Sunday, 26 June 2022

"Anti-wokism" - back to the bad old days

According to Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson "wokeism" is a "mind virus". Before stepping down as Conservative party chairman, Oliver "the privet hedges of a free people" Dowden dunked on "wokeism" at greater length (but with no greater clarity) in a speech to the hard right US Heritage Foundation:

“Rogue states are seeking to challenge the international order. And at the precise point when our resolve ought to be strongest, a pernicious new ideology is sweeping our societies...

...It goes by many names. In Britain, its adherents sometimes describe themselves as ‘social justice warriors’. They claim to be ‘woke’, awakened to the so-called truths of our societies. But wherever they are found, they pursue a common policy inimical to freedom.”

The use of "woke" as a catch-all snarl word in the right's culture wars is relatively new. The substance of the fight they're picking isn't. I was reminded of this when I came across an old Daily Express cartoon that somebody had posted on Twitter. A picture is worth a thousand words, but I'll repeat what I tweeted just to hammer home what's wrong with this picture: 

The Conservatives picking a fight over Culture War talking points is nothing new. See this Express cartoon from the 80s which did the same thing back when people could openly attack things like anti-racism without even hiding behind the euphemism of being "anti-woke".

I think a lot about this cartoon. Especially the upside-down figure labelled "council power". What does that even mean? Vampiric local authorities sucking honest Tory ratepayers dry? And hammers & sickles to label everything they don't like Marxist. Batshit then & now.
There's not much to add to this - the war against "wokeism" is a war against social justice, solidarity, equality and inclusiveness. It's a war fought for the attitudes encapsulated in this cartoon, a war for division, for othering, for punching down and keeping the designated outgroups firmly in their place. 

The war starts with words and memes, with mockery and humiliation. The end point is action. And, if you still haven't joined the dots between images, words and action, remember the Heritage Foundation, the "think tank" (lobby group) that Oliver Dowden crafted his "anti-woke" talking points for? 
Since its founding, the Heritage Foundation has become “inextricably intertwined” with Republican administrations and lawmakers in Washington. Heritage brands itself as a beacon of the intellectual conservative establishment; in reality, it is an organization that regularly spouts hateful ideas on par with organizations like the Family Research Council (FRC), which has earned designation from the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Much like its peer groups, Heritage dedicates significant energy to extremist policy recommendations that hinder access to abortion and birth control and promote discrimination against LGBTQ individuals...

...Kay Coles James became president of The Heritage Foundation in the beginning of 2018; she had served as a Heritage board member for over a decade. James previously worked in the George W. Bush administration and as Virginia’s secretary of health and human services. James has compared LGBTQ people to “drug addicts, alcoholics, adulterers, or ‘anything else sinful,’” and has also tweeted that “abortion is a form of discrimination,” attempting to paint her anti-abortion work in the same vein as fighting racism.

It starts with words. It ends with action. It ends with reversing decades of hard-won progress overnight. Goodbye Roe vs Wade, it was nice knowing you...

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Cartoon apes want to be free.

Bitcoin, ethereum and other major cryptocurrencies have been hit by a huge crash over the last week, partly triggered by the shock collapse of a major coin.

The bitcoin price has lost 25% over the last month with its biggest rival ethereum down over 30%.

Other smaller cryptocurrencies have been even harder hit—sparking fears others could collapse entirely.

Now, as serious economic "shock therapy" warning signs flash, analysts at Wall Street giant Morgan Stanley have predicted prices of digital collectible non-fungible tokens (NFTs) could come under pressure. (Forbes)

As a complete outsider, one thing occurred to me, once I'd picked myself off the floor from laughing myself stupid at the plight of people whose idea of fun was tweeting "Have fun staying poor" at people who didn't fall for the latest iteration of the old get-rich-quick scam. That was how the whole idea of NFTs seems to be a great example of how clever people (or at least ones with specific smarts in areas like IT & cryptography) can also be really dumb. I'm reminded of the classic Larson cartoon of a geeky kid outside the Midvale School for the Gifted, stubbornly pushing at a door marked "pull".

My first thought about attempts to monetise a digital artworks by chaining it to a token of authenticity was how counter it runs to the principle that information wants to be free.* The legacy of some very smart digital pioneers is that reproducing digital information is trivially easy and almost costless. Attempting to make this process hard again is a difficult task which the smart people behind NFTs set themselves - and failed to achieve, as owning an NFT is not the same thing as owning the artwork or image, or text message, or tweet, or whatever else you decide to associated with it:

There is no possible way to see an NFT with your naked eyes. They are immaterial goods that you cannot see but own. NFTs are inherently treacherous and right-clickers, collectors, and artists worldwide are falling for their deception.

My second thought is how obviously mostly socially useless and scammy the NFT pioneers' project is. I say "mostly" because the quote above hints at how you could justify an attempt to make digital art, or any other digital creation, non-fungible. If you're an artist, or the creator of anything in the digital space, it would be easier to profit from your own hard work and talent if it wasn't possible for every rando on the internet to swipe your creation with a right click. If this was just a tool for creators to protect their creations from theft, I'd understand.

But it's not that. This is mostly middle men, trying to turn either someone else's work or some, usually ugly, mediocre, low-effort image they've created themselves into a something with the attributes of a gambling chip crossed with a share in a pyramid scheme which has value only if you can pursuade a horde of greedy and credulous people that it has value.

Other than that, I'll leave the commentary on this story to people who actually have a proper knowledge of IT, cryptography and finance, which I don't. But I think it's still legitimate even for me, as layperson, to take a firm view on this, based on the fact that there are plenty of explanations out there from crypto evangelists and from crypto sceptics who do have some background in this stuff. And I've found the arguments of the sceptics to be lucid where the evangelists are obscure, explanatory where the evangelists are defensive and disinterested, where the evangelists would have an obvious interest in pushing this stuff.

For an actually informed tear-down of NFT/crypto hype, explaining why this stuff mostly doesn't work as advertised (and would be a dystopian nightmare if implemented, even if it did work as advertised), see video below: 

*Here's the full orignal quote from Stewart Brand "On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz [Steve Wozniak] — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other."

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Anti-vaxxers and yellow stars - a deliberate provocation?


This nonsense is not OK on any level. NurPhoto/Getty Images

In any hierarchy of crassly offensive gestures, anti-vaxxers appropriating the yellow star badge used by the Nazis to mark out millions of Jews for abuse and, ultimately, murder comes pretty close to the top. But what is there to say about this, other than the obvious point that it's a self-evidently terrible, insulting, ignorant comparison?

Talia Bracha Lavin uses this wholly imagined conflation of the control of a pandemic disease and genocide as a teachable moment, in a Substack essay on the real connection between the Holocaust, disease and vaccination. In this case the disease was typhus, which tore through the crowded ghettoes and camps of  occupied Europe and the Reich. 

The connection with vaccination was the heroic and clandestine work of people like Rudolf Weigl, who created a typhus vaccine in the 1930s. When the Nazis seized Poland, he was ordered to produce the vaccine for the use of the occupiers but, at great personal risk, smuggled tens of thousands of vaccine doses into the Warsaw Ghetto. Or Buchenwald inmate Ludwik Fleck, a  Jewish biologist who the Nazis used to develop another typhus vaccine in a camp laboratory. Fleck, again at appalling personal risk, managed to deny effective batches of vaccine to his captors, while creating doses real vaccine which he reserved to inoculate his fellow prisoners.

It's a fascinating piece of history which I wasn't previously aware of, and you can read the whole thing here.

The subset of anti-vaxxers appropriating the yellow star is, from the viewpoint of anybody with any sense of proportion or historical perspective, being needlessly, horrendously offensive. But why would anyone do this? Mere ignorance might seem to be the reason, but many of these anti-vaxx groups seem to have well-funded backers (AstroTurf organisations like HART and Us For Them) and sophisticated media strategies, so my guess is that the generation of outrage is quite deliberate and calculated in this case.

It also fits in with strategies which contrarian reactionaries have already successfully used to gain attention, trip up their opponents and claim unearned victim status. There could be several ways in which such provocateurs/trolls benefit by weaponising offence. 

1. Provoke, then double down. If your aim isn't to engage in good faith argument, but to dismay and wrongfoot opponents, do or say something obnoxious. When angry people push back, don't even try to defend what you said or did. Instead, throw their reaction back in their faces and accuse them of over-sensistivity, of being "triggered." "Facts" you can say "don't care about your feelings." Claim a performative "win" because you kept your cool and made them "emotional" and "irrational":

"I triggered you, you snowflake. That means I win."

2. Use provocation to game social media algorithms and the attention economy:

By privileging posts that promote “engagement”—meaning people reading, liking or replying to posts on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram—Facebook ensured that people stayed on its platform for much longer.
What's engaging? Among other things, content that makes people angry enough to respond and get into arguments. If you can be obnoxious enough to instigate fights on social media, but not quite obnoxious enough to get yourself kicked off whatever platform you're on, you and your social media platform can enjoy a toxic, symbiotic relationship. Posting a selfie of you and your anti-vaxx buddies doing Holocaust cosplay carries a low risk of getting you kicked off a platform like Twitter, but a high probablity of attracting hostile engagement from normies who find your gesture sickening. This form of engagement mirrors the cynical old hacks' slogan about how the sensational and shocking sells newspapers or TV airtime: "If it bleeds, it leads."

3. Flip the script, play the victim. On one level, the people appropriating the yellow stars are already, playing at being victims, putting on the literal fancy dress of opression without actually being oppressed in any meaningful way. But they can also rhetorically claim victim status. The title of a book by professional contrarian Claire Fox shows how it's done. It's called I Find That Offensive:

"When I say whatever I like, that's my free speech. If you dare to push back, that's your cancel culture."

This is the "triggered" meme with a twist. Instead of merely arguing that push back against a provocateur being obnoxious is proof that the troll's opponents are weak and emotional, Fox and her fellow bad faith actors argue that, if you push back against abuse or punching down you are the oppressor, an enemy of "free speech." Obviously there's a contradiction between 1. ("You're a weak, emotional soyboy cuck") and 3. ("You're oppressing me with your cancel culture, you bully"), but bad faith actors will just ignore the contradictions in their own positions and bluster on regardless:

"The enemy is both strong and weak. 
By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak."  (from Umberto Eco's essay, Eternal Fascism)

As far as I'm aware, Claire Fox herself hasn't actively supported the yellow star-sporting anti-vaxxers. She's a mainstream media personality, a former Radio 4 regular and (God help us), a member of the House of Lords and has a reputation (albeit unearned) to preserve. But she and her fellow enablers demonstrate how defending the indefensible in the name of free speech is typically done. 

A bad faith actor in her position isn't there to directly voice the worst, most divisive and abusive messages. Her role is to provide an intellectual fig-leaf for her side in the culture wars, to dog-whistle support for being able to punch down, to be abusive towards minorities, to be grossly offensive in the name of "free speech." 

She doesn't personally sit on the football terraces booing a racially diverse team of England footballers when they take the knee. Her role is to give the people who do a veneer of respectability - they're not intolerant bullies punching down at minorities and the people who dare to show solidarity with them, she insinuates, but free speech warriors who are themselves being oppressed by "cancel culture." 

From a position of apprent respectability as a public "intellectual", people like Fox actively and cynically embolden the worst among us to equate free speech with their inalienable right to say anything, no matter how hateful, divisive and, yes, offensive while dismissing any counter-argument as Orwellian "cancel culture." 

Yes, Claire I do find *that* (your unqualified support for punching down and the presumed absolute right to cause offence without consequences) offensive. 

If I was a wedding guest and started insulting and abusing the bride and groom for no other reason than me deciding that I have absolute free speech, that I'm damn well entitled to say what I like and if you don't like it, tough, facts don't care about your feelings, you'd rightly call me a jerk.

Insult the memories of six million murdered and countless more bereaved, abused and traumatised for no other reason than being themselves and you're a jerk times several million.

"Instrumentalization of the tragedy of Jews who suffered, were humiliated, marked with a yellow star, and finally isolated in ghettos and murdered during the Holocaust, in order to argue against vaccination that save human lives is a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decline." (From the Auschwitz Memorial's Twitter feed).


Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Our woman on Havana

Havana Syndorome has been back in the news recently.

When this story of mysterious symptoms afflicting US Embassy staff in Havana first emerged, I was sceptical of the various theories attributing the outbreak to things like microwaves or sonic pulses. So it was interesting to hear what one of my favourite science communicators, the physicst Sabine Hossenfelder, had to say on the subject.

One of the things I like about Sabine is that she's got a dryly sceptical take on things, and she's pretty good at cutting throught the hype surrounding various science-related topics, from the overblown claims being made about progress towards nuclear fusion power to terraforming Mars. So it was interesting to see that from three alternative explanations, (mass hysteria, microwave pulses and ultrasound), she sets out the reasons why she thinks mass hysteria is the least likely explanation:

It's not a slam dunk, but it's made me question whether my initial reaction - that this is clearly and obviously made up - was right. A timely reminder that sometimes we need to be sceptical even about our own scepticism.

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Botany corner

I've just been having an idle flick through a copy of Complete Guide to British Wild Flowers by Paul Sterry and I'm here to remind you that common plant names are wild. You probably know that already (Love Lies Bleeding, Fat Hen, Deadly Nightshade, etc), but there are so many more:

Weasel's Snout

Yellow Archangel

Bastard Balm

Enchanter's Nightshade



Devil's Bit Scabious


There's a lovely folklore/fantasy vibe going on here and none of these names would be out of place in a Tolkien/Prachett-style fantasy world. I particuarly like Melancholy Thistle (Eeyore's thistle of choice), Sticky Mouse-ear (another job for Supervet) Petty Spurge (really needs to get a sense of proprtion) and Toad Rush (OK, obviously a reed, but also probably a classic Sega video game).

Sterry's book is about flowers, not fungi, but don't even get me started on popular fungus names - the Destroying Angel alone is metal enough to tell you that there are some fungi you really, really don't want to mess with.

Friday, 13 August 2021

Raptured into the VIP lane

Remember John Nelson Darby, that very well-connected chap who came up with the idea of the godly being physically taken up into heaven in the Rapture when the End Times kick off? The Exclusive Brethren guy? Turns out the Exclusive Brethren are still a thing. And they're still extremely well-connected:

At least £180 million – and up to £300 million – in ventilator and PPE contracts appear to have been awarded to companies linked to an evangelical movement described as a “cult” by former members which has multiple ties to the Conservative Party, Byline Times can reveal.

The Exclusive Brethren is a subset of a Christian group, often described as Plymouth Brethren in the UK. It came to prominence after being investigated by the Charity Commission over whether it was delivering enough “public good” to maintain its charitable status.

The sect, whose members are subject to strict disciplinary practices, enjoys tax reliefs and rebates reportedly worth as much as £11 million a year.

 Byline Times

Apparently the movement has stayed true to its establishment roots and, ironically, these committed evangelical Christians are still doing their bit to ensure that the meek are as far from inheriting the earth as they ever were. It's also still a bit cultish, apparently.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

The rapture of the elites

Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here,* which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.
Matthew 16:28
In its original form, Christianity looks like a doomsday sect, rejecting the transient things of this world and scorning worldly power and riches, based on an explicit belief and expectation that the end of days, when the established order would be torn down and remade, was at hand. So don't accumulate wealth, don't even think about how you'll support yourself. God will provide. Consider the lilies. Sell all your stuff, give to the poor and come and follow me. The big guy upstairs gonna sock it to the Man and all you meek shall inherit the earth. 

Which sounds to me very much like the voices of alienated people keenly anticipating the destruction of an existing order that isn't doing it for them and which they're not invested in.
When The End Times self-evidently hadn't rolled around before all of those standing there had tasted of death, the belief system adapted itself, the millenarian elements retreating further into a more or less vaguely specified future. By the time Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, the contempt for worldly splendour had been dialed down a lot and the faith had developed into a religion more palatable to those with various degrees of worldly wealth and power, not the exclusive preserve of aescetics who wanted to give it all away, embrace poverty and let the Lord provide until his imminent return.

None of this is particularly original, but it does point to an expected pattern - in general, you'd think millenarian religion and apocalyptic belief systems would appeal to the less powerful, to those with the least to lose, while more established religions and philosophies which have come to an accomodation with secular power would be more appealing to people who are more or less comforable and happy with their status and place in the existing hierarchy. 
In secular terms, you could almost see the proto-Christians as revolutionaries and the conventionally pious majority in the Christian Roman Empire and subsequent Christendom as conformists. I say almost, because the early Christians, unlike secular revolutionaries (and some other religious groups) weren't actively trying to engineer the downfall of the existing order. Not for them the credo of Auden's radicals:
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder; 
To-day the expending of powers 
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
The overthrow of the established order was to be accomplished by God, not by Party cadres mobilising the masses.
We still have  people with a millenarian mindset, notably believers in The Rapture, who think that the End Times may be close at hand. In their belief system, true believers will be bodily teleported to heaven immediately before a seven-year period of strife and suffering called The Tribulation afflicts the sinful remainder of humanity. This time of troubles will end when Christ returns and establishes a thousand-year godly kingdom.

This is where the plot twist I wasn't expecting comes in. I would have expected a belief system like this to have originated with the marginalised and excluded, with people with no investment in the established order.
But then I happened across a radio programme** about John Nelson Darby who, I found out, was the guy who first came up with the idea of The Rapture.

Darby was very much not poor, marginalised or oppressed. He was born, in 1800, to a wealthy Anglo-Irish land owning (and castle-owning) family and educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Dublin. An accomplished scholar and linguist, Darby won a gold medal on graduating in Classics in 1819. Influenced in his choice of career by an evangelical tutor at Trinity, Darby was ordained as a curate and, shortly thereafter, as a priest in the established Church of Ireland. And in case you think Darby wasn't already well-connected enough, he got his middle name from the Lord Nelson who was a family friend and Darby's godfather because of course he was.

As an evangelical and Bible scholar, Darby became unhappy with the established church, but not because it was too exclusive, or oppressive. For Darby, it wasn't unbending or exclusive enough. In particular he seems to have become disenchanted with an established church linked to a state which had already taken the first tiny baby steps towards Catholic emancipication,*** something which he saw as acts of state apostasy towards his Protestant faith.
Coming from the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendency, people like Darby, his family and peers saw any extension of the rights of the Catholic majority as a personal threat to their own status in a zero sum power game. And legislative emancipation wasn't the only threat they saw - shortly before Darby was born, the certainties and confidence of the Ascendency were violently shaken by major uprising against British rule in Ireland, the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
It was an echo, on home soil, of the turmoil that people of Darby's class saw all around the world. The Irish rebels of 1798 had some support from the French, whose own revolution in 1789 had terrified the established elites of Europe. Going back to the American Revolution and forward to the Napoleonic Wars which had been raging in Darby's youth (when some had explicitly identified Napoleon with the Antichrist), it seemed to people who valued order, hierarchy and their personal stake in that hierarchy that the natural order of things was being violently upended. 

If state apostasy, violent revolution and globe-spanning wars weren't enough to put Darby into the frame of mind to contemplate the End Times, in 1819 a pro-reform rally was held in Birmingham, protesting about the fact that the city had no representative in Parliament, at a time when pocket boroughs with tiny populations and controlled by landowning interests returned members to Parliament. The same year authorities in Manchester put down a similar rally in the Peterloo Massacre. These sort of demands stuck people of Darby's class as an affront to the natural order.
Darby broke from the Church of Ireland and went on to devise the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture in which Christ will suddenly take up the true believers (but not members of what Darby regarded as an apostate established chuch and believers in false religions) into heaven, leaving the less godly down below to endure sufferings of The Tribulation. Darby first popularised these ideas in annual meetings of Bible students organised by his influential evangelical friend, Theodosia Wingfield, Viscountess Powerscourt
Darby was also a co-founder of the evangelical Plymouth Brethren, where his eschatological ideas gained some traction. When the movement later split into "Open" and "Exclusive" Brethren, Darby became the de facto leader of the Exclusive Brethren, who were also known as "Darbyites." In his later years Darby undertook missionary tours of America, where the idea of pre-tribulation rapture was took hold among members of various Protestant denominations including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists.
It's a bit of a counter-intuitive origin story, but it is one that resonates in the current climate, where the recent big, noisy attempts to overturn the status quo, have been elite-led and profoundly reactionary in nature. The status anxiety of Darby and his class and their wish-fulfilment dream of seeing the decadent, apostate modern order smashed feels very familiar. As they say, "When you're privileged, equality feels like oppression."
Bonus piece of trivia: in 1875, a few years before Darby died, a wealthy couple from Leamington Spa, who had become converts to Darby's Exclusive Brethren, gave birth to a son. The father was particularly devout and became an itinerant preacher, reading a chapter of the Bible to his wife and son every day after breakfast. It's a remarkable testament to the  power of reverse psychology that the son was none other than Aleister Crowley, later to become the notorious black magician, occultist, self-styled "Great Beast" and "the wickedest man in the world."
*My italics. 

**BBC Radio 4's In Our Time (link to BBC Sounds here also on YouTube here, also available on Stitcher).