I can’t help but notice

Maybe it’s the algorithms doing me a favour, but in the past week I’ve noticed a sudden up-swerve in the left-leaning media I subscribe to in terms of their coverage of atrocities against the Kurds – above and beyond what I can explain by citing the recent up-swerve in violence against the Kurds. There have been peaks and troughs in this violence over the past few decades, albeit without corresponding peaks in coverage. Why the concern now?

Ditto when it comes to violence perpetuated against Syrians by Russia. Until now, if you’d been watching only moderately left-leaning mainstream press, you’d think that America was the only one guilty of this, or at least the prime culprit. If you were silly enough to consider RT a serious news outlet rather than a propaganda machine engaging in social-media-driven entryism, you’d probably go further. But Russia has been pretty damn bloody though the whole affair.

I can remember as a nascently political kid in the late 1980s, the view that the welfare of the Kurds and Iraqi people was a left-wing concern – and that Saddam was a right-wing dictator responsible for their deprivations. Of course, it helped that the US was chummy with Saddam for a while.

Then when the US decided that Iraq was the enemy instead of an ally, the Saddam-is-a-right-wing narrative was at least de-emphasized. Some supposed lefties got quite cozy with Ba’athism themselves. And you didn’t have to travel too far in the far left to find some loudly ideating goose proclaiming that Saddam was secular and left.

“Yeah, okay, the Kurds are being killed, but if we want to help them, first we have to win against the True Enemy, and to do that we’ve got to act as if the Kurds aren’t a concern! Asserting the worth of the Kurdish cause and defeating the right at the same time? Too hard! So shhhhh! We’ll get back to them once we’ve won, honest.”

”Oh, and if you don’t remain silent, I’ll have to suggestively question whether you’re progressive at all.”

Now I’m not suggesting we bomb the fuck out of anything. Like a lot of people, I marched against the second Gulf War in 2003 and have only really since changed my stance in terms of the particular details – shedding some of the waffle about hegemony and adopting an even more somber utilitarianism.

And I’m not suggesting that the right’s purported concern for the Kurds over the last few decades hasn’t been largely hypocritical. Clearly Trump has now effectively declared that he never cared (as if this wasn’t clear before, nor clear concerning many of his Republican predecessors). Not that this should ever have been needed to license left-wing concern in the first place, which again seems too widely to be the case.

What I am suggesting is this: The welfare of people in the Middle East, this welfare’s status as a left-wing priority, and the merits of any given editorial policy on the topic, aren’t contingent on what either America or the right purport to think about the matter. The Kurds, and the lives of everyone living in the Middle East, have worth entirely independent of what any part of the left’s declared political enemies happen to be thinking on any given day. We shouldn’t just be noting what The Baddies(tm) say, simply saying the opposite when the opportunity arises, and then referring to deaths on the ground as confirmation after the fact.

This knee-jerk contrarianism that’s been running through parts of the left for as long as I’ve been paying attention betrays a callous disregard for some truly fucked-over people, and it’s heart-breaking. Moreover it’s contrary to what and who the left in the most simple of terms is supposed to stand for: the downtrodden.

    • The Kurds have always been worthy of our concern.
    • Saddam was always a right-wing dictator, and Iraqis his victims, for as
      long as he reigned.
    • George Galloway has always been a numpty.
    • None of the above has been more or less true depending on the US
      or the right’s position on the Middle East.

Political tribalism dressed up as incisiveness may help an advertiser sell consumer tidbits to discerning wankers, but it makes for poorer news. Meanwhile, people continue die for no good reason, popinjays posture and pontificate, journalists continue to convince themselves that they’re triangulating for a good cause rather than for self-interest, or indeed that they’re not triangulating at all, and media consumers and credulous sorts in the grass roots get a warped view of it all.

It’s too fucking sad.

~ Bruce

Tone, emotional range, character

If you’d asked me ten years ago what I thought of the importance of tone when discussing contentious politics, I would have rated it low-to-non-important, this largely being down to having been tone-trolled by folks arguing in bad faith. Some people do have a tendency to expect you tread on eggshells around them, if only to distract you from what you’re actually trying to say.

“It’s the validity of the argument and the truth of the premises wot matters!”

If you’re only interested in the truth of a specific proposition, then okay, fine. But what if you’re interested in more?

Say you’re in the union movement and the prospect of a demarcation dispute with another union raises its head; you ask “Comrade, do you think X is the demarcation criterion we should be using to sort this out?” and get an answer in the affirmative. What does this tell you? Say you spool things out to have a discussion of why a given demarcation criterion is appropriate, and your interlocutor is on-point on all of the details. You absolutely agree on all the technical details.

Perhaps you bring an appreciation of social ques and historical context to this conversation. Perhaps they’re not telling you what they really think. Perhaps they do believe what they’ve told you, but are holding back that these details are actually irrelevant to their plans.

Maybe there’s no question of ideological trustworthiness, and you just want to make sure you’re both on the same page, or that you can campaign together from the same office. Perhaps the social ques and the historical context point to a healthy, stable solidarity. It could be that the tonal differences between bluster and genuine affection are what settles things and allows you to focus on the work.

It’s easy to take an appreciation of tone and character for granted, but it gets a lot harder to parse it all if your appreciation of tone is deprecated.

***

Over the last seven years, I’ve run into people who’ve had a pretty rough time participating in political discussions online, who’ve subsequently fallen into deep depressions. Blocking and withdrawing has been the order of the day, and seemingly with a relatively high error level; erring on the side of caution while realizing rightfully they don’t owe strangers their time.

But what about what they themselves are owed? The right to be healthy and aspire to happiness takes more than just being able to brush off abusers and trolls. What if, owing to an acquired tone-deafness, one lost the ability to tell the difference between passive-aggressive concern trolls, and genuinely caring individuals with valid criticisms? Or the difference between someone willing to offer moral support, and someone just looking to establish their base by flattering vulnerable people? Wouldn’t that be a bit isolating – unhealthily so?

“I’m happy to have a small, select circle, thanks! I don’t need to keep my enemies that close.”

Well, maybe. Maybe you’re due a break, and it’s not like you earn 4 weeks paid leave arguing on Twitter. You don’t need my permission to walk away.

Still, I’ve been seeing people adhering to crude, tone-deaf, by-rote heuristics to work out who is and who isn’t a bad actor; seeing people of good faith being turned aside, and seeing a number of those doing the turning aside winding up even more miserable for reasons they can’t begin to articulate. Worst case scenario; I’ve seen someone clearly isolate themselves this way, then blame the people they’ve turned away for making them do it.

“LOOK AT WHAT YOU’VE MADE ME DO!”

A lack of range in your emotional capacity can do this. The numbness of depression can beget self-neglect. Self-neglect can beget further depression. It helps to have trusted people around you to help prevent this from spiraling out of control, and for that you’re probably going to have to put up with at least a little political disagreement.

Which brings us back to the matter of how to know who you can trust, and how tone helps.

***

A friend and I were musing the other week about two guys with a couple of very similar radical left sensibilities; sensibilities that friend and I regard as problematic. Two guys with the same particular tribes, much the same particular ideations, and to some extent even the same incoherence and inconsistencies. But independent of each other, friend and I decided that we regard their character as immensely different, such that one stands out as clearly more trustworthy.

There’s no particular political transgression that sets them stand apart. A crude, political dot-point heuristic couldn’t possibly clear things up; they’re both equally on-point with their political tribes. And yet, one of them would easily be welcome at a dinner party among like-minded(ish) friends, while the other is regarded as more than a little suspect.

One guy is clearly driven by empathy and good intentions, erring on the side of sappiness, while the other seems to have more pride invested in his tribalism, resulting in what passes as a mildly venomous smugness. Both will make the same dismissals, but while one will appeal to what he sees as people’s better nature, the other will lace his assertions with subtle backhandedness, and deliver them with a not so subtle sniff.

It also helps that it’s clear – at least to those of us familiar with their tone – that one of them is both warmer and more capable of uttering the words “I think I may have made a mistake.”

There’s something to be said for having political disagreements with people you can trust – for one they serve as a check should you turn out to be wrong. Potentially this serves as a check on self-harm. So if your criteria for allowing social proximity is a reduced, narrow list of marginal political differences, well, that’s a bit daunting. And what’s it like for a political community, or a family with politically contentious advocacy needs, if most of the adults therein are isolated like this?

“You’re expecting ethnic minorities to sit down and sup with white supremacists? To never punch a fascist!?! That’s the politics of civility!”

No. I’m not expecting that. Obviously.

For the most part we’re talking narcissism of small differences level disagreements here, not overt, intentional political hostility; fine-grained disagreements about ontology or epistemology; arguments over the merits of deontology versus utilitarianism; concerns over to what extent functions of a mutually supported organization should be decentralized; differing perspectives born of differing material interests on what clauses of proposed legislation may have unintended consequences, and so on – all argued with what a healthy appreciation of tone would inform you is good faith, and what an appreciation of material, political reality would inform you is not being treated as an abstract, intellectual plaything.

If a democratic socialist can’t sit down for coffee with a social democrat to talk their differences over, then their problem isn’t political theory. Their problem is personal and it won’t be resolved or navigated through with the use of an ideological spot-check.

Tone and emotional range go a long way to helping here, and I was wrong to ever doubt it*. I for one am happier and healthier knowing this now.

~ Bruce

* PS. Neil, you were right.

A few things I’d appreciate from future (post) election coverage

At the time of writing, it’s been a couple of hours since the scale of the swing to the Libs in Queensland became apparent, and to my mind, I reckon the Libs will be returned with a minority government. Not what I wanted, but I’ll learn to live with it. I don’t reckon Western Australia or the Northern Territory will swing it back to Labor. South Australia certainly won’t.

Either way, even if we don’t wind up with a Morrison government, there are a number of things about political discussion I’d like to see changing.

No More Petty Silver Linings

So Tony Abbott has lost his seat. Great. I guess. Is this going to influence policy terribly much? Because if it doesn’t change things for the better, it’s just a symbolic victory. Which is to say it’s not an actual victory.

When Howard lost his seat, I felt non-plussed, and now I’m clearer as to why; change was already overdetermined owing to swings in other seats, rendering Howard’s loss an irrelevancy. Nipple-twiddling over his political demise was pointless and childish.

Whatever you earn in the form of a morale boost is lost on alienating people who aren’t interested in political blood sport.

I regret my past involvement in similar episodes of pettiness.

Less preaching to the choir

This applies mainly to partisan outlets, or at least those with a bit of a leaning. The choir are going to believe what they want, dismissing what they don’t want to hear and exaggerating the importance of confirmatory news. These people don’t want to be informed, can’t be meaningfully informed beyond a certain point, so what’s the point of trying?

Okay, maybe to some extent outlets have to do this as a part of their business model, but if it could be kept to an minimum, that’d be great.

Cant

The accusation of “pandering” that gets thrown around by alt-right types isn’t entirely without merit. Sure, they often deploy it when its not true, and even when true, it’s usually a disingenuous means of dismissing information and argument out of hand.

That doesn’t mean that pandering doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean that alt-right are the only ones with a problem with it.

When pandering comes in the form of the uncritical and rote use of theory-heavy (and often co-opted) lexicon – “hey woke people, you know I’m one of you because I use the words” – it’s alienating. Nobody much wants to spend time learning to talk like one of the cool kids. They want you to get to your point with a bit of economy.

You’d think, for example, with the way some authors write, that the assumptions of Queer Theory were un-contentious a priori truths, necessary for the welfare and liberation of gays, lesbians, intersex and trans people. It’s almost as if some authors don’t realize that activism for gays, lesbians, intersex and trans people predates Queer Theory by decades, or that Queer Theory has actually elicited honest disagreement from progressive activists over the years.

The uncritical use of the folk versions of this kind of lexicon carries with it the (usually unexamined) implication that all of the disagreements have been settled, and material differences resolved, and pandering to the people who insist on this – effectively an erasure of movement history – can get downright toxic. Orwellian, even.

The average punter may not know the particular movement history, or even how to find it, but at the very least this kind of thing does tend to generate a gut-feel that undermines trust.

(I’m wondering if in the same vein as the term “scientism”, we need a word for the over-extension of concepts from literary criticism – but that’d just be more cant, wouldn’t it?)

Less gimmicky bs

I’m not going to nab a picture of it, because it’s too damn tacky for even me to post; that picture of the ABC politics team photoshopped as The Avengers. Gimme a fucking break, please, ABC. I take you seriously. Please do the same.

Letting News Ltd. die a quiet death

News Ltd. has slid into irrelevance. So once all the analysis of their decline is over, we won’t need to talk about them so much in future, right?

What’s the point of gloating? There are newer sources of misinformation out there that are shaping up to be much more dangerous than News Ltd is ever likely to be again – dangerous both to our everyday lives, and to our democratic institutions.

Trying to get one-up on your racist uncle at Christmas isn’t worth it, and prosecuting a grudge in the media for much the same reason is even worse. The public doesn’t need the importance of discredited news outlets being artificially inflated at the expense of more salient issues.

Post-electoral scapegoating

I suspect the public are pretty sick of this kind of thing, even, if not especially, from the parties and political poles they voted against. It’s bad enough when it comes from the floor, or the comments section, but when it’s journalists on Twitter, or tribal wankers writing in literary journals, it’s no favour to the public interest either.

So you lost? Who are we going to blame this time? Women, for provoking angry men simply by existing? Jews for not shutting up about antisemitism in the ranks? A lack of absolute ideological loyalty from allies, voters, volunteers and party members who never owed you that kind of loyalty to begin with? People who asked awkward questions at meetings and public forums that they were very well entitled to ask? People who didn’t see your glorious leader as some charismatic saviour?

All these and more, even when your losses could very well have been overdetermined by things like gerrymandering and voter suppression?

”Too many party members lack my moral clarity and sense of purpose, otherwise we would have made the right choices and our destiny would have been assured!”

No really, fuck off.

Take the loss and stop looking for ways to frame it on ideological or tribal impurities. At the very least, please consider getting out of the way of others on your team who aren’t such raving egoists.

Morose, misanthropic ideating

No, next-to-nobody likes Scott Morrison. Please, no whining that Australians love Scott Morrison. If a service station hotdog won a culinary event when the alternative was a shit sandwich, you wouldn’t conclude that people love service station hotdogs.

This isn’t to call Bill Shorten or anyone else a shit sandwich. What it is, is to say that it’s a fair observation to make that no Australian politicians are widely loved. So let’s not pretend that’s an issue in play, please.

Maybe Labor could do with replacing Bill Shorten. Maybe the Australian public could become better judges of character. Maybe the Australian public could curb its appetite for lively reality-tv-like characters.

Whatever the case, hyperventilating about the shortcomings of the Australian public, to the extent of peddling obvious falsehoods, isn’t going to do anyone any favours, least of all yourself – you’re harder to take seriously that way.

***

This is a non-exhaustive list, of course. But damn, political discussion would be a whole lot less alienating – at least from my perspective – if the above weren’t as common as they are.

~ Bruce

Imagined History of a Never-Was: “New Atheism”

church-53192_640Jacob Hamburger writes over at The Point, asking what the New Atheism even was. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since Gary Wolf resurrected the term at Wired in 2006 in his oft-cited essay. Asking and mostly getting the same answer, over and over.

There’s really only one position in relation to “New Atheism” that I’ve ever been completely comfortable with: that it doesn’t exist, that it never existed, and that the term was a snarl word that only functioned rhetorically. The phrase “Gnu Atheism”, an altogether un-serious mutation of the term born a few years later out of a scam that snared journalist and vocal critic Chris Mooney, always seemed a far better candidate to be taken seriously, despite its obvious satirical bend.

People using the term almost only ever define themselves in relation to the “New Atheism”, rather than in the affirmative. Who called themselves a “New Atheist”? A notable exception would be the late Victor Stenger, who seemed quite innocently unable to realize how odd he was in doing so. Mostly the meaning of the term shifted and slid according to the short term requirements of authors and pundits.

One day Daniel Dennett could have been a “New Atheist”, and the next a bulwark against it. The critique was folly. “New Atheism” was a shadow puppet.

***

Supposedly coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf at Wired, the term was used much earlier in 1986 by Robert Morey in his “New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom”, and possibly earlier than that again. Tacking a “new” onto the start of any “ism” being an old formula that’s sadly never gone stale.

Wolf’s article is more restrained than either Morey’s thesis, or any number of the jeremiads using the term that would follow. He focused on three authors, none who called themselves “New Atheists”; Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris. This was shortly before Christopher Hitchens had entered the fray.

It’s weird, even humorous that Wolf invoked the late Paul Kurtz in contrast to the “New Atheists”, then of the Centre For Inquiry. In the 1980s, the afore mentioned Morey was lambasting Kurtz himself as one of the “New Atheists”. It was an old game and one Kurtz would have been aware of, especially on account of the matter of stridency; the man was a supporter and friend of the not-exactly-timid Madalyn Murray O’Hair who also came in for a smearing in Morey’s tome.

Criticisms of Dawkins, typical of the time, came down to him being “strident”, and being incapable of alliances with liberal-minded Christians (despite his cooperation with then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the matter of creationism in schools). When you strip away the objections based on fiction, you were basically left with tone, which doesn’t have very much meat to it as far as purported ideological demarcations go. Anything that foreshadowed “Dear Muslima” was thin on the ground.

Wolf seemed even less capable of presenting a meaningful difference between Dennett and the likes of Kurtz.

***

Lashings of embellishments from a variety of authors in the following years didn’t flesh things out any further.

“They’re logical positivists!” (No “they” weren’t).

“They want to destroy Christian culture!” (Basically a re-branded War on Christmas fiction for people who imagined they were above Fox News).

“They support the Iraq War!” (Mostly “they” didn’t).

“Scientism!” (Having a poor conception of the boundaries of science does not a scientismist make, and at any rate, Harris’ philosophical silliness wasn’t widely adopted by purported “New Atheists” anyway – not unless you tweaked your definitions to perform an act of circular logic, at least.)

The worst part of these takes on the “New Atheism” though, wasn’t that they were untrue (although frequently they were). The worst part was that so little, if any of it, could be used as demarcation criteria. And when it was a suitable for demarcation, you’d find “New Atheism” being split off into other categories.

***

Even in the early days there was a whiff of sexism about the scene you couldn’t easily deny; Dawkins’ lilting waffle about the gentler sex; Harris’ bias for male pronouns; more overtly, Hitchens calling the Dixie Chicks “fucking fat slags”. Aside from how conspicuous it is that people wanting to bury the “New Atheism” at the time buried the lede on this one, this is still insufficient to demonstrate that there is (or was) a “New Atheism”. How would this sexism set the “New” apart from the “Old Atheism” – the old guard Wolf mentions?

Wolf wrote favorably about Asimov as an example of the old, but that guy was a complete shit to women; a serial groper, a condescending patriarch and completely unable to render women believably in fiction to boot. A demarcation criterion needs to be able to make a distinction, but “fucking fat slags” is a sentiment you could imagine ass-grabber Asimov getting behind, so sexism’s probably not going to do the job.

Maybe vanity and thin skin? No. I mean, Harris and Dawkins, and maybe Dennett could be accused of thin-skin, much like a number of other less known “New” atheists. But nice-guy Sagan’s “Butt-Head Astronomer” legal battle with Apple arguably tops any fit-of-pique the purported “New Atheism” could lay claim to.

Kurtz’s labelling of Ron Lindsay’s management style as Stalinist seems grounded in vanity as well. And the criticism of offensive cartoons – something he himself presided over but overlooked in a way suggestive of preening – brings us neatly back to the issue of confected difference.

The function of the “New Atheist” trope, at least from the secular progressive side, isn’t primarily to critique atheists. It’s a tool by which authors write about themselves in negative relief, a direct approach to extolling their own virtues being far too obvious. “Look at the New Atheism! [I’m not like that! Allow me to list the qualities I don’t have!]”

***

Back to Hamburger: So what came of “it”?

Hitchens is dead, for one. I think he would have objected to Hamburger’s attribution of the idea of liberalism ideally being grounded in pure reason alone. It’s almost as if Hamburger missed the discussion of “rationalist naiveté” – and Hitchens proximity to that discussion. Only Hamburger’s focus on that period is quite extensive.

And why the weird narrative tales? Non-belief and scientific rationality only becoming political causes after Hitchens joined with Dawkins et. al.? Harris “founding” the “New Atheist” genre, as if the other books by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens weren’t authored independently? That’s not how it happened.

I don’t think Hamburger is being mendacious. I don’t even think he’s writing his essay in an attempt to position himself with readers in the way that PZ Myers’ recent testimony-cum-denouncement so obviously labours to do. In a way, I suspect he’s naively fallen into the same trap Victor Stenger did, albeit from the opposite end of the pit.

It is possible to be unwittingly maneuvered into writing this kind of thing even if you’ve only passively adopted just a few questionable assumptions in good faith.

***

There are meaningful trends in the detritus of the readerships of the Usually Mentioned Atheists. You can find misogynists pretty easily. There’s a particular school of handwaving concerning the boundaries of science that’s been masquerading as clear and forthright ever since The Moral Landscape.

There’s been pride expressed over political ignorance and a related if often inverse dismissiveness regarding philosophical literacy. “You used a word that philosophers use! You’re one of those Politically Correct Ismists that are saying things! Now I know I can ignore you! Bwaha! You should leave the pub and leave me to stroke my most intelligent of beards!”

Depending on how the net has been cast, there are also more-or-less decent, more-or-less intelligent, and more-or-less anodyne sorts in there with more than salvageable ideas. But again, none of this is “New” and none of it is uniform across the purported “New Atheism”.

What can be done to collate meaning in all of this mess? Rather than giving the vague snarl word of “New Atheism” any serious coinage (or excessive dismissal in cases where no malice is evident), I think someone’s going to have to work out a taxonomy based on actual positions held, that actually matter taxonomically; something akin to John Nerst’s notion of the Pomo-oid Cluster, albeit for atheist authors post-2004. Or rather, someone should have tried this a long time ago.

Going beyond just the concept of a cluster and actually making a map of the territory would be immensely useful too, even if it wouldn’t take off in every-day conversation. At the very least people arguing in good faith could more easily avoid talking past each other, and a kind of convention for recognizing disingenuous railing against “New Atheists” could be more easily practiced.

As it stands, it’s too easy for woke-acting columnists to rail against “New Atheists” (The Guardian and Salon have offered up several examples over the years), just as it’s too easy for genuine criticism of atheist authors to be dismissed as disingenuous or hostile (which you can see for yourself if you crawl down this rabbit hole).

Forget how the various tribes of authors feel about this for a moment, and ask yourself “in a civil democracy, how does this particular form of ambiguity – this confected grouping – serve the public interest?”

~ Bruce

Zero trust for Antifa

Communes, The NSW Greens, Spanish anarchists, and a plethora of other groups have adopted grass-roots, informal organizing structures on some level, often with the same results: accountability suffers and power differentials go unchecked. Those participants with the will are more or less able to act with the liberty to deprive others of their liberties; freedom from intimidation, freedom from sexual harassment, freedom from having your labour exploited – it’s all up for grabs if nobody’s held responsible.

The “grass roots” approach isn’t magic. For some, it’s organizing for people who’ve been made to feel that “organizing” is a dirty word, while for others it’s a source of ready-made suckers.

Enter Antifa.

I used to like a number of Antifa groups and pages on Facebook and had, up until two or three years ago, a number of Antifa-affiliated friends I’ve since walked away from. What can I say: I didn’t like fascism, but I also didn’t like bullshit.

Philosophy Tube has a breakdown of the philosophy of Antifa that’s largely sympathetic, if you’re curious and have the time. Closer to the concerns I’m airing here, is the matter of how Antifa is non-hierarchical and de-centralized.

An early warning sign in discussions of such matters is when non-hierarchal structures are readily referred to in order to indemnify when something goes wrong, but are rarely ever explained or justified on their own merits, often being mere expediencies. You may get some kind of suggestion that being non-hierarchal, they are the natural opposite of authoritarianism, but that’s just splitting. There’s a world of possible organizational structures between authoritarianism and anarchism, and it’s possible to be discerning about which ones you choose and then hold yourself to it.

In the non-hierarchal, de-centralized anarchist world, you can’t just expect a discussion of how a lack of formal consequences could be exploited by crooks, macho-men, fantasists, demagogues or apaths. In fact, if you voice these kinds of concerns don’t be too shocked if you’re treated with suspicion. If this kind of thing is a concern then perhaps Antifa isn’t for you – as it’s not for me.

It’s probably worth mentioning, before moving on, that “Antifa” is not synonymous with “anti-fascist”; one serves as a proper noun, the other does not. You can be “anti-fascist” and not “Antifa”. There’s a rhetorical trick of equivocation some use that switches “critic of Antifa” out for “critic of anti-fascism”, thereby positioning the critic of Antifa as an ally of fascism. Aside from being breathtakingly dishonest, it’s one of many examples of the kind of black and white thinking that should have people more worried when they see it.

***

After a series of concatenated disappointments, it finally came as no surprise to find out that one “feminist” Antifa friend was involved in a campaign to harass dissident feminist academics and activists in Melbourne (which broadly was aligned with a campaign that then went on to see a survivor of particularly severe child sexual abuse having a placard of “blow jobs are real jobs” abusively shoved in her face). It was no surprise to find out that one former Antifa friend, a feminist “ally” no less, had an AVO taken out against him by his ex.

These aren’t the only examples of such non-surprises I’ve seen, and it’s also no surprise that it’s often women that end up on the wrong end of these exchanges. It’s the men with skinny necks who want to be Captain America the most.

***

There’s no shortage of silliness, it seems, when it comes to the intersection between Antifa and Black Metal. Both scenes have more than their share, so when things overlap? People were hoping they’d cancel each other out? Sadly not.

To be clear, despite having listened to metal – including black metal – for thirty-something years, I’ve never listened to Marduk, nor so much as owned a Burzum t-shirt. I’ve heard one or two Burzum songs here and there, but haven’t owned a CD. I’ve no particular interest in changing any of this. It’s pretty uncontroversial to state that Varg Vikernes’ politics are fascist, that he’s not a very nice guy, and I can’t imagine a reason why I’d think otherwise.

If however you think Nergal is fascist, you’re ignorant and either gullible or obtuse. You’re precisely the kind of dillweed I’ve long since stopped trying to take seriously. Want that to change? Do better. Here’s a starter: Appearing in a movie as a Nazi doesn’t make you a Nazi.

nergal

Nergal (Adam Darski) as Joachim von Ribbentrop on the set of AmbaSSada (2013) – three years before the Antifa Against Black Metal (AABM) post (2016).

Foolishness not withstanding, there’s definitely an angle to be explored countering fascism in black metal. Nationalist Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) is a sub-genre, fascists do mine sub-cultures and marginal movements to radicalize new recruits and black metal isn’t immune, and there’s no shortage of potential creative projects that could get off the ground; black or Viking metal artists with an interest in European paganism may for example want to consider restoring its iconography from the influences of Nazi fetishization. (Not that I’m really that Nietzschean, but correcting Nazi mis-readings of Nietzsche would seem to be something that could run parallel to this).

There are definite angles here, but also definite possibilities to fuck up like the way AABM did with Nergal. Typically I’m suspicious of artists presenting as activists, but I’d rather trust an artist accountable to a grants committee with most of this, than I would an Antifa or Antifa-like activist.

So it was with only a little hope that my ears pricked up at the mention of “Neckbeard Deathcamp”. My early thoughts were that their work appealed to my prejudices (I don’t like InCels or basement-dwelling white-supremacists), but came with a degree of facetiousness that I’ve come to see as a warning sign.

When someone focuses on the lolz this intensely in the face of serious evil, there’s always the possibility that it’s not just your enemy that they regard as a joke, but your cause as well. And while on the one hand, comedy is a useful political tool, on the other, well, people laughed at Hitler before he ratcheted things up, and look at how well that went. People laughed at Trump too.

***

UK label Blackened Death has released volume two of Worldwide Organization of Metalheads Against Nazis (W.O.M.A.N.). Neckbeard Deathcamp feature, alongside others. What’s ND’s contribution? “TERF Crisis”. Go ahead and navigate to the tropey lyrics yourself.

Beyond any issue of how “TERF” has been used as a means of painting the target for a barrage of (usually online and often misogynistic) abuse, and beyond any issue of it being “just descriptive” or technically accurate, associating gender critical or radical feminism with Nazism like this is an exercise in false equivalence that’d have Rush Limbaugh jizzing in his pants. Pull back the disguise and you’ve got a group made up mostly of men calling women “feminazi” yet again – a pretty good indicator of failure in my books.

Pick up any serious undergrad textbook about fascism that attempts to list its essential features, and you’ll find hyper-masculinity listed. Hyper-masculinity is hardly the only criterion you’ll see failing to line-up with second-wave feminism, either. Whatever your take on the material analysis of gender, or of the various strains of radical feminism, if you consider them fascist I have little interest in taking your politics seriously because clearly you don’t take your politics seriously either. Clearly if that’s the case, it’s all just a game to you.

The schism between second-wave feminism and the currently dominant strand of transgender activism has been a Godsend to posturing brocialists; guys looking to finally lecture women on feminism and to be licensed to do it. They get to have their “well actually” and eat it too. Couple this with a climate where anything can be identified as fascist, and therefore punched, smashed or whatever else, and you’ve got an absolute wet dream for the left’s own misogynists.

People are implying, if not openly stating, that Blackened Death’s move will make metal more accessible to previously excluded groups, including women. Owing to repeated past experience, I’m not at all sure it’ll pan out that way. I hope I’m wrong.

***

You may be left wondering how Neckbeard Deathcamp’s Superkommando Uberweinersnitchel fits into all of this after exiting the band last month, owing to a number of his past not-entirely-woke social media antics being dredged up. The band delivered the standard anti-perfectionism defense in response. Hailz Komradez’s past membership in the now-defunct misogynistic $lutrot was then raised and the implications decided upon almost immediately.

“…You Trojan horsed your way in through a parody band and now you’ve been uncovered in less than five minutes research. Sucks.” – Dean Brown, 2018.

It has to be said that the resentment thrown up by these kinds of hyperbolic exchanges makes for a great climate for recruitment by various shades of political nasty. You can imagine alt-right media types rubbing their hands together at the sight of it.

I don’t expect these kids to be perfect, or censured, or censored, or excommunicated. But their contribution gives you the impression that “TERF Crisis” was selected right-off the back of their recent social media shaming for a particular reason; the phrase is a shibboleth in Twitter pile-on culture, and second-wave feminists are easy targets with limited material power with which to fight back. It seems like an effective strategy for re-directing angry tweets – maybe it’ll work, if that’s the aim.

I don’t know if the naysayers are right – that Neckbeard Deathcamp have just trojan horsed their way into the left – but you’ll forgive me if past experience has taught me not to get my hopes up that people’s motives are sufficiently genuine.

***

Blackened Death seem about as ad-hoc about campaigning as does Antifa, and about as accountable to their own base and to the broader community as well. I don’t know their working conditions, so I can’t comment on what capacity they have for planning and reflection; I imagine they’re a damn tiny, thinly-stretched outfit, actually.

I have no interest in castigating them. I can’t say I know they’re insincere, either.

But you can’t fault an audience for suspecting fertile soil is being tilled for abusive brocialists and their fellow travelers. You can’t fault women for staying away, despite gestures like Gaylord’s Filosofemme – a play on Burzum’s Filosofem – or the declarative acronym “W.O.M.A.N.”

You can’t fault people for getting the impression that violently misogynistic sentiments like those expressed by the Degenderettes are more than welcome in these circles. (Let’s cut the shit, this “I PUNCH TERFS” business isn’t about liberating the gender non-conforming, it’s about fantasies of bashing women).

And you can’t fault people for assuming that Blackened Death believe second wave feminism is a form of fascism – i.e. that Blackened Death isn’t actually serious about either fascism or feminism. They are, primarily, a music label, not a political organization. Take that for what it’s worth.

Instead of putting a small, independent label under the microscope, though, it’s possibly a better idea for any political wonks watching this episode to observe the way purposely anti-fascist groups, not labels or online music magazines, respond to and influence this project. That and maybe gauge the response of listeners (and comments threads if the requisite hazmat suits are available).

What’s Antifa’s role if any in all of this? Do involved anti-fascist groups hold themselves accountable via formal mechanisms, or do they just wing it, or indeed, indulge themselves? Who if anyone will be blamed if and when shit does hit the fan? How will they be blamed? Does this have material consequences for participants – particularly women and people of colour?

How long will it take for the “I feel personally safe as a member of x, therefore there’s no problem” trope to drop? Which purportedly welcome social group, if any, will be caught on the pointy end of this kind of apologetics first (my money is on lesbians)?

Until something changes, my trust in Antifa and the like will remain as low as it’s ever been. Maybe something will change. I’m not holding my breath.

~ Bruce

Connotation creep

Something I’ve been noticing increasingly with the rote use of political/civics language, is a curious, somewhat sneaky attachment of connotations to otherwise unobjectionable terms or phrases. The “creep” comes into it, not because it’s creepy (although it sometimes is), but on account of something akin to mission creep; an array of new connotations starts to steer the use of the phrase away from it’s original purpose.

Consider the pair:

1) “You’re free to speak, but you’re not free from the consequences of your speech”.

2) “You’re free to speak, but you’re not free from the consequences of your speech” *Taps baseball bat in hand/[insert implied retribution]*.

The first is often deployed in response to bigots of various stripes who think their public speech acts are immune to criticism – I.e. as a rebuttal to authoritarians who think they’re entitled to be viewed as liberal and to have their critics gagged at the same time.

The second I’ve actually seen deployed by people who’ve tried to pretend that they’re being oppressed by another on account of a speech act, and therefore that a retaliatory threat (or act) of violence is justified – E.g. what boils down to InCels warning women that they reserve the right to violence should they hear the word “no” too often. There are obviously other possible instantiations of the corrupted form as well.

I use the above example not because I’ve seen the connotation deployed recently, but because in its more extreme state, it makes what I’m talking about relatively clear. The difference between the furthest extremes in meaning is stark and hard to forget, but only once you’ve had the opportunity to see it. The creep is usually more subtle in the wild.

You get to wondering, once you’ve seen the creep and then the uncorrupted meaning being used again, just who a person’s been talking to. Have they borrowed the phrase without thinking it through? Do they know how else they could be read? Are they, somewhere, unwittingly co-operating with someone who’s got an investment in the creep? Do they on some level sympathize with these motives, or have a bias that prevents them from seeing them in the first place?

***

This corruption isn’t like the right’s overt co-opting of language (particularly the co-opting of terms that the left has used to criticize itself). That’s usually pretty blunt – more of a connotational lurch, than a creep. If they weren’t jacking our shit, I’d almost respect their openness.

But no, the creep is a worry too. It’s insidious, especially among bros.

“You’re denying her agency!”

A phrase meant to highlight how a women’s role as a decision maker and interest holder is being sidelined from consideration is relatively apt to creep towards something that serves the bros. Just remove power from the analysis, and treat all the current options on the table as the only ones logically possible, and all that’s left is to smear the people criticizing the situation as “denying her agency”. Never mind that the bros may be actively restricting the options she has to choose between in the first place.

Consider the bro who’s gaslighted and socially isolated his partner to the point where she’ll accept any crummy choice from a list of crummy choices. Consider the bro who’s deliberately selected and “helped” a partner with body image problems. Consider the bro who’s rendered his partner deliberately vulnerable through a hundred ratcheting steps. Then consider her modelling on social media to impress bro’s friends, submitting to injurious sex acts, you name it.

“Maybe she likes performing ass to mouth for his gurning bro friends to watch and laugh at! You’re denying her agency!” There are other examples along the continuum both less and more extreme, and if you line them up in graduations you can creep, creep, creep your way along them – if you’re that kind of asshole. If you’re really good, and have the aid of a compliant crowd, you can pass your shittiness off as woke in no time at all.

***

It’s practically a law of the Internet that as a phrase or term goes viral in social justice circles, it’s meaning will creep towards something more regressive. The corrupting agents are plural; marketing departments, MBA speak, narcissists, aspiring social media cult leaders, hipster brocialists, and on and on; the usual eaters of meaning.

It didn’t take long for the “spoon theory” disability metaphor to be used by “good allies” without disabilities who were just looking for a convenient term to express their exasperation.

“This thread is tiresome. I’m all out of spoons”.

“WTF Byron? You don’t even have a disability!”

And fark. “Good ally” itself doesn’t necessarily connote what people think it does anymore (if ever). I’m sick of getting a pat on the head for that one. Don’t be shocked if you call someone a “good ally” only for them to ask you what you mean, and to quiz you on your expectations.

“Safe Space”: That’s been creeping since the 80s at least. It used to be the product of women’s officers on campus, and it had little to do connotationally with “trigger warnings” or “no-platforming”, both of which have had their own substantial creeps as well. Think better lighting, women-only spaces, security guard patrols/escorts during the late hours, intercoms, anti-harassment policies and so on and you’ll be closer to the “safe space” of yore.

I’d ask you this, a favour: If you consider yourself progressive, travel in progressive circles, socialize enough, and still wonder what the fuck I’m on about here, keep an eye on something for me. When you see a designated “safe space”, keep an eye out to see how lesbians are catered to.

Lesbians – lesbians of colour especially – have often been the first to go under the bus in ostentatiously progressive spaces. As a social group in political circles, they’re easy to isolate and then exploit, attack or easily exclude.

***

The examples of connotation creep aren’t lacking if you pay attention. There are things that I suspect, though, that could be of help in keeping conversations from being corrupted. If the thought of my offering advice seems too didactic, feel free to ignore me and skip the rest of this piece.

Don’t reward or encourage people for rote-repetition of cant. This just encourages people to say the words more, but without encouraging them to really think about what they’re saying.

Don’t be quick to dismiss things as “semantics”. Possibly there are few better climates for the corruption of meaning than those where people have decided to deride discussions of meaning.

Do avoid political cant when plain language will convey your meaning with economy. This way you can keep your meaning without edgelords wanting to pervert it – and you’ll be more easily understood. Orwell was right.

Get to really know political language if you can, especially its etymology. I keep seeing people saying that etymology is irrelevant ala the genetic fallacy, but this strikes me as wrong-headed in much the same way as the “why are their still monkeys” creationist argument. Old meanings can still be in play in every day language, if not the foundational literature. Knowing what’s out there as best you can helps you get your point across without participating in the corruption.

Don’t let people guilt you about being careful with words, especially if you’re a writer. You don’t have to be self-flagellating, but writers are supposed to give a shit about words. Allowing others to manipulate you is often tantamount to giving editorial control to people who aren’t entitled to it.

Be fair on yourself and adopt the lexicon at your own pace. Don’t beat yourself up if you need to ask someone to explain a neologism clearly, although give them a little leeway for pace as well.

If people are quick to anger with you, and accuse you of being obtuse, reconsider whether they’re worth having a discussion with. You can’t have an honest discussion with someone who doesn’t want an honest discussion.

Try to preference publications that take a care with these issues. Personal choice isn’t the world-changer some people think it is, but you may be able to positively influence discussions in your own space if the media you take to it is more carefully selected.

***

I doubt there’s more I can say on connotation creep at this point that’s not redundant, vague or boring. I’m trusting that people reading this can get my point. It’s not that hard.

I’ll confess this is all somewhat shaped by the kinds of conversations I’d like to have – but if you’ve got this far then possibly you’re similarly inclined.

I hope this has been helpful.

~ Bruce

What a week in Australian politics

After two leadership challenges in one week, I expect the Australian public are quite fatigued with the state of our federal politics. That is if they haven’t managed to switch off entirely already. It takes a morbid kind of fascination to keep a laser focus on this unsightly mess.

“I don’t want to talk about it! I’m pissed off!”

This could be the public’s anthem, I suspect.

And yet we’ll have another federal election within months. Do you think the public will have enough patience for a long campaign? Do you think it’ll be able to make an informed decision with a short one?

Earlier in the week, when it was just Dutton versus Turnbull, a friend suggested that the media didn’t have their eye on the ball, and were ignoring Morrison moving in the shadows. Just days later, we now have Morrison as Prime Minister.

Dutton was just an agent of disruption. A political cluster bomb encouraged from a safe a distance, while those who’d personally wield the scalpel waited to see what would result, and how best to respond. The result is ScoMo.

Not that a many of us can be enthusiastic about the bloodbath at the moment. If we haven’t written all the leadership candidates off as horrible – ineffectual Malcy, police state Dutton, asbestos Bishop and “This is coal” Morrison – the din of the circus music emanating from Canberra is making it hard to concentrate.

“I can’t keep up or even remember half of it! Leave me alone!”

This is a dangerous state for a modern democracy to be in. It’s not like Morrison’s new government – nor anyone else in parliament for that matter – are going to take a break from making plans that will influence people’s lives.

A thought: Rather than opponents of the – ugh – Morrison Government running around absolutely independently, telling all and sundry why to vote a certain way because X, Y, Z, perhaps they could drip-feed their messages in a more organized fashion, and otherwise respond to the Government’s assertions, primarily with questions geared to remind the public of salient matters?

The government is likely to be replete with contradiction, presenting all sorts of opportunities for raising short and succinct hold-on-a-minutes. And if that pisses the public off, well, the government raised the matter in the first place. Otherwise, empathizing with the public’s frustration, and doing one’s best not to replicate just what frustrated them in the first place, seems like the way to go, at least until the election.

Needless to say, as pissed off as people are with the current mob, overwrought moral indignation is probably not going to appeal to swing voters still experiencing disorientation, and raises its own contradictions.

“Oh my god. Government is taking a day off again! At a time like this!? How selfish!”
”Get off your high horse Black Wiggle. You didn’t caterwaul like this the last umpteen times Government took a break, and those times were no less important. You aren’t relating to me!”

I make no attempt to disguise my loathing of this current federal government, and I wish the more humane and sane all the best in taking them down. But if you lot could start by toning down the affectations, it’d be a nice start. We’ve already got headaches around here without any additional drama.

~ Bruce