10 July 2024

The Cosby Rule

We do not just fail to combat sexual harassment and worse by Missing Stairs; we actually support predatory individuals, part of what feminists are talking about when we talk about rape culture. As a result, many people understandably turn to trial-by-social-media as the only available way to get any kind of justice. I respect and support that; it is all too often the only available alternative to No Justice At All. I confess to uneasiness with people who seem to embrace it as a positive good.

In particular, I consider it important to take care with what we take as established fact without rigorous legal or journalistic support. We must never suggest that a false accusation is likely — they are vanishingly rare — but they are plausible, and exaggeration of the severity of wrongs is not just plausible but common when social media shitstorm dynamics really get moving.

We must never let that caution undercut our support for accusers. We must always give accusers our vigorous support: taking their accounts seriously, protecting them from harassment, giving them resources & reassurance through the painful process of facing trauma in public. Accusers need this because of how monstrously difficult we make it to make a public accusation of sexual misbehavior. The community needs this because it supports the countless other survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and worse.

But I do wish we would back away from expressing support for accusers with the aphorism “believe victims”: because radical credulity misunderstands the dynamics of trauma and creates an invitation for bad actors to stir up shitstorms.

There is no contradiction between supporting accusers and resisting shitstorms by dawdling to judgment. We have time. Public information usually gets stronger over time. The truth will out.

But sometimes the public does not have good enough information. I have a rubric in those situations I call “The Cosby Rule”:

  1. A single allegation plausibly could be just bullshit. Support the accuser, and keep a weather eye on the accused from now on, but leave the pitchforks and torches at home.
  2. Two allegations demonstrate that there is some there there, but exaggeration is plausible. Support the accusers, and keep the accused away from power, but hold off on treating the accused as a monster.
  3. With three or more allegations, one can feel confident in knowing there is fire behind the smoke. Take at least the weakest allegation as solid.

If the accused really is a villain and we support their accusers, a lot more than three allegations will usually turn up.

Neil Gaiman

I found a post with a very helpful review of the allegations against Neil Gaiman, smart about the messiness of the sourcing and what we can glean despite that.

To say Master was imperfectly executed is an understatement, but I’m grateful for it, both as a means of hopefully helping to ensure that Gaiman is held accountable for his behaviour, and for its willingness to explore the “gray area” of consent that so often impedes the police, courts, and other media outlets from helping survivors in any meaningful way.

I have not yet had the heart to listen to Master, the Tortoise podcast about Gaiman. Given what I have read, and how it evidently comes from the worst people, it seems plausible that it casts Gaiman as worse than he is. It also seems implausible that there is no there there.

Gaiman is far from the first frustrating example of allegations of sexual assault clouded by irresponsible reporting, social media shitstorm dynamics, and a weak vocabulary of Degrees Of Badness. We need to do better.

There have long been rumours about Gaiman’s liaisons with young fans. Skeevy, but short of predatory. The most generous-to-Gaiman reading of these new reports is much worse than that … and still not rape. Experience teaches us to hesitate to embrace a generous reading. Part of Doing Better is letting things unfold as we sift those ambiguities … for a while.

I am a fan of Warren Ellis’ work. After a prudent hesitation to believe the worst, I accepted that the worst was true. Fuck that guy. I am a fan of Gaiman’s work. The worst need not be true of Gaiman to get to Fuck That Guy; there is room for a lot of Bad which is short of As Bad As Warren Ellis. Part of Doing Better is taking seriously how Less Bad really can be less bad … and still bad.

Gaiman’s accusers may have gotten played by the Tortoise podcast people, but they undoubtedly suffered from their encounter with Gaiman, and no doubt they are suffering from the pressures of coming forward. Part of Doing Better is giving them our wholehearted support, right now, before drawing firm conclusions about Gaiman.

My prudent hope — that Gaiman is not as bad as some have already concluded he is — wears thin, but it is worth letting more dust settle. Social media shitorms are destructive. There is plenty of time ahead to say Fuck That Guy, if it proves warranted. Part of Doing Better is combatting shitstorm dynamics, which I want this post to do.

I am sweating through this west coast heat wave, but it sure feels cold out there.

I’m going to start accumulating commentaries I find useful.

A bracing word from @rabbit.in.your.garden:

Two public victims … so far. Previously, widely admired by fans & other writers. A nice guy. I unequivocally believe the victims. One victim was his child’s nanny. The other a fan he met at a signing. The nanny he claims suffered from a mental illness that creates false memories. Let’s talk about that.

He claims the 23 yo nanny, his employee hired to care for his child was actively suffering from a mental illness associated with false memories. First, this doesn’t sound like the person a responsible, loving parent hires to watch their child. Second, if she did suffer from this illness, she was therefore incapable of true consent.

I have to interject that this last point is slippery. It is plausible that her memory is not reliable but he did not realize it at the time. But fergawdsake

She was also his live-in employee, 40 years younger which also creates a barrier to true consent.

NG, by his public statements, admits to a sexual relationship with a woman who by his statements could not truly consent. As an employee, did she really feel she could safely say no to this rich, powerful man who has entered her bathroom while she was bathing on her 1st day of employment? The dynamic suggests she could not. Even if she could, she states he did things to her without consent, which is definitely assault. Coupled with his claims, that makes NG undeniably a man who commits sexual assault.

This is why women choose the bear. We know the bear is dangerous. We know how to act around the bear to reduce our risk of harm. This successful, married man was an unexpected danger. He should have been safe but he wasn’t.

Jonathan Fortin:

Stray thoughts on the Neil Gaiman allegations:

  • Admission of bias: he's my favorite author, so I'm naturally heartbroken. Then again, all my other favorite creators have been cancelled, and it's an open secret that Gaiman sleeps with his much younger fans, so I kind of expected this. Pains me nonetheless.
  • Worth nothing: Tortoise Media, the only source for this story, is a far right anti-LGBT podcast made by the sister of Boris Johnson (basically the Tr*mp of the UK, who Gaiman has been highly critical of). It’s also interesting that this debuted literally right before the UK elections. However, this doesn’t mean the women who came forward are lying.
  • Indeed, according to the podcast, Gaiman even admitted to intimacy in situations that definitely weren’t appropriate (such as “making out” with his son’s 23-year-old nanny in the bath on the literal first day of her job). Even if it was consensual (and again, it might not have been), it’s still extremely sketchy. This is a famous multi-millionaire author in his 60’s engaging in sexual contact with his 23-year old employee. With or without consent, the power dynamic there is nothing to sneeze at.
  • As someone who also once had a relationship with a public figure, I know first hand how intimidating that can be. It can be hard to say “no” and deny them what they want. The apologist in me wonders if maybe Gaiman wasn’t even aware of how these women actually felt, but it’s certainly also possible that he knew perfectly well.
  • As a reminder: SA survivors rarely gain anything from coming out. It’s very, very rare for people to make this shit up.
  • Another reminder: SA can absolutely happen even in established relationships where there was consent before. You can text someone that you love them and consent to everything one day, and feel quite differently the next.
  • It is worth noting that right wing outlets are eager to paint any BDSM or sexual deviancy as SA or abuse. It’s also worth noting that predators absolutely exist in the BDSM scene just like everywhere else.
  • Claiming “she was suffering from a condition associated with false memories, even though her medical history does not support this” is really, really not a good look.
  • If this is a pattern for Gaiman, other women will likely come forward. I will not be surprised if they do.

06 July 2024

“AI”, students, and epistemic crisis

Weird interaction with a student this week. They keep coming up with weird “facts” (“Greek is actually a combination of four other languages”) that left me baffled. I said let’s look this stuff up together, and they said OK, I’ll open a search bar, and they opened … Ch*tGPT. And I was like “this is not a search bar” and they were like “yes it is, you can search for anything in here”.

The thing that made me feel crazy is like, every kid that’s using this as a browser is getting new bespoke false “facts”. This isn’t “a widespread misconception about X that stems from how it’s taught in schools.” Each individual kid is now hooked into a Nonsense Machine.

With the “widespread misconception about X” you can start at a baseline. Like, OK, in tenth grade we talk about X thing from history, and that leaves us with some misguided concepts about X, but we can correct that as students get broader understandings of the world. But with this, each child is getting unique wrong facts they are sure are correct … because they did what we told them to do! They “looked it up”! They got it from somewhere! It’s not a kid making up a belief on hearsay and assumption … it’s something they think they learned.

This kid was extremely combative with me, and I understood why. I was sitting in front of him telling him that the internet, a computer, technology, all these supposedly authoritative things … were wrong. And that I, one person, was right. He basically couldn’t believe me. He decided that I was simply a teacher who’d made a mistake. He could check it, after all! He could look it up! He could find the real facts. I obviously hadn’t done that, I was just an adult who’d decided I was smarter than him. Hence the defensiveness. Like I said: I understood.

It was so fucking rough. I did my best, but I am one person trying to work against a campaign of misinformation so vast that it fucking terrifies me. This kid is being set up for a life lived entirely inside the hall of mirrors.

Transcribed from Twitter. The author took it down because of harassment, so I am not going to point to who they were. Not that I know anything about them anyway. So you have to make your own tricky call about whether and how it is relevant.

03 July 2024

Another fashy pipeline

Al Sweigart observes:

I totally see how self-improvement cults can be a pipeline for fascism. Fascism is rooted in social dominance, which in turn is rooted in sadomasochism: sadism for the dominator, masochism for the dominated. A self-improvement cult can become a vehicle for inflicting pain on yourself, where the goal is eliminating weakness, where "weakness" is defined as self-care, empathy for others, and non-toxic forms of masculinity.

For those who don’t quite see it, here’s a (very) rough outline:

  1. The conservative mindset is based on hierarchy. There’s always a bigger fish. (And “you” don’t have to be winning. It's enough to self-identify with the winning team.)
  2. This view means you don’t measure by doing well, you measure by doing better than others. Better than “those people.”
  3. This promotes zero sum thinking. Good things for “those people” must have come at a cost to you and your group. There are no win-win situations and compromise means losing.
  4. Therefore, good things never just happen. No pain, no gain. Focus on your individual improvement; solidarity with other people for systemic change and collective benefit is liberal bullshit. They just want free stuff (from you.) If you are feeling pain, you must be achieving something in return. You must. That’s how the world works.
  5. You learn to ignore your pain. In fact, pain is a good thing and to be expected. Self-flagellate to signal your virtue. The wages of sin is death. Softness and mercy are weakness. My dad smacked me around as a kid, and it made me the man I am today.
  6. You learn to ignore other people’s pain. Practice disabling your empathy. Practice dehumanizing the other. Hey, if you think about it, they’d do the same to you.
  7. Arbeit macht frei

(Yes, it’s more complicated than that. Yes, plenty of evil has been done in the name of “the greater good.” But there’s a reason there’s so much right-wing overlap between self-improvement gurus, Alex Jones selling brain pill supplements, MLMs / crypto ponzis promising “financial freedom”, Make America Great Again rhetoric, and plain ol’ racism and religious bigotry.)

28 June 2024


This is a school of magic for characters in Unknown Armies, “an occult game about broken people conspiring to fix the world”, which is my personal favorite tabletop roleplaying game. It is directly inspired by my favorite horror movie, Videodrome and also relevant to the micro-genre which includes Archive 81, The Ring, and the V/H/S series. I created it for a campaign set circa 1990.

Lemnismancy (documentarian)

a.k.a. Tapeheads, Cassette Cowboys, O'Blivions, Videographers

Whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore television is reality, and reality is less than television.

Professor Brian O’Blivion

Lemnismancy is actually a cluster of practices with variants on charging / taboo / spells. The magical idea animating all lemnismancy is that for most people, what they see on television outcompetes reality itself. Videotape is a magical fetish which represents this TV experience which tapeheads can use for magic.

This particular strain of Lemnismancy — the Documentarian school — focuses on emotionally significant real human experiences, and primarily manipulates memory and attention. One charges by watching tapes of important events in real people’s lives, and breaks taboo if one sees broadcast television. 


Blast style

Lemnismancy has no freehand Blast, but one can make tapes which attack physically using specific spells, below.

Minor charge

Be the first Tapehead to spend twenty minutes watching a tape recording of a memorable event from someone’s life: something like a first date or a fierce argument or getting a raise or breaking their leg. 

The tape can be a copy, but the tapehead must be the first tapehead to pull a charge from any copy; once the event has been used for a charge, any tape of that event becomes useless for more charges. (In this it is a bit like Cliomancy.) A tape can contain more than one event, but watching each event only works once. If half a dozen or more people are all shown in the segment with the event, and the event is memorable for all of them, the segment is worth two charges.

Significant charge

Be the first tapehead to spend an hour watching a tape recording of a major event from someone’s life: getting married, graduating college, a gunfight, a serious car crash. 

The rules for copies, consuming charges, multiple events on a single tape, and double charges are the same as for minor charges.

Major charge

Be the first tapehead to spend thirty minutes watching a tape recording of a world event of enough significance that millions will be able to answer “where were you when you saw that?”: the JFK assasination, the Challenger explosion, the fall of the Berlin wall.


Get a clear look at a TV screen showing current broadcast television. For a tapehead, the cathode ray tube is for showing tapes, not for showing “TV”. 

Random magic domain

Memories, attention, videotapes, and TV displays. 


Most spells take effect when people watch a TV playing a tape prepared by the tapehead, generally in a lair of recording & playback equipment. Such spell tapes can only be used once; the tape can only run for as long as the tape format permits (20 minutes for a small ¾" cassette, or up to six hours for a VHS cassette). It takes twice the runtime of the tape to make a spell tape. The tapehead rolls to see if the tape creation process worked at the end of the time spent making the tape; if the spell fails, the tapehead of course keeps the charges and can try again, but has lost the time it takes.

A spell tape can be stopped and started, but once ejected it becomes inert, without magickal effects, unless otherwise specified in the spell description.

Minor spells

Plenty Of Tapes — 1 minor charge

The tapehead gets an infallible hunch about the nearest / most convenient way to get their hands on a tape.

Plugged In — 1 minor charge / effect

Ordinarily a tapehead manipulates tapes with a bunch of equipment, and plays or records them normally, but if necessary they can spend charges to forgo the gear. Each of these effects costs one minor charge; they can stack (but that gets expensive fast!)

  • Record onto a tape, or play from a tape onto a CRT, by holding the tape in the tapehead’s hands and “plugging in” the machine cable to the tapehead’s mouth (or other orifice, because Cronenberg).
  • Enact the effect of a tape using a player but not CRT, again by “plugging in” the cable to the tapehead’s mouth. The tapehead’s face serves as the CRT; though the tapehead’s face will look normal (rather than playing tape images), looking at their face has the same magical effects as if looking at a screen playing the tape.  
  • Omit the wire from either of the wired effects above. This can connect things within [tapehead skill] feet. This effect will also switch on and power a device which is switched off … or even unplugged.
  • Play the content of a tape directly into the mind of an individual the tapehead is touching, forgoing a CRT. Note that this still requires a tape player, unless the tapehead also spends additional charges.
  • Instantaneously record a tape, or produce an enchanted tape’s playback effect.
  • Erase a tape, magical or otherwise, without any equipment.

Note how this spell enables tapeheads to deliver a spell without resorting to equipment at all … if they have three extra minor charges to burn. 

Duplicate — 1+ minor charge

A tapehead may create a perfect duplicate of any existing tape, mundane or magical, in just a few seconds. This costs one minor charge … plus whatever charges necessary to create the original tape if it has magical effects. (Note that this enables a tapehead to duplicate a magical tape even if they cannot create those magical effects themselves!) 

The tapehead ordinarily uses recording equipment to do this, but may employ Plugged In effects at additional cost.

Mixtape — 1+ minor charge

A tapehead may decant charges they are carrying back into tapes. The charges can go into any tape, not just one which originally provided them.

This is time-consuming: it takes the same time to capture charges back into tapes that it takes to take them out (20 minutes for each minor charge, an hour for each significant charge) … and then the tapehead will eventually need to spend the time yet again to take the charges back out. And one minor charge is burned casting the spell to do the transfer. 

I Am A Camera — 1 minor charge

Create a tape of events the tapehead witnessed. This tape does not present the tapehead’s memories, it presents what the tapehead actually saw and heard as if they were a skilled and careful camera operator using very good equipment.

Seeing That Fucked Me Up — 1+ minor charge

Creates a tape of images so disturbing that it forces a check on the Madness meter of the tapehead’s choice on anyone who views it (except the creator) at a rank equal to the number of charges the tapehead spent.

Later viewings are still distressing but do not force a stress check.

The Screen Is Distracting — 1 minor charge

Creates a tape of a video so fascinating that anyone who sees it playing on a screen will not be able to look away for the duration of the tape, and will be preoccupied enough to suffer at least -20% for any actions they try to take while watching.

If a person does not know to try to avoid looking at the screen may go one round in its presence without being affected if they fail a Notice check, but they will be affected the following round. People who know to try to avoid the screen must succeed at a Notice check each round they are in its presence to not look; after they have failed once they cannot avoid it again.

This can be applied to a tape with any content. People who watched it during the first, enchanted viewing will have very good retention of the contents of the tape — including things which were on it before or after the segment they actually watched — such that they can recall even the smallest and most fleeting details with a Mind roll.

Reach Into The Screen — 1 minor charge

While any tape is playing, a tapehead may pass any object small enough to fit through the frame of the screen into the video, or to retrieve an item which any tapehead has placed in this way. 

Such a tape does not suffer the usual single-use behavior of tapes; it may be replayed repeatedly. The object will appear in the video starting at the point in playback when the tapehead placed it. It is usually possible to deposit the object just out of frame at the moment when it it is placed, such that its sudden appearance is not immediately conspicuous … but if, for example, a table appears in the recording, the view pans away a bit for a moment during which a tapehead places an object onto the table, and then the view pans back, the new item on the table may well be inexplicable or at least puzzling, such that an Unnatural check may be required. 

A tapehead may retrieve an object they themselves placed by reaching into the video at any point. A tapehead watching a tape with an object placed by another tapehead will always be able to recognize such objects, and can retreive them, but doing so at a point in playback when the object is not actually onscreen will require spending an extra minor charge.

Other people witnessing a tapehead performing this operation in either direction must make a rank-3 Unnatural check.

The Screen Is A Window — 2 minor charges

Creates a pair of tapes which can be used for communication. 

If both tapes are played simultaneously, the TVs act as a videoconferencing system. Nothing can block the “signal” between them. Each CRT acts as a camera sending to the other tape; it behaves like a broadcast-quality camera with a skilled operator, even intelligently zooming and directing its attention, though it must take a viewpoint from “inside” the screen. Likewise, on TVs with speakers, the speakers act like microphones for the tape on the other end, acting like high-quality broadcast mic arrays in the hands of skilled operators, capable of capturing the whole sound of the room, as directional mics pointed at people, and such.

As usual, if one or the other tape runs out the spell effect ends.

Both tapes retain the messages from the other side after they have been used. This can be harvested for charges if they capture a relevant event.

If a tapehead is near a Screen Is A Window tape whose pair is being played, they will “hear” it ring like a telephone and know what is happening.

Significant spells

Retina Of The Mind’s Eye — 1+ significant charges

Enacts a minor spell which would require a prepared tape, without the prepared tape, by spending significant charges instead of minor charges. Effects which require targets to look at a CRT require them to be able to see the tapehead’s eyes.

Video Mail — 1 significant charge

Creates a tape of the tapehead which can hold a conversation with the person who plays it, as if the tapehead were there, knowing what they knew and thinking how they thought at the time when they prepared the tape.

Watching such a tape is a rank-1 Unnatural check if one is familiar with the Video Mail spell, and a rank-4 Unnatural check if one is not. Unfamiliar viewer(s) will presume that the Video Mail tape is some kind of surprising but cunning trick until the tape has concluded, at which point they will suffer the psychological shock as they realize that the conversation was impossible.

A Video Mail tape will only show static if played again, unless the tapehead obtains the tape and plays it back, which will then reveal the conversation to them. If the tapehead does not recover the tape, they will not know what took place in the conversation.

Reach Out Of The Screen — 1 significant charge

A programmed version of Reach Into The Screen which will deliver an object the tapehead has placed into it, if triggered by a condition programmed onto the tape when it is created. (For example, “if no one is looking at the screen”, “if played by Jane”, “if played inside an office building”, “if someone says the word ‘Videodrome’”.)

The tape can only produce the object according to its program the first time it is played. Thereafter, only the tapehead who created it can remove it, using Reach Into The Screen.

While playing, the tape just shows a series of shots of the object in an array of settings: on a table, on the sidewalk, inside a refrigerator, and so forth.

Subliminal Messages — 1+ significant charge

Produces a tape which gives viewers a belief or compulsion of ten words or less, programmed by the tapehead when they create it. The compulsion has a level equivalent to the number of charges used to create it.

Characters given a compulsion automatically break the compulsion if they face a conflict between the compulsion and a shock check of the same rank of the compulsion spell or higher. (Thus it is hard to program someone to kill; in Videodrome Bianca O’Blivion spent a lot on turning Max Renn into an insane assassin.) 

Characters may also resist a compulsion with a Self check. If they succeed they simply break the compulsion. If they fail they must either obey the compulsion or accept a freakout & failed notch in disobeying it, and the compulsion remains in place.

While playing, the tape can show anything the tapehead chooses.

You Are The Camera — 1-2 significant charge(s)

A tapehead may produce a tape of events which another person witnessed, as in I Am A Camera. 

If the subject is cooperating:

  • The subject takes a rank-3 Unnatural check; they will not have a fight/flee/freakout shock response but they will face adding failed/hardened notches
  • This costs the tapehead 1 significant charge

If the subject is not cooperating (say, in the room while the tapehead fusses with their editing gear):

  • The subject must be prompted to think about the memory, though not to concentrate on it
  • The subject does not face an Unnatural check …  unless they see the tape later, at which point they take both a rank-3 Unnatural check and a rank-2 Self check 
  • It costs the tapehead 2 significant charges

While playing, the tape shows the events the person witnessed, as if they were very skillfully using a good camera at their point of view.

Explosions Are Good TV — 1 significant charge

Creates a tape which effectively makes the CRT playing it into a bomb. 

The tapehead sets the bomb power when creating the tape, to a maximum governed by their Lemnismancy skill. The tapehead may either accept their skill as that maximum, or gamble on a roll against their skill; if they roll under, they can flip-flop the roll if that produces a more powerful bomb, while if they roll over they must accept the sum of the dice as the maximum.

The explosion does [bomb power]+2d10-2d10 damage to people within the max damage radius of [bomb power] feet of the explosion, -1 damage/foot beyond the maximum damage radius.

The explosion may be placed at any point in the tape’s playback, and this may be combined with other effects on the same tape in the lead up to the explosion. But only a real asshole would combine The Screen Is Distracting with Explosions Are Good TV, right?

The tape may show anything up to the point where the explosion occurs. Technically the moment of truth shows an explosion, but no one will ever see it.

The Screen Is A Gun — 2 significant charges

A weaponized variant on Reach Out Of The Screen.

The tapehead places a gun into the tape. The gun will shoot at people it has been programmed to attack by the tapehead when creating the tape. (“John Smith”, “anyone but me”, “cops”, or “anyone threatening me or my friends”, for example.) The tape has Shoot skill equal to the tapehead’s Lemnismancer skill and all of the characteristics of the gun used to create it: max damage, ammo, range. If the gun has been used in previous crimes, police will be able to do a ballistics match.

When played, the tape shows anonymous hands holding the gun, against an indistinct background.

Major spells

Decant the tapehead’s consciousness into a library of tapes, like Brian O’Blivion in Videodrome, so that they extend their consciousness to any screen where one of their tapes is playing, and become effectively immortal so long as tapes of them still remain.

Create a tape which completely rewrites the minds and bodies of people who see it.

Create a tape which absorbs someone bodily into a permanent Video Mail tape.

Make events in a tape a part of everyone’s memories.

Edit the events in every copy of a given tape … including people’s memories of seeing it, written reports informed by it, et cetera.

Dan Secord

Dan, the character for whom I created this school for an UA 2E campaign, is a 36 year old tapehead, freelance video editor, maker of odd little art videofilms, and bassist for local Eagles cover band Hotel California. He lives in San Carlos, a fictional city inspired by Santa Cruz, California, in 1990.

Stats & skills

40 BODY — Scrawny 60 SPEED — Deft
General Athletics 15%
Fight A Little Dirty 25%
Stay Up Long Hours 20%
Climb 20%

Dodge 25%
Driving 15%
Shoot 15%
Initiative 30%
Cameraman 10%
Lockpicking 25%
Sneak Around 25%
Sprint 20%
65 MIND — Clever 75 SOUL — Reflective
Video Editor 25%
General Education 25%
Remember Stuff I Saw 25%
Conceal 15%
Notice 20%
Lemnismancy 60%
Charm 15%
Lying 15%
Rock ’n’ Roll Band 35%
Local Boho Fixture 20%

where Dan thinks he is at any risk of breaking taboo, he does not wear his glasses, so for visual checks he needs to roll under 20% to get just minor success as if rolling under Mind


Rage: Abusive relationships
Fear: (Unnatural) Losing touch with reality
Noble: Revealing necessary truths


☑☐☐☐☐Violence☑☐☐ ☐☐☐ ☐☐ ☐☐
☑☐☐☐☐Unnatural☑☑☐ ☐☐☐ ☐☐ ☐☐
☐☐☐☐☐Helplessness☐☐☐ ☐☐☐ ☐☐ ☐☐
☑☐☐☐☐Isolation☑☐☐ ☐☐☐ ☐☐ ☐☐
☐☐☐☐☐Self☐☐☐ ☐☐☐ ☐☐ ☐☐


The PCs’ cabal

Dan regards the whole crew as his protégé, as he thinks of himself as the most down-to-Earth and sensible among them.

Janet Philips

Producer of KSCO Eyewitness News San Carlo, who draws on Dan’s editing assistance and personal tape library … and allows Dan to skim raw tapes for his library.

Dave Gold

In-House Editor at Praxinoscope Studios who also daws on Dan’s editing assistance and personal tape library, allows Dan to skim raw tapes for his library, and is amused by Dan’s odd art films.

Alice Morrow

The cabal’s young punk entomancer, whom Dan introduced to the cabal after he saw a recording of her doing magic on video shot by a KSCO reporter. Dan feels responsible to look after her.

Hotel California

Dan’s mediocre Eagles cover band. He plays the Randy Meisner role: bass (and for “Journey Of The Sorcerer”, the banjo) and sings harmonies. Half the reason why he does these gigs is to show his cut-up style art videofilms on a cluster of old TVs, and to shoot candid video of the crowd. Shows typically act as mixers for folks in the local occult underground.


The DanCave

Dan lives and works in what was a storefront in the bohemian old part of town.. It has a largish “public” portion which was once the front retail space, his workspace (and tapehead lair) with video editing gear and tape library, and a little living space in back.

The Screen Ying Room is the former retail space in front. He has put old TVs and artistically arranged junk in the window displays and boarded up, light-sealed, and soundproofed the big space. Hotel California practice here, and he has it set up for occasional showings of his and others’ art films; he has a couple of dozen folding metal chairs, and if he’s willing to violate fire codes he can squeeze in almost 40 people. The room has a big TV, a bunch of little TVs, and a screen and video projector; all are rigged to play tapes loaded here … or played from inside Dan’s workspace.

The Back Yang Room, Dan’s workspace, is cluttered but orderly … in a way that is almost entirely incomprehensible to anyone but him. The large former storeroom has video editing equipment for several tape formats (plus an 8mm film editing table gathering dust), many of them eccentrically rigged from combinations of half-broken machines. Most of the volume of the room is dominated by metal shelves stacked with tapes, all of them carefully but inscrutably labeled. Dan is not superstitious about it, but he rarely lets anyone in here; it locks with its own key. Dan’s living space is small and tidy. There is just enough room for the bohemian splendor of a carefully-organized kitchenette, a queen-size futon, and a large old wardrobe/dresser. He has one of those weird radios which can play AM/FM/Weather/Shortwave/TV audio so he can listen to Star Trek. There is a back entrance which Dan rarely uses.

The DanVan

Dan drives an old bakery van; he likes the leftover internal shelves. There is seating for two up front and one in back, though the back can hold six if five of them don’t mind sitting on the floor. He keeps a couple of battered old video cameras in it and has a couple of tape players connected to a TV running off of a battery system scavenged from an RV, so that Dan can shoot video or watch a video to pick up charges away from home. When he uses it to take Hotel California to gigs, they complain about “all that junk taking up space”.

Magic tape library

Dan always has at least one tape prepared for most of the major spells he knows, stashed in the Back Yang Room, all on six hour SP VHS tapes:

  • Seeing That Fucked Me Up at rank-4
  • The Screen Is Distracting
  • Reach Into The Screen with a large knife and an envelope with several hundred dollars in cash planted in it
  • The Screen Is A Window (pair)
  • Subliminal Messages with “Ignore Dan and the people with him”
  • Video Mail from 1989

On a successful Lemnismancy roll Dan also has a second prepared tape of whatever type is useful.

Note that Dan has never had the nerve or occasion to make either an Explosions Are Good TV or The Screen Is A Gun tape, though he knows how. He does not even have a gun.

Dan’s backpack

Dan carries a largish backpack with him almost everywhere. It always contains at least an RF converter for connecting a tape player to an ordinary TV, a VHS tape with a significant charge waiting on it, and a 6-hour SP VHS tape enchanted with The Screen Is Distracting which does not show video which might identify Dan; he often will have another tape in it as well.

Dan’s Tapehead Life

Dan has been a tapehead for six years now. He corresponds with about a dozen tapeheads across the country from from other lemnismancy sub-schools he knows — Reporters who always shoot their own videos, Pornhounds who never have actual sex, Performers who try to get tapes of themselves broadcast, Programmers who do some creepy thing with mind control he does not understand — and has heard that there are others.

Between KSCO and Praxinoscope, Dan gets an erratic but voluminous enough amount of video editing work to pay the bills and keep him in tapehead charges. Hotel California, his video showings, occasional events for other folks he allows in the Screen Ying Room, plus the San Carlos bohemian scene this connects him with enable him to maintain a little more social life than he really needs, bring in a little pin money … and gives him an excuse to show up with video cameras which capture “drama” on tape for him to harvest for more charges. If his charge library thins out, Dan is not above creeping on weddings, funerals, and other events, but he generally does not lug a videocamera around.

Charges & tapes

The “economics” of tapehead magic are a bit different from most Unknown Armies adept schools. It is possible to store a large library of potential charges, but it is hard to gain charges out in the world. A tapehead can have a large arsenal of prepared tapes without having to worry about that spellcasting ability getting disrupted by taboo, but they require very particular conditions to deploy, unless the tapehead is prepared to burn through a lot of charges.

And Dan has arranged his life such that he has a steady supply of charge-bearing tapes.

Rather than start with a precise accounting of Dan’s charges, unless explicitly established in play, I played him with a set of rules for charge availability when circumstances call for accounting:

  • When Dan is not expecting trouble, he only carries a handful of minor charges: roll 2d10 and take the lower roll under 4, or zero if neither roll qualifies
  • When Dan might expect trouble, he will generally be better supplied.
  • He can roll Lemnismancy to have an enchanted tape he reasonably could have thought to have prepared in his backpack; if he fails he has an extra tape, but it is enchanted with a spell chosen by the GM.
  • He can roll Lemnismancy to see how many charges he is carrying. On a successful roll, he has the sum of the dice in minor charges and the lower die in significant charges (treating 0 as 10); on an unsuccessful roll he only has the 1s die in minor charges and no significant charges.
  • If we need to know how many charge-bearing tapes Dan has in his library at the Back Yang Room at the moment, he has a reserve of tapes in his library worth 2d10 significant charges and d100 (flip-floppable) minor charges, d10 of which are double charges.
  • If we need to know how many charge-bearing tapes Dan has in the DanVan, he ordinarily has 2d10 minor charges plus two significant charges.
  • If we need to know what Dan can harvest from KSCO and Praxiniscope, in a week he ordinarily will bring in 1d10-1d10 significant charges (doubles yield one double tape) plus 2d10 minor charges (rolls of doubles also produce an additional significant charge).

21 June 2024

Some capsule political definitions

For now I want to directly lift a Twitter thread by astute leftist Margaret Killjoy:

I’m going to define some terms, because most of them have become essentially jargon. Socialism, communism, anarchism, democratic socialism, libertarian socialism, authoritarian socialism.

First of all, the meaning of these terms shifts country to country and year to year, confusing matters greatly. An anarchist in 1880s Chicago would also call themselves a socialist. “Communist” had a much broader meaning before 1917. So I’m going to be a bit broad.

Socialism is the broadest umbrella term here. Roughly, a socialist fights for a world without gross economic inequality and generally does so through seeking for workers themselves (or the state, but not private companies) own the means of production (factories, farms, etc). It has a more specific meaning for much of the 20th century, which is to say “not a communist [in the ‘aligned with the USSR sense’] but still into socialism.” It is sort of shorthand for “democratic socialism” for a long time and in a lot of writing.

Communism also has at least two meanings. Generally, communism is the word for a stateless socialist society, in which power rests in communes.

But ever since the Russian Civil War, when Bolsheviks took power and changed their name to the communist party, the word “communist” has generally meant “aligned to the communist party,” which generally took orders from the USSR. So if you read Orwell talking shit on “communists,” he was still a socialist … a democratic socialist. He despised Stalin, and during his lifetime, “communist” was used to mean “literally takes orders from Stalin.” This was not strawmanning, but structurally true.

Democratic socialism also has multiple meanings, because the Bolsheviks among others used to identify as democratic socialists. Generally speaking, a democratic socialist believes in using the democratic power of existing republics to transition them into socialist societies. By the mid-20th century this was very much distinguished from “communists” aka bolsheviks.

Then there are the anarchists. Anarchists generally believe in not using the existing state to develop a socialist society, but instead using revolutionary structures (such as, well, soviets … worker’s councils basically) to transform society into a stateless society. Anarchists would sometimes call themselves libertarian socialists, in order to distinguish themselves from authoritarian socialists (aka “communists” like the bolsheviks).

The word Libertarian was consciously stolen by pro-capitalist forces decades later, in the 20th century.

Confused yet? Anarchists generally want communism. The USSR was not a communist society (by its own definitions) but instead a society that claimed to be developing towards communism. (And generally would define socialism as the in-between stage.) Democratic socialists want to reach socialism democratically, that one is pretty clear. If it’s confusing to you, that’s because it’s confusing. Everyone uses these words differently. Someone calling themselves a communist in 1950 might mean a very different thing than in 2024. The cold war and western propaganda thoroughly complicated matters.

In the end, these labels only sort-of matter. What matters to me personally is that we move towards a society in which people control their own destinies but also take care of one another. A society built on mutual aid and solidarity (more jargon words, but I believe in them).

I would focus a little differently than Killjoy does in describing socialism. Socialists are motivated by eliminating economic inequalities, but I would not locate the definition of the ideology there. Rather, I would put it this way:

Socialism boils down to public control of the means of production. The “means of production” refers to wealth which enables creating other wealth: factories, economic infrastructure, et cetera. “Public control” could mean worker-owned corporations, democratically-accountable commons, state control, or other arrangements.

Most Americans confuse socialism with a different social-economic ideology:

Social democracy means systematic public provision (by the state or otherwise) of people’s material needs — stuff like healthcare, housing, et cetera. To some degree, every industrialized society in the world today includes an element of social democracy, so it can pair with socialism, capitalism, democracy, authoritarianism, et cetera. The term is usually employed to describe a society in which those provisions are strong, including such resources as “free” healthcare and education.

Capitalism means private ownership of the means of production, where “private” means individuals — either directly, or indirectly through corporations.

Markets are a social / economic arrangement in which there is a shared sphere in which people may buy & sell a resource. There is a tendency to equate markets with capitalism, but the relationship is more complicated than that. Capitalism implies a capital market in which people may buy & sell the means of production; socialism forbids this. Capitalism also implies a labor market in which people may buy & sell their time working; socialism does not necessarily forbid this, but does at root seek to prevent anyone from needing to sell their time in a labor market in order to survive. The market for consumer goods & services (shoes, cars, massages, house painting, et cetera) is a feature of capitalism which some socialists yearn to eliminate, but socialism does not necessarily mean its elimination, only the elimination of the capital market.

Libertarianism in the US means wanting universal rights including private property without a state, where “private property” means not shoes & cars but capital, the means of production. In practice, libertarians prioritize property rights so strongly that they accept the the state as a guarantor of property as a compromise which can hopefully be overcome in time; in this they differ from anarchists who see socialist public control of the means of production as integral to (and part of the point of) the elimination of the state.

I hope to stack up several more short, clarifying definitions here over time.

11 June 2024

Good user experience design

It is hard to name the good-ness of good UXD.


People outside the field often say that they want a user experience which is “intuitive”. I have talked before about how under-considered that word is.

When people say they want a system to be “intuitive,” they typically think they mean that users should immediately understand how a system works when they encounter it. But you cannot really do that with many systems … not even with most systems people talk about when you ask them for an example of something “intuitive.”

Consider the mouse-and-cursor. Most of us have forgotten the first time we encountered it, and thus forgotten how unintuitive we found it the first time we used it. A little box on a string with a button or three on top? If you have just arrived from the 23rd century, you might pick it up and try talking to it. But with ten seconds of demonstration you understand it completely and have some sophisticated applications of it immediately available to you, and even if you didn’t see a mouse again for the next ten years you would still remember how it worked.

There you have what people really mean by “intuitive:” easy to explain, powerful in its implications, impossible to forget. You get that through systems that possess a clear, coherent internal logic that feels natural and obvious. Of course, it can take hard work to figure out those “natural and obvious” behaviors; we interaction designers call that work “interaction design.”

So that is not quite enough.


Cyd Harrell has a good critique of facile uses of “delight”:

delight [is] an ambiguous word, referring to either a level of pleasing someone (a high level) or a way of pleasing them (charm, surprise, in any case a very conscious pleasure). adopting a high level of pleasing users as a goal is good - mostly - but when designers, through some kind of linguistic slippage, adopt the “way” sense of delight to inappropriate contexts, it’s like following the script of a romance when trying to get to know a colleague — awkward. that said, lots of designers meant the level.

in recent years I’ve come to understand that the level can also be a problem in a more subtle way. if delight is a conscious pleasure - the spirit stirred somehow - multiple “experiences” or products or whatever trying to stir our spirit can be taxing. it’s not always additive & if it happens to miss — if it’s the wrong way of pleasure for the context, or the experience is just trying to make sure that it visibly, maybe measurably, exerted a high level of pleasure on you - it asks for attention it may not deserve. collectively, it can be a burden.

sometimes, especially with a longterm relationship like, well, a longterm relationship or like belonging in an institution, what we really need is the background level of assumption that we matter & are cared for, & then the occasional sparks in a special smile, the bed, a voting booth if you’re talking about stirring the civic spirit (I have a story I tell about being overwhelmed with institutional belonging in a library) - those become reinforcing & sustaining.

spoiler: those are harder to design for. & they can’t be accomplished entirely through the tools of design; so that’s where I think delight is tempting - it is suited to our toolset, & we can push it towards measurable. but in doing so (sometimes) we can get on the wrong foot.

Giles Colborne has a rap about how designers tend to justify gimmicky, interesting design as pursuing “delight”, but when one asks people about delightful experiences, they often describe effortless resolution of anxiety, a good UX design goal.


Ryan Bigge’s In Defence of Boring UX:

“Only when a product is functional, reliable, and usable can users appreciate the delightful, pleasurable, or enjoyable aspects of the experience,” notes Fessenden. In other words, boring underpins delight — and sometimes boring is delightful.

Cap Watkins praises The Boring Designer:

Maybe it’s born out of seeing apps choose flash over function, or trying to understand just one too many indecipherable icons-as-buttons. Whatever the case, here's an ode to the boring designers among us. The designers who …

  • Choose obvious over clever every time.
  • Rarely stand their ground.
  • Are Practical.
  • Value Laziness.
  • Lead the team.

Delivering power & pleasure?

I used to talk about “systems which deliver power and pleasure to the people who use them”. In 1997, when I was at Alan Cooper’s studio — then the only shop exclusively dedicated to what we now call “UX design”, we had a lively conversation about our mission statement coïnciding with us rebranding from “Cooper Software” to “Cooper Interaction Design”. Alan Cooper had a draft mission statement which was pretty good, but I was uneasy with its allusion to “designing software which is easy to use”. We were simplicity radicals then (and still), but we also worked on a lot of desktop apps which were necessarily complex.

I proposed “systems which deliver power and pleasure to the people who use them”, which I look back on with a mix of pride and unease. It has some distinct advantages as a way to articulate good UX design, and for a while the Cooper studio used it a lot in our materials. (It didn’t work as branding, though. Google search results were … worrisome.)

These days we rightly criticize the concept of “user-centered design” — we need a more global and ethical ground than that implies. (Though fergawdsake in the world we have we need more designers who are at least advocates for users.) But at that time that turn of phrase was a clarifying place to stand, and it still grounds much of how I think about UX design solutions:


A lot of tools promise things which they do not deliver, either because they simply do not deliver the right function, or because they are too clumsy in their execution. A feature one does not use just acts as clutter, in the way.


UXD should aspire to make things that are effective and make make people effective; a simple tool can be powerful if it is the right tool, and a tool should not shy from sophistication in the right context.


We need to talk about well-crafted design. This can mean fun, delight, or excitement, yes. But most often UX design should offer the subtler joy of an unobtrusively graceful tool.

31 May 2024

The tech “libertarian” right turn

I understand the confusion of people surprised to see many tech “libertarians” have been making a turn toward far right authoritarianism. A few things to help make sense of this:

Understand the split between anarchists and libertarians in the United States.

Anarchists’ opposition to power & authority includes an opposition to the power of wealth.

The libertarian tradition embraces private property emphatically — it regards anything less than total control of one’s property as a violation morally equivalent to violent bodily assault. “I created that wealth with my time and effort, so taking any portion of it treats me as a slave.” Though libertarians regard private property as logically prior to the state, they have shown again and again that they are eager to support exercise of power by authoritarian states to enforce it.

Many American “libertarians” are fascists & white nationalists engaged in misdirection. For example, I have an old post cataloguing how Ron Paul was never really a libertarian, but loved misleading people into thinking he was.

Sincere bonehead contrarian libertarians have a tendency to make the switch.

Partly it is just going from one contrarian form of zealotry to another. Partly it is an easy drift from “I am awesome, and I would prosper were I not handicapped by the state” to “my people are awesome, and we would dominate were we not handicapped by liberalism”.

Neoreactionaries — a distinctly nerdy strain of far right ideology — have a fantasy of authoritarian minarchy. They argue that the state per se is not the problem; they fault the liberal state as “too big”. If the government is unencumbered by due process and regulatory responsibility, they believe, its ruthlessness allows it to be “small” so that in practice citizens are more “free”.

They misread Singapore as embodying their dream. “You might get the death penalty for spitting on the sidewalk, but if you steer clear of obvious mistakes and political dissent, the government stays out of your way. There is so little regulation of economic freedom!”

Libertarianism has a crisp simplicity and superficial elegance which appeals to the Engineer Mindset common in the culture of the “tech” industry. But libertarianism is not the only facile “rational” simplification of a complex domain which plays to that frame of mind.

It also produces notorious crackpottery like 9/11 Truthers: “jet fuel cannot melt steel beams, QED!” Fashy “logic” is full of exactly that sort of move:

Silicon Valley culture understands itself as standing at the top of a competitive meritocracy with authoritarian & fashy implications:

  • we defeated supposed experts in their domains because we are smarter and better — competition is the truth of the world which reveals inborn excellence
  • it is good when this concentrates resources in our hands, because it empowers our efforts which make the world work better — they must rule, it is destructive when others try to “steal” their deserved wealth and power
  • our corporate organizations are Super Effective, unlike the clumsy state — democracy is stupid & inefficient, unlike heirarchical exercise of authority

(It is necessary here to caveat that the common claim “Fascism = Corporatism” is a misleading canard.)

Animating much of this we can see the libertarian misunderstanding that “authoritarian” means a “big” state. But authoritarianism is better understood as “power unchecked by limiting institutions”, the thing these guys want for themselves, because they are so much smarter than everyone else that they will use that power well.

My trouble with Trek

Numbskull conservatives grumbling about Star Trek “going woke” can go to hell; anyone paying attention knows they don’t understand Trek.

I have the opposite problem.

The mission

A proper Trek story is a parable in which liberal-as-in-Isaiah-Berlin values prevail. (More on how that works in an earlier post.) In The Original Series, this expressed the hopes of Cold War America, countering dread that technology — in particular, nuclear weapons — would doom us all.

For a while I thought that both Discovery & Strange New Worlds Understood The Assignment:

  • The pilot episode of SNW ending with Captain Pike talking down a society about to destroy itself with cold war brinksmanship could not be a more direct revival of the spirit of TOS
  • The pilot episode of Discovery gave Captain Georgiou my favorite line of Trek dialogue ever: “Starfleet does not fire first”
  • In Disco S3E02 “Far From Home” Tilly won over a room full of hard-bitten, hostile people from a brutal society just by relentlessly acting in good faith
  • In SNW the Enterprise crew respected Hemmer’s resolute pacifism
  • Disco characters called the Mirror Universe Terrans “fascists”, describing their seeming strength as “painted rust”

I could go on.


The problem

It seems unmistakable that the people currently making Trek sincerly think their stories deliver the song of the liberal ethos. But more often they fumble the ball so badly that they say the opposite.

I understand why people took SNW S02E02 “Ad Astra Per Aspera” as first-rank Trek reflecting the values I am talking about … but I could not get past the Federation having regulations requiring apartheid planets.

I was thrilled when S3 of Discovery ended with the Federation refusing to compromise its values in the face of profound temptation, demaning that Osyraa must face trial if the Emerald Chain were to join the Federation. But then I was mortified that the story turned toward Captain Burnham resolving the conflict by running and punching.

SNW gave us big-hearted Dr. M’Benga as the moral center of the Enterprise crew … then revealed that he too is really good at punching … and might be a war criminal.

The TOS episode S1E11 “Arena” which introduced the Gorn was a perfect exemplar of a proper Trek story: under the pulpy action and monster costumes, we got Kirk resolving the conflict through understanding. So when SNW revisted the Gorn and portrayed them as — in the showrunner’s own words — “not every other iteration of representation of the human other in alien skin, they’re evil”, it altered not just the worldbuilding canon but reversed what a Trek story is.

And worst of all, the worldbuilding of the far future 32nd Century revealed in Discovery is a worse betrayal than any one botched story could deliver.

Yes, the Federation retained its liberal values for centuries, despite further technological change, but the Burn curtailing space travel shattered the Federation’s strength. Progress did not progress. Humanity did not mature further. Liberal values did not prevail on the merits; the Federation’s ethos only worked under historically-contingent material conditions.

So of course Discovery ended with the Federation refusing the Progenitors’ technology, fearing that they lack the wisdom to use it without it becoming destructive.

The people making Trek cannot find it in them to portray liberalism working, even as a fantasy.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Sean Kelly on Twitter describes how the Trek parody show dodged these mistakes and made a more Trekkian statement than actual Trek has done lately:

Interestingly, the Season 3 finale of The Orville took direct aim at the idea that Star Trek’s utopian future is only possible because of the replicator, and the typically-conservative Trek fans who make the argument.

A woman from an underdeveloped planet keeps begging for replicator technology on the grounds that it would bring her planet into the same socialist utopia that the crew of the Orville enjoys, and the first officer says “You’ve basically got that backwards.” She explains that it was their socialist utopia that brought about the cooperation necessary to invent the replicator, and that had it been invented during Earth’s 20th or 21st centuries it wouldn’t have worked, because the rich and powerful would have hoarded the technology.

As @BoomerNiner often says, we have enough resources on the planet right now, without a replicator, to give everybody food and housing — if we wanted to. The invention of a replicator wouldn’t change that.

Zefram Cochrane, famously, tried to invent the warp drive with a profit motive — he thought he was going to get rich off the technology, and it was only the realization that we weren’t alone in the galaxy (and perhaps a few lectures from people from the future) that changed him.

But mankind wasn’t ready for all the various technologies that sprang from this revolution, which is why the Vulcans tried to keep a close eye on humanity’s entrance into the galaxy. A few years after First Contact, Earth’s government launched a probe, called “Friendship-1” that tried to give other planets the means to contact Earth.

Instead, the people the probe found reverse-engineered the antimatter technology and accidentally destroyed their planet.

The same thing happened in The Orville — early explorers, acting like missionaries, tried to bring their advanced technology to other worlds in the hope of helping people — but the technology just created conflict and ruined entire planets.

People don’t suddenly become moved to share because of abundance — Elon Musk had 44 billion dollars and he didn’t decide to share it with the world, he decided to buy Twitter with it. He has always, and will continue to, hoard his wealth for himself no matter how much he has. If Tesla invented a replicator they wouldn’t give that away to everyone for free. They’d patent it, and sell it to world governments with DRM software they could deactivate remotely if those governments didn’t pay a subscription fee.

If governments had replicators, they wouldn’t suddenly start handing out free, delicious, nutritious food to everyone — “that will collapse the economy,” they’d say. “Free food for the needy would be unfair to people who’ve been paying money for food all this time.” “How will people be motivated to work,” the Republicans would say, “if they don’t have the threat of starvation hanging over them? If everyone has enough food, how will we motivate people to join the Army?”

Even though the replicator was producing molecularly-identical food to the real thing, conservatives would insist it wasn’t “real” enough for them. “Real” beef, they’d say, demands the slaughter of an animal. Replicated beef is basically vegan. The beef industry would quickly draw battle lines with their donation money, congressmen from places like Texas would move to outlaw replicated meat from being served on the grounds that it hurts entire industries. Conspiracy theorists would insist that replicated beef is full of additives the government is trying to sneak into them to feminize men and make you sick, even though real beef is full of antibiotics and hormones. Campaign ads would show Republicans personally slaughtering cattle and gutting deer to show their commitment to only eating meat that was really alive. We’re already seeing this type of thing when, like, Cracker Barrel tries to introduce plant-based sausage that’s entirely optional to order. People freak out that you might take their meat away.

In short, inventing a replicator wouldn’t save us — right now, it’d ruin us even faster, as the amount of bounty the wealth plays keep-away with would just grow even larger and more ludicrous.

Capitalism would never allow a replicator to exist to its true potential, too many people would go broke. Replicators didn’t create the Star Trek future, the Star Trek future comes first, then replicators.

A way out

I am not the first to notice how the Federation resemble us culturally more than they should, given the radically different world of teleportation and space travel and aliens and replicators and so forth which they inhabit. Indeed, they are obsessively backward-looking — Shakespeare and baseball and Dixon Hill and so forth.

Consider also:

  • They vigorously oppose gene modification, and recent shows have underlined the point
  • They recoil at AI personhood, despite the ability to produce it surfacing again and again, including in recent stories

These people are kicking and scratching to avoid the transhuman change implied by their technologies.

In-universe, we can see why they make this turn. The outcomes of embracing transhuman-like change they run into during their explorations are either baffling Pure Energy Beings or nightmarish dystopias.

What if they encounter something different?

I feel certain that someone in the current Trek writers room knows their Iain M. Banks. We just got two stories about the Federation botching their encounters with Excessions! So let’s bring in another thing about the Federation:

  • The Prime Directive forbids them intervening in lower-tech societies, even where they could easily correct political and material horrors

We know where Iain M. Banks’ high-tech hippie anarchist Culture stand on this stuff. When they encounter the Federation, they are gonna be pissed.

A bunch of Starfleet officers will turn coat. Do you doubt that Christopher Pike would warp back to Omelas and set things right?

24 May 2024

Trans women in prison

Returning to an old theme, I was recently asked about whether it was “appropriate” to place a trans woman convicted of multiple rapes in a women’s prison. Even if I assume that the specifics of the instance which inspired the question were rightly reported, which is not a safe assumption given the absurd lies common among opponents of trans liberation, I have to say —

It is more appropriate for that individual to be placed in a women’s prison than it is for ...

  • ... thousands of men to serve as guards in women’s prisons.
  • ... prison guards of any gender to be so weakly accountable that inmates are vulnerable to rape by guards.
  • ... inmates in prisons to be so poorly secured that they notoriously vulnerable to violence from other inmates including but not limited to rape.
  • ... prison rape to be a routine subject of “jokes” in our society.
  • ... the overwhelming majority of cis women in prison now to be placed in a women's prison, given the cruelty and counterproductiveness of even the best prison as a remedy for the things we use them for now.
  • ... Ted F*@%ing Cruz to pretend he is motivated by concern for the safety of women in prison rather than motivated by pandering to transphobia for political advantage.

I hope that clarifies my position.

03 May 2024

The Fremen Mirage

One sees this bullshit around a lot:

Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times.

Historian Bret Deveraux calls shenanigans briefly in Foreign Policy and at length on his blog.

I’m choosing the Fremen — and really the Dune series more generally – to stand in for a particular set of oft-repeated historical ideas and assumptions. It is not one idea, so much as a package set of ideas — often expressed so vaguely as to be beyond historical interrogation. So let’s begin by outlining it: what do I mean by the Fremen Mirage? I think the core tenants run thusly:
  • First: That people from less settled or ‘civilized’ societies — what we would have once called ‘barbarians,’ but will, for the sake of simplicity and clarity generally call here the Fremen after the example of the trope found in Dune — are made inherently ‘tougher’ (or more morally ‘pure’ — we’ll come back to this in the third post) by those hard conditions.
  • Second: Consequently, people from these less settled societies are better fighters and more militarily capable than their settled or wealthier neighboring societies.
  • Third: That, consequently the poorer, harder people will inevitably overrun and subjugate the richer, more prosperous communities around them.
  • Fourth: That the consequence of the previous three things is that history supposedly could be understood as an inevitable cycle, where peoples in harder, poorer places conquer their richer neighbors, become rich and ‘decadent’ themselves, lose their fighting capacity and are conquered in their turn. Or, as the common meme puts it:
Hard times create strong men.
Strong men create good times.
Good times create weak men.
And weak men create hard times.

(The quote is originally from G. Michael Hopf, a novelist and, perhaps conspicuously, not a historian; one also wonders what the women are doing during all of this, but I have to admit, were I they, I would be glad to be left out too).


This complex of ideas is what I phrase as the Fremen Mirage, and as you might imagine from that word ‘mirage,’ there are real, gaping problems in this vision of history. I’ve picked the Fremen to stand in for this idea in part because — being a fictional people — they are unconstrained by the real world messiness of actual societies. Instead, Frank Herbert quite clearly intends the Fremen to be a sort of purified form of this trope, the hardest people from the hardest conditions; they’re even presented as being more extreme than another example of this same trope, the imperial Sardaukar, who also indulge in the same ‘hard men from a hard place’ idea. Moreover, Herbert plays out this cyclical vision of history in the books, with the going-soft (slowly) Sardaukar being no match for the hard-ways Fremen and the latter – despite a near total lack of modern military or industrial infrastructure and what should be a crippling manpower disadvantage — spreading out and defeating all of the ‘civilized’ armies they encounter (with attendant worries that they will will become ‘soft’ and thus weak, should their planet, Arrakis, be made more habitable).

Now, the way this trope, and its contrast between ‘civilized’, ‘soft’ people and the ‘uncivilized’ ‘hard’ Fremen is deployed is often (as we’ll see) pretty crude. A people — say the Greeks — may be the hard Fremen one moment (fighting Persia) and the ‘soft’ people the next (against Rome or Macedon). But we may outline some of the ‘virtues’ of the ‘hard men’ sort of Fremen are supposed to have generally. They are supposed to be self-sufficient and unspecialized (often meaning that all men in the society are warriors) whereas other societies are specialized and overly complex (often to mean large parts of it are demilitarized). Fremen are supposed to be unlearned compared to their literate and intellectually decadent foes. Fremen society is supposed to be poor in both resources and infrastructure, compared to their rich and prosperous opponents.

The opposite of Fremenism is almost invariably termed ‘decadence.’ This is the reserve side of this reductive view of history: not only do hard conditions make for superior people, but that ‘soft’ conditions, associated with complex societies, wealth and book-reading weenies (read: literacy) make for morally inferior people who are consequently worse at fighting. Because we all know that moral purity makes you better at fighting, right? (My non-existent editor would like me to make clear that I am being sarcastic here, and it is extraordinarily obvious that moral virtue does not always lead to battlefield success.)


... the idea at the core of the Fremen Mirage is that the Fremen are militarily stronger in a general sense. If I may lean on a sports analogy, we would not call a team ‘better’ if they lost 98 games but happened to win the last 2. The question is both the ratio of victories to defeats, and the impact of those results. And that’s why the march of the state and of farming is so instructive: we can see the same process repeat itself, in a wide variety of areas, over very long periods of time, with what must have been many hundreds if not thousands of small wars. And it is quite clear from that evidence, that at the dawn of civilization, it was the least Fremen societies who tended to win the most.

Bow to no one

I know that civilians complain that Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings spends half an hour delivering a succession of several endings, but I am a nerd and they are wrong and I was sure glad to have the time to regain my composure before the lights came up when I first saw The Return of the King.

(Also I hope that the people who complain about the care The Lord Of The Rings takes in closing off several characters’ story arcs at the end have learned their lesson from several recent examples of epics which were lazier on this score. But I digress.)

Because I am that kind of nerd, I have watched the writers’ & director commentary on the Extended Dance Remix home video release, and when the “you bow to no one” moment comes, Jackson says that it is probably his favorite thing in the entire film series.

Jackson does not say why, but I think I know, because it is mine too; it makes me misty every time I watch it.

Jackson committed hard to the original book’s feudal worldview. We get Boromir, Faramir, and Denethor talking about their “quality”, ferggawdsake.

And then for a single blessed minute of screen time, Jackson says hell no. Your kingly bloodline did not do this, Aragorn II Elessar Telcontar. The restoration of the line of Isuldur is not the story here. Ordinary people standing up during extraordinary circumstances saved the world.

Damm right the hobbits do not bow.


I quite like this video-essay on the moment ...

… but I have to caveat that it references the Fremen Mirage, a far-right aphorism which is utter BS:

Hard times create strong men
Strong men create good times
Good times create weak men
Weak men create hard times.

19 April 2024

Next year in Jerusalem

For many years I have hosted an irreverent-but-ritually-correct seder for Pesach with my BFF. Inspired by Ira Steingroot’s book Keeping Passover, I first assembled my own haggadah back in the 20th century, and have refined it over the years since.

Almost a decade ago, I added this as its first page, to satisfy my personal Jewish-Pagan-atheist-esotericist sensiblities and to enbable me to say “next year in Jerusalem” in Nirtzah. It seems to get more important every year.

Our text — few key words:

Ha’Shem, “The Name”, is used instead of יהוה, the unspoken name of the god of the Torah, borrowing from the usage of the Chassidim

Israel, ישראל, “wrestler with El”, may or may not be Jacob after his encounter with the divine, or the mythical Promised Land of the Torah, or Jews’ dream of a perfect home

Mitzrayim, מצרים, “the narrow place”, may or may not be the Place of Bondage of the Torah, or the Nile river valley

Children Of Israel may or may not refer to the descendants of Jacob, or the people of the Exodus story, or the Jews of today

Jerusalem, ירושלם, “feel awe at wholeness”, may or may not be the dream of the City of the Messianic Age, or the mythical city of the First Temple in the Torah, or the real city which still stands now

We and us refers to the people gathered at this table and to all Children Of Israel

18 April 2024


I count myself a post-zionist rather than an anti-zionist, but I respect many forms of anti-zionism where they are morally consistent. Frustrated with a flood of mortifying misunderstandings of zionism offered by the movement for Palestinian liberation, it seemed useful to me to start to accumulate some commentaries about understanding the history of Israel & Zionism as a species of broader movements.

Zionist culture

Anti-zionist Raphael “One Small Detail” Mimoun has a 2021 Twitter thread offering an intimate portrait of Israel hardliners:

I grew up in a Zionist household, spent 12 years in a Zionist youth movement, lived 4 years in Israel, and have friends and family who served in the IDF. When that is your world, it’s hard to see apartheid when it’s happening.

I grew up in France, in a Jewish community where the norm was unconditional love and support for Israel. Zionism wasn’t even named because that’s all we knew. Jews were nearly wiped by pogroms and repeated holocausts, and a Jewish state was the only way to keep us safe.

All Zionism is rooted in trauma and fear. It is first and foremost an ideology of self-liberation. It’s about love Jewish people, survival for Jewish people. But Zionism is like any other ethnic nationalism, it’s about prioritizing our safety and well-being.

Like all nationalisms, we were fed a historical narrative completely divorced from reality: that Palestine was a largely uninhabited piece of desert before we settled it; that in 1948 Palestinians willingly left because they were making room for Arab armies to “throw Jews to the sea”; that Arab leaders turned down all Israeli and US peace offers and were unwilling to share the land; that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle-East; that despite terrorism, the IDF upholds the highest moral standards; so on and so on.

So the first reason that Israelis will never willingly make peace with Palestinians is that Israelis (and Zionist Jews around the world) live in a parallel world. They know alternate historical facts that feed more nationalism, militarism, and extremism.

The second reason is that the past 100 years of conflict have dehumanized Palestinians in the eyes of Israeli Jews. I mean this in a literal way: Israelis are not able to empathize with Palestinians, they aren’t able to comprehend Palestinian suffering.

So when the IDF bombs Gaza and kills children, the average Israelis thinks that 1) it is the Palestinians’ fault — for not agreeing to peace, for continuing to threaten and attack Israel, etc 2) Israel is merely defending itself and that there is simply no alternative.

The same rationale justifies Gaza’s open-air prison; military checkpoints in the West Bank; bulldozing homes; etc. Israelis even made up the term “Pallywood”, because for them, it’s all a show to turn the world against Israel. The suffering is either fake or self-inflicted.

Of course, there are some Israeli leftists and anti-Zionists who fight for Palestinian liberation. But it’s a tiny, and shrinking, minority. Most Israelis don’t consider what it means for Palestinian freedom, dignity, and physical well-being to be systematically erased.

Israel is, by every definition, an apartheid state: if a Jew and an Arab commit the exact same crime in the West Bank, they will face two different legal systems. The Jew will face a civil court, the Arab will face a military court. Two legal systems for two ethnic groups. But Israelis can’t fathom that this is unjust. When they fight against people calling the occupation of the West Bank “apartheid”, it’s because Israelis genuinely believe that it’s all self-defense and needed and legitimate.

These two factors (alternate history and dehumanization) mean that it is physically impossible —and I mean that in the most literal way — for Israel to willingly end the occupation and agree to a just solution to the conflict. Peace cannot come from within Israel.

Israeli society is getting more extreme, more nationalistic, more violent, and more entrenched in its own historical narrative & its own self-victimization. At this point, it is simply delusional to expect that things change will come from Israel.

The only thing that can bring Palestinian liberation is if the cost of the occupation outweighs its benefits. And that requires, just like for the apartheids in South Africa and the US South, massive external pressure. That means consumer boycott of Israeli goods, corporate boycott of Israeli technology, and sanctions by Israel’s main trade partner and political supporters, the US and EU. Those are the only measures that can meaningfully push Israel toward ending the occupation.

I hope that Mimoun’s pessimism about Israeli culture is wrong.

A 2021 thread from Weary Mourner <@silentpenitent>:

Ok, so. Friends. Going to say one other thing, against my better judgment. A lot of Gentiles fundamentally do not see the world the same way that many Jews do, and while this in no way excuses Zionism it has to be understood to understand Zionist thought processes.

Jewish history, specifically the Jewish history of persecution, is a long, long litany of antisemites leveraging the imagery of brutalized innocents against an imagined all powerful, omnimalevolent Jewish people who revel in the deaths of children & the tears of widows.

Almost every single antisemitic persecution of note, every pogrom, that I know of began and mobilized itself with the memory of sainted, martyred Gentiles — especially children, those most innocent victims. The evocation of Gentile children against Jews is a cultural trigger.

The brutish, monstrous, all powerful Jew growing fat vampire-like on the losses of Gentiles has always been the cliche, and while Jewish life may seem secure now, it did in many other periods of history RIGHT UP to the point when the mobs stoked Gentile “righteous” hate.

Jews were not brutes, subjects or even foreign rivals to the antisemite. They were the merchants of misery and callous parasites within society’s midst, gloating in & feeding upon Gentile death — again, especially those of children, the more innocent & beautiful the better.

The big divide between Zionist & antizionist Jewish perspectives is not the belief in the dignity of Gentiles, but our faith that when the next rumor or anecdote of some monstrously wronged Gentile comes along, you will not throw us into the oven & count yourself righteous.

The antizionist — on this topic of safety and not on the morality of the situation elsewhere — has faith that if they are personally sufficiently virtuous, they will be safe. The Zionist laughs bitterly and believes the former is a fool who will just sell out other Jews first.

Again, there are other fundamental concerns. Antizionism is a valid Jewish perspective. Israel’s actions are monstrous. But in how they respond to that cultural trigger, that’s a major difference I think plays a huge role. Fear. Fear, specifically, of Gentiles.

And that’s why people react so angrily to stories that they believe evoke blood libel myths. To their minds, triggered by a long cultural memory, it raises the spectre of those other times Gentiles rose up afire with self righteous wrath to cleanse the world of “Jewish evil.”

And as part of this belief that they are under threat, that the old lies and distortions are being raised once again to paint all Jews as parasites and child-killers & merchants of misery, a lot of Zionist Jews have a visceral reaction to criticism of Israel on these grounds.

(The blood libel, historically, never needed facts or actual children wronged, after all. It was happy to provide imaginary ones or twist the deaths of children into a damning mark upon all Jews.)

Again, this is not a defense of Zionism. It is an explanation of the thought processes and the trauma being evoked.

Quite simply: yes, historically, the image of a martyred child can and has been a weapon against Jewish populations. It is, in fact, sometimes the first blow. Israel is nowhere near as vulnerable as those Jewish enclaves, but that memory is slow to fade.

You don’t have to think Israel or Zionists’ response to this trigger is reasonable. It’s not, in the abstract. But it’s based on Jewish history. And I’m willing to bet even many of your antizionist Jewish friends still feel a subconscious shiver at “Israel murders children!”

Anyways, none of this is an excuse, and none of this is a demand to not tell the world about individuals — including children — wronged by Israel’s actions. It’s just “this is why people respond badly sometimes.”

Having second thoughts about writing this thread, idk.

Idk, feeling like I’m arrogant speaking thusly.

I feel a little better about this thread, not least of which is because even mutuals are so weirdly CONFIDENT about this in ways that make me genuinely a little uncomfortable from people who should honestly know better about the history of atrocities used to justify bigotry.

(I may observe that the reason that this happens is that, well, it obviously works: Show people pictures of atrocities and their critical thinking just shuts down.)

And I think this may even link back into the broader rhetorical trend where Israel is positioned as the ultimate symbol of Western society’s evils & preying upon innocent Palestinian victims who embody progressive beauty & values.

idk, it’s a troubling dynamic.

Oh one other thing: I’m really uncomfortable, and I imagine some other Jews are as well, with how we have viral tweets spreading like wildfire alleging vast conspiratorial forces keeping folks from sending money to Palestine or media censorship of Palestinians. Like, yeah, guys, maybe tech giants don’t want you sending money to Palestine (because among other things they may be nervous about LIABILITY w/ potential risk of sending money to Hamas?)

or maybe it’s a bug in an overloaded transaction system.

A Twitter thread by Talia Ringer:

Mari <@AntifaCatraa>says:

I think people like to claim Zionism was an ideology supported by Nazis because it’s a moral landmine to deal with the fact that a lot of holocaust survivors became zionists because they saw a state as necessary to their own survival

Zionism became popular in the 30s and 40s because a progressive democracy where jews were gaining civil rights only for murderous brutes to crush all of that progress and their neighbors to gleefully rat them out to the gestapo. Of course nationalism would be compelling.

Of course this does not in any way justify the atrocities of the nakba or ethnic based partition. But it does explain why Zionism was popular with Jewish people because it was a country where Jews could be free from discrimination and are able to flee to.

The primary victims of Israel and Zionism have always been Palestinians.

Not just saw — it was. The Soviets who liberated death camps just gave survivors a few pennies and a horse and sent them on their ways. My grandpa said many died shortly after liberation by the Soviets from the abrupt transition

And then they came back to see their property and wealth stolen, and their entire extended families wiped out. Those who tried to repatriate often faced extreme violence in response, especially in Eastern Europe

The only people willing to clothe, feed, house, and educate Holocaust survivors in many towns were Zionist outreach groups. Zionism as a political project is inseparable from the Holocaust, whether you like it or not

These underground Zionist groups (which were still illegal in Eastern Europe) prepared Holocaust survivors to settle in Kibbutzim in Palestine. Many of these were orphaned children. They helped them immigrate, mostly illegally

I don’t know if they cared about it being a state or not. But it was a place to live, which is what mattered

Like it or not, teenage Holocaust survivors, orphans, were often first educated by these Zionist groups, where they learned socialism and farmwork and Zionism. That was their whole education. Then they were dropped in the middle of the civil war

They were exempt from full military service, but were a part of the settlement projects for sure. For my grandfather, his assigned project was to build and settle kibbutz tze’elim with his other orphaned Holocaust survivor friends en.wikipedia.org Tze’elim - Wikipedia

I really don’t care if you’re all sick of hearing about the Holocaust, it’s necessary historical complexity to fully grapple with when making sense of the Zionist political project, the formation of the Israeli state, and the nakba

Settler colonialism

A few years back I wrote my own history of Israel focused on a nuanced understanding of what it means to register Isreal as emerging from settler colonialism. A key bit to whet the appetite:

Prior to the founding of the USA in the Revolutionary War and its aftermath, the British colonies in North America starting even at Plymouth Rock were engaged in settler colonialism: seizing land with the intention to make it their own for every following generation, with total disregard for the indigenous people of the continent. By the time of the Revolution what would become the US had more than a century of expansionist settler colonialism with an overt program of total genocide to establish British sovereignty over territory; the program of genocide continued through the closing of the frontier, a legacy which is alive in the present day.

Israel’s history is bloody and ugly but it is very different.


Roughly a couple of million Arab Palestinians are brutally repressed by Israel in Gaza & the West Bank; this includes ongoing displacement of Palestinians to build new settlements. Israel holds the unmistakable upper hand in an endless cycle of violence.

This is settler colonialism. This is military occupation & policing. This is an apartheid state. But students of American history should understand how different the particulars are from our horrors.

Illuminating context in a Twitter thread from Lachlan McNamee plugging his book Settling For Less: Why States Colonize And Why They Stop:

The book provides an entirely new framework for understanding settler colonialism, ranging from the Assyrians all the way to contemporary China, Indonesia, Australia and Israel/Palestine. In the book, I draw on a trove of newly collected migration data to show why states colonize the lands of indigenous people with settlers and why they would stop doing so.

Why is this book needed? Well, most theories of settler colonialism, departing from Karl Marx or Patrick Wolfe’s “logic of elimination”, focus on North America or Australasia. This perspective has long explained settler colonialism with simple economics. European colonizers wanted more land for agriculture and so eliminated indigenous peoples and settled their lands with white farmers. But this isn’t quite right.

Britain and the US initially sought to limit mass white settlement. It was only after settlers began moving into frontier areas of their own volition — in the Ohio Valley in 1783 and in Melbourne in 1835 — that officials opened up frontier land there for mass homesteading. Officials licensed white settlement at the time not because they wanted to secure more land for agriculture, but because they feared that without legal recognition settlers would go onto found independent republics in “off limit” areas anyway.

What past work in this area has generally missed is

  1. that settler colonialism is economically costly to states, and
  2. the interests of settlers on the ground are not necessarily aligned with the interests of states.

Settler colonialism is costly to states because displacing indigenous people inflames conflict and leads to war. It’s more lucrative for states to simply annex frontier areas and exploit indigenous labor, rather than import an entirely new population into a frontier.

So why then do states engage in settler colonialism? Well, there are two main rationales I explain in the book.

The first are cases of what I call “settler-led colonization”. When states face the unlicensed movement of farmers into their peripheries, they are faced with a dilemma. Do they protect settlers from attacks by the indigenous population — leading to war — or do they side with the indigenous population and try to restrict settlement? Each path holds different dangers to states and passively licensing homesteading sometimes emerges as the least-worst outcome for officials. Settler-led colonization is the result of a conflict of interest between states and settlers. It can’t be explained by state interests.

But states aren’t always so passive, right? In many cases, countries actively do eliminate indigenous people and recruit settlers to settle their lands. This practice, what I call “state-led colonization”, is still occurring around the world today. Think of Israel in the West Bank, Indonesia in West Papua, or China in Xinjiang, all of which are settings where bureaucrats have recruited settlers from dominant ethnic groups to colonize contested frontiers. Why do states do this?

As settler colonialism is so costly as a governing tool, officials generally have to believe that their control over a frontier is threatened. In these situations, states may seek to import a more stereotypically loyal ethnic group into the contested area. Like settler-led colonization, state-led colonization has happened throughout human history. Indeed, colonization originates in the Latin word “colonus” (or farmer) and was coined to describe the Roman practice of sending farmers to claim newly conquered frontiers

Colonization continues be a brutally effective tool for state-building today. In my book, I draw on internal data to show how the Chinese and Indonesian states manipulated migration over the 20th century to secure control over contested frontiers like Xinjiang and West Papua. When facing frontier insurgencies, states like China and Indonesia have been quick to abandon vocal rhetorical commitments to “decolonization” and “self-determination” and have instead violently colonized minority lands. All states can be colonizers.

State-led colonization only works though when states can actually incentivize settlers to move. Land has historically been the most valuable immovable asset you could possess. So the promise of “free land” has generally been how states get people to move to contested frontiers.

But here’s the rub. Agricultural land loses its value as states industrialize and urbanize. So, as states develop, and grow more militarily powerful on many dimensions, states also grow weaker at manipulating migration. They can no longer lure people to contested frontiers.

In the book, I show how Australia tried and failed to draw whites to its northern frontiers like Papua New Guinea, how US officials failed to lure whites to the Philippines, and how the Portuguese failed to settle Angola in the 1970s. Rich countries fail at colonization.

Israel similarly failed to lure settlers to Gaza in the 1970s and 80s. Israel has primarily succeeded in colonizing areas commutable to Jerusalem.

Developed countries are ineffective colonizers, which forces them to confront seriously indigenous claims to self-determination. Following Australia’s failure to colonize Papua New Guinea, for instance, it quickly pushed for Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975. Relatively poor Indonesia, on the other hand, has been able to prevent West Papuan independence by simply flooding Papuan lands with farmers. Without settlers at their disposal, developed states have to bargain directly with indigenous peoples demanding rights, which often results in a re-drawing of the boundaries of the state — whether for Australia in Papua New Guinea, Israel in Gaza, or Portugal in Angola.

In a nutshell, my book shows that decolonization, not imperialism, is the highest form of capitalism (sorry Lenin!). Economic modernization spells the end of empire. For as states are obliged to pay more for settlers, they end up settling for less land.

Partition & population transfer

Another Twitter thread from Talia Ringer:

There was actually ethnic cleansing of Jews from many other countries in the region. Most of it happened shortly after 1948, when governments falsely accused many local Jews of being Zionist spies, conflating their own Jews with the Israeli state. 1956 saw targeted policies by the Egyptian government against Jews stripping Jews of citizenship, property, and jobs, and seizing their businesses and bank accounts, all without due process just by accusing Egyptian Jews of being “Zionist agents.”

I do think Israel is responsible for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians both in 1948 and again now, and through many policies in the intervening years. I just wish people would also recognize the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab countries, as most are in Israel now.

The reason I care so much about folks from MENA countries outside of Palestine acknowledging the ethnic cleansing of Jews from those countries is not because it changes anything about Israel/Palestine, but rather because it changes the power dynamic of these conversations.

I do think Israel is responsible for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians both in 1948 and again now, and through many policies in the intervening years. I just wish people would also recognize the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab countries, as most are in Israel now.

It’s one reason why I have less trouble talking to Palestinians about this than talking to folks from other MENA countries who deny or minimize this ethnic cleansing, or blame it on Israel. Because the power dynamic of Israeli Jews over Palestinians is obvious. But the power dynamic with respect to MENA countries outside of Israel/Palestine is one that has historically been over its Jews, not the other way around.

It is because of this that the Palestinian cause alone seems to me one of liberation, but the pan-Arab nationalist view that loops in Palestine as part of a continuous Arabic-speaking region with a common cause seems to me genuinely oppressive against Jews.

And this is hard because the Palestinians need allies, and broader Arab nationalism gives Palestinians some of those allies in chasing liberation. But those allies at the same time change the power dynamic for Jews, given most forced out of those countries are now in Israel.

Also complicating things is that many of the Palestinians that Israel ethnically cleansed from the land in 1948 during the nakba fled to those neighboring countries, so solidarity is not solely one of broader nationalism, it is also that many live alongside Palestinian refugees.

Still, when when a Palestinian calls an Israeli Jew an oppressor, or at least complicit in the Israeli system that systemically oppresses Palestinians, I understand. This make sense. This is true. We are, sadly, and were complacent about this for too long. But when someone from a different MENA country does the same thing relating to themselves and their relationship with Israeli Jews, I view this as revisionist. “My country pushed Jews out, and now I support the people fighting them in the country to which they fled” is sketchy. It is so sketchy that the national narratives almost all erase this ethnic cleansing, or blame it on Israel. And then this becomes more offensive, because the narrative of the oppressor (again, not Palestinians; other MENA countries) position themselves as the oppressed.

Since the power dynamic is flipped, I have trouble having that conversation until people acknowledge this ethnic cleansing of Jews from those countries and agree with me that it was unjust and terrible. Then we are on common ground and can talk about Israel/Palestine.

With Palestinians I do not need this. Palestinians do not need to address any of this. Conflating Palestinians with the neighboring Arab countries that ethnically cleansed Jews is wrong and builds a false narrative of Israel as oppressed by Palestine. But yes, I do need this to feel comfortable discussing Israel/Palestine with non-Palestinian, non-Jewish friends from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Yemen. Ethiopia too, for related reasons. This is why I bring this up. It’s important.

Egyptian here, you’re not very correct because Palestinians themselves identify with the wider Arab identity and continuously shame Arab countries for not helping liberate them, they don’t believe they’re divorced from the rest of the Arab World. But you're right that the expulsions are a very shameful episode and it’s shameful that amends are yet to be made, and the person you're arguing with not recognizing that is very disappointing

Important point I did not mention. Though I think this mostly clouds the power dynamics even more.

Also worth noting the person I was speaking to here did acknowledge this later. This is very validating. We all need to acknowledge these entangled histories and complex power dynamics. It is necessary starting ground.

Ethnic nationalism

Ben Burgis at Jacobin rejects indigineity as a ground for political legitimacy.

People who insist that Palestinians are “indigenous” and Israelis are not, and who think this is what makes the struggle for Palestinian rights legitimate, are embracing the logic of reactionaries like Tenney and Shapiro while reversing the implication. The problem with the Right’s claim that Israel is justified in denying basic rights to millions of people because of historical Jewish claims to “Judea and Samaria” is not that the right-wingers are misidentifying who counts as “truly” indigenous. The wildly reactionary premise is that this is even a relevant question.

A Twitter thread from Christa Peterson:

Zionism is just standard issue ethnonationalism & Israel is waging a standard issue ethnic war. The fact that it’s motivated by past victimization isn’t an exception, it’s the rule.

Stuart Kaufman’s Modern Hatreds, based on Eastern European case studies — 
In ethno-nationalist mythology, the ethnic group has existed for millennia, and has always yearned for a country of its own: this is the “primordialist” theory of ethnicity. The fact that people believe their ethnic groups to be primordial does not, however, mean that they are. Ethnic nationalism is a modern ideology which, for most of the eastern half of Europe, has been current for little over a century.

Precisely when, then, does ethnic war occur? The key necessary conditions are:

Myths justifying ethnic hostility

people respond to ethnic symbols and mobilize for war only if a widely known and accepted ethnic myth-symbol complex justifies hostility to the other group. The myths justify hostility if they identify a territory as the group's homeland which must be defended and dominated politically and define a mythical enemy with which the other group can be identified.

Ethnic fears

A fundamental factor causing ethnic conflicts to escalate to war is that first one side, then eventually both sides, come to fear that the existence of their group is at stake. Such extreme fears justify hostile attitudes toward the other group and extreme measures in self-defense, including demands for political dominance.

The source of such fear is typically the group’s myth-svmbol complex, portraying the in-group as peculiarly under threat or peculiarly victimized. In these cases, the more the group's historians emphasize the group's past victimization, the more credible are the emotional charges of genocide that arouse gut-level fears and the more appealing are hate-filled cries for vengeance….

Once ethnic fears become prevalent among the members of any ethnic group, for whatever reason, they justify and motivate a resort to violence in self-defense.
Ethnic conflict is prone to escalate into atrocities like genocide when one group mythologizes the other as inclined to commit them and then believes they are justified in committing them in retaliation
The above logic can explain why people are willing to fight in ethnic wars: because they are frightened, and because they become convinced that their group's political dominance is essential to group survival. Such thinking can logically justify killing, and even massacre in extreme cases. Atrocities, however, require something more.

even atrocities have to have a normative basis, which should consist of two components: a mythical belief that the opponent tends to engage in atrocities and a normative view that retaliatory atrocities are morally acceptable. The key is the last part: ethnic violence is always defined defensively, by the claim that the other group is trying to take away what is “rightfully ours”; atrocities have to be justified by the claim that committing them is a legitimate way to defend what is “rightfully ours.”

The most discerning of the journalists also note the curious defensive justifications participants use to rationalize their brutality. Thus Reuters correspondent Andrej Gustincic, on the start of war in Bosnia:
“‘Do you see that field?’ asks a Serbian woman, pointing to a sloping meadow by the Drina river. ‘The jihad (Moslem Holy War) was supposed to begin there. Foca was going to be the new Mecca. There were lists of Serbs who were marked down for death,’ the woman says, repeating a belief held by townspeople and gunmen. ‘My two sons were down on the list to be slaughtered like pigs. I was listed under rape.’ None of them have seen the lists but this does not prevent anyone from believing in them unquestioningly.”
Does this seem familiar

The Seven Rules of Nationalism:

A Beginner’s Guide to Ethnic Politics

  1. If an area was ours for 500 years and yours for 50 years, it should belong to us — you are merely occupiers.
  2. If an area was yours for 500 years and ours for 50 years, it should belong to us — borders must not be changed.
  3. If an area belonged to us 500 years ago but never since then, it should belong to us — it is the Cradle of our Nation.
  4. If a majority of our people live there, it must belong to us — they must enjoy the right of self-determination.
  5. If a minority of our people live there, it must belong to us — they must be protected against your oppression.
  6. All of the above rules apply to us but not to you.
  7. Our dream of greatness is Historical Necessity, yours is Fascism.
— Unknown
What’s unusual about the Zionist case is that its eternal arch-victim mythos is so widely shared beyond the group. But the reality is that some Holocaust survivors went directly from DP camps to ethnically cleansing Palestine, & victimhood is a relative status not an ethnic trait

Violently pursuing ethnic dominance isn’t a surprising response to such an extreme experience of existential ethnic insecurity and people from the global North can radically increase their relative power by going to the global South. It’s not very mysterious just obscured

About a third of the Zionist militants in the 1948 war and the Nakba were Holocaust survivors