Archive for May, 2012

A recent poll reveals that “the austerity census has collapsed“: a majority of the British public apparently support a 75% top rate of income tax for those earning over £1 million.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the trend of my ravingly revolutionary political tendencies lately might be surprised to learn that I find this more frustrating than heartening.

Despite having very little to do with the dreaded spectre of socialism in particular, this idea of the super-rich being hit with correspondingly super-high tax rates is anathema to most capitalists, and the right-wing objections are predictable and well understood. It discourages the “job creators” from going about their job-creating business. It punishes success. It drives successfully industrious people out of the country. It decreases tax revenue by damaging motivation and pushing down productivity. It hurts the economy.

As to whether this is empirically true, I’ve seen arguments backed up by data and graphs that go both ways, and I’m not going to ferret out the complex truth of it here. What interests me is the way the common leftist response misses an important point.

The focus on low- and middle-income households, who are being far more troublingly squeezed even by the lower tax rates than those millionaires and billionaires, is appropriate and important. But even if the financial “hardships” of the 1% don’t exactly tug on many heart-strings, neither am I in this for retribution. If we’re going to increase the tax rate above a certain income level, it shouldn’t be because we want to punish anyone; it should be because it makes economic sense.

If these high tax rates really do demotivate the super-rich to stay in the country and/or keep doing any useful work (which many of them seem to claim is the case), this probably isn’t just down to simple petulance which needs to be beaten out of them. The salaries earned by the richest executives at the biggest companies really are obscenely huge, and it’s bizarre to think that these are jobs which nobody competent would ever be willing to do for any sum so paltry as, say, a mere £1 million a year. But it’s not just about earning a perfectly reasonable living wage. Having what seems like money that’s rightfully yours be taxed away like that, hurts.

It’s a very different experience (I imagine) to be paid £1 million for doing a job, than to be paid £4 million and then have to give £3 million away to the government. We’re a loss-averse species, for one thing, and it’s a very human trait to let the immensity of our windfall be swamped by the fact that it’s only a quarter of what we really should have had. Never mind that we’re being offered orders of magnitude more financial security than most people on the planet will ever have a chance at. We’re predictably irrational.

So it’s really not at all sociopathic for the super-rich to be a bit miffed by this idea. They earned their millions and billions of dollars legitimately, through their hard work and valuable contribution to the economy, after all. The government wasn’t involved in that, so why should all this money be forcibly taken away from them now to help people who haven’t bothered to be so entrepreneurial?

This, of course – the idea that profits are what the market does, and taxes are how government unrelatedly interferes – is where everyone is completely insane.

The idea that taxation is the point at which the government abruptly steps in and sticks its nose into what had been purely private business between free marketeers up to that point is absurd. The government is essential in supporting a framework of laws which make a massive agglomeration of wealth and capital and power possible in the first place. And you can bet it’s going to be a capitalist-friendly framework, given who’s got the assets to lobby and offer donations to politicians in order to sway their opinions. A framework including all sorts of clever off-shore schemes and work-arounds not easily available to the masses. To pick one of the more obviously egregious examples, when Vodafone owed up to £7 billion in taxes, HMRC simply decided to let them off.

More commonly, though, the problem isn’t that small pockets of businessmen aren’t handing over sufficiently huge sums of their money to the state, but that they’ve seized hold of so much in the first place. Any income that socialists might want to redistribute has already been distributed in some way they presumably deem unjust – but then why was it distributed that way in the first place?

That’s where we should be looking to change things. The system which allows some individuals to go so far above and beyond the reasonable limits of success, that they get to claim dictatorship over land and capital and just keep getting richer off the labour of others. The system which goes so far beyond simply rewarding hard work and innovation, that making 100 million dollars into 110 million is inevitable.

If the majority of the British public got their way, our government would continue enforcing a system of rules by which some individuals and small groups accrue immense wealth… and then take most of it away from them.

Who would get rich from this particular policy? The government.

Do you like the government and want to see them get richer and more powerful, majority of the British public?

I thought not.

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I watched the film Flatliners yesterday, because this was apparently an event many years overdue in my life. It was solid, silly 90s fun, with Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, a Baldwin of some sort, Julia Roberts, and that guy from that thing. It made something pretty obvious occur to me.

We, as a species, really don’t seem to like ghosts.

I mean, there aren’t many ways in which the dead can rise and find our approval, but we always assume the worst of ghosts. So much of the time, the unfinished business which provides the only reason they’re sticking around in this world is something vengeful, something to satisfy their anger and hatred.

Among the world’s most haunted places are said to be a number of ghosts, who generally met some bloody end, and have been loitering for centuries. Everybody who could ever have wronged these individuals in life is long dead; any vendetta or feud, long since irrelevant. There’s nothing left for them to achieve here, no wrong to right, no justice to be had. But still we suppose they stay, angry and miserable and trapped.

And since, y’know, ghosts don’t exist, this can’t reflect badly on them. Only on us.

Apparently, lust for revenge is one of the strongest reasons for us not to want death to be the end of us. When our bodies give in, we don’t want to go, mostly because we haven’t yet had a chance to get back at some bastard who pissed us off. We loves us some retribution, and we assume most dead people do too, even after you might think they’d have been able to leave all worldly concerns behind.

Not every restless soul is like this, but they so rarely stick around here if they’re actually happy. They tend to move on to some higher ethereal plane, only communicating with us, in unreliable fragments of conversation, “from the other side”, through an assortment of con-men. They never seem to feel the need to stick around here to get anything done. The only thing ever worth clinging on to this world for is finishing up some brutal revenge.

What does this say about us, that these are the things we imagine we’ll be focused on for centuries once we’re dead? Is it just that it’s harder to tell a fun story if you imagine deceased spirits are capable of forgiveness and kindness, or are we preoccupied with all the wrong things?

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Oh hai internets. I’ve been and gone and pointed my face at YouTube again. This time I’m having a conversation with myself, through the magic of SPECIAL EFFECTS.



Again, it’s not the start of any regular trend, but these are still fun enough to make that I might do more, if I ever have another idea. Upvoting it and sharing it and whatnot would be most gracious of you, if it meets your approval.

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You might have noticed there are some Christians still not on board with same-sex marriage.

One Jesus-centric group recently put forward five reiterations of tired old clichés whose unconvincing nature is becoming ever more apparent. Their second point began thusly:

The promotion and legal recognition of homosexual unions is not in the interest of the common good. That may sound benighted, if not bigoted. But we must say it in love: codifying the indistinguishability of gender will not make for the “peace of the city.” It rubs against the grain of the universe, and when you rub against the grain of divine design you’re bound to get splinters.

It was Hemant’s analysis that prompted me to think some more about this:

Aww… they’re trying to turn their bigotry into poetry. Isn’t that sweet of them.

I’d never quite noticed before that this is what happens in Christianity a lot. They’ll take up a conservative, narrow-minded stance on a very particular interpretation of Biblical values, but distance themselves from all those hateful Westboro Baptists and the like, by claiming that they’re motivated by love.

They’re not raging about queers burning in Hell; they’re talking about getting metaphorical splinters from rubbing against the grain of divine design.

They hate the sin, but love the sinner. Gay people, you should appreciate the compassion these Christians have for you – it’s just your actions in your personal relationships and the innate tendencies within you that they find contemptible and wicked.

The point being, of course, that there’s more to love than flowery language and a soft face and declaring aloud to all and sundry that love for your neighbour is what drives you. If you’re not going to be a hypocrite, you also have to actually love people. You don’t get instant credit for being compassionate just because you’ve replaced blatant spite and invective with worthy analogies built of purple prose.

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Actually, I don’t believe that there is such thing as an atheist because no respectable atheist would walk around with something in his pocket that said “In God We Trust.”

People are still saying things this moronic. Elected politicians, even.

Yes, people who’ve decided they aren’t convinced by any of this God business should revert to some kind of ancient barter system, so as to avoid having to come into contact with some vitally useful pieces of paper which happen to include an utterly irrelevant inscription. Otherwise they’re not being true to their principles.

Similarly, I can only presume that almost everybody in the English-speaking world is in fact a secret adherent of Germanic paganism, what with their continued insistence on acknowledging the existence of the days Tuesday through Friday.

PZ Myers also has a good one:

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a Christian, because no respectable follower of Jesus would have any money at all — he or she would have handed it all over to the poor.

There you go. Now everyone’s happy. None of us really exist.

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2009-2010 (Before new approach)
* 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 50 expulsions
* 600 written referrals

2010-2011 (After new approach)
* 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 30 expulsions
* 320 written referrals

Wow, this school in Washington saw some real improvements with whatever this new policy is that they were trying. 30 expulsions in a year might still sound like a lot, but this is an “alternative” school that particularly seems to deal with troubled kids – some of the students themselves describe the place as a “dumping ground” for kids nobody really cares about.

But this new thing the principal’s doing seems to be doing a great job of keeping them in line. I guess really cracking down on these over-confident, disrespectful teens and their unacceptable behaviour started getting through to them. If you’re stern enough, and make it clear who’s in charge and what kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated, they’ll stop acting like they can get away with anything, and you’ll have far fewer disciplinary problems once the majority have been subdued into meek subservience.

Oh, wait, no. The complete opposite of that.

It turns out, bizarrely enough, that if someone’s angry and frustrated with their situation, and has been dealt a crappy hand by life in general, and they express their anger in a burst of shouting and swearing, and you try to make them stop acting that way by shouting even louder, hurling invective back at them, and punishing them at the first sign of insurrection… then you’re not so likely to win them over to your way of seeing things. Chances are you’ll just piss them off even more and make them keep shouting at you.

And this fairly basic fact of human psychology isn’t magically different just because that person isn’t 18 years old yet.

A lot of this comes back to the fundamental attribution error, and a tragically widespread neglect of compassion as a virtue even in circumstances where it might be a bit difficult. It might be less challenging to respond to some uppity kid swearing and raging by taking a dislike to him, putting him down as a bad sort. But very few among us has never had an experience of losing their temper, and we all know that when it happened to us, there was some understandable reason for it. It might not have been a good reason, and we might not be proud now of the way we acted, but it doesn’t mean we’re bad people just because we got a bit angry that one time. Maybe we were just frustrated by things going on in our lives, and we didn’t deal with it very well.

Well, the principal and teachers at this school have been running with the radical idea that young people, too, are human beings with complex feelings and reasons for their behaviours, who may also have frustrating shit to deal with and be ill equipped to handle it appropriately all the time. And it’s working. The kids are learning perhaps the most important thing school can teach them. They’re being given a chance to experience other ways of interacting with people, and finding out that, if you can control your anger, think things through that are bothering you, and trust people who have the chance to help you, it can work.

Complex trauma ain’t pretty.

It’s when your dad’s in prison AND your mom’s a meth addict AND she’s too drugged out to move in the mornings, so you’ve got to take care of your little brother, get him fed and off to school, AND you’re despairing about being evicted for the third time because she hasn’t paid the rent and the landlord’s screaming at you to do something.

Or your dad’s a raging alcoholic AND he beat the crap out of your mom again last night AND the cops came and took him away at 2 a.m. AND the EMTs took your mom to the hospital and you hardly slept a wink and you’re frantic with worry because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’ve got to stay cool or otherwise you’ll have a complete meltdown.

Or your fat step-dad’s sneaking into your bed in the middle of the night AND you’re too terrified to move because he says if you say anything he’ll kill you and your sister and your mom, who’s depressed AND doesn’t talk much anyway.

Teens who live with complex trauma are walking post-traumatic stress time bombs, says Turner. They teeter through their days. The smallest incident can push them into a full-blown meltdown. Some kids run away. Some explode in rage. Some just mentally check out.

So, yeah. You could treat people who’ve been through stuff like that with zero tolerance and shout back at them to do what they’re told right now or you’ll throw them out and it’ll be their own fault.

Or you could try and help.

(And don’t even get me fucking started on prisons.)

(h/t BoingBoing)

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Here’s a fun game. See if you can tell what the following things have in common:

  • Prolonged isolation
  • Deprivation of light
  • Extreme variations in temperature
  • Death threats
  • Shackling and manacling for hours at a time
  • Noxious fumes that caused pain to eyes and nose
  • Denial of medical care for serious and potentially life-threatening ailments, including chest pain and difficulty breathing, as well as for treatment of the chronic, extreme pain caused by being forced to endure stress positions, resulting in severe and continuing mental and physical harm, pain, and profound disruption of the senses and personality

Any ideas? I’ll give you a hint.

Imagine that you were taken somewhere and incarcerated against your will, without being accused of any specific crime, but just because it’s been decided that you’re a bad sort. You don’t get a trial, or any legal recourse, and you’re put through all the things listed above.

If you had to describe your ordeal to somebody else later, what word might you use? Just a one-word summary to really get across the scope of how much you’d been made to suffer. “I was… somethinged.” What’d be a good word to fit there?

If you said “tortured”, congratulations, you might just be a reasonable human being. But in this case, sadly, you’re out of luck. This is actually a partial list of “things that government officials could do to an American citizen and still claim later that they didn’t know they were ‘torturing’ that citizen.”

“Torture”? How dare you accuse the greatest nation on Earth of such barbarism? Why do you hate America?

(via BoingBoing)

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I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

Thus spake President Obama yesterday, and yea, there was much rejoicing.

And maybe there should be. It’s a positive development, after all, to have such an unequivocal statement of support from the leader of the free world. People in same-sex relationships are still having to struggle hard for equality all over the world, whether that struggle is just a matter of being taken seriously, or the right not to be executed as an abomination in the eyes of God.

But a lot of the public reaction has been over the top. I don’t want to take anything away from gay people for whom this is a significant victory. But too much import is being ascribed to too insipid a gesture.

Society is changing, and Obama’s announcement reflects just how far we’ve come in a relatively short time. How long ago would it have been impossible to imagine the President of the United States saying something like this? Twenty years? Less? But compare that to Obama’s own “evolving” view on the issue of same-sex relationships. See how far he’s come in, say, the past sixteen years, back when the then State Senate hopeful’s stated position was:

I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.

Huh. So, long before he was running the show, he felt at least as strongly about this as he does now. In fact, if he was prepared to actually fight for it back then, he’s arguably back-pedalled since. Nearly four years into his presidency, he now supports individual states’ rights to decide on what side to let the law come down. (Not, as Radley Balko points out, a stand he seems to take on many other matters.)

In fact, there were a lot of provisos accompanying his statement of support yesterday. I’ve quoted the main highlight above, but he took a lengthy run-up to get there:

…at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that…

…I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

You’re welcome, gay people.

I think it’s fair to say that after much careful deliberation and contemplation I’ve decided provisionally but with conviction that it’s become a moral necessity for me as an individual in my own way to just go right ahead and stick my neck out there and lay my cards on the table and say that at the end of the day I happen to think in my own head personally all things considered that Barack Obama ought to stop being such a fucking politician about this.

I don’t question the sincerity of his feelings at all. I’m sure he’s perfectly fair-minded and decent and progressive about same-sex relationships. I doubt there’s a homophobic (or hetero-supremacist, or whatever) bone in his body. But he has to constantly worry about whether expressing an honest opinion is going to cost him 10,000 votes in a swing state, which would of course result in TOTAL CATASTROPHE. And so his honest opinion is often a long time coming. Because politics is insane.

I share many queer folk’s joy that we continue to see signs of an approaching time when this whole discussion is irrelevant, and true equality is really possible. But some people’s gratitude at having their humanity acknowledged is spilling over into a kind of demeaning, fawning obsequiousness.

He’s not your saviour, and he’s not some hero deserving of your worship. At best, he’s someone who means well and is finally making some sort of effort to do the right thing. But you’re a human being deserving of dignity and respect entirely on your own merits, without having to wait on anybody else’s say-so.

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(This may turn out to be something of a Roman railway.)

In performing a superficial pretense of research for this piece, I began asking Google what I imagine to be a common question. I got as far as typing why are men o, at which point it suggested that I might be wondering why men are obsessed with one of three things: breasts, football, and virginity. Right first time.

(By the way, the top Yahoo! Answer to the question is: “i’m more a leg and bum man… :D”. So… now you know.)

But this isn’t going to be a post about evolutionary psychology, or even about boobs and why they’re awesome. It’s about suggesting a different approach to fixing all of sexism. (Okay, just one teeny tiny bit of it.)

The point is, many women are clearly baffled by the attention that their front-upper-butts receive from a significant number of men. The appeal isn’t obvious to them, and that’s fine. I’ve tried and failed to get into things that girls seem to enjoy, like Project Runway or Star Wars. It’s not going to help anyone trying to explain what’s so awesome about them, it’s just a perfectly natural difference in tastes.

But the fact that men are mighty keen on boobs doesn’t, on its own, bother anyone. The problem comes when we act mighty keen on boobs.

Actually no, even that’s not a real source of any trouble. It really only becomes a problem – as, I guess, with any other obsession – when our passion spills over into our everyday, non-boob-related lives to the extent that everyone else is more than acutely aware of exactly how boobicentric our minds are.

The problem is when we really like boobs, and we act like we really like boobs, and we act like we don’t care how irrelevant you thought boobs were to this conversation before we mentioned our fondness for them, and we seem either unaware or unconcerned with the fact that things other than boobs might be high up on other people’s lists of priorities.

It’s just not practical to expect men to “get over” boobs anytime soon. They’re not going anywhere (unless I’ve been very wrong about God’s benevolent non-existence and actually he’s been setting us all up for a fall), and it’d be insincere to pretend they’re not awesome. If I meet you, and you have boobs, I will probably notice them. I may automatically evaluate them. That may sound unfair and judgmental, and it probably is, but I can’t switch it off. And part of me doesn’t want to, because hey, boobs.

The things I actually have control over – whether I’m notably staring at them, whether I’m needlessly making them relevant to a conversation, whether I’m acting in a needlessly boobaholic way – all that I’ve got a handle on. Those are goals we can realistically meet, and we should. But we’re not going to magically evict boobs from our brainspaces anytime boob soon.

(If I was less tired and had figured out where I was going with this sooner, I might have found some clever way to tie it into, like, Boobquake, or elevatorgate, or something with some relevance. But no, none of that. Boobs are their own reward.)

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There was an edition of the BBC’s discussion programme The Big Questions recently which covered the topic: “Is religion good/bad for children?” (I can’t remember exactly how it was phrased, but it was about children and religion, broadly speaking, and a good part of the conversation focused on faith schools.)

Most of the guests invited to talk were religious figures, but they all fell on different points of the sliding scales of fundamentalism, reasonableness, and over-enjoyment of shouting, so there was generally at least some modicum of sanity being expressed, even before Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association put in an excellent defense of a non-religious approach to life.

One thing that struck me about the show was how much the religious guests enjoyed explaining what secular humanists believe and how they think, and how little they were diverted from this course by the one secular humanist among them repeatedly explaining where they were going wrong. No, he said, humanists don’t just think that morality is arbitrary and we should teach kids to behave however they like. We actually have a reality-based system of ethics founded on caring for other people, on good for goodness’s sake. No humanist I’ve ever met actually holds the views you’re describing.

Another recurring point was the confusion over what humanists want when it comes to religious teaching in schools. The idea keeps coming up that secularists don’t want God or gods ever to be mentioned in an educational environment, or that we want some kind of ban on prayer or religious activity. Which, again, is a misunderstanding that can only plausibly be a result of either never talking to any humanists, or not listening when they talk to you.

Of course we want kids to learn about religions in schools. The more they know about the variety of religious belief in the world today, and the origins and histories of religions that have come and gone, as well as those still prevalent, the better. I was reminded of a poster that recently appeared on an American university campus, put up by a freethinkers’ group, and featured on The Friendly Atheist, which neatly explains why humanists feel this way:



For the graphically impaired, it reads:

Study one religion,
and you’ll be hooked for life.

Study two religions,

Slightly over-simplified, perhaps, but it makes a good point.

The original “Big Question” was about whether religion was good for children – whether it was healthy or unhealthy to bring them up teaching them to adhere to a faith, the proven benefits that come from being a member of a church, and so on. What didn’t seem to come up was the value of teaching kids things that are true.

And, well, maybe I’m just being pedagogically old-fashioned, but that’s basically the trump card for me. We should be teaching kids things that are true. We should be teaching them how we come to know what’s true, how we can measure our levels of certainty about what we believe to be true, and how to think so that we’re likely to believe more true things than false ones in the future, rejecting old ideas in favour of new ones as necessary.

So, sure, let’s not hide from them the fact that around two billion people on the planet adhere to some form of Christianity. It’s not like we’re hoping they don’t notice. But let’s not leave out any other part of the factual context surrounding religious claims for the sake of maintaining our own biases, either.

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