Archive for July, 2012

About $10,000,000,000,000 has been squirrelled away by 92,000 people.

A tiny little subsection of humanity, described appropriately by the Guardian as a “global super-rich elite”, has amassed this fortune, extracted it from various of the world’s economies, and hidden it under a metaphorical Cayman Island-shaped mattress to reduce their tax liability.

This is what happens when you encourage personal accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and sanctify those who succeed in the scramble to the top. You allow the “job-creators” to hoard unimaginably colossal piles of resources, denying their use to any of the rest of us.

What is even the point of anyone having that much money? What personal hedonistic joy are you going to derive from the second billion which you couldn’t reach with the first? It just becomes about getting a high score.

The total amount tucked away in private banks is apparently $21,000,000,000,000. And yes, it really is meant to have that many zeros. I have to keep double-checking, too. To put that in a little perspective, if you look at the cost of the NHS and scale it for population, then this off-shore stash could pay for the entire USA to have its own nationalised healthcare service, providing every single person in the country with the kind of social safety net enjoyed by every other nation in the developed world.

Twenty-six times over.

But it’s not going to. Because some successful capitalists earned that money, and now its all theirs to do what they want with it.

This is a completely fucked system.

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I would’ve posted this sooner, but I’ve been busy becoming two-fifths of a Level 2 Certified accountant. Oh yes. After getting up at 6am to catch a bus to go and do four hours’ worth of exams (which took about two hours), I have been deemed “competent” in Basic Accounting I & II. It was good getting that out of the way before the new job starts.

Anyway, while I get on with studying the next module and eating delicious pumpkin cupcakes, you can go read an interview with me, about gods and stuff, over at another godless blog place called Deity Shmeity.

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I touched briefly yesterday on the role of the police in perpetuating and exacerbating America’s serious gun problem. This deserves to be expanded on.

In Florida, police knocked on someone’s door, and when the guy answered it with his own gun drawn, they shot him dead. They hadn’t announced themselves as police, and the guy was apparently just a little paranoid. The cops were trying to track down a murder suspect, but had got the wrong apartment.

In California, a crowd gathered to protest against the police’s treatment of a homeless man suffering from mental illness last year, who died after an alleged violent beating by police. At the protest, cops fired rubber bullets into the crowd, and sent a police dog to engage with members of the public, who included a mother holding a child.

In Virginia, a police officer went to a family’s home, to let them know that their son was dead, having been the tragic victim of a shooting. After breaking this sad news, the officer found himself being approached by the family dog, which he shot and killed.

These are just a handful of the examples of this kind of thing which I’ve noticed in the last week or two. Hang out with Radley Balko, and there’s another story like it pretty much every day.

And it’s not just the US which has problems like this. The most prominent example from my own country in recent weeks has been the case surrounding Ian Tomlinson, who a coroner’s inquest found died in 2009 from internal bleeding, as a direct result of being struck and pushed by PC Simon Harwood. His death was ruled an “unlawful killing”.

When the jury trial of PC Harwood concluded last week, he was found not guilty of manslaughter.

So, the complete official picture is that Ian Tomlinson was unlawfully killed… but not by the thug who violently beat him and caused the injuries from which he died.

(If my use of the word “thug” seems needlessly inflammatory and pejorative there, have a look at the video, read about his history of disciplinary proceedings, then see if that still seems like something worth complaining about.)

This isn’t just about “fuck the police” (on which I’ve written before, here and here – the title of this post might make more sense when seen as part of a pattern). Although yes, that is somewhere to start, so to reiterate: Fuck the police. But that’s not because I want there to be a combative relationship between ordinary people, and this separate demographic of individuals who just happen to be given a lot more leeway in their use of violence.

We need to change the way we see the police. Not as an “enemy”, who we can “beat” if we fight them hard enough and then we’ll have “won”. But also not as people who can be relied upon to look after us, to fix our problems, to be forever brave and principled in their commitment to justice.

And definitely not as a powerful authority to be feared.

There are legitimate things for a police force to do, and ways in which such a force could legitimately act to keep order, deter crime, and foil the actions of criminals. Sometimes they do act like this, and numerous individuals have done great things and shown commendable courage in their roles representing the police. But we don’t need to choose between supporting or condemning the entire institution and all its actions together.

The police aren’t without purpose, but they’re also potentially dangerous people with weapons and authority, both of which they’re prone to use unjustly against us, with tragic results. Many people, not without good reason, live in greater fear of the harm this protective force will do against them, than of the criminals they’re being “protected” from.

I’d love to be able to see the police in a more generous and respectable light than this. But they’re going to have to earn it. And the rest of us should be more aware of what we will and won’t put up with from them in the meantime.

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Gun control

People kill each other with guns quite a lot in America. (Though not, according to Wikipedia, as much as they kill themselves.) One particular cluster of such events recently has got everyone talking about guns again.

Some people want more legal restrictions on the ownership, possession, and the right to carry certain types of gun. Others think that outlawing guns means only outlaws will have guns, and that maybe there’d be fewer gun-related deaths if some of the victims had been armed and able to defend themselves.

Now, my libertarian sensibilities get a bit twitchy when liberals talk about the government enforcing rules about gun control. But something I’ve learned which many libertarians don’t seem to have picked up on is that my twitchy sensibilities are not that fucking important in this conversation.

And if my political ideology demands that I insist that any infringement on our liberties is a bad thing, it’s on me to explain why the freedom of this guy to buy an assault weapon and several thousand rounds of ammunition, with which he later murdered ten people in a cinema in Colorado, is worth protecting.

I was trying to remember a quote from The West Wing about gun control, and found it here:

If you combine the populations of Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, you’ll get a population roughly the size of the United States. We had 32,000 gun deaths last year. They had 112. Do you think it’s because Americans are more homicidal by nature? Or do you think it’s because those guys have gun control laws?

But as the accompanying analysis on that site points out, that’s not really a fair dichotomy. Looking at the effects of gun control laws on the countries mentioned doesn’t support the idea that all those countries are only holding back a state of continuous pan-global massacre by some rules that make it a bit harder to buy guns.

But those statistics should still fucking appal you, and they still demand explanation. I’m not sure where Toby got his data exactly, but a 2002 UN survey also puts the USA’s firearm murder rate alarmingly far ahead of almost everywhere else, and vastly disproportionate for its population. So what’s going on? Are Americans just naturally more homicidal?

Well, I’d be bewildered if there turned out to be any genetic element to it. But culturally speaking, does anyone have trouble imagining just how murderous growing up in the US could make you?

Have you ever watched a movie, or a TV show, or a news broadcast, which comes out of that place?

Have you ever met a cop, or seen any of Google’s top image results for “police”?

The USA is a really, really gunny place.

And that’s not just about people’s ability to get their hands on guns. In Switzerland, men undergo basic military training by default, and there are estimated to be at least 1.2 million to 3 million firearms in private homes, including hundreds of thousands of assault weapons, in a country with just under eight million residents. The number of “killings or attempted killings involving firearms” in Switzerland in 2006 was thirty-four.

In a recent Swiss referendum, a majority of voters rejected stricter gun control laws. What would be the point?

In Switzerland, gun control doesn’t seem to be necessary. In America, I doubt it’d be effective. Because being issued instructions from some authority about what you are and aren’t allowed to do is not the sole defining factor in people’s behaviour, or even the most significant. Prohibition of alcohol and the War on Drugs were catastrophic failures; if anything, they both only exacerbated America’s troubled relationship with the problems they were trying to solve. Gun control laws could end up doing the same thing, if Americans remain determined to own and carry guns.

So no, I don’t think passing laws against gun ownership is the one true way to fix the problem.

But at least the people on that side of the argument are addressing the real problem, albeit in an inadequate way. I feel like, ultimately, I share some of their goals. I want fewer Americans to shoot each other. I want fewer Americans to own, carry, think about, obsess over, and use guns. I want the world to be less gunny. I just don’t think that trying to take people’s guns away, while they still really want guns for some reason, is the best way to get there. It’s going to take a cultural change which can’t be forced like that.

Maybe this is how I know I’m not really an anarchist yet, but I do find that camp much more relatable than the other side, which seems to have little more to offer than to go on about freedom and how the answer is MORE GUNS.

And if “If only more people had been in possession of deadly weapons on that terrible day” is all you have to contribute, you are making everything gunnier and worse.

ETA: This post at CounterPunch has similar things to say, and ties gun crime more directly to social and economic conditions, and wealth polarisation. It also makes a large part of my point, much more pithily than I managed: “[T]he problem is not the supply of guns, but the demand for them.”

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And the libertarian right exploded.

So this is about a speech Barack Obama gave recently, in which he pointed out that people who succeed in life do so, in part, thanks to the benefits resulting from the hard work of other people.

Some people believe this is an unacceptable slur against America’s great businessmen. Businessmen like the late, great Steve Jobs, who made a fortune personally designing every aspect of Apple’s iPhone, smelting and forging every ounce of necessary material, wearing his fingers to the bone delicately hand-crafting millions of individual units, and personally delivering them to every customer around the world.

Other people may have noticed a thing called “reality” and decided it might be worth paying attention to.

Look, I’m entirely willing to stipulate that Steve Jobs was a genius who worked his ass off. But of the millions of man-hours that went towards Apple’s net income of $25billion last year, very little of that labour was performed by him. If the people running Apple now didn’t have thousands of people working full-time doing what they’re told, there would be no business.

The President dared to observe the necessity of cooperation, collaboration, and making use of the work done by others, in all significant endeavours. He observed that nobody exists in a vacuum and is personally responsible for every aspect of everything they use, make, or consume throughout their entire life. From the apoplectic response from much of the free market capitalism crowd, you’d have thought he’d said something actually socialist for a change.

Of course, they sort of know that they’re not arguing against the whole idea of humans cooperating with each other, and they’re not simply attacking a straw-man, either. Obama mentioned “government research” as an example of the help that anyone who owns a business relies on, as did Elizabeth Warren in a similar speech, and I can see why this might be an upsetting precedent for some people.

But the inability of some folks to conceive that anybody might ever do anything worthwhile, sensible, useful, constructive, or efficient, while being part of some dreaded thing called a “government”, is blinding them to every other aspect of the discussion. That last link raises important concerns about the wastefulness of a lot of government expenditure, but it doesn’t attempt to deny that roads and a national power grid are good things. There have been worthwhile achievements in which people banded together to work on something important and fruitful, even when there was no immediate financial reward available to the people who made the investment.

And neither of these crazed socialist villains is even necessarily talking about government. Obama’s emphasis is on the contributions of “somebody else”; Warren points out that “the rest of us helped”. Now, if you wanted to argue that what they’re really getting at when they say such things is about rich people paying more taxes… Well, it’s not like the Democratic Party has a strongly anti-statist history to throw that argument into doubt.

But even if that’s the case, taking their cunningly encrypted code-words literally tells a story that’s obviously true. The personal fortune of Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft, would not have been amassed without the use of many buildings constructed by other people, factories and equipment manufactured by specialists, and the corporation’s ninety thousand employees.

It seems like, in the context of business, if you mention luck or making use of help from others at all, someone will screech at you that you’re claiming hard work has no value. If you mention that working together for mutual benefit regardless of any immediate profit motive is sometimes a good way of getting things done, they’ll interrupt you to let you know how outrageous it is that you want to raise taxes on job-creators.

Is everyone’s imagination really so dull that working together for common goals with a spirit of communality can have no further meaning?

It’d be nice to see some genuine acknowledgment of the social value of labour once in a while, without the conversation being dominated by over-sensitive capitalists complaining about the indignities that the incredibly rich continue to suffer at the hands of those accursed “other people”. I live in hope.

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Rush Limbaugh has some fascinating insights into “the kind of stuff the Obama team is lining up“.

Millions of idiots with whom poor Rush has the misfortune of sharing a country – “the pop culture crowd”, as he calls them, also known as “people who enjoy stuff that lots of other people enjoy” – will be watching and hearing about a new Batman film in coming weeks, in which the villain‘s name uncannily resembles that of a company Mitt Romney used to run.

Poor Mitt. He couldn’t possibly have known that such a conspiracy would someday be launched against him, back when he was made the first CEO of Bain Capital, a company named after its founder.

He’s going to be livid when someone shows him a dictionary.

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Sunday Morning Live, the BBC’s somewhat disorganised weekend discussion programme currently taking the place of The Big Questions, was less unbearable today than it sometimes has been. In fact, I made it through the whole hour.

The subjects discussed were no less contentious and potentially frustrating than ever, but the balance of opinions expressed seemed to veer nearer the sane this morning. Or maybe I was just more awake, and thus more able to articulate my complaints coherently, avoiding the need to simply make some angry noises and switch off.

The primary topic of conversation was John Terry’s recent court victory, in which he was cleared of “racially abusing” another player. Thanks to their commitment to delicacy, the BBC’s own news report on this is rather pleasing:

It was alleged he had insulted Mr Ferdinand in a Premier League match, describing him as “black” and using extreme sexual swear words.

The latter charge is added, as if accusing the man of being black weren’t already bad enough.

The Guardian are less restrained, but the circumstances of the court decision still seem a little convoluted. As far as I can tell, it was never in dispute that Terry uttered the epithet in question, and was addressing Ferdinand while he spoke – but Terry was apparently quoting back words spoken to him, not directing them in the form of an accusation. The context was something like:

What’s that you say? “Fucking black cunt”? No, I think you must be mistaken; I did not refer to you as a fucking black cunt.

At least, there was enough doubt as to the tone and context of the remark that a not guilty verdict had to be returned.

In any case, the debate around the issue has largely been dominated by two camps: those who think that hateful and demeaning language should be strictly policed (while fully supporting people’s right to free speech, of course, with only a minor caveat about “responsibility”), and those who herald free speech as the virtue in most vital need of protecting and refer to playground adages about sticks and stones in order to make their point.

I find myself in uncomfortable company on either side.

In this particular case, I’m not sure I see much point in bothering the magistrates in Westminster with it. There’s no evidence Terry said anything constituting incitement or harassment, so it doesn’t seem to me like it should be a legal matter.

The FA will be continuing their own inquiry, and it seems appropriate for the higher-ups in the field of professional football to come to their own decisions about Terry’s continued involvement. His behaviour was, after all, monumentally out of step with the traditions of camaraderie and mutual respect that typically characterise English football, so if it’s decided that his totally unprecedented expression of belligerence renders him unfit to participate further in the sport, he’s only got himself to blame.

But the free-speech and settle-it-privately arguments shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. The Sunday Morning Live show was still frustrating, because nobody seemed to be drawing the distinction between “unacceptable” and “should be illegal”. It seemed as if legal recrimination were to be considered a vital part of any response to offensive speech, if it should merit a response at all. On the other side of things, nobody legally defending Terry’s words seemed to want to condemn them morally.

Which you really can do, you know. It’s not even that hard. I don’t want John Terry to go to prison because of whatever he said to Anton Ferdinand, but I also don’t want to pass up the chance to point out that his actions make him seem like an obnoxious tit, who is doing far less than someone with his social influence could be doing to counteract the atmosphere of racial disharmony that continues to pervade this country.

The problem with pinning all the importance of the matter on free speech became clearer when one guest suggested we simply be more “mature” about childish things like name-calling – directing this suggestion to the people who make such a fuss about being called names, of course. Once you’ve blamed every victim of verbal abuse ever for having the weakness of will to get upset when dehumanising insults are hurled at them, it may be time to re-evaluate your priorities.

And the problem with leaping to the defence of the beleaguered by ensuring they may never be attacked in such a way again without criminal sanctions being imposed is… well, that you start having people taken to court for possibly referring to a colleague in a competitive game as a “black cunt”.

Which seems like something that’s half empirically true, half a matter of valid opinion.

Racism is an insidious evil. It needs to be watched for and guarded against, and its role in many crimes needs to be considered, as well as its corrosive effect on our attitudes to other human beings. Sometimes – often, in fact – invoking the coercive arm of the law is not the best way to respond to it, but on those occasions we need to respond to it ourselves.

Most racism doesn’t need to be forced out of the public arena by laws that stifle free speech; it needs to be made negligible and irrelevant by the rest of us shouting over it.

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I can’t help but make some observations about the curious phenomenon of S.E. Cupp:

For one thing, if she’s an atheist, she’s a very odd one.

I don’t want to be too contrarian or cynical with that “if” there. She claims to be an atheist, and at times she’s been pretty clear and succinct on why she describes herself as such. “I don’t believe in God”. Questioning whether she’s “really” an atheist is likely to end up being no more constructive than asking whether atheism is “really” a religion.

But even though she describes it as one of the most important questions a person can ask themselves, and even though it’s a big part of her media identity – whenever she’s appearing on Fox News or any other talk show promoting a book or some such, she’s billed as that rare thing, a “conservative atheist” – she doesn’t seem to have much interest in the things other atheists are interested in.

For one thing, that book of hers is called Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack On Christianity, and it’s about what a hard time the Christians who make up 80% of her country are having, thanks to the anti-Christian bias of the left-wing media and the Obama administration.

Now, while it’s not justified to entirely sweep aside and ignore someone’s claims of unfair treatment simply because they’re part of the demographic majority, I think most atheists would be less concerned about Christianity’s prominence being slightly diminished than by the persistent and real prejudice against non-believers. As one of many collections of examples, Greta Christina has listed the 10 scariest states to be an atheist. Here’s a story from Pennsylvania:

In small town America, veterans – veterans, on Memorial Day, marching in a Memorial Day parade – were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell.

Because they were atheists.

Americans love their troops. It takes a lot of hatred to make a crowd hurl that kind of abuse at soldiers who’ve been defending their freedoms from foreign devils.

And that’s from a state which barely made it into the top ten.

The extract from her book on its Amazon page also makes it clear how far out of step she is with the general tide of atheist thought. Here’s a quote that shows what I mean:

Obama delivered another slight to religious America when he became the first president in the history of the United States to mention atheists, calling America a nation of, among other things, nonbelievers. He would, over the course of his first year, go on to regularly put nonbelievers on the same plane as the religious faithful. This isn’t just an insult to believers. It should also be an insult to nonbelievers, who so militantly insist they are separate from those kooky God lovers, and intellectually superior to them.

The “slight” she’s referring to is when Obama said, in his inaugural address: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.” Now, a sane person might think that ending that sentence without those two final words would be a rather typical slight to the non-believers who never seem to get a look-in, by implying that a nation of various religious believers is all we are. Acknowledging the existence of several million atheists is, one might think, the least they’re entitled to.

For S.E. Cupp, though, putting atheists on the “same plane” as religious believers is an outrage – and it’s the religious on whose behalf she takes primary offense.

But this leads me to observation the next: while S.E. Cupp uses the term “atheist” to describe herself, it’s clear she also thinks of “atheists” as other people. Not part of her in-group at all.

Look at the way non-believers are characterised and disparaged in the above quote. They all like to “militantly” insist upon their intellectual superiority, and think religious folk are “kooky”. Not like S.E. Cupp. She’s not like those angry atheists, not at all. I mean, they’re crazy. Not like her.

And of course, she’d never vote for an atheist. It’s only religious people that can be trusted not to get drunk on power, thanks to their belief in something bigger than themselves. Atheists don’t have that; they think 98% of the world is crazy. Oh, but she’s an atheist and she doesn’t think that religious people are crazy. She’s very clear on that. Yep.

See, she’s been described as a “self-hating atheist”, but I’m not so sure self-hatred is really the issue with her.

Right here, she says that she “really aspires to be a person of faith some day”. In the Friendly Atheist article above, she’s quoted as saying: “I would like to be a person of faith, but I’m not there yet”.

This is not how intellectually honest and coherent atheists think.

Faith is an irrational and unreliable foundation for knowledge, and God does not exist. Why the hell would I want to be a “person of faith”?

But for S.E. Cupp, the phrase “aspiring religious believer” seems to much better articulate her stance on belief and non-belief than the term “atheist”.

In this clip, Penn Jillette is as decisive and unambiguous as ever about his beliefs. There is no God. He argues the case for why the existence of God is not only baseless, but also abhorrent. This is something I’ve never seen S.E. Cupp do (though, to be fair, I’ve spent a lot less time experiencing her creative output than that of Penn Jillette). She barely has a word to say to defend her atheism, and when someone brings up stories about atheists “seeing the light” and becoming religious believers, she says: “I love those stories, those are great stories”.

This is where I get a bit speculative about what’s going on inside another person’s head, and take things beyond what I can be certain about:

Maybe S.E. Cupp thinks those stories are great stories because she wants to live one herself someday – and maybe she already suspects that she will.

Again, I don’t mean that altogether cynically. In the above clip, Penn brought up the suggestion that she’s “faking” being an atheist, in order to cash in on a major book deal and speaking tour once she “converts” to Christianity some time down the line. She obviously denies this, and I strongly doubt she’s being actively duplicitous like that.

But the way she talks about religion is enough to make it clear that she’s not an atheist in the same way I am. In a lot of ways, she seems like a religious believer who just hasn’t found a religion she can really believe in yet.

Perhaps she’s not a Christian, and with her MA in Religious Studies she’s probably read a lot more than I have about a bunch of other gods she doesn’t believe in… but she still “aspires” to believe in something. She’s awaiting some divine inspiration, a revelation as to the true path, some magical intervention which will grant her the faith she’s searching for. She might not believe in any god she’s met so far, but she believes in belief.

The fact that some atheists are actually happy that way, and aren’t still desperately searching for some kind of spiritual fulfilment the way she is, is what seems to most upset her.

Which, come to think of it, makes me think that maybe self-hatred really is at the root of all this, after all.

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If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent a fair bit of time feeling disillusioned about politics.

It’s fairly standard, really, for people to despair of the system as a whole if they pay attention for long enough to see what happens when someone they voted for actually gets into power. Politicians are easy to despise, particularly when they do publicly stupid things, which they commonly take advantage of their numerous opportunities to do. They might even be worse than estate agents.

A recent Gallup poll in America put Congress’s job approval rating among the public at 10%. That means that one person in ten thinks their body of elected rulers are doing well at what they’ve been put in that position of authority for. This was the least optimistic of various polls, and it has crawled pitifully upwards a little since then, but either way, it’s not hard to draw a few reasonable conclusions about the esteem in which politicians across the pond are generally held.

People are more likely to feel positively about the guy they voted for, or any individual who represents their team – Democrats, Republicans, whatever – but it makes little difference whether they’re closing the tribal ranks and blaming “the other side” for everything that’s going wrong. It’s a fantastically low score.

The political landscape often seems like a dismal place, and it’s easy to get discouraged about the whole thing.

Except, you can’t just not take an interest in politics. It’s not like it’s got any less important because the people who are supposed to be doing it seem to be really bad at it. It’s not like people’s disillusionment necessarily means they stop caring about taxes, or foreign policy, or military intervention overseas, or global economics, or the criminal justice system, or same-sex marriage rights, or how often the council come and collect the bins. These things still matter, and I still feel quite strongly about some of them.

And, on reflecting further on exactly what I strongly felt about all these things, I decided I wasn’t actually disillusioned with politics at all.

What I’m disillusioned with is authoritarianism and capitalism.

The reason this wasn’t obvious in the first place is that those two things basically are politics in much of the modern world. President Obama is from the purportedly left-wing party of his country’s political system; I’ve touched before on the ways in which his administration continues to resemble a right-wing dictatorship, despite the fevered, hallucinatory accusations of socialism from the even-further-right. And don’t even get me started on David Cameron.

Genuine socialism barely gets a look-in in the current discourse. The closest we usually get is reminders of how bad Stalin was, by people who – assuming they think what they’re saying makes any sense – have apparently never wondered whether the whole notion of government and capitalism shouldn’t similarly be debunked by Hitler. Libertarianism has a more noticeable and waxing presence, but also seems to be dominated by the right-wing.

The point is, there are alternative ways of thinking and acting available. You’re allowed to have such different politics from all the major political parties that you don’t want to join any of them. It doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to play politics, any more than not being a hipster means you’re banned from Tumblr. You might feel a little isolated and out of place, but it’s your internet – and, indeed, your world – too.

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