe, to toss them a platitude, but he couldn’t be other than himself.
Canadians, as a general rule, don’t really approve of stardom, and gross success sits uneasy with us. Fitting the stereotype of the self-deprecating nice guys, we’re much more likely to belittle our celebrities, paring them down to size, certainly more out of embarrassment than any sort of jealousy. The Hip, mainstays on the scene now for my whole life, never took on the airs of entitlement – too busy being their weird, idiosyncratic selves. They get a pass, they’re ours, they’re us.
It’s difficult to quantify and explain the effect that art, music, that these things have on people. It’s a rare individual who makes no connection with music, that doesn’t begin to associate periods of their lives or things of importance with art works. As we’ve experienced recently, and will no doubt continue to, sorting out our feelings in the wake of treasured artists’ passing becomes all the more complicated when they are themselves less-than-stellar exemplars of humanity. How do you face up to the way you feel, the investment you have, in someone’s work and their absence, when you know they’ve done terrible things? No one is perfect, and it is unfortunate that many are further to the other end of the spectrum than could be hoped.
This won’t be one of those instances. A genuinely good person, a campaigner for the environment, for the Indigenous, is dying – and our country will be the worse for it.
Downie’s not done yet, though, and the band is still going – they’ve just announced a tour, and I’m going to see about correcting errors of omission. I recommend you do the same while we still can.
Singapore – Reflections
Now that I’ve put a bit of time, and geographical distance, between me and Singapore, I figured it might be worthwhile to go back over my experience and revisit some of my positions and assumptions.
I stand by my decision to wait until I’d arrived in Australia to post anything regarding my time there – as we saw, being foreign and merely publishing to social media is insufficient to avoid notice by the panopticon of Singaporean law.
What I think I missed in my earlier coverage was recognition of what Singaporean natives have achieved. While the city-state might be little more than a way station and changing house for global capitalism, there’s little natural reason that it had to be done there, specifically. Things looked pretty grim for the island post-independence: early efforts to hitch their star to the likewise freshly independent Federation of Malaya, which, alongside several other post-colonial territories, created the state of Malaysia, fizzled when the Singaporeans protested against the Malayan positive racial discrimination of bumiputera. Bumiputera, derived from the Sanskrit for “son of the soil,” sought to benefit ethnic Malay and indigenous groups within the new Malaysian state, counteracting what was not incorrectly perceived as colonial discrimination. It’s not hard to see why citizens of the country of other ethnicities would take umbrage at such a system. Contrasting this, Singapore has from the start held itself to a staunchly meritocratic system, a system that has a raft of its own failings, foremost amongst them the tendency for privilege and power to solidify all the more rapidly.
Suffice to say, Singapore found itself in a bit of a bind come the mid-60’s. Cut off from the resources and land it had hoped to share in, with a largely uneducated and impoverished population, its quick industrialisation, housing reform and robust trade must in some ways be credited to the hard work of its population. Though inviting capital’s rapaciousness into their house has seen the income inequality of their society soar – and the international community has done little to check or critique this – the argument could be made that those with the dubious honour of Singaporean nationality are ultimately better off for it. Without the sufferance of moneyed interests elsewhere, there is little reason that the city-state could retain its independence. For all their comparative poverty, Singapore’s citizens are far and away monetarily better off than their Malaysian or Indonesian equivalents, and the benefits are apparent.
Singapore’s Israeli-trained military plays a deterrent role on paper – as we’ve seen, neither Malaysia nor Indonesia, despite tight bi-directional business interests, are especially pleased with the city-state and its nascent success. More recently, though, the Singaporean military has taken point position in the area on anti-terrorism measures, following the American initiative in lock-step.
Rule of law and the rigorous policing thereof, even from a neutral perspective, makes a great deal of sense given Singapore’s precarious position. Chaos within the state could sink it just as surely as a concerted effort from outside, and draconian measures and allegiance to the foremost Imperial power can only serve to push against this. To this end also go the various restraints on personal/religious/cultural expression – the city is already a pressure cooker, and adding fuel to the fire can’t help.
Add to this the pseudo-democracy that obtains. The city-state, despite regular and, in so far as anyone has been able to prove, clean elections, has been run by the People’s Action Party for its entire existence (the last election saw them win 83 of 89 possible seats). The central figure of this party, up until recently, was Lee Kuan Yew – prime minister until he decided to step down in 1990, he continued to act as Senior Minister until his death in 2014. His son is now Prime Minister. Charismatic personalities and single-party chokeholds are emblematic of autocratic states – it’s just fortunate for the S’poreans that theirs have been relatively “well intentioned.” Thus far.
In passing, it’s worth commenting on the idea that Singapore is hailed as the “least corrupt of all states,” with an excess of 80% of citizens expressing confidence in the government. Given that the orientation of the government aligns entirely with the desires of capital – the skeletal labour laws, the lack of taxation, the absence of trade tariffs – what need for bribery and graft? Plutocrats have already achieved the end goal, without having to pay for it, because they owned the deck from the start.
It may be that, given the circumstances, the externalities, the state couldn’t be other than it is. Of course, it’s a nebulous thing to say on the surface – everything is the way it is due to the state of affairs that brought it about – but I mean it in a more robust sense than that. The conflicting desires of keeping the ethnic Chinese majority safe from the sort of blood-and-soil rhetoric of the mainland, while also offering to the Malayan and Indian populations enough nominal opportunity for advancement to prevent open rebellion, the desire to ride the dragon of international capital and make of it what they may, even the hope for an ecologically sound home environment, while directly financing the degradation of their most proximate neighbours – the concatenation requires of the state that it should exist as it does. It is imposed by the logic of it.
Given the particular circumstances, the more democratic, liberalised society that would be preferable, never mind the socialist one, may in this instance edge beyond the simply un-viable towards the impossible. Grim.
Authenticity and the African Answer
Not quite yet, but, soon, my reason for living in the UK will be coming to an end. As such, we’ve begun to have a look at what comes next – where to go, what to do. Given that we are here as “Europeans,” the upcoming Brexit vote could have major implications for whether we stay on or not – granted, it’d be remarkably dumb to not grandfather any changes following a mandate to distance the UK from the Euro-zone, but, stranger things have been known to happen.
Irrespective of that, on the whole, we’ve started looking into whether a move back to Canada would make sense. Certainly nothing has been set in stone yet, but a move to Montreal looks possible. My initial reaction to the prospect was telling, and worth interrogation. I’ve mentioned it before, my reservations regarding being/appearing demonstrably foreign, and the alienation that that causes, but I can unpack this in more of a pointed manner.
I should start by saying, that, of course I don’t regret my decision to move to the UK – it’s afforded me a great many opportunities that would have been otherwise closed to me, culturally, geographically. It’s also done a good job at dispelling misguided assumptions of mine – what it’s like here on the ground in England, what the general political dynamics are and how engaged the average person is. Surprise surprise, things look a lot like they do back home. Turns out, Anglo countries are similar. Despite that, though, I still feel as if I’m somehow on the outside of things.
What excited me most about the possibility of a move to Montreal/Quebec is the opportunity for an “authenticity” that that would provide. Which is in itself a bit troubling. I’m no fan of identity politics, as I’ve said numerous times, but this is a tough one to get past – the position I’m trying to describe is relational, in that it isn’t merely up to me as to what I am, I need to be accepted by others to become a legitimate part of the community. When I was still considering involvement in the Labour party/Momentum, one of my reservations was the belief that, as a foreigner, I had little right to speak to English people on this level. That there would have been something fraudulent about it, that I wasn’t part of the community in a real sense. I’m open to the idea that this concern was merely a convenient excuse for something I didn’t want to do anyways – I’ve distanced myself since, but largely due to ideological differences as opposed to feeling disingenuous or something of that nature. Hopefully, the better reason.
For all they will have rippling effects, effects that either support or reduce struggles elsewhere, I still have a tough time believing that the fight to protect the NHS, the push to re-nationalise the rail system, the cleaning out of Blairite scum from the party, that these are fights that I should involve myself in. To do so seems like it would have an unhealthily performative aspect, a LARP-style leftism that is far too common these days. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to my fair share of demos, marches and talks while I’ve been here, but, to do more than offer what little help I may – to insert myself into these things as if they were my own – simply feels wrong.
Inevitably, if we are to experience any manner of long-term success, our efforts have to be internationalist. Recognition of this fact further troubles my position here – it shouldn’t matter where I’m from or where I find myself, the struggles we engage in ought to be those that supersede national boundaries and reactionary notions of identity and personhood – the reality of neoliberal capitalism does, so too must we. A large part of my unease is likely to also come from the ambivalent position I find myself in. I’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern over the last year, not really committing to setting down roots – if this were otherwise, I might feel as if I could set something up here, difficulties be damned.
Though I’ve been mulling this over for a while, what crystallised my concerns most recently was an episode of Philosophy Bites, featuring Professor Flikschuh of the LSE, talking about philosophy in Africa. Of course, “Africa” is a nebulous concept – huge place, with any number of different viewpoints, traditions and cultures – and Flikschuh and her interlocutors recognise this. That being said, there are a few currents that could be described as a trans-continental school or research program.
As could be anticipated, most philosophical work does seem to draw from colonial predecessors, whether that be Anglo-analytic or French-continental, depending on the local context. Many of the established theorists and professors are Euro-trained, several of the names Flikschuh references are Oxbridge alums. Unfortunately, the recording was a short one – it’s not called Bites for nothing – and the breadth of the topic didn’t allow for much depth in discussion, but what I found most interesting, and certainly most relevant to this, was the division between individuals and community, and the way that local history plays into this.
By-and-large, most of the areas discussed are post-colonial territories, and, as we all know, the history of the areas, and their relationship with Europe, is fraught. This was particularly highlighted with reference to discussions on human rights. There are some, says Flikschuh, who are quite critical of “human rights” as they are considered under the Euro rubric, seeing them as an element of neo-colonialism, an acceptance of a foreign, alien mode of thought inappropriate to the cultural context, “…the trap of the possible neo-imperialism or neo-colonialism, whereby African states are simply constrained to taking on the whole liberal-democratic value package.” I certainly wouldn’t go that far – I think that the Enlightenment project, whatever that might mean today, needs to be critiqued, but that there were plenty of beneficial and progressive things to come out of it.
I am interested, though, in the idea that there should be more stress on the duties, and the ways in which these duties form the identity, of the individual in relation to the community. As Flikschuh puts it, “[the idea] of the person owing their identity to their community. You become a person through taking on obligations and entitlements, playing a role in your community, and that’s what makes you a moral person.” A “moderate communalism,” as opposed to some of the ways human rights are articulated in the West, whereby they position the individual against the community. One of the more insidious elements of neoliberalism is the thorough-going atomisation of the person, the carving up of class, community, gender and what have you, to the point where we are all left horribly alone with only our isms for company. If there is a way of pushing back against this, of regaining the ability to struggle as a collective, it will be necessary to foster it. Marxism has always been an international effort, and we would do well to learn our lessons from whoever can best teach us, without prejudice or preconceived notion.
It is in this vein, then, that I’ve become worried, or, perhaps, have begun to articulate pre-existing worries, about authenticity. To my mind, part of the project, one of the goals, of communism is to re-situate the individual in terms of their experience of the world and the community. We’ve seen that this cannot be a top-down affair, cannot be autocratically imposed. The obvious answer, then, is that this must be organic. I suppose the idea of resuming my Canadian-ness, despite its artificial and divisory nature, seems like it removes at least one impediment to the development of that organic community position. Maybe I just want to experience a full battery of seasons again, and do away with this grey-scale monotony they call weather here. One or the other, probably.
White Supremacy at Western, Cultural Chauvinism at Ottawa: Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Over the past week or so, we’ve seen some frankly bizarre things coming out of Canadian Universities. I’m talking, of course, of the rash of “White Student Unions” opening en masse throughout Canada and to a much greater extent in the States, and the banning of a <free> yoga class, for students with disabilities, at the University of Ottawa. The two look dissimilar on the surface, but you don’t have to scratch very hard to see that they’re sourced from the same ugly place.
The student union shenanigans came to my attention by way of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario – or as it calls itself now, “Western” (West of what, you may ask? It’s a mystery to me, situated as it is in decidedly the East of the country). It didn’t take long before the truth came to light, that this was a semi-elaborate hoax by a number of people via the more vile sections of the Internet. Initially, I didn’t think it worth writing on. With the second situation, though, it became worthwhile to at least highlight their mutual basis.
My initial reaction to news of the White Student Union – similar, I assumed, to the original example coming out of Maryland – was one of disappointment, and a bit of surprise. Don’t get me wrong, Canada is a deeply racist place, and somewhere like Western, with an incredible amount of privilege in stark contrast to the city it dominates (a city that is statistically above the national average, by every metric, when it comes to poverty), breeds a very particular kind of racism. But Canada’s history, and, flowing from that, its race relations are different than the United States’. We don’t have nearly as much organised white supremacy, certainly none so forthright as the KKK or an equivalent. While we certainly have our fare share of racial animus, particularly in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, racists in Canada seem much more secure in their societally-structured superiority than their American cousins. Content to continue their oppression behind the veil of the dominant culture, they are less strident, less vitriolic. So, why, all the sudden, this decidedly American turn? What threat did they feel that drove them out into the light?
Of course, the fact that this whole thing seemed so weird showed it up for what it was – a hoax. My feelings on this are mixed. First, and mostly, I’m glad that it is a hoax, as it’s not especially good to have an organised hate group with free reign on a campus, let alone a society. Make no mistake, White Student Unions are hate groups, and it’s only a fool or provocateur that says otherwise. My second, lesser, reaction is one of regret – while, as I said, it’s not beneficial for these groups to be able to present their misinformation under the assumed imprimatur of a University, it would at least be useful to know who they are, and to have their existence underlined in the eyes of the public. It’s too easy for groups like this to remain in the background, out of sight, and for the rest of society to carry on in ignorance. If this were a legitimate front, at least it couldn’t be ignored, swept away like a bogey-man. At least then Canadian society would be forced to look in the mirror and reckon with its reflection.
Before wrapping up the first issue, I’ll turn to the second. Seemingly on grounds of cultural appropriation, a free yoga class has been cancelled at the University of Ottawa. This has come to light only in the last week or so, as it has been under discussion since September, the start of the semester. The ridiculousness of this has been picked up internationally, it’s so preposterous. It’s been a while since I read anything in-depth on Indian culture or history and I’m hesitant to tread without the requisite research, but as others have pointed out, the appropriation of Yoga in particular is a pretty absurd target for moral outrage. Yoga, as we know it today, was developed specifically for export and cultural miscegenation centuries ago. To turn around now and blame white practitioners for its uptake? It’s this kind of bleeding-heart, shoot-from-the-hip, ill-educated foolishness that deserves mockery of all and sundry.
This calls to mind the recent flare-up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where kimonos were provided during a Monet exhibition for visitor photo-ops. People, mostly uni-aged students, protested this as racist appropriation. In a turn of the surreal, a counter-demo was held, mostly comprised of elderly Japanese immigrants, in defence of the kimono use. Hilarity ensued. Once again, the group protesting was incredibly ill-informed on the subject they were inveighing over. Kimonos, much like the practice of Yoga, were and continue to the reserve of the upper echelon of their respective societies. Throughout their history, the vast majority of Japanese people were unlikely to see a kimono in their lives, let alone wear one. All those mystics and swamis that so typify the Orientalist conception of India? A slice of a strata in a horribly oppressive caste system. Find me the suicidally debt-burdened farmer in Uttar Pradesh that opens his day with a salute to the sun, and I’ll let you have your little (mis)appropriation lockout.
To wrap up, I’ll try to show how, while ostensibly distinct, the two originate from the same place. Both of these events, very clearly, come by way of Identity politics. The White Student Union in Maryland was initiated using the same rhetoric and motivations as other sectarian student groups. The difference being, rather glaringly, that the majority of American society is a White Student Union, whereas minority groups to a degree require and benefit from clear delineations of intent and representation. The recent hoax, the mushrooming of fake White Student Unions, served a dual purpose – both to stir up anger and distress within the progressive portion of society, and to disseminate the ideas of white supremacy. The yoga class debacle too comes from Identity politics, which often sees the policing of dialogue, of space, and of conduct to the point of choking all discourse. This, and the kimono case, are just single passages in an incredibly tawdry book. Racism needs to be opposed, and past wrongs redressed, but to do this by way of cultural chauvinism or dilettantish victim pageantry is a gross misstep.
Identity politics, whether employed by white racists or misguided social justice warriors, even multiculturalism itself, they are products of divisive, obscurantist ideology. Writing in the wake of Zizek’s racist remarks on the Euro migrant crisis, Sam Kriss sums up the failings of multiculturalism:
“Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism…any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory.”
As Kriss says, multiculturalism flattens out the terrain of relations. Abstracting from the realities, the complex, contradictory, nuanced facts that make up individuals, multiculturalism instead looks at people, every person, as no more than a token carrier of their larger culture, itself divined by some mystical, spurious process. It should be little wonder that Canada is split into so many little enclaves, gated communities and self-imposed ghettos following this dogma. Merkel was right – the experiment of multiculturalism has utterly failed. She was wrong about the reasons, though. It was always doomed to failure.
Adolph Reed Jr. goes further than Kriss, arguing against any of the alternate options provided above. Reed has expounded on this multiple times, arguing that Identity politics is nothing more than Neoliberalism. Picking out the hypocrises involved in the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner and the castigation of Rachel Dolezal, Reed writes
“…race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do.”
Reed goes on to point out that the society that shifted ever so slightly, where the infamous 1% that own and direct the wealth of our world, when changed to reflect the “racial” and “gender” makeup of the greater body politic, would have to be found just by the arguments of the Identitarians. The obvious error of this underscores the failings of the position, the failure to both aim at the goals they espouse and the failure of the strategy to get them there.
At the end of it all, there are very few things that are fixed in our lives, really fundamentally stable, I mean. So much of what we are – our race, our gender, our culture, to a degree, even our sex – is socially determined. What cuts across all of those, though, is class and the power relations that determine it. All those that live and struggle under the banner of the progressive, we’re nominally on the same side. It’s time we start acting like it. We can’t let stupid, misinformed, impassioned bullshit, puerile Identitarian nonsense, continue to divide us. We have too much to lose.
If you’re actually interested in change, in winning the fight, stop and think for a minute about your tactics. Are they really aimed at victory, or are they just there to carve up your pile of the shit-heap, making you feel good in your safe corner of the midden?
Aesthetics – Fumbling towards a Theory of Art
What does a religion of art, art for art’s sake, what does it actually look like? Can you be a materialist, as I am, and still believe in the primacy of stories? Does a belief, a fervent belief, in the strength of narrative and its ability to interact with the physical world require of us that we become idealists? If one intends to take up a life of art, a creative life, in a thought-through manner, it does seem necessary to come to grips with these questions…I was about to write, as a conciliatory move, that ‘there is nothing wrong with the unexamined artistic life, the raw push to create,’ to preclude any criticisms of elitism or snobbishness. However, truthfully, I don’t think that this is the case. I won’t say that the premeditated art work is superior to the spontaneous, amateur or naïve – that’s demonstrably false. I will stand my ground when it comes to the “continuous work-ing,” though. It is one thing for a discrete article, an isolated piece, to succeed by accident, it is quite another for the tenor of the mind, over the course of a life-work, to be in a continuously uncritical state. To make an art-work because you enjoy the process, that’s fine, but to do it for more systematic reasons than this, to know that it is worthwhile beyond the scope of your immediate gratification, I suppose that that is what I’m driving at.
Grasping at this higher level, if we want to conceptualise it as such, does it carry a raft of metaphysics with it? Can it be developed without having to import any number of unverifiable, mysterious teleologies?
It is a severely impoverished materialism that couldn’t account for these things – while one may allow that the world is made up of only physical things, and that we are no more than crude matter, the arrangement thereof is still of overwhelming importance. Even amongst hard-line materialist theories, this position has been held for the last several centuries of modernity. As our knowledge of our own bodies deepens, it becomes ever more apparent that our interactions – which we have no reason to suspect of the failure to obtain – are filtered. Everything we know points towards an external world that we can interact with, but, we are also fairly certain that the way this experience plays out, our own interpretation of it, that’s internal to us. This then is where the compulsion of aesthetics enters. Aesthetics – whether we have a comprehensive theory of it, a handle on it, or otherwise – is the go-between, mediating our relations with the external world. I underline the lack of need for a full conception because, much like political economy, while aesthetics comes from us, i.e., it is something that we “do,” it nonetheless gets on with its work irrespective of our knowledge of it. Just as the Capitalist is shunted into a particular set of behaviours by the logic of valorising capital, so too are each of our experiences guided by aesthetics. I’m not sure I’m yet comfortable saying that there is a law-like behaviour in play, so the analogy may fall apart there, but it seems illustrative despite this. Of course, I’m not saying that the mediation between us and the external world is aesthetics full-stop. Rather, aesthetics, art – that is how we make sense of the raw material our senses provide us. The patterns we discern, the way we play with qualia, especially the things that we fail to notice or ignore automatically, aesthetics is the way we form and change these interactions.
On these grounds then, that aesthetics should be a set of emergent properties of our own makeup, both determined by and determining our own actions, it seems that a robust materialism should have no issue in allowing of it. Nothing could be more apposite to a materialism than the recognition of complex systems, built up out of small interactions. It’s true that the leap from “hard” science to the “soft” sciences is one that is fraught, but this is not because the social sciences are inherently flawed – more than likely, it is because their subject matter is much harder than that of the hard sciences. It would be a difficult task to tease out internal laws of a subject like aesthetics, for the same reasons that it is difficult to pin down the ramifications of systematic oppression. Complex, not easy to model.
Nor is it really necessary to do so, merely to have support for the belief that there is a mechanism by which artistic things can make a difference. Don’t even need to know that they do. Of course, as is usual with these sorts of things, the common sense approach has already arrived at the answer long before any philosophical examination. Does Art make a difference, you ask the average person. Yes, of course, they answer – it makes me feel things. Does it really need to be taken further than that? Not if we’re looking for the reason for the discrete art-work: reason-in-itself, the creation thereof is enjoyably, external reason, it makes people feel (the reasons for which I have some ideas, but that is another topic). However, if we want something bigger, a reason to dedicate ourselves to the labour of it beyond the instrumentality of enjoyment, then, yes, it does help to have an idea of how and why it does the things we already know that it does. Another brute example, beyond the rather moderate titillation of an artistic experience: the sorry state of the world today, and the majority of known history. You need look no further than religion (it should be noted that I’m not blaming religion for all the ills of the world, mind. It is both a source of them and resultant of other, more abstract, affairs) to see the power of art – the ability to convince people, most people, throughout most of history, that something impossible exists. It’s the answer to the Riddle of Steel, after all.
Without yet having provided a proof for it, I want to argue for the idea that aesthetics is more than just some airy-fairy facile affair. It not only obtains, but it is fundamental to our experience of the world, to our lives. As such, it is as valid a pursuit as something ostensibly more immediate, such as engineering or finance, perhaps even more so than these. Bears more thinking on, certainly.
Reflections on Aurora
I concede, I may have been a bit over-zealous in my recommendation of Robinson’s Aurora in weeks previous. I think I ought to get a pass due to the dazed, sleep-deprived state I was in, though.
I actually first heard about the book via a review over on BoingBoing, one that I didn’t finish reading until I was through the book itself (I noticed it at my library, and picked it up on name recognition). They, BoingBoing, actually hosted a bit of commentary by Robinson, where he details some of the thought processes and research that went into Aurora, further developing on the major theme of the book.
Generally, unlike most places on the ‘net, BoingBoing is pretty good when it comes to their comment threads – people are generally civil and on-topic. It helps that they have a Don’t-Press-Your-Luck Dragon that swallows anyone who strays too far from the acceptable. As of writing this, the thread for Robinson’s article is clocking in at 203 comments. I read through them a couple days back, so I’m not sure exactly where the tenor of the conversation has gone since then. The parts I did see went about as anticipated – plenty of folks coming out to denounce Robinson for being a Luddite and a downer, someone who has fallen into Deep Ecology and won’t pull himself out again. Quite a few of the comments seem to be misreading the gist of the argument completely, focussing on the hard problems of physics which Robinson explicitly says are really the easier set of issues. Not unexpected, as there is a large portion of SciFi fans who are that way inclined, all crunch and no fluff.
Two of the points in particular gave me pause for thought. There were valid criticisms spliced in amongst the hand-wringing – the reliance on bog-standard agriculture when there are other, well-advanced technologies available, especially that this becomes a major issue in the narrative, seemed a bit weird. Also that we’d not apply a skill-set acquired from generations of space-life within the Solar System to interstellar travel – the idea that we’d be coming at this operation with an Earth-centric perspective – seems like a justifiable criticism. Again and again, though, people harped on about how tech was going to save us in every way. They generally accepted that Faster-than-Light travel is not an option, in that, you know, everything we know says it’s impossible, but then proposed folding space as an alternative. While not precluded by our current models, the amount of energy need to do that is literally astronomical. Larger than the amount in the Solar System. So that seems to me to be impracticable. Another response was that we can stick to sub-relativistic speeds, but we’ll just turn ourselves into robots.
I know the sums involved here are so small as to be microscopic, but there is that adage regarding amount of anger as inverse to relative pay-out, so, I’ll stick with venting my frustration. This whole “we’ll upload ourselves to computers and live forever” thing – ain’t gonna happen. Any – honest – person working in cognitive science, that unlikely combination of neuroscience, comp-sci, philosophy and anthro, would tell you straight up that we barely have an understanding of the human mind, let alone any way of replicating it. Sure, we have our models and approximations, we have neuroscience doing a good job at categorising, and fiddling with, the wetware – but an understanding of how it all hangs together? What motivates and energises it? No clue. We’re as far away from that as was Descartes with his pineal gland-theory.
Furthermore, if we haven’t got it by now, with all the wealth we’ve amassed and the relative stability we’ve enjoyed these past 70 years, we’re not going to get it any time soon. Future’s not looking especially conducive to long-term, multi-national research projects. Unless something major changes up, our societies are about to fragment, and we’re all about to be living in a much more austere place. You can already see it playing out – the response to migrants and refugees in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, the referendum on EU membership here in England set for 2017, the nativist, xenophobic government recently elected in Poland (and not so recently in Hungary). We’ve needed the cooperation of almost every “leading” country to keep the ISS running, and that’s child’s play to something like setting up a colony on Mars, or, more to the point, figuring out how that three-pound block of soap we all carry in our heads actually works. Despite what some Americans would like to tell you, scientific research has always been a multi-national effort. Even during the Cold War, there were cross-bloc exchanges. If this liberal social-order breaks down amidst mutual recrimination and suspicion, you can kiss that goodbye.
Stop trying to make AI happen. It’s not going to happen.
Aside from those considerations, would we even want to call like that, a conscious machine, human? Even if that consciousness was original housed in a meat-suit? Assuming that the thought processes of a person could be replicated by machine – and there are absolutely no reasons to do so, mind – what we define as human goes beyond the mere intelligence or personality. Every society I know of, throughout all of history, has defined humanity in terms of its excellence, its bodily perfection. We are inextricably embodied individuals. We exist in the world embodied, our minds are (as best we can tell) emergent properties of that body – there is no person without the body. Not by definition, not by material fact. So, no, you transhumanist dorks, there’s never going to be a Singularity. Also, for you ‘Effective Altruists’ out there, take off the blinders and cut it out with the self-congratulatory, STEM focussed wank. Stop trying to make AI happen. It’s not going to happen.
Anyways, enough tilting at windmills. I mentioned above that there were two concepts that got under my skin. The second, more an off-hand number than the above, was that Robinson set up the elements of his story to arrive at a pre-determined result, and that this was in someway reprehensible. Already, this is pretty rich, given that, even with the above detailed faults, Aurora is a much more comprehensively “hard” SciFi than the usual fare. But, really, what the hell is that even supposed to mean? Of course the author set the premise up to arrive at a pre-determined result! What the hell else was he supposed to do? What does every author do? How else do you tell a story? What a ridiculous position to take.
Sure, the fiction is meant to be speculative in character – it’s in the name, after all. But the very nature of the work is seeing where things go from pre-set circumstances. A sub-set of that, welcome and acceptable, is seeing what particular spread of circumstances get us to particular results. Why would it ever be different? Sure, Aurora is a set-up. But, as Corey Doctorow’s review states,
…what Robinson’s furtive scenery-arranging points out is that the easy times all our other science fiction stories have given to their colonists were every bit as contrived.
All our stories are contrived. They have to be. Robinson makes no claim that his story is the way things must run, even in the supporting article. What he does do, however, is present a plausible tale within the parameters of what we know to be hard fact. That’s the goal of speculative fiction – to get people to look at, to think, about the options and choices in front of us. Part of that is showing what happens when things go wrong. If that means you can’t have your interstellar empire and your sex ‘bots, soz.