Would the real police state please stand up?

There’s an increasing trend toward thinking that the USA is a police state. You can tell that the USA totally is, though, because of videos like this and this and even this. There’s a problem with all of this, though. The USA is not even close to being a true police state. It’s far too incompetent at it to be one. It may be on the way toward becoming one, yes, but it isn’t there yet. So how do I know this? What makes me an expert on how police states work? Well, truth be told, I have no expertise on the inner workings of a police state. I do, however, have fifteen years of living in one to draw upon for their visible, outer workings. You see, I live in a bona fide, real world, living, breathing police state: the People’s Republic of China. I live, in short, in the real thing, not in the cartoonish caricature of one that people have in mind when they hear the term. And boy howdy, let me tell you, the reality of police states is vastly different from how they’re depicted in Hollywood productions and on various political commentary pages, especially those primarily inhabited by North Americans.

Police omnipresence

The typical image of the police state has policemen prominently visible wherever you turn. You can’t walk two blocks without stumbling over a police officer in this distorted view, usually one armed with some form of machine gun. And make no mistake, this can be true. It certainly was true when I visited East Berlin back in the ’80s. But, and here’s the thing, this is only true in potentially sensitive areas (or in very insecure states, but more on that below). Like East Berlin where literally hundreds of thousands to millions of western visitors enter per year. It wasn’t true for all of East Germany. And it certainly isn’t true for all of China. (Indeed it’s true for so little of China that it’s a statistical outlier if you happen to find such a spot, again in my experience.) The police, you see, don’t have to be everywhere. They just have to make you paranoid enough to think they might be. And it doesn’t take much to make people paranoid, let me tell you! By way of example, early in my stay in China I had my (English) colleague tell me in hushed tones that microphones were everywhere. She pointed to a discoloration in my wall as a site where a microphone was installed into the wall. To my eye it looked like a site where cheap construction caused a steel bolt to rust and discolour the paint, but to her eye it was definitely a microphone. Anywhere we 老外 went was bugged according to her. She even breathlessly told me about the time she and some friends found a microphone in a Santa Claus candle in a restaurant, revealed when the candle was allowed to burn too low, making its nefarious contents visible to all. Of course, at the time, I had no reason to disbelieve her. Until I heard the story again from two different people who’d never met her. And who’d experienced this in a completely different city from her. And, indeed, over the years, I’ve had seven sets of people, each swearing up down and sideways that they experienced this directly for themselves (!), tell me exactly the same story, with no detail changed but for one: where the story took place. From this I’m left with one of two options:

  1. Believing that the Chinese have a huge network of Santa Claus candles with microphones spread across the country … a network they continually screw up enough to reveal its existence; or,
  2. Believing that this is an urban legend that people have taken to heart to the point they honestly think that it actually happened to them. That these people are, in a very mild sense, delusional.

(I think the tone of this work will tell you which of the two I believe to be true.)

The truth is that, of course, there is some surveillance, but for reasons I’ll explore below it’s nowhere near as prevalent as it is in the imagination. And, indeed, I’ll go a step farther: the most-surveilled city in the world (in terms of cameras and listening devices) is not in China. It’s not in North Korea either, in fact. It’s London, UK. Western cities are far more prone to mass surveillance than is China. And if you go with computer surveillance, the undisputed champions are the good old US of A. As for other forms of police presence, I had a great opportunity this year to compare China to Canada, seeing as I’d spent most of July in Canada this summer. Leaving aside border crossings and other immigration factors (which are their own special brand of Hell no matter what country you’re in!) I saw more police presence in one month in Canada than I’d seen in the entire previous five years of living in China. In Ottawa I could literally not walk more than five blocks without seeing a squad car or an officer on foot. Even out in the boonies like Bell’s Corners I saw squad cars aplenty driving around. If police omnipresence is a sign of being a police state, then every western country I’ve ever been in (Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, the USA, Italy … and more!) is a police state and, critically, has been since I was a child. By this metric, China is practically an anarchy, a rather stupid conclusion to reach thus a reasonably good disproof of the thesis.

Police control of citizen life

Another stereotype of the police state is the total control over every aspect of the citizen’s life. While this is true of some police states (North Korea leaps to mind, as does Cultural Revolution-era China), this is not universally true–nor is it even particularly common. Indeed the total control state, especially if it is paired with intense brutality as in the third video I linked to above, is usually a sign of a state that is insecure in its power. You see, the role of the police in a police state isn’t to control citizens’ lives. That’s a myth that’s almost laughable. Indeed if it weren’t such a commonly held belief I’d laugh every time I heard it. (Actually, I still do laugh. It’s just a more bitter laugh these days.) The role of the police in a police state is to protect the power structure from change. That is it in its entirety. Anything which doesn’t endanger the powers that be is unimportant to the police. Anything which does endanger the powers that be is brutally suppressed.

Going with that third video (the cartoon with the jaywalking), I laughed out loud (literally, not figuratively) when I watched it. It is such a ludicrously naive view of how police states work that it’s impossible for me to take it (and by extension its creator) seriously. Again, I stress, I live in a bona fide police state. A police state that is routinely denounced for its oppression. I also live in a state where jaywalking, despite it actually being against the law, is the norm. Nobody walks to the crossing to cross the road. You cross wherever it’s convenient for you to cross. The city sometimes puts up metal fences down roads where people jaywalk too much. When that happens, within a week the citizens have dismantled sections of that fence so they can conveniently jaywalk again. In fifteen years of living here, fifteen years of living in jaywalking central, I’ve not once seen the police do anything active about it. Occasionally, if you happen to actually have a cop outside of his comfortable, air-conditioned office, and if that cop had a bad day (perhaps a touch of indigestion?), you might find a cop ineffectually haranguing a jaywalker (who will ignore the cop nine times out of ten). I’ve never, however, seen a cop pull out a ticket book and write a ticket for jaywalking. And even on those rare occasions that a cop will get involved, while that cop is harassing one unfortunate, a hundred others will cheerfully jaywalk behind his back. The cop is just another inconvenience to be worked around like the metal fence that was so blatantly disassembled.

Other things that are blatantly illegal are openly done all around me. Prostitution is very illegal. Yet within about 300m of my home (and 500m of my son’s primary school!) are several (dozen!) small brothels who operate openly. As far as I can tell their sole interaction with the police consists of “cops get serviced for free”. Gambling, too, is horribly illegal here. Yet within just my residential compound, a collection of about 10 small apartment blocks, there are six openly-operating Majiang parlours open at all hours of the day or night. (One of them is operating in space they’ve rented from the local government office!) It’s pretty blatantly obvious that the cops don’t really care. Similarly selling food without a license is illegal, yet within a 30 second walk from my front door, when school is on, I can find dozens of different (and very tasty!) kinds of meals made from street carts. There are occasional half-hearted attempts to shut those down, but they’re gone for a week, tops, before they all return and continue flagrantly breaking the law.

On the other hand, stand at a corner and distribute leaflets supporting 法轮大法 or critiquing the Party and the cops will be on you like flies on shit. Or do anything that threatens disorder (because disorder is the wedge a lot of disaffected groups use to split the state in any country) and the same will happen. Get big enough and you may be unfortunate enough to meet the full might of the 中国人民武装警察部队 (a.k.a. the People’s Armed Police or PAP), the true enforcers of Party will in the nation. Go to Wikipedia and read between the “NPOV” lines for the horror that is this group of armed thugs.

I think the best way to summarize this delusion of the stereotypical police state is this: I have more direct, personal freedoms here in China than I ever had in Canada. So do most Chinese people. The only freedom they (we) lack is the freedom to criticize the government in public. (They don’t care what you say at home.) When I think back to the 36 years I lived in Canada or Germany, I really can’t remember any time where I stood in public and ranted about the government. I can remember, though, being fed up with only having sausages available as street food in Ottawa…

Police brutality commonplace

This is the one that is the most common. The police state obviously relies on brutality to control people, right?

Wrong.

A competent, stable, secure police state doesn’t need brutality to keep itself in power. It’s insecure states (of any kind!) that find the need to brutalize their citizens to ensure compliance.

About four years into my life in China I saw something unfold that amazed me entirely. The first amazing thing is that I saw a public brawl: I mean a knock-down, drag-out melee involving men and women—adults of many ages—in a parking lot. This was incredibly amazing to me since I’d not once seen anything like it. (Well, OK, that’s not strictly speaking true. I’d seen a small student riot too, but this had been provoked and understandable. More on this below.)

This is the kind of thing that had it happened in Ottawa, the police would have come in force with paddy wagons and riot gear and just arrested anybody they saw participating in the riot. This is not what I saw happen here. Yes, a van did arrive. A police mini-van. With room for at most five people aside from the pair of cops in the front. The cops came out without armour and without weapons beyond the truncheons in their belt (which were conspicuously present, but not readied). The police waded into the melee, separating combatants, yelling at them to stop, getting them to sit down at the edge of opposite sides of the parking lot. The truncheons did not get used. No guns were used. Just two cops, not particularly impressive examples of the breed physically speaking, and a bunch of authority. The riot calmed down, and then stopped.

God I wish this had happened in the era of smartphones with good cameras! I’d have filmed this for posterity! Because at this point the real amazement started. Canadian cops would have, as I said, arrested everybody they saw swinging and charged them with assault. The two Chinese cops—you know, the brutal agents of a horrific police state—patiently interviewed a bunch of people with questions that, from the little bits and snippets I could overhear and understand, consisted essentially of “who started this and why?”. What came out was that this was two wedding parties in the restaurant who’d come to blows because two guys in one wedding party were making snarky comments about the bride in the other. (Whoa, dudes. So not cool!) Everybody pointed at the two responsible. Everybody. Even those who were in that same party.

The funniest part is that those two hadn’t actually participated in the brawl that I saw. They were standing at the edges and seemingly egging it on. After the cops got all the stories, the two people who hadn’t actually swung a fist—at least that I’d seen—were the two arrested (I assume for “inciting”) and one other person who’d actually injured someone (drew blood) was also arrested. Everybody else was lectured and sent off on their way, chastened, shaken, but not charged.

I can’t even imagine that unfolding that way in any city in Canada. In Canadian law, for all practical purposes (with some exceptions) words aren’t chargeable, only actual battery is. Had this unfolded in Ottawa, everybody would likely be arrested except for the pair that had incited it … because they hadn’t actually participated in the violence.

The student riot I mentioned earlier was similarly amazing. The students were trashing (sorta—very polite trashing) their dorm over the terribly stupid restrictions they were under because of the SARS scare. Garbage and unwanted crap (like broken thermos bottles) were being thrown out the window and a lot of noise and fury were being generated. Even when the university president was driven up, upon exiting the car and walking to the dorm to “talk to the students” he was pelted with disgusting debris (used toilet paper featured prominently) and he had to flee back to his car (which was subsequently also pelted with filth) before the cops came in.

Now the cops came in numbers this time. Six of them. To tackle a dorm with about a thousand angry young men, hormones exploding around them. And they patiently and doggedly went into the building and calmed the students down. In the end five student ringleaders were arrested and never seen in the school again. A further dozen or two students (including two of mine) were later expelled from the school. But, importantly, the worst excesses of the college’s restrictions were also removed.

How does this fit into the narrative of the brutal, violently-suppressed police state? Because make no mistake, just to be absolutely clear, China is very much a vile, brutal police state!

So why am I telling you this?

I’m telling you this because yes, the USA and others are sliding into becoming police states. I’m telling you this because yes, police states are fucking evil. They need to be fought.

The problem, however, is that if you have the wrong image of what a police state is, you cannot fight it. You’re punching at shadows. All that’s going to happen is you’re going to break your fist when it hits the brick wall. To properly fight an enemy—totalitarianism in this case—you have to know what it looks like, how it works, and what motivates it. Delusional caricatures of your enemy don’t help and, in fact, can (and do!) cause immense harm to your cause.

To destroy your enemy, it turns out, you have to know your enemy.

—Michael Richter

Sympathy for the Devil

righteous-mindJonathan Haidt has found that when you give conservatives a questionnaire and ask them to answer it like a liberal, they’re able to do so with ease. When you ask them to answer like a libertarian, they’re able to do that too. Libertarians aren’t nearly as adept as conservatives, but they’re still fairly good at imagining how a conservative or a liberal might answer the questionnaire. Alas, the real outliers are the liberals. In numerous studies, with respectable sample sizes, Haidt has demonstrated that liberals simply don’t have a clue. When you ask them to answer the questionnaire like a conservative, they answer it like a fascist. When you ask them to answer it like a libertarian, they answer it like a sociopath. The liberal conception of what makes the average conservative or libertarian tick is, Haidt concludes, way off.

Are liberals less imaginative than conservatives and libertarians? I highly doubt it. The virtues and vices are, it seems, to be found everywhere to varying degrees. Why, then, do liberals do so terribly on this “ideological Turing test”? And why do conservatives do so well? Haidt maintains that conservatives do well because they base their moral thinking on all six of the moral foundations (Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, Liberty, Care & Fairness). Liberals do poorly because they base their moral thinking on only two of them (Care & Fairness). Haidt’s explanation is fascinating. But it’s got way too many moving parts and a fatal flaw: namely, it implicitly presumes that liberals are somehow spectacularly deficient in imagination. I find it hard to believe that any sizable group of human beings could be spectacularly deficient in any virtue (or vice). That’s why I’ve come up with a simpler explanation for Haidt’s robust findings: liberals suck at this test because shutting down certain parts of your imagination has become central to what it means to be liberal.

Liberals haven’t just demonized their political opponents, they’ve demonized the very act of trying to think like their political opponents. Trying to sympathize with, say, a Trump supporter, has come to constitute a kind of thought-crime for many liberals (and almost all progressives). So it’s not that liberals have less imagination than conservatives or libertarians; it’s that they’ve set up mental firewalls that actively prevent them from even going there. Just as Odysseus’s men stopped up their ears with wax so they wouldn’t be tempted by the seductive song of the Sirens, many liberals have, it seems, set up taboo boundaries which more or less ensure that they’ll never have to empathize with a conservative or a libertarian. Strategically speaking, this is decidedly unwise. The three truly great treatises on the art of war—Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Art of War (1521), Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832), and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—are in agreement on this: you must understand your enemy before you can defeat him.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

The Real Legacy of Rudy Giuliani

Capture

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Rudy Giuliani, he has been all over the news media of late as the go-to Trump surrogate on terrorism.  Perhaps he is hoping to cement his legacy as the sympathetic New York City mayor touring the destruction at Ground Zero turned proponent of the ‘tough-on-terrorism’ stance of the Trump campaign.  Perhaps he envisions that appointment to the Director of Homeland Security in a Trump White House.  And perhaps even if you disagree with his defense of the Trump campaign, you might buy into this version of Giuliani as terrorist/security politician legacy.  But if it’s a legacy predicated on the risk of violence and death to American citizens on American soil upon which Giuliani’s credentials and hopes are pinned, that legacy has already been firmly established.  And it has nothing to do with radical Islamic terrorism.

If you want to see Giuliani’s real legacy on full display, simply read the recent Justice department’s report on the Baltimore Police department’s pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, and excessive use of force perpetrated against the black community in Baltimore City.  It is born of and popularized by the ‘tough-on-crime’ mayor Rudy Giuliani from the mid-90s that shaped the lives of a entire generation of police training and policy across the United States based on ‘zero-tolerance’.  Zero tolerance normalized aggressive policing.  It also normalized police brutality.

Continue reading The Real Legacy of Rudy Giuliani

Fullscreen capture 8162016 112051 AM

Stranger Things

“In nature we never repeat the same motion; in captivity (office, gym, commute, sports), life is just repetitive-stress injury. No randomness.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010)

Fullscreen capture 8162016 112004 AMWatching Stranger Things on Netflix reminds me that growing up in the Eighties wasn’t all bad. It’s so nice to see free-range kids biking around their neighborhood, getting into trouble, and having adventures. So nice to see kids who have a life, kids with free time, kids who aren’t being shuttled around by harried helicopter parents, in minivans, from one structured activity to the next. And it’s so nice to see kids resolving conflicts amongst themselves, and managing their own social lives, without the constant intervention of meddlesome grownups with PhDs in Sensitivity.

I took the kids of Wild Side Day Camp to Nun’s Island today, a place I’ve been going to for almost thirty years. It’s still a magical place—replete with herons, owls, turtles, snakes, frogs, and salamanders—despite the fact that most of the forest has been replaced with upscale apartment buildings. Among the new additions to the island is an exercise park, which is basically like a kid’s park for grownups.

We stumbled upon it more or less by accident, and, as you might expect, the kids immediately started to play with the equipment. They came up with all sorts of novel uses for the stuff and invented a remarkably creative game which went on for two hours. From time to time, health-conscious adults would show up in spandex (which, let’s face it, makes any adult look ridiculous to a child). They seemed annoyed that the kids were there, using their stuff, though nobody came out and said so.

I’m usually not that interested in what the humans are doing on Nun’s Island. But today, at the exercise park, I felt like an anthropologist. And I noticed some interesting differences between the ways that the kids and the adults interacted with the park: (1) Everything the grownups did with the exercise equipment was repetitive, boring, and predictable, whilst everything the children did with the same stuff was spontaneous, creative, and unpredictable. (2) The adults looked miserable whilst working out at the park.

By contrast, everything about the children—their screams and shouts, their smiles—radiated pure joy. This leads me to the following conclusion: Maybe working out is boring and chore-like because it’s so utterly devoid of randomness and playfulness. Maybe it’s time to take the “work” out of working out.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Family Values vs. Christian Values

Social Justice WarriorIt’s always odd to hear a Christian fundamentalist prate on and on about Christian family values because Jesus was openly hostile to family values: “I came to set fire to the earth . . . . Do you really think I came to bring peace? I tell you, not at all, but rather division! For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49-53).

Jesus was acutely aware of how many people slip through the cracks in a society based on family values. That’s why he advocated a radically new conception of The Family based on bonds not of blood but love (agape). That’s why we refer to fellow Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ. And it’s why Jesus so often ridiculed the dollar-store morals of those who fancy themselves good people merely because they’re good to family: “If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same” (Matthew 5:46-47)?

Christianity spread like wildfire, in part, because Christian communities were remarkably good at taking care of each other. They provided for widows and orphans, sat with the sick, doted on the dying, and redistributed resources when necessary. In short, they were the very opposite of the Ayn Rand reading sociopaths who’ve captured conservatism and decided it’s time to fight for Christian Civilization. These people wouldn’t know what Christian is if it bit them in the ass on the Road to Damascus.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

In Defense of Black Lives Matter

LivesMichael Richter claims to be criticizing social justice activists for their inability to appreciate nuance or to allow for a spectrum of different experiences and opinions within larger umbrella movements, but the article comes across as rant which does the exact four things he is trying to call out:

1. Has a Holier than thou tone.
2. Focuses on differentiation by reducing the complicated concept of allyship to a distinction between critical thinkers and “useful idiots”.
3. Is a blatant expression of narcissism, by which the author passes judgment on a bunch of perspectives he is completely out of touch with.
4. Holds unrealistic expectations for how to be a well-behaved activist who doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

The article oversimplifies complex social movements and political perspectives, and pits “good” activists against “pointless” and “petty” activists, solely based on the author’s personal feelings when confronted with their arguments. It seems to me to be an awfully transparent attempt to discredit anyone trying to expose hypocrisy, laziness or oppression within mainstream, whitewashed, NGO-led social justice activism, all the while claiming to be above inter-movement squabbling.

There is nothing new in this person’s observations (yes, activists are going to disagree with one another over theory and tactics, and sometimes these disagreements will lead to hurt feelings), and it might be excusable that he repeats a bunch of old, tired arguments if his attitude and ignorance towards the movements he’s insulting wasn’t actually a BIG part of the problem. He clearly doesn’t understand the action that took place at Toronto Pride, yet he feels entitled to reprimand people trying to hold their own community accountable, all in a way that is entirely in the tradition of Pride.

Black Lives Matter Toronto is a movement largely led by queer and trans Black people. Not only do those same individuals belong at Pride, they have always been a big part of the LGBTQ activist communities fighting for the social and political changes that make the lives of queer people better. Pride is supposed to celebrate their accomplishments and highlight injustices that still need to be addressed. That is what Pride is: it started as riots by trans and queer people of colour who were fed up with police violence against their communities, and those voices are STILL relevant. It is normal that there are people who are upset with the fact that the only voices acceptable at Pride today are either people who will celebrate the “victory” of equality for LGBTQ people, or unrestrained corporate sponsorship and co-option.

There are two really problematic things that Michael Richter says that really discredit his “critique” of BLM Toronto:

1. The BLM activists who led the sit-in at Pride are not outsiders seeking more attention. It is pretty gross to pit one marginalized group against another that way. These individuals are a part of the LGBTQ community that the Pride Toronto organization is supposed to represent. (And yes, Michael Richter, wrongly assuming that these activists were hostile, trouble-making outsiders who for some reason don’t belong there IS a tad racist). There are many queer and trans people of colour who are saying that when Pride increases its police presence and involvement, they end up getting harassed, stopped and arrested more – at events that are supposed to be FOR them. And when Pride allows the Toronto police department to have a float in the parade, it pushes a narrative that the police are saviours to the LGBTQ community, protecting them from gay-basher and homophobes, where the reality is that many factions of the LGBTQ community (people of colour, sex workers, drag queens and other performers, poor queer people) still suffer more violence at the hands of police than anyone else. That is an important perspective that deserves to be heard. And that is literally what Pride is supposed to be about: making systematic and state oppression against members of the queer community less invisible. Seriously though, how dare someone claim that these people and their message don’t belong there?

2. Another misguided and dismissive claim that the author makes is that people of colour and gay people “have a similar shared history of oppression and violence.” Not only is this statement false, it is made here simply for the purpose of silencing a group who is declaring loud and clear that in fact they do NOT experience oppression in the same way as rich, white gay people. Of course they don’t. A black trans woman growing up in a rough part of Toronto may have a very different relationship with the police than a gay white man living in a mansion in Markham. An queer immigrant without status can not access police services in an emergency and cannot go to Pride because if they get detained (which is more likely to happen to them than a white person at the same event), they may end up being deported. There are larger issues of gentrification within gay villages across Canada that have the effect of excluding poor queer people from spaces that were created as safe community hangouts for queer people. The value that these different perspectives bring to the table, even if they are sometimes expressed with anger and resentment, is completely lost on Michael Richter. That is his own weakness, not a failure on the part of the activists raising these concerns. What I see is a person who is afraid and unwilling to engage in these tough conversations, and so he is instead dismissing a broad and diverse group of people advancing legitimate and valuable critiques as a bunch of “smug assholes,” based solely on his own emotional reaction to their criticism.

I think that the same points can be made about his annoyance towards “fragmented” feminist groups. He is literally complaining that the dialogue about what meaningful feminism is has progressed beyond the simple statement that women and men should be socially equal. It was easy to believe in feminism when all it meant is that every aspect of our society should stay the same, except women should also be allowed access to the same opportunities as men. The conversations that are a lot harder to have are the ones about that point out invisible and systematic sexism within political and educational institutions, within our legal system, within socially acceptable hierarchies in the workplace or in other organizations, within pop culture, etc. It has always been hard to point out things that we have been socialized to accept as normal, and this kind of criticism has always been met with defensiveness or dismissed as overly sensitive or divisive. Discussions about rape culture and culturally enforced gender binaries are incredibly emotional. Discussions about the harms caused by carceral feminism or certain expressions of white feminism that validate state violence towards minorities or that render women of colour invisible are always going to be difficult to have. But they are not the enemy of social progress and to treat them as such is ridiculous.

The most harmful thing about this article is that it justifies its laziness and ignorance with regard to extremely important and complex political ideas by falsely claiming that there is some big scary powerful “THEY” out there saying that the only way to be an ally is to become an uncritical and arrogant puppet. The challenge of trying to be an ally is not dogmatic or one-dimensional. It simply means that you strive to responsibly engage with a struggle for social justice that doesn’t directly affect you. It means that you understand that your experience on a particular matter is inherently limited because you will never experience that particular kind of violence or oppression. It does not mean that you turn your brain off and follow orders. The fact that this author sees the concept of allyship this way shows me how out of touch he is.

What I see is a trend for every generation to feel entitled to unilaterally decide that the goals for social justice movements have been set high enough, and that anyone attempting to push them further along the progressive path is being unrealistic and divisive. Anyone attempting to promote an intersectional approach to social inequality is in fact hurting their own cause. This is not true. It is also a very self-serving point of view that pretends to be rational and objective, which in my view, is an extremely pervasive and dangerous form of moral cowardice.

—Ally Hobson

I’m Nobody’s “Ally”

All over political movements, particularly on the left, there’s a call for “allies”, which is to say people who are not of the particular movement’s core demographic (blacks, say, or LGBTs, or natives or feminists or whatever) but who are onside with the cause, supportive of the activities of the group.

I am not one of these.

Causes

Yes, it is true that I’m a believer in many causes.  Most of them are “leftist” by American standards (but of course these days Francisco Franco would be “leftist” by American standards…).  I believe in racial equality, for example, and think the current situation with blacks in the USA (or natives in Canada (or Turks in Germany (or …))) is a scandal of epic proportions.  I believe in gender equality.  I believe in spreading the wealth around so that we don’t have 99.9% of the populace owning less than 10% of the wealth.  There are numerous causes that I’m sympathetic to, and again most of them are, I stress, “leftist”.

I am, and never will be, however, an “ally” to any of them.  You will never see me participating in slacktivist “awareness-raising” of any of these things.  You will never see me “signal boosting” anything from these camps.  You will never see me in a virtue-signalling dogpile on Twitter or Facebook.  My politics are, to those who can read, pretty clear if you take a look at my social media presence.  I’m not a member of anything, though.

Activist toxicity

There is, of course, a reason for this: the toxicity of these groups.  Even with the best of intentions, social activist groups will and do, over time, become venomous caricatures of themselves.  Any hope that these will accomplish anything positive then dies.

Before I go into my guess as to the reasons for this, allow me to show some examples.

Consider, for example, a left/right-neutral topic like atheism.  Atheism is a pretty simple concept: “I don’t believe in supernatural entities” (gods).  I have to stress a lot these days, however, that I’m a small-a atheist, not a big-A Atheist because atheism as a notion has been hijacked.  What started off as a pretty simple, basic concept (there are no gods) has become a hugely obnoxious movement of smug assholes who think by virtue of being infidels they are intrinsically more logical and smarter than those who believe.  (The fact that this belief is a perfect example of a non sequitur fallacy is the only redeeming feature of these twits, largely because I enjoy watching unintentional irony in action.)

For another example, look at various feminist groups.  Why “various”?  Because the movement has fragmented so quickly since the relatively simple statement that women and men should be socially equal that there is no longer a single meaningful definition for what a “feminist” is.  Seemingly every year I see another schism developing as feminists turn in on themselves and tear each other to shreds over minor differences instead of focusing on what they have in common in a huge battle they have yet to win.

Let’s talk social justice now.  A perfect example is the “Black Lives Matter” movement who recently, in Canada, disrupted a Gay Pride event because they felt they weren’t being given enough attention.  Twice.  Here are two groups that have a similar shared history of oppression and violence (at least in the USA) and instead of working together one of them grandstands at the expense of the other (and, naturally, calls anybody who thought it was in poor taste “racists”).

Even mostly civilized web sites like The Good Men Project are showing signs of this disease.  A web site that has the tagline “The Conversation No One Else is Having” has a recently-republished article that tells a huge swathe of society to, and I quote, “shut up”.  How, precisely, do they think you have meaningful conversations after you’ve told people to shut up?  Does anybody out there who isn’t a deranged jackass think that this is how conversations actually work?

The entire political activist world, on both the left and the right, is replete with this kind of pointless, poisonous poppycock and, in my opinion, it undermines any cause these people purport to promote.  I used to actually participate in these kinds of groups and movements, but stopped after observing that they always go bad, sometimes in astonishingly short times.

The reasons

There are several reasons for this inevitable trend toward rancor and spite, I think.  These include:

  1. Holier than thou.
  2. Differentiation.
  3. Narcissism.
  4. Unrealistic expectation.

Holier than thou

This is the obvious one.  Human beings, even those who consider themselves “enlightened” like most political activists (again, left or right!) do, are intensely competitive.  If I believe that women should be given a fair shake in society, inevitably someone else will have to prove they’re more pure in their politics than me and say that not only should women be given a fair shake, they should be given a boost because of past mistreatment.  Then another imbecile will up the stakes more and yet another will raise them again until we get to the bizarre fringes of feminism where people seriously postulate that men should be preemptively jailed because they commit 90% of crime.

Every movement seemingly undergoes this transition.  What starts off as a relatively moderate (and sane) movement with large membership gets more and more extreme (and insane) over time, shedding the “dead weight” that won’t play the one-upmanship games.  Eventually the movement becomes an echo chamber resistant to any external mitigating influence and then really starts going into the deep end.

Differentiation

Human beings are tribal primates.  We like, as a whole, belonging to things “bigger” than ourselves.  We also like to make it clear that the things we belong to are different from the things someone else belongs to.

Let’s say we have two groups of atheists.  Both groups are very similar in makeup and in beliefs.  They have, naturally, by virtue of being human institutions, minor differences between them.  One, for instance, believes that we should demonstrate the superiority of the atheist lifestyle by being good examples of it.  The other believes that religious people need to be actively guided to atheism.

With these two groups being so similar, and with humans being so tribal and seeking to differentiate, it is inevitable that a schism will arise between these two groups.  The one that believes in the superiority of the atheist lifestyle, for example, may choose to start harping on and on about how superior they are to the religious.  The other group will, in a bid to be seen as different, start employing ambush tactics to abuse the religious in a misguided attempt to get them to “see the light”.  Both get pushed into more extreme directions on the small areas of non-intersecting belief simply because of our need to be different.

Narcissism

This is where that BLM Canada thing against the Gay Pride parade falls into.  Aside from the fact that BLM Canada is an utterly ludicrous movement to begin with, they’re also incredibly narcissistic.  How dare anybody pay attention to any group other than them for a single day?  Of course they had to grandstand and ruin the parade.  That was the only way to make sure that eyes were on them instead of another group.

You can see similar things in groups ranging as far as Greenpeace or, from the other side of the political spectrum, the witless “War on Christmas” types, not to mention the Men’s Rights Weenies complaining that they actually have to treat women with dignity these days.

Unrealistic expectation

This is more a disease of youth than it is of political activism.  It’s just that the stridently political tend to be young so it shows up in the political world most visibly.  Unrealistic expectations of things like “all racial disharmony will vanish tomorrow because we did such a good job of raising awareness” turn into dismay and bitterness when tomorrow comes and not much has changed.

See in the real world cultures change very slowly.  We have this bizarre belief in the west that our culture is changing rapidly because superficial changes tend to dominate our thinking and our reportage.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because our technology is changing like crazy, and with it the way we communicate (or fail to) that our culture must be changing equally as rapidly.

Of course if you have a slightly broader perspective on life, you’ll note that there are elements of, say, Chinese culture which have remained largely unchanged since about 3000B.C.E.  Or if you visit Europe, where historic things that are over a thousand years old litter the landscape around you, you’ll see just how much sheer cultural inertia there is.

Most young people, however, lack this perspective and as a result, when faced with dispiriting lack of visible change in the society around them, turn to ever more extreme ways of expressing their political will.

(This is probably the part where I bring up that old canard about how the perfect is the enemy of the good.)

So what does this have to do with being an ally?

At issue is that most political activist groups don’t want allies.  They want useful idiots.  I see, for example, in Twitter, a lot of groups–LGBT to name one at random–who are constantly calling for non-member “allies” to “signal boost” their tweets.  These “allies” are welcome so long as they do absolutely nothing but pass along whatever message the “real“membership wants to transmit.

If, as an “ally” you dare to engage in conversation that isn’t purest “yes man” stuff, be prepared to be excoriated or even eviscerated for daring to “undermine” the movement.  You will be shouted down.  And if you refuse to be shouted down you will be shunned, demonized, and dogpiled upon.  You will, by refusing to be the useful idiot, be turned into the enemy.  You will be doxxed.  You will be harassed.  You will, eventually, be evicted from a movement you believe in because you dared, as a person who wasn’t a core member, to have an opinion of your own.  (You’ll be DOUBLY damned if you’re actually right!)

What do you do instead?

Me?  I work on individuals.  I find someone potentially receptive to a message like “you know, there’s no reason to think Muslims are Satan Incarnate”.  If it looks like the seeds are falling into fertile soil, I ramp it up a bit.  If it looks like the person is just not going to take up the message I move on.  If I see an activist group operating in the same place, I leave.  I leave because I know where it’s going to go (nowhere good) and I have better things to do with my time than to fight with deaf and/or illiterate zealots.

Yes, my work on these causes isn’t as splashy as the huge grandstanding efforts of the politically strident, but I allow myself the conceit that in the long term it’s more effective.  And I can look at myself in the mirror without wondering what I’ve become.

An ally’s life is simply not for me.

Review: GENERATION X by Douglas Coupland

I picked up this novel hoping to learn from the source what defines me – what defines membership in Generation X, the generation I’d always been told that I was part of. The first thing I learned was that I’d been lied to… as initially coined by Douglas Coupland, Generation X consists of people born in the late 1950s and 1960s, people who, at the novel’s publication date in 1991, were in their mid-to-late twenties. As someone born in 1975, I was too young to belong. So Generation X, the novel, isn’t about people like me, it’s a sketch of the people I knew as I was growing up.

I think ‘sketch’ is the mot juste because Generation X isn’t a novel in the sense that most of us are used to: there’s no character arc in sight, and the plot arc is basically flat. Indeed, the plot of this novel could be summed up as ‘three twentysomethings living on the outskirts of Palm Springs hang out, tell stories, go home for Christmas, and then move to Baja California’. The meat of the book lies in the second clause of that description. Andy, Claire, and Dag, the three main characters (I hesitate to use the term protagonists), spend much of their time recounting elaborate tales to each other, or rather parables which artfully reveal their attitudes towards their selves and their world. Sometimes these tales have a meaning that is easily unpacked. In one, a woman decides to meditate in solitude for seven years, but finds out too late that her spiritual program, which she’d borrowed without careful study from an Asian monastery, relied on a different calendar and that she’d overdone it, and that enlightenment would come after only one year, and that the final six years, which ended up being fatal, were redundant. In other words, don’t spend too much time in your own head. Other stories the trio tells each other are more opaque, but Coupland’s skill as a storyteller makes them engaging even when they’re unclear.

So what, according to Coupland, defines Generation X?

Continue reading Review: GENERATION X by Douglas Coupland

Fellow Americans: No Representation without participation

Remember your history class and the rallying cry of the American Revolution: ‘No taxation without representation’?  We obviously need a new revolution, and not of the Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders sort, whose rallying cry is ‘no representation without participation’.

Thanks so much to the New York Times for laying it out so clearly–only 9 percent of the U.S. population voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as their presidential candidate.  Only 60 million votes were cast overall in the primaries.  Are you a disaffected voter in this election?  Are you unhappy with both candidates?

But wait….did you vote in the primaries?

Continue reading Fellow Americans: No Representation without participation