28 August 2013

US Civil War

A friend reports ranting in response to a smug ignoramus asserting that the United States Civil War was “not about slavery”:

You just don't understand how fucking wrong you are. The war was about the balance of power vis-à-vis slavery, except for the massive number of things that weren't, and all of those things were about the economic organization of slave states. So, it was about slavery, except for when it wasn't; and when it wasn't, it was.

27 August 2013

Guaranteed minimum income

It turns out that in the 1970s, the Canadian government performed an experiment in guaranteed minimum income in a small town. It ran for four years, they gathered a mountain of data about the effects ... and only started analyzing the data very recently. The results shouldn't be surprising

Initially, the Mincome program was conceived as a labour market experiment. The government wanted to know what would happen if everybody in town received a guaranteed income, and specifically, they wanted to know whether people would still work.

It turns out they did.

Only two segments of Dauphin's labour force worked less as a result of Mincome—new mothers and teenagers. Mothers with newborns stopped working because they wanted to stay at home longer with their babies. And teenagers worked less because they weren't under as much pressure to support their families.

The end result was that they spent more time at school and more teenagers graduated.

Still, too expensive, right? Oh, wait.

In the period that Mincome was administered, hospital visits dropped 8.5 per cent. Fewer people went to the hospital with work-related injuries and there were fewer emergency room visits from car accidents and domestic abuse. There were also far fewer mental health visits.

It's not hard to see why, says Forget.

“When you walk around a hospital, it's pretty clear that a lot of the time what we're treating are the consequences of poverty,” she says.

Give people financial independence and control over their lives and these accidents and illnesses tend to dissipate, says Forget. In today's terms, an 8.5 per cent decrease in hospital visits across Canada would save the government $4 billion annually, by her calculations. And $4 billion is the amount that the federal government is currently trying to save by slashing social programming and arts funding.

Still, it's socialism, so we should set this out of our minds.

14 August 2013

Social class and social justice

An acquaintance recently observed that there's a certain kind of White guy Social Justice Warrior who sometimes starts ranting about how It's All Really About Social Class. They liked it when I made this observation:

The invisibility of class in totalizing identity politics is a big problem. But the classic Marxist dismissal of all social justice questions as just devolving to class is even more corrosive. And if you're coming from a totalizing identity politics framework where the only ground of authenticity is to claim that you speak from the experience of oppression, it's appealing to claim that the oppression you experience is the only one that counts.

13 August 2013

Talking about social justice in good faith

Right after I assembled a long Storify about the challenges to good faith disagreement about social justice questions in a world full of harassment, abuse, and threats, I came across another force which poisons the discourse: irrational social justice skeptics who see any disagreement as a bigoted attack on their privileged position.

Do you see what happened there? When I try to start providing data that is directly relevant to the conversation, he blocks me, as – presumably – someone attacking him on race and/or gender.

Apparently because I’m providing data he doesn’t like. That’s what it looks like from here, anyway.

11 August 2013


“Nazis! I hate these guys!” This should be handy to have handy.

Nazis! I hate those guys!

River Tam

Via Jim Henley, I learn of Why I Hate River Tam.

Mostly, what I think I don’t like about River Tam is what the rampant adoration of her signifies. The thing is, she is not a good character — and by good, I mean very specifically: a character with emotional consistency, with depth, with the sense that she is the product of a lifetime of experience and is complete with wants and needs and thoughts and opinions. She’s not a whole character; she’s defined wholly by her craziness (“craziness” here being just a bunch of signifiers for actual disordered mentality) and her ability to kick things and that she’s pretty, and none of those things are actual character traits.

What she is is an old-fashioned, super-misogynist 18th century caricature of a woman — beautiful, delicate, basically a moron — that we’re forgiven for loving because she has the power to kick things. And of course she’s the most beloved female character from Firefly, despite the fact that every other woman on that show is more interesting, more developed, more complex, and above all, more worth our admiration.

That’s the problem that I have; the popularity of a character like River Tam exposes an undercurrent of archaism, of backwards-thinking, that obviates all the work that Whedon does with his shows. That he’s given us some pretty great characters on Firefly, and who’s the one that everyone loves?

The one that is plainly, explicitly designed to be drooled over.

The point is well-taken, and we should rightly be discomforted by the analysis. I'm a bit more forgiving of River as a character, perhaps in part because I don't have that reaction of having the hots for her.

I do think the last sentence there misses some things about what Whedon's design intentions were. From an earlier post of mine, I note that he has said:

She is the monster. She is the damsel. She is the action hero.

So no, I don't think River is designed to be “drooled over”. Or at least not only that. Not even primarily that.

But yes, it's there. Now we are awash in Action Girls in part because of how Buffy demonstrated the sexiness of that cocktail. But that's not all Whedon was going for; with River and Buffy and many of his other characters he was trying to challenge and change some of the ways we experience female characters.

And he succeeded. Having too many Action Girls is a problem, but it's a problem in large part because Whedon and others have changed our perceptions. (James Cameron, I'm looking at you.) Which probably means it's time to move on.

10 August 2013


Having watched Hugo Schwyzer's Twitter meltdown in real time yesterday, I finally got around to reviewing the critiques of him closely. Grace at Are Women Human has the essential one, On Hugo Schwyzer: Accountability, not silencing dissent, which focuses on the significance of his ongoing deceit.

Hugo Schwyzer lied for several years about his attempt to kill a woman - on one occasion, falsely describing his attempt to kill his girlfriend and himself as a only a suicide attempt that “accidentally” endangered her. On the record, preserved in on Internet Archive here, “suicide attempt,” and here, “I came close to accidentally taking the life of my girlfriend.” This was long after he was self-identifying as a “male feminist” who was “recovering” and being “redeemed” from his past behavior.

And just in the past two months, since the backlash against him, Schwyzer has edited his past posts to conceal the fact that he repeatedly lied about his history . There are no disclaimers or notes on these posts to indicate that they’ve been edited in any way. For example, the post that once claimed that he accidentally endangered his girlfriend now reads:

As I’ve written before, my last episode of drinking and drug use ended on June 27, 1998; my body filled with massive amounts of alcohol and prescription pills, I blew out the pilot lights on the stove in my old apartment and turned on the gas, trying to kill myself and my girlfriend. Miraculously, we both survived.

This post is rather perversely titled “A very long post on how to rebuild trust.” Well, here’s a hint: it doesn’t involve lying about what you’ve done and then trying to cover up that lie.

I wish I had read when I first heard about the controversies around Schwyzer a few years back.

Above Top Secret

Kevin Drum has a long quote from Daniel Ellsberg explaining to a young Henry Kissinger about access to government secrets above Top Secret.

I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

The effects are not good.

09 August 2013

Cultural appropriation

I want sharper tools for thinking about cultural appropriation. Here are some commentaries I find helpful.

Kids, Kimonos, and Cultural Appropriation

There is no right or wrong way to appropriate or appreciate a culture because a culture is never truly static. You cannot respect a culture, but you can respect people. But know that you will inevitably find yourself having to choose between two rightful heirs to a tradition, one who holds out a hand in invitation and another who holds up their hand to deny you, and you cannot respect one without disrespecting the other. You cannot but choose a side.

Is Culture Something We Have or Something We Do?

Theoretical and rhetorical tools from anthropology
Descriptive essentialist cultureDynamic constructivist culture
Culture is something one hasCulture is something one does
Culture is fixed and can be delimited Culture is created in open interaction
Common values for everyone in the group Different values for different members
People are governed by culturePeople negotiate culture
Culture (values, rules, norms, etc.) can explain why people act as they doOther factors (status, context, power, etc.) can explain why people act as they do
People’s actions can be predictedPeople’s actions cannot be predicted

From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation

Based on the range of literature addressing the topic, I identified four categories of cultural appropriation (adapted from Wallis & Malm, 1984; additional influences from Bakhtin, 1975/1981; Clifford, 1988; Goodwin & Gore, 1990; Ziff & Rao, 1997). Based on the assumptions identified above, these four categories can best be understood as naming the conditions (historical, social, political, cultural, and economic) under which acts of appropriation occur. After briefly defining each of the four types of appropriation, I discuss, illustrate, and evaluate each in depth.

  1. Cultural exchange: the reciprocal exchange of symbols, artifacts, rituals, genres, and/or technologies between cultures with roughly equal levels of power.
  2. Cultural dominance: the use of elements of a dominant culture by members of a subordinated culture in a context in which the dominant culture has been imposed onto the subordinated culture, including appropriations that enact resistance.
  3. Cultural exploitation: the appropriation of elements of a subordinated culture by a dominant culture without substantive reciprocity, permission, and/or compensation.
  4. Transculturation: cultural elements created from and/or by multiple cultures, such that identification of a single originating culture is problematic, for example, multiple cultural appropriations structured in the dynamics of globalization and transnational capitalism creating hybrid forms.

Cultural exchange operates in the literature as an implied baseline for clarifying the inequalities involved in the other conditions of appropriation and is generally assumed to be a nonexistent ideal. Cultural domination, in contrast, highlights the asymmetries under which acts of appropriation occur. Although many approaches to this set of conditions emphasize the power of the dominant to impose its culture on subordinated peoples, cultural dominance as a condition nevertheless requires attention to how the targets of cultural imposition negotiate their relationship to the dominant culture through a variety of appropriative tactics. Extending this implication, cultural resistance, a form of appropriation that occurs under the conditions of cultural dominance, highlights the agency and inventiveness of subordinated peoples by examining how they appropriate dominant cultural elements for resistive ends.

Resistance through appropriation, however, demonstrates the “impurity” of acts of resistance and of culture itself. Cultural exploitation focuses on the commodification and incorporation of elements of subordinated cultures. However, in defending the rights of subordinated peoples to protect the integrity of their culture and to control its use, most of the discourse of cultural exploitation operates from a model of culture as clearly bounded and distinct, as singular and organic. Such a model of culture is not only empirically questionable but also complicit in the subordination of “primitive” cultures. Transculturation further questions the validity of an essentialist model of distinct cultures that merely engage in appropriation, highlighting appropriation and hybridity as constitutive of culture, reconceptualized as an intersectional phenomenon. Although the literature on transculturation is grounded in the conditions of globalization and transnational capitalism, the implications of transculturation question the assumptions of the previous three categories in both contemporary and historical contexts.

Introduction to Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture

A long, provocative, idiosyncratic comment on the question. A delicious little taste:
hip-hop culture and the hip-hop marketplace, like a quantum paradox, provides space to all Black ideologies, from the most anti-white to the most pro-capitalist, without ever having to account for the contradiction

A brief meditation on white twerking

Imagine you own the only restaurant in a small mostly-segregated town where whites are generally richer than blacks. A black family opens a new restaurant in the black part of town, but it doesn’t affect your business much because white people don’t want to go there and blacks don’t have enough money to eat out much anyway.

But they do have one fabulous dish that’s like nothing on your menu. You go there and try it, and it’s every bit as good as you’ve heard. And you immediately have a bunch of motives to imitate it. First, just as a lover of food and a creative chef you can’t help thinking: “I could do this! It would be great!” Second, as a businessman you think: “My customers would love this!”

There’s nothing wrong with either of those motives. [⋯] But as it stands you’ll get those customers just by being white.

So what you’d be doing by imitating the dish is lowering the cost of racism. Without your imitation, your racist customers would have to do without something they want.

And while you might argue you’re providing your white customers a bridge to black culture, it would be a toll bridge, and you’d be collecting the tolls.

Academic folklorist Dr. Jeff Tolbert comments

Rescued from Twitter

The other day I read part of an intro to a popular collection of stories with the “folk” qualifier attached. I had to stop because the author made sweeping claims about folklore being part of “our” heritage, connected to a misty, mystical past.

Who is that “our” referring to? What monolithic group of people exists that experiences an unbroken continuity with “the past”? There isn’t one, is the thing. Tradition purports to be a connection to the past, but all traditions are invented.

Being “invented” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” But it does mean that people pick & choose elements to bring forward. Or, when there’s nothing there to bring forward, they create something new. We should never assume that old stories connect to “our” pasts in a deep, real way.

Because again, who is that “our” referencing? If “we” are labeling that “folk” material as “ours,” we’re setting up boundaries. We’re creating an implicit “them,” always the necessary corollary of “us.” This isn’t inherently bad, but it can quickly become so.

It’s especially problematic when “we” are imagined in connection to a particular place or region. The extreme of that way of thinking is fascism. There’s a reason the Third Reich invoked the idea of “blood and soil” in promulgating their false narratives of Aryan identity.

On the other hand, if “we” are all people, then we’re eliding cultural difference. We’re doing violence to the vastly different histories of different groups at different times / places. Creating universalizing narratives is another way of imposing hegemonic ideas on others.

Popular writers: Please stop doing these things. Please stop imagining “folklore” to be fixed, unchanging, mystical links to the past. Please stop tying it in a rigid way to “our heritage.”

If you find traditional narratives that you like, by all means, engage with them. Think about them. Write with them. Do cool new things with them. But do not frame them as tying us to a misty, magical past. Uncouple them from ideas about “heritage.”

For instance, medieval Irish literary tales about Cú Chulainn are great & stirring & deserve to be read & told & retold. But to imagine that they have a meaningful connection to the lives of all the people who happen to live in Ireland today is to make a big mistake.

I found this out firsthand during graduate fieldwork in Ireland. I was in Dingle trying to understand what “Celtic” culture meant to Irish people, & met a young Irish woman interested in my work. I ended up telling her the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows, which she’d never heard.

The point here is that folklore is ordinary, everyday culture. That’s it. Full stop. You are “doing” it in your own life every day. The old stories that seem “mystical” seem that way because they originated in different cultural contexts and at very different historical moments.

Don’t assume that things like contemporary national identity imply unbroken continuity with those past cultures/moments. If you like something, celebrate it. Enjoy it. But don’t make it into a magical token of cultural identity, or a Jungian symbol that ignores difference.

Folkloresque engagements with the idea of folklore are cool. I write about the folkloresque in part because I like a lot of this stuff. I like retellings of things. I like mishmashes of monsters and gods and demons from different times / places.

I don’t like it when writers claim that folklore is old stuff that, although irrelevant today, is still “ours” & somehow helps to define our present-day identities. Opening a dusty book of stories you’ve never read / heard before is not a window onto “your” past, or your present.

If those old stories form a part of your ordinary cultural experience, then they’re part of your life. But you can’t claim that for everyone. That young lady in Dingle who’d never heard of Deirdre didn’t have any inherent claims on the Ulster Cycle just because she was Irish.

So please, writers & other creative types, keep using folkloric stuff to do new stuff. Tradition always changes, always gets adapted to new forms and new media. That’s all good. But stop making old stories that most of “us” have never heard of into magical symbols of “us.”

From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation

Academic paper which rhymes with the things I am trying to get at in my own taxonomy below
Cultural appropriation is often mentioned but undertheorized in critical rhetorical and media studies. Defined as the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture, cultural appropriation can be placed into 4 categories: exchange, dominance, exploitation, and transculturation. Although each of these types can be understood as relevant to particular contexts or eras, transculturation questions the bounded and proprietary view of culture embedded in other types of appropriation. Transculturation posits culture as a relational phenomenon constituted by acts of appropriation, not an entity that merely participates in appropriation. Tensions exist between the need to challenge essentialism and the use of essentialist notions such as ownership and degradation to criticize the exploitation of colonized cultures.

A model from me

Excerpted from a long essay of mine about cultural appropriation in esoteric practices

I have my own way of thinking about the base principles behind the movement to combat cultural appropriation.

One can understand it as emerging from an ambivalence about both the modern understanding and postmodern understandings of Authenticity and Identity. Postmodern sensibilities see these through a lens of multiplicity & fragmentation. There is no universal subject with an objective understanding of all culture to retreat to. Social justice advocates rightly reject modernist universalism with its colonialist / Western chauvinist / etc implications. But at the same time, oppressed people compelled to inhabit an identity which subjects them to injustices yearn to ground that identity in some kind of authenticity, pushing back a vulgar postmodernism which rejects any stability there. “Culture, Authenticity, and Identity are not slippery mush!” they say, and so turn to the response, “This thing is real and belongs to these people who can be clearly identified!”

But as [described earlier in the essay], countering colonialist modernist universalism with claims like “the chakras belong to South Asian people” still accepts modernist conceptions of property rights and crisply distinct “peoples”. That can act as a convenient shorthand, but does not hold water on close examination.

This frustration with some of the sloppy thinking behind common manifestations of the movement against cultural appropriation does not mean that I reject the entire framework and its project of resistance. There are at least three distinct modes of cultural appropriation which I think can be clearly identified and combatted.

  • Colonialism when people in a privileged position employ their power to deny oppressed people who have a cultural and historical link to a thing access to it, while they exercise or exploit that same thing from their base of privilege. So for example, when white people in a posh neighborhood open an “authentic” taqueria where Mexican immigrants could not.
  • Minstrelsy when people in a position of power engage in misrepresentation of an oppressed people and their culture, for the benefit of the privileged, sometimes even claiming credibity for their twisted version by pointing to its supposedly authentic roots. As the name indicates, the minstrel show is the classic example, but there are plenty of esoteric examples of inventing of bogus ancient foreign lineages and cribbing poorly understood elements of “exotic” traditions, as in the case of qabalah.
  • Deracination when the privileged exercise some cultural elements of the oppressed, stripping them of their context and full meaning. For example, white people with arbitrary bindi marks because they look cool.

Because the objection to cultural appropriation emerges from and serves a social justice politics, we need to apply an awareness of privilege & oppression to understand the stakes. Avoiding at least these three forms of cultural appropriation is righteous in the name of the basic politeness which the privileged owe the oppressed in recognition of the power relationship in which they operate ... that politeness is only one face of a necessary bigger project of correcting injustices.

07 August 2013

This too shall pass

Written for an old friend.

The one thing you can count on is that time moves forward one day per day, and all of this will be replaced with something else.

I read an interview with Bonnie Raitt. She said something close to: “I used to write these songs about ‘without you I will die’. But then I went through that, and I felt that way, and it turned out that I didn't die. In fact, I went on to a better life. It just wasn't true.”

This is the advantage of middle age. You've been in some tough scrapes. You've had your heart broken. You've been in despair. And you've come out the other side.

In fact, you've done this stuff enough times that you don't even remember all the details. There are some of those dark passages you don't even remember at all.

You forget because you don't need to remember. The only thing you need is the knowledge that as a result of those tests you have all the resources you need, that you've become a smarter, stronger person than you could have imagined possible when you were younger.

The Man Watching

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time, and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers' sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Rainer Maria Rilke

06 August 2013

Fake letters and numbers in Unicode

I must remember not to use this power for evil.


I have long had an impish desire for a tattoo:

וְשֶׂרֶט לָנֶפֶשׁ לֹא תִתְּנוּ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם וּכְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע לֹא תִתְּנוּ בָּכֶם
Do not cut your flesh for the dead, or make marks on your body

It seems other people have had the same idea.

Leviticus 19:28

Leviticus 19:28

Leviticus 19:28

03 August 2013

Medicare For All

One of the enduring mysteries of American politics is why Obama, among many others, did not propose a three-word alternative to the system we call “Obamacare”: Medicare for all.

It polls through the roof. Studies show that it would do more and save money.

Upgrading the nation’s Medicare program and expanding it to cover people of all ages would yield more than a half-trillion dollars in efficiency savings in its first year of operation, enough to pay for high-quality, comprehensive health benefits for all residents of the United States at a lower cost to most individuals, families and businesses.


Friedman said the savings would come from slashing the administrative waste associated with today’s private health insurance industry ($476 billion) and using the new, public system’s bargaining muscle to negotiate pharmaceutical drug prices down to European levels ($116 billion).

So why didn't Obama push for it?

Think about it.

02 August 2013

Head crash

Neal Stephenson's satirical first novel The Big U is rightly obscure. It's not very good. But there are moments where you can see the writer he will become.

The terminal went blank. From just behind them came a violent scream, like a buzzsaw wrenching to a stop in a concrete block. They knew it though they had never heard it before; it was the sound of a disc unit dying, the sound made when the power was cut off and the automatic readers (similar to the tone-arms of phonographs) sank into, and shredded, the hysterically spinning magnetic discs. It was to them what the snapping of a horse's leg is to a jockey, and when they spun around they were astonished and horrified to see a curtain of water pouring onto the floor from the circular walkway overhead. Not more than a dozen feet from the base of the Janus 64, the ring was spreading inward.

“Hey, Fred ’n’ Con!” someone yelled. At one end of the room, at the window that looked out into the Terminal Room, an overweight blond-bearded hacker squinted at them. “What's going on? System problems? Oh, Jeeeezus!”

He turned to his comrades in the Terminal Room, screaming, “Head crash! Head crash! Water on the brain!” Soon two dozen hackers had vaulted through the window into the Center and were sprinting down the aisles as fast as their atrophied legs could carry them, the men stripping off their shirts as they ran. Another disc drive shorted out and sizzled to destruction. Abruptly Fred Fine spun and grabbed the Operator's Key-chain, then ran through the circular waterfall toward another wall of the Center, shouting for people to follow him.

In seconds he had snapped open the door to the storage room, where tons of accordion-fold computer paper were stored in boxes. As some of the hackers did their best to sweep water away from the base of the Janus 64, the rest formed a line from the storage room to the central circle. The boxes were passed down the line as quickly as possible, slit open with Fred Fine's authentic Civil War bayonet and their contents dumped out as big green-and-white cubes inside the deadly water-ring. Though it did not entirely stem the flow, the paper absorbed what it did not dam. Soon all space between the waterfall and the CPU was covered with at least two feet of soggy computer paper. Meanwhile, Consuela had shut down all the disc drives.

The danger was past. Fred Fine, still palpitating, noticed a small waterfall in the corner of the storage room. Flicking on the lights for the first time, he clambered over the stacked boxes to check it out. In the corner, three pipes about ten inches in diameter ran from floor to ceiling. One was swathed in the insulation used for hot water pipes. Water was running down one of the bare pipes; higher up. above the ceiling, it must be leaking heavily. Fred Fine put his hand on the third pipe and found that it was neither hot nor cool, and did not seem to be carrying a current. A firehose supply pipe? No, they were supposed to be bright red. He puzzled over it, rubbing his hand over the long thin whiskers that straggled down his cheeks when he had been computing for a week or more.

As he watched, the hiss of running water lowered and died away and a few seconds later the leak from above was stemmed. There was the KLONK of an air hammer in a pipe. Fred Fine put his hand on the mystery pipe, and began to feel the gentle vibration of running water underneath, and a sensation of coolness spreading out from the interior.

The hackers saw him wandering slowly toward the Janus, which rose like an ancient glyph from the tumbled, sodden blocks of paper. He had a distant look, and was consumed in thought.

“These are the End Times,” he was heard to say. “The Age draws to a close.”

He was no weirder than they were, so they ignored him.

Lenin facepalm

This is funny and I feel confident that I will have a use for it some day.

In case you haven't seen it around, it's a reference to this classic Internet meme:

A friend uses the image to create a meme:

Numerous other variants become obvious ....