Archive for November, 2011

This might not be timely, but it’s a subject that just keeps coming back.

To recap: A few months ago, Rebecca Watson talked about an uncomfortable interaction she had with a guy she didn’t know in an elevator.

The complicated and diverse discussion about gender politics which ensued has been fascinating, and I mean that in a “massive car accident” sense only about 90% of the time. Part of this ensuing discussion has included a fair bit of abuse heading Rebecca’s way, some predictable, some surreal, some pretty batshit crazy. I think I’ve written about elevatorgate itself as much as I want to, but if you want to develop your own opinion further, here’s an idea for some research you could try.

Look up some blog articles and videos by people criticising Rebecca’s attitudes and actions regarding elevatorgate. Then calculate the percentage of those blogs and videos which have been made by terrible, terrible people.

This is what I find most frustrating about it all. There doesn’t have to be the preponderance of awfulness which there seems to be among people taking issue with things Rebecca has said or done. There’s room to disagree with her or object to her in a number of legitimate ways. But, for instance, Abbie Smith – who presumably wouldn’t have been blogging on ScienceBlogs for as long as she has if she hadn’t clearly demonstrated the capacity to concisely express thoughtful and intelligent views on things – doesn’t seem so interested in those.

She mostly seems interested in using the word “Twatson”. Like, a lot.

It comes up repeatedly in her blogs and comment threads, and here’s one particular instance where she explains her reasoning behind it:

Its a trip-wire, alerting me to the presence of stupid people. See, Ive found that all you have to do is lay down a funny alliteration, and stupid people fall over themselves on that point, ignoring everything else. They literally lose the ability to read and write, not to mention make cognizant points. Its not an effective teaching tool, its just funny. I do it to Creationists. I do it to HIV Deniers. I do it to anti-vaxers. And I did it here. You fell for it. *enthusiastic-clapping*

Like calling them rude names, being really patronising toward someone can be a lot of fun, but it probably won’t make them like you or think you’re worth listening to.

Personally, I do find it a bit of a struggle to keep reading through a whole blog post of what someone has to say when they throw out childish taunts at people I respect with no apparent reason. Maybe that means I’m stupid and have just fallen over. But it’s a shame, because some of Abbie’s points are worth making. The Richard Dawkins Foundation’s sponsorship of childcare for TAM attendees, for instance, is a cool thing that deserves to be noted. Her blog’s name is ERV, after its intended focus on endogenous retroviruses, and I don’t doubt I could learn all sorts of fascinating stuff if I read some of her posts on that subject more thoroughly.

But I’ve had to fight a natural inclination not to just say “Yeah, I’m done with you now” ever since she decided to be obnoxious and unkind.

She recently went on a weird tirade against Jen McCreight as well, which has been suitably picked apart over at Jen’s blog.

There’s just nothing about this approach which is a good thing, in any way. It goes beyond dissent, disagreement, dispute, disrespect. It’s a lashing-out which makes some people feel good, and allows them to dismiss any objections, by deciding ahead of time that anyone espousing civility or politeness is being obsessive and over-sensitive. It’s already been determined, beyond any inclination to question further, that indiscriminately calling Rebecca Watson a twat is fine and totally justified, and anyone who suggests otherwise is just obsequiously sucking up to her.

Let’s not keep doing that.

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This was going to be a blog post which looked at a couple of recent claims made by Mike Adams on his NaturalNews blog. It’s going to be a bit shorter than I’d planned, for reasons I’ll come to.

First, he posted recently about a recall of flu vaccines. His only source is the Daily Mail, but he’s not egregiously wrong on the basic facts. Baxter Healthcare announced a recall of 300,000 doses of its influenza vaccine Preflucel, due to safety concerns.

Where he goes wrong is in thinking that this is somehow a massive deal.

Preflucel is one of thirteen different available vaccines, and is intended specifically for people with allergies and heart conditions. It’s not a large or particularly crucial part of Europe’s vaccination program.

What led to the recall was that, in Germany, more people were reporting mild side effects from the vaccine, such as headaches, than would usually be expected. That’s it. It’s making more people feel nauseated than usual, so they’re pulling the batch just to be safe.

Mike Adams wants us to be scared that this vaccine is “so harmful that the company has decided to recall several hundred thousand doses of it and cease all further administration”. But really, what this shows is that this particular pharmaceutical corporation seem to have a reassuringly low threshold for taking a sweeping precautionary measure. They didn’t want to take the risk that we could just be seeing the first signs of a more serious problem – or possibly they just don’t want the PR nightmare of being seen to have continued selling a product with a suspected raised incidence of unwanted side effects – so, the stuff’s gone.

There’s nothing here from which to conclude any dastardly conspiracy. And at a conservative estimate, influenza kills a quarter of a million people each year. People really need vaccines for this, particularly the elderly and the chronically ill, and the path to trying to keep everyone as safe as they can be isn’t always going to go smoothly. We just have to make sure that mistakes and problems are dealt with as responsibly as they can be.

The second NaturalNews post I was going to cover was this one, but… Well, take a look at the page after page of inanity. I just don’t have the energy to go through it all.

Sigh. Sure, Mike, maybe it is time I start reading some books by David Icke. That’ll be what finally opens my eyes.

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About fourteen years ago, a Birmingham councillor was trying to find a way to market the various Christmas events going on in the city centre over the holiday period, and came up with the word “Winterval”.

Since then, certain tabloids haven’t shut up about the idea that Winterval was an attempt by the politically correct lefty brigade to ban Christmas.

By “certain tabloids”, I mean above all the Daily Mail, which has averaged more than three repetitions of this falsehood every single year since 1998 – but many other papers, including respectable broadsheets, have racked up comparable frequencies of reprinting the same rubbish.

Now, though, the Mail has printed three sentences in their Clarifications and corrections section, so everything’s been sorted out.

Except, even if the subject of Winterval is now as unambiguously settled and resolved as anyone could hope it to be, this still isn’t the most satisfying way to draw the saga to a close. Dozens of misleading and hyperbolic articles, over the course of more than a decade, have been offset by a couple of column inches. I find it unlikely that the cumulative effect they’ve had will be significantly reversed by this latest development.

Of course, I don’t want to be too harsh on the Mail for acknowledging and correcting a mistake, even if it was overdue and under-emphasised. But it’s evident how little the problem has been solved when you look at the bulk of their side of the general media conversation.

A couple of months ago, blogger Kevin Arscott pointed out to Melanie Phillips that she was repeating a long-debunked myth in her Daily Mail column. She wrote back, describing his message as being “as arrogant and ignorant as it is offensive”, and reasserted her baseless claim that the use of the seasonal marketing term Winterval was part of an effort to avoid referring to Christmas at all (even though the official descriptions of Winterval always directly referred to Christmas several times).

“Winterval buried ‘Christmas’ and replaced it in the public mind”, she wrote, which of course explains why you’ve barely heard mention of Christmas this century, outside the columns of a few intrepid tabloid journalists fighting to bring you the truth, amidst all the politically right-on Winterval talk going around.

In Melanie’s next email to Kevin, she made vague and entirely inane threats of suing him for libel.

Previous attempts to complain to the PCC about the repeated untruths being printed in this popular national paper had been unsuccessful. But the Mail’s recent decision to clarify and correct their position implies that they’re now siding with Kevin, at least on his basic point – the claim that Christmas was “renamed in various places” was, in fact, misleading and incorrect, despite Melanie’s initial objections. He’s waiting for an apology.

Oh, and the headline of the Melanie Phillips article from September, which now carries a correction as to the nature of Winterval, was: Our language is being hijacked by the Left to muzzle rational debate.

This is how successfully the tabloid media’s ability to self-regulate is currently working.

So yeah, it still kinda sticks in my craw.

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…These are a few of my favourite things.

Most religions have some very strong views about penises and vaginas and anuses and the things you are or aren’t allowed to do with them. God, they tend to agree, has a plan, in which sex plays a very particular part.

Of course, most humans are quite capable of independently discovering how much fun can be had with these bits of themselves, if you leave them alone in a room for a few minutes. A quick Google search will confirm that sex is among the most popular contact sports available in the modern world. But most of those ways of doing it are wrong.

God’s ideas of sex are very, very specific. It’s for deliberate procreation, sometimes, if you’re married, and of opposite sex, and there’s only two of you, maybe, depending on who you ask.

Animals have sex too, but they’re much more… well, animal about it. It’s all feral and bestial and carefree and irresponsible and way more fun not a suitable way for civilised folk like you and me to behave. We’re different from the animals, better than, morally responsible. We’re expected to take a totally different approach to the whole business of sex than they do.

So… Why did God choose to give humans and animals basically identical biological functions and urges, if he intended such completely different results?

He wants sex between humans to be special and sacred, we’re told, and it comes with many stipulations. It’s only permissible if it’s producing offspring to further praise his glorious name, or at least cementing the loving bond between a man and woman joined in his eyes in holy blah blah. And yet, to achieve this, we’re given basically the same process as he gave the animals, who mount and rut and fuck whenever the mood takes them.

Wouldn’t it have served God’s purpose rather better (and made it much easier for all of us to avoid straying into temptation by just wanting to have a good time) if he’d provided a different system in our case? Something which still achieves his ineffable goals for us all, but which doesn’t tempt us to act like such depraved beasts?

The way things are, it just seems like we’re closely genetically related to these depraved beasts, and have evolved our sex drive through a similar process of selection with variation that they did. And that’s surely not in God’s best interests.

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Here’s a thing about anarchism.

Some anarchists claim to reject all political ideology, and to be the one group truly free from such things. Actually, I think it’s clear there is an ideology behind their ideas, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To claim that exerting authority by force over another human being is always wrong, and can never be tolerated, is an ideological position. On some levels, it’s an admirable one.

But as well as admirable, a lot of anarchist discourse and rhetoric seems to imply that this position is also trivially obvious.



I’ve seen a few videos like the above, and read a few essays making claims like “capitalism is wage slavery” and “taxation is theft” to describe the evils of coercion. It seems like it should barely even need to be explained that any authority takes people’s rights away, and so no government or state or individual should never be granted the right to exert such authority over others.

Here’s the problem: even if the moral principle is sound, and the wrongness of the state’s efforts to thwart this principle and impose their authority is trivial and obvious, there’s a good deal that’s not trivial and obvious.

For instance, what the fuck we’re supposed to do instead.

I’m not going to claim there’s no possible alternative to a system of state authority. I’m still hoping to be persuaded. The idea that appeals to me, and which I’d like to be true if it seemed plausible, is that statism has a comparable role in our society to religion: structurally vital to our developing civilisation in the distant past, and a previously necessary part of our species’s capacity to get organised and become great… but something which we can and should abandon once we’re sufficiently sophisticated, and once it’s clearly started doing more harm than good.

Right now, a centralised state is crucial for me to be able to live comfortably in a house I didn’t build myself, eat food for which I personally neither foraged nor hunted, and many other things without which my quality of life would take something of a dip.

Anarchists, of course, propose a system in which society still works together, and all these things can still get done. Assuming they’re sensible enough to see the value of a hierarchically structured society for certain aspects of human history, they nevertheless believe that we can get by just fine without it these days. But it’s not trivially obvious how we can actually make that happen.

Constructing a functional civilisation with no authority or coercion whatsoever is a seriously big ask, and drawing parallels between the government demanding taxes and you coming into my house to steal my stuff doesn’t actually address any of the reasons why most of us tend to assume that interferences like taxes are necessary.

I’m all for finding an alternative. But pointing out the trivially obvious injustice in the current system is only one step on a very long road.

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The Heresiarch is characteristically spot-on in his take on the matter of the recently firebombed French magazine that had dared to publish blasphemous cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed. In particular, he’s taking on the idea that an organisation that goes out of its way to deliberately cause offense to millions of peace-loving Muslims deserves no sympathy when a small violent faction is driven to bloody vengeance.

I think when I do this it’s called a pull-quote:

The irony is that this kind of argument is a form of Islamophobia itself, both because it demonstrates actual fear of Muslims (they might bomb us) and because it caricatures them as all the same, all equally thin-skinned and all interested in nothing beyond upholding the dignity of their holy prophet. But in fact Muslims (whether they know it or not; many do) have much more than other people to gain from a lifting of the taboo on criticising any aspect of their religion, whether Sharia law, the Koran or the personality of Mohammed.

This is exactly right. If the over-sensitive cultural taboo wasn’t so keenly and aggressively in place, then cartoonists and satirists wouldn’t find it nearly such a rich vein of subject matter. Magazines wouldn’t bother putting the images in question on their covers, because there’d be no worthwhile point to be made by doing so; and so the extremists subgroups wouldn’t keep firebombing people and reinforcing the public image of Muslims as violent reactionaries who the rest of us ought to fear. Surely that unfortunately widespread perception is more damaging and hurtful to the majority of Muslims than the occasional drawing of their prophet.

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It’s not easy taking apart and analysing the kind of predictably abhorrent trolling from a major columnist in a newspaper like the Daily Mail sometimes.

Or perhaps the problem is that, in a way, it’s too easy. I think sufficient evidence is in by now to conclude that Liz Jones is an objectively terrible person. Clearly no sensible person should need to have it explained to them why her latest column, about the lengths she’s gone to deceive her partner so that she can become pregnant with his child, is just completely awful.

And yet its proud publication on such a prominent news site implies that at least one person doesn’t see this as a fantastically depressing outlook to have on life. If this is really how a non-negligible number of people think, there must still be value to explaining why it makes the rest of us bash our heads against walls and sob exhaustedly into pillows.

But even reading something like this just makes me so tired.

I don’t despair for humanity – if Liz Jones had the power to make me that cynical, I really would be depressed. I just despair for her.

Look at the state of her relationship to begin with, as she describes it.

I wanted a career, freedom, a nice house and to keep my figure. As a feminist, I looked down on mumsy types.

But when I was in my late 30s, I decided that if I didn’t get pregnant soon then it might never happen. I had also reached a point in my life where I wanted to settle down with a man, and though my boyfriend at that time was wildly unsuitable, I thought that I could change him.

The abrupt realisation that she might miss the chance to have her own child was clearly something that came as an unpleasant shock to her, even after all those years she’d spent scorning “mumsy” types. You have to wonder how much self-loathing she’d been covering up all that time, if the desire for children was actually this important to her.

In fact it was so important to her – and, evidently, she thinks so little of herself – that she felt compelled to stay with someone who was “wildly unsuitable”, and presumably wasn’t making her that happy, just because she was desperate for some stability.

But given what appears to matter to her in a relationship, it doesn’t sound like she’s doing herself any favours.

He lived with his parents before he moved in with me, and earned very little money. I was working on a newspaper and was fiercely ambitious. He was laid-back, I am not. I was ready for a baby, he wasn’t.

I recently moved into my girlfriend‘s house. She’s got a full-time job and is paying the mortgage; I’m unemployed. But despite this and other differences, we’re finding ourselves extremely well suited to each other, because… well, we like each other. We’re not formally collaborating on some business proposition. We care about each other and want to continue spending time together, because we enjoy it. And whenever there’s something important to one of us, which the other isn’t picking up on or might not be fully on board with, we have a conversation about it.

But this isn’t the sort of thing that goes on in relationships for Liz Jones. She complains that her boyfriend “wouldn’t” have sex with her, but doesn’t elaborate on what his reservations were, or whether she was ever curious as to the cause of his reticence. His decision to move in with her was, she thinks, “probably more out of a desire to be able to walk to work than any real love for me”, implying that she never actually asked whether that was the reason. The most succinct explanation she gives for why she would never want to share a child with this man is that he “didn’t earn any money”.

And a marriage, as we later find out, means to Liz Jones that a woman should have “every right to want to start a family”. Wanting to start a family is surely no crime, even for someone unmarried, but deceiving someone so as to force their involvement in your efforts? Does any woman ever have a right to ignore their partner’s wishes and trap them like this, even if they’re married? Even if – and this is a genuine justification she uses for her actions – she’s “bought him many, many M&S ready meals”?

It’s easy to see it as loathsome and despicable when Liz Jones attempted to covertly impregnate herself using sperm from a used condom. When she describes this as a plan which “many will doubtless find shocking”, it sounds like she’s making a neat attempt to shift the guilt onto us for being too square and unhip to handle her maverick originality, rather than on her for being awful, so very awful.

But this is just what a relationship is to her. Women want children and men don’t, so that’s just what you do. Men “should be much more wary”, because women aren’t to be trusted. One of her female friends was more successful than she was, and her former partner is now “in a new relationship having to pay support for a child he never sees”. Liz doesn’t even seem to condemn this particularly, or even bemoan the state of society’s priorities that such behaviour is so normalised; it’s just a somewhat unfortunate but natural consequence of the only way people could ever possibly behave in Liz Jones’s world. So it goes.

I really feel sad for her.

But still, it’s important to remember that she is awful.

I still have days now when I wished the sperm-theft had worked; that I had a daughter or son my husband felt compelled to visit.

Not, I’m ashamed to say, because I think I’d be a particularly good mum, but because our relationship would not have been a complete waste of time, with nothing to show for it but bad memories and a shared cat.

That’s her main regret resulting from the whole thing. Not that the relationship didn’t survive, or that she and her partner had found their differences less irresolvable and had made some decisions together which suited them both. Not even that she had a child with whom she could share unconditional mutual love, in a way she’d never been able to with her boyfriend or husband. She just wants something to show for all the work she put in. If that something happens to be a new helpless life which is entirely dependent on her and which she’s not very good at caring for – well, that’s just the way Liz Jones’s world works.

What a depressing place. If you’ve read this far, I’m sorry I’ve made you spend so much time there.

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