Two Questions for 2017

Phil Sandifer asked two excellent questions on Twitter recently, suggesting that answering these would make a good replacement for New Year’s resolutions:

“1) At what point would you consider your government illegitimate and in need of removal outside traditional democratic processes? 2) At what point does violence become an acceptable tactic for resistance? (Unless you’re a full pacifist, the answer isn’t “never.”)”

He went on to say that sharing our answers publicly would be even better. Here, therefore, are mine. Feel free to comment with yours, or post them wherever, or just write them down on a piece of paper and stick it in a drawer to look at later.

So. When is a government illegitimate and in need of removal outside traditional democratic processes? This is two separate questions. The first is when a government loses legitimacy. In my view, there are two basic functions of government: to promote the general welfare, and to act as an asshole control mechanism. The first should be fairly straightforward: keep the people safe and healthy and ensure they have space within which to be who they are. The second is an acknowledgment that, first, everyone is an asshole sometimes, and some people are assholes most or all of the time–in this case, “asshole” meaning a person who acquires and exploits power over others in order to subjugate or harm them. The second job of government is to therefore minimize opportunities to be an asshole, mitigate the damage caused by assholes, and if necessary cut off assholes’ access to whatever it is that they’re exploiting.

So, simply, a government loses legitimacy when it is no longer able to effectively exercise those two functions. The second part of the question is then fairly straightforward: if traditional democratic processes are unable to restore the ability of government to perform those functions, then the government has failed and must be replaced. This is an inevitable occurrence: the only way an asshole control mechanism can work is if it is able to wield some form of power over them, but that means that the government has power that can be wielded over people. Sooner or later the assholes will get their hands on that power. There are ways to set up internal mechanisms to control the assholes who would exploit the asshole control mechanism itself, but eventually some asshole will solve the system and start exploiting it, and once that happens, nothing can prevent its complete subversion.

This has happened. The assholes solved the system we know as capitalist liberal democracy over a century ago at the latest, as first the assholes we now call robber barons, and later the ones we call fascists, took control. Major overhauls over the next few decades–the welfare state, civil rights movements–kept it lumbering along for a while, but the revised system was clearly solved by assholes by the time Thatcher and Reagan came to power. Everything since then has been collapse and decay. It is now very, very obvious even to the most dyed-in-the-wool liberals that the U.S.’s traditional democratic processes have utterly failed to control the assholes, and in fact are now being exploited to empower them.

The question then is, if not traditional democratic processes, what? We are obviously talking about some form of resistance, but does that necessarily entail violent resistance? If so, when, where, and how?

Let me tell you a story about my father: When my father was young, mandatory prayer and corporal punishment were still both legal and commonplace in U.S. schools. He was also very often the only Jew–indeed, the only non-Christian–in his classes. As Jewish law requires, he habitually refused to take part in Christian prayers, instead just sitting quietly. One day a teacher took exception to this, and used their habitual punishment: he was ordered to place his hands on the desk so that they could be smacked with a ruler. Instead, he snatched the ruler from the teacher, broke it, and threw the pieces in her face.

I have no idea if that story’s true. My parents were both, shall we say, prone to exaggeration. But it’s not really important whether it’s true; the point was that it was held up by my parents as a model of behavior, an act of justified violence.

And that, to me, is when violence is appropriate: when it is recognized by the oppressed as the best available means of destroying the power structures underlying their oppression. There are, of course, moral considerations regarding collateral damage, harm to innocents, reprisals; but ultimately that’s what it comes down to. The only thing that can stand up to power is power, and violence is very often the cheapest and easiest form of power, making it the hardest form to strip away.

Just things to keep in mind for the coming year.

Gun Control Theater, Act 58, Scene 947

Gun control is the liberal equivalent to abortion.

Let me explain: it’s a little difficult to remember now, after eight years of Obama Derangement Syndrome causing the Republicans to allow themselves to be taken over by authoritarian nutjobs who actually believe their own bullshit, leading to a real and genuine threat to (and steady erosion of) women’s reproductive rights, but for much of the 90s and 2000s abortion was largely a fake issue.

Which having said, let’s pull back a bit: there was real debate going on around the edges of the abortion issue, like the availability of late-term abortions, but the core notion that some kind of access to abortion in some form was a guaranteed right of all women wasn’t realistically under challenge. The Republicans would, of course, campaign on opposition to it, but no one except the uninformed expected them to actually do anything outside of the purely symbolic. It was just a guaranteed way for the conservatives to get their base riled up and out to the polls, and liberals let them get away with it because the idea that the right to abortion was under threat was a great way to get their base riled up and out to the polls.

Gun control is the same thing but reversed. Every time there’s a shooting, liberals trot out their opposition to guns, but nobody except the uninformed really expects them to do anything to challenge the core idea that some kind of access to guns in some form is a guaranteed right. They just say it because it’s a great way to get to get their base riled up and out to the polls, and conservatives let them get away with it because the idea that the right to gun ownership is under threat is a great way to get their base riled up and out to the polls.

The only real difference is that the Democrats haven’t gone batshit insane in the last decade, and therefore are still playing the same game, while the Republicans have collectively lost their minds and actually started trying to destroy the right to abortion.

And like all political theater, the goal in both cases is misdirection. The point of the gun control debate is to draw our attention away from real problems, the real underlying causes of violence. Because yeah, if we take away guns we might get stabbings with five victims instead of shootings with fifty, but we’re still going to get killings. We’re still going to have angry men (and it is always men, have you noticed?) lashing out in violence against people they hate, we’ll still have police officers slaughtering the people they supposedly exist to protect, we’ll still have a culture of violence and fear.

Because the real causes are things nobody in power wants changed: The individualist power fantasy of being a rugged loner in a dangerous frontier who depends on no one and nothing. The rampant inequality that puts anyone who isn’t rich in constant fear for their livelihood while also telling everyone who belongs to even one privileged population (which is virtually everyone) that they’re entitled to better. The scapegoating that puts the blame for inequality on its victims, encouraging them to lash out against one another. The authoritarian fear of change and difference. Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, capitalism, all the mechanisms of sorting humanity into the deserving us who have been cheated and the undeserving them who are stealing from us.

Change those, and the availability of guns ceases to matter. And for all that they seem insurmountable, impossible, unconquerable built-in features of our culture, it’s pretty obvious that trying to push for gun control doesn’t actually accomplish anything, regardless of whether actual gun control would.

So if we’re going to be hammering our heads against the impossible anyway, why not go for broke?

Book Review: Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons by Phil Sandifer

“First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin…”

Due diligence: I am a backer of Phil’s Patreon, and received the ebook version of this for free as a backer reward.

2015 was a year of struggle within science fiction and video games, the two major topics of this book. Two bands of “puppies,” the Rabid and the Sad, tried to hijack the Hugo nominations process and stuff the lists with their preferred form of science fiction, by which we mean fiction that, at best, expresses conservative values, and at worst endorses Christofascism. Meanwhile, GamerGate, the sustained terrorist campaign against women in video games that began in late 2014, stubbornly refused to die.

Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs is author, critic, and blogger Phil Sandifer’s counterattack. It opens with a series of chapters, mostly adapted from posts on his blog, that look at science fiction in 2015 and the regressive Puppy backlash from a progressive perspective. The first chapter, which gives the book it’s title, is an analysis of the Rabid Puppies which argues, quite effectively, that they are not just regressive but fascist; in particular, Sandifer discusses their version of the stab-in-the-back myth at the heart of fascist rhetoric, and compares their movement to the criteria for fascism suggested by Umberto Eco, finding that they clearly fulfill all but one of the criteria and arguably fulfill the last as well. This is followed by an interview with the leader of the Rabid Puppies, Theodore Beale, revealing him to be at once fascinating and repulsive. Following up on the interview is a transcript of a podcast Sandifer recorded immediately after, in which the participants discuss, reframe, and joke about the interview, and then after that is Sandifer’s response to author John C. Wright (one of the Rabid Puppy authors and a commentor on Beale’s blog) calling for his death.

These initial chapters thus pass from unsympathetic analysis, to direct engagement, to mockery, to dismissal and rejection. They are intelligent, well-argued, and utterly scathing; a beautiful catharsis after a year in which the world often seemed to be sliding backwards into the void.

The book transitions over the next few chapters into a series of reviews. The first few reviews are still in the mode of responses to the Puppies: a discussion of the winner of the 2015 Best Novel Hugo, The Three-Body Problem, and the complicated question of who that’s a victory for; a review of Seveneves that brings in Beale’s attacks on the book and what they reveal about his toxic views of masculinity and involvement with GamerGate; and an utterly delightful study of Janelle Monae’s ongoing song cycle The Metropolis Suite as a work of afrofuturist science fiction. That last marks the point of transition–its only real connection to the Rabid Puppies is that it was brought up in the first chapter as an example of something wonderful that goes against everything they want and believe.

From there we get to honestly the least interesting part of the book, a series of reviews in the same style as the previous one, but lacking the edge of Sandifer’s engagingly mocking, furious hatred which enlivened the Rabid Puppy-focused chapters. There’s then a bit of a divider near the center of the book in the form of a short story, one of Sandifer’s rare forays into fiction; interesting enough, I suppose, but it’s not going to get nominated for any awards (unlike, say, the first chapter, which I would not be surprised to see nominated for a Related Work Hugo).

After the story are a series of short chapters exerpted from his ongoing Super Nintendo Project, a combination memoir and history of the Super Nintendo, which Sandifer cheekily describes as a “magical ritual to destroy GamerGate.” The second of these chapters, on Final Fantasy II, is a fascinating look at the relationship between the way games reward players, tedium, poverty, and the price points for Super Nintendo games, which contained much that rang true for me–which given that I was a child living in poverty when I first played Super Nintendo games, including Final Fantasy II, should say something. I actually have a great deal more to say on this topic than will fit in a review of the book, but it’ll all be in a future episode of re:play. (Specifically, right after I get Mog.) The other major standout from this section is its last chapter, on Mortal Kombat, which much like the earlier chapter on Seveneves takes the opportunity to look at the model of masculinity it represents, and the fetishization of pointless, empty, childish violence, as formative in the development of the attitudes that would fester and burst out 20 years later as GamerGate.

The next and longest chapter is the one where I eat crow: The Last War in Albion is, contrary to what I said in my review of Sandifer’s earlier book A Golden Thread, very good and not difficult to follow at all, as this chapter demonstrates, so long as one reads a minimum of an entire chapter in one sitting, rather than broken across fragmentary blog posts separated by days.

The final section of the book focuses on the work for which Sandifer is best known, his critical study of Doctor Who. It includes three chapters on writer Peter Harness (one analyzing his work on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Doctor Who, and two interviews with him), and concludes with possibly my favorite thing Phil’s ever written, the complete text of his short book Recursive Occlusion, a review of the classic Doctor Who serial “Logopolis” as a microcosm of Doctor Who, framed as a mystical journey through the Tarot and Sephiroth, and structured as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. I’ve been clamoring for an ebook version of this since its 2014 release, and here at the end of Guided by the Beauty we finally get one.

This is a perfect ending to a book that began with a study of frightened neofascists throwing a tantrum because the world is moving on without them into something they do not understand and are too hateful to accept. We end on a deliberately outre celebration of the weird and wonderful, which simultaneously reaches into the mystical past and expands outward and upward into the future, which denies authority to the extend of not even giving it to the author, allowing instead the reader to choose their own path. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that lends truth to Sandifer’s claim that the Puppies have already lost.

Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons is available in print or ebook through Amazon and in ebook through Smashwords.

The problem isn’t call-out culture; it’s sin culture

You’ve heard about it, I’m sure. Them young’uns are back on the lawn, destroying civilization with their opposition to casual and institutional prejudice, care for the well-being of trauma victims, and belief they can effect meaningful social change. The latest fad in finger-wagging at the young people with their loud music and baggy pants is articles about the terrible oppression of “call-out culture,” which allegedly is silencing people with the fear that if they stray from an ever-shifting, impossible to keep up with orthodoxy, they will be inundated with accusations of various forms of bigotry.

But that’s really not the problem. Shaming people for certain behaviors is a powerful tool for social engineering. People don’t like feeling ashamed, and tend to modify their behavior to avoid it. If we could create an environment in which people were generally ashamed to express racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic views, that’d be a huge victory for social justice and a step toward a better world.

The problem isn’t that we shame people who support, intentionally or otherwise, systemic injustices. The problem is that we then don’t allow them to change. Shame doesn’t work to change behavior if you cannot escape the shame by changing your behavior!

And that’s where sin comes in. Sin is a toxic concept endemic to Western society which posits that undesirable behaviors–“sinful” or “wicked” acts–create a permanent stain on a person. That, in other words, doing something bad alters who you are; that, in short, once you have done bad things you are a bad person, and everything you do thereafter is tainted by your badness. This idea originates with Christianity, of course, but it can be found throughout secular culture as well: it’s the basis for our retributive system of punishment for crimes, it’s the reason that, in Star Wars, “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Countless other examples abound.

This is, of course, absurd. Human beings possess agency; there is no necessary connection between what I’ve done before and what I’ve done next. I’ve always tried to embrace diversity, but tomorrow I could change my mind and become a white supremacist or an MRA. I mean, I almost definitely won’t, but I could, and what’s more it’s impossible to say for certain whether I will. I certainly have no intention of doing so now, but human beings are, as I said, free-willed agents; I could do literally anything that is within my physical capabilities. (Which is not to say that people don’t have personalities or moral restraint that somewhat limit their behavior; just that they can act contrary to those if they really want to.)

I know I can suddenly do something out of character or evil, because I have done so before. (Hell, my morals and politics now are wildly different than they were 15 years ago.) And if that’s the case, certainly someone who has, in the past, done a great deal of evil could suddenly start doing good?

Every few days or so, I see someone on Tumblr link to or reblog a clever, insightful, or enlightening post by someone else, and then a third party messages them to say “That person you reblogged is evil because [bad thing(s) they did before].” To which, well… so what? They did bad stuff, but now they’ve done something good. I can walk and chew gum at the same time; praising a good action does not mean that I think the person I’m talking about is (to use the Tumblr parlance du jour) a cinnamon roll, anymore than shaming a wrong action means I necessarily think that person is worthless trash capable only of evil.

I’m not saying you have to forgive people. That’s your choice, and frankly I think forgiveness is overemphasized and overrated in our culture. I’m saying that when someone does something wrong, shaming them can absolutely be appropriate response–but when they do something right, shaming them because they did something wrong before is counterproductive. It doesn’t mean saying “Okay, they’re a good person now,” it means saying “This person who has done a great deal of wrong actually did something right for once.” You don’t have to forget or forgive what they did before, you don’t have to give them cookies or a medal–but if you choose to praise something good they did (and again, I’m talking about shaming or praising actions, not persons), you shouldn’t have to apologize or retract it when you find out they also did something wrong.

An open letter to white people

I worked a bit late on Friday. I’d ducked out early a couple of times earlier in the week, and I needed to make the time up, so it was almost seven by the time I got on the train. They started hooting as soon as I got on the train, four or five black teenage boys, all about 15 or 16 years old. They started shouting things like “Cracker alert!” and “Uh-oh, white people on the train! Behave!” I ignored them and remained focused on my phone, ignoring people on the train being what my phone and headphones are for.

I sat down, and they clustered around me, shouting and trying to get in my face, demanding to know if I was looking at porn, calling me “cracker” and “fat fuck,” yelling that my ancestors had enslaved their ancestors. I continued to ignore them, and two stops later changed trains, as I always do. They also went from the red line platform to the green/yellow line platform, like I did, and then they were gone.

It was frightening. Triggering, actually; being surrounded and targeted by teen bullies is not an experience I expected to have again at 34. It was deeply hurtful and upsetting. It was also the only time in my life I’ve ever felt like I might be in danger because I’m white, and the first time in decades I felt targeted because of my ethnicity. (Previous times were because I’m Jewish, not because I’m white.)

And if I were a self-centered child who doesn’t understand the difference between anecdote and data, between incident and systemic problem, I might well use meaningless terms like “reverse racism” or “anti-white racism” to describe this incident.

But here’s the thing. I’m 34 years old, 31 of those years in the U.S., and that was the first time in my entire life I was targeted for being white. I can virtually guarantee you that there are no 34-year-old black people who grew up in the U.S. and were never targeted for their race. In fact, I can virtually guarantee you that anyone who is 34 years old, grew up in the U.S., and has never been targeted for their race? Is white.

And yeah, they’re wrong that my ancestors owned slaves. My ancestors were too busy living in Eastern European ghettos and being targeted by pogroms. But that doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from the legacy of slavery. Every white person in the U.S. does, whether they want to or not, because the entire system is tilted.

I’m not saying that surrounding and screaming at white commuters is justified. But the anger behind that act? The anger is completely justified. There is very, very good reason for black people, as a group, to be angry at white people, as a group. The reverse is not true. That’s why “reverse racism” isn’t a thing; racism is unjustified anger at an entire group of people. (Or hatred, or indifference. But they’re all related, and the same arguments hold.) But all white people, without exception, benefit from the legacy of slavery. (Though, obviously, in different degrees.) Doesn’t matter that none of us were there, that none of us had a choice about benefiting from it, or that our society is so stacked against so many people in so many different ways that for most of us that benefit wasn’t remotely enough to get by on. We still benefited, and it is therefore on us to acknowledge that and fix it. And, therefore, anger against us, for failing to use our power to fix the systemic biases that benefit us, often to refuse to acknowledge even that those biases exist? That anger is entirely justified.

That doesn’t mean the behavior of those teenagers was okay. It wasn’t. In that train car, they were five tall, fit teenagers picking on a lone, short, fat man. They were teenage boys trying to show off for each other, prove their dominance and shore up their fragile masculinity by trying to bully someone who, in that specific moment, was weaker than them, and who could serve as a synecdoche for the culture that tries constantly to make them feel weak and inferior.

But it wasn’t racism, and incidents like it aren’t evidence that racism against whites exists or is a problem in the U.S. Quite the opposite; their rarity is proof of how strong the cultural bias is in our favor. And, in turn, how obligatory it is for us to acknowledge the problem and work to fix it.

Personal and Cultural Identities

I’m about to plunge into a delicate topic on which I am decidedly not an expert. It’s something that’s been needling at me for a few weeks, and I’m going to spin out my thoughts on it, but I haven’t even read up on whether there’s actually anything to this–it’s just where I am at the moment with something that’s been bothering me.

Last night I was reading about Gregory Markopoulos (not to be confused with the filmmaker of the same name). Effectively a con man, Markopoulos changed his name to Jamake Highwater and claimed to be Native American, writing both fiction (including a Newberry-nominated children’s book) and nonfiction about Native American culture and tradition, all of it nonsense. And despite warnings from actual Native American activists that he was full of shit, and exposes in Akwesasne Notes and the Washington Post in 1984 that exposed him as a fraud, white people continued to eat up his stereotype-laden, “noble savage”-style bullshit for years after–as late as the 1990s he was working as a consultant on Star Trek: Voyager (and now you know how Chakotay happened).

Reading about this helped solidify some tentative ideas about identity I’ve been kicking around every since my Token Conservative Relative on Facebook(tm) posted some “gotcha!”-type bullshit about “liberal hypocrisy” in embracing Caitlyn Jenner and rejecting Rachel Dolezal. Of course there’s no hypocrisy here, the two cases are obviously different because gender and ethnicity, although both components of identity, are fundamentally different.

But how are they different?

The idea I’m sort of tentatively playing around with is that there are (at least) two kinds of identity, which I’m calling the personal and the cultural. Personal identity is, well, personal–obviously, like any system of categorization, it’s culturally constructed, but it is performed by the individual and entirely up to the individual to determine. Gender pretty clearly falls here, as it has no necessary communal aspect. Certainly one can build and participate in a community defined by gender, but one’s gender does not derive from that community–the community doesn’t tell you what your gender is, you tell it.

Cultural identity, on the other hand, derives from a particular community, and can only be claimed by members of that community. One cannot meaningfully claim to be British if one is neither from Britain, living in Britain, nor descended from British people. The only way to legitimately possess a cultural identity is to be born or adopted into the community from which that identity derives, and the feasibility of being adopted varies greatly depending on the community in question. For example, one can be born Jewish, adopted and raised Jewish, or one can go through the conversion process to become Jewish, but there is no conversion process by which a white person can become African-American. (Nor should there be; it is up to a community to decide whether it wants to let people join and how difficult it should be.)

The notion of claiming a personal identity that is not yours is fundamentally nonsensical. It’s personal, and so to claim it is to possess it; it is yours if you say it is. This isn’t true of cultural identity; to claim to be part of a community that does not accept or acknowledge you is a lie.

As I said, these are tentative thoughts, and I haven’t read anything academic on this distinction or anything like it. This is me looking at the moral question of claiming identity, and so I approached it the way I do most moral questions, which is taking my intuitive response and gnawing at it until I can fit some sort of principle to it. Feel free to tell me how I’ve gotten it completely wrong–these ideas could use a lot of refining, and I’m well aware that they’re a massive oversimplification. (Among other things, the way I’ve worded it treats communities as monoliths; what happens if some members of a community accept someone and others don’t?)

Garnet’s Stronger Than You

So, this past weekend I watched the Season 1 finale of Steven Universe. Patreon backers can see my reaction now, and it’ll go public in a few weeks, but since those initial thoughts I’ve been watching one sequence a lot: the musical number “Stronger Than You.” I really like it, and I have thoughts about it in the larger context of the show and society.

Spoilers under the cut.

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