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Archive for January, 2014

Look, forget for a moment all the problems with my vaguely defined and ill articulated socialist utopia.

Forget any of the specific counter-arguments you’re tired of re-hashing whenever people bring up one of your constant bug-bears, like how government regulation might ever be a good thing.

Step back from all that. Just look at how things actually are, right now. Ignore the details of the system behind it, and just look where it’s got us.

The current system our species has settled on for distributing wealth has basically amounted to: “Here is all* the money: you 85 people over here take half, and you 3,500,000,000 share the other half out amongst yourselves.”

Does that really sound like everything’s working okay to you?

I’m not proposing any specific action be done about it, so stop rehearsing complaints about the dangers of government regulation, and shut up about the fucking Laffer curve for a minute.

Look at the numbers. Look at the shitty kind of life many of those in the bottom 3,500,000,000 are stuck with.

Consider how much the experience of life would be affected for several billion people by the amounts of money being discussed here. Consider how much less happiness, comfort, or motivation eighty-five individuals would experience, if the numbers that appeared on some bits of paper didn’t have quite so many zeroes on the end. Compare the impact that would be felt, by one group and by the other, if some of all the money were somewhere other than where it is.

Can we not just agree that this level of division is pretty fucked up? That such a colossal disparity does not actually represent a discrepancy in how hard people are working, or how much a given person is contributing to society, or how much we all fucking deserve?

I imagine most of my readership will be on board at least that far. But from the way many people downplay the extent to which income inequality in the US and UK is a problem, or deny the assertion that there is any systemic injustice causing or exacerbating such inequalities… I’m starting to worry that some people out there really think that the current situation is how you’d expect things to look if everything was working just fine.

And I’m going to have to take some time to figure out how to even talk to that kind of belief.

*You’re on the internet, you should be used to “all” being used hyperbolically. Of course it’s not all the money being referred to here; it’s actually just several metric fuckloads.

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Something some time ago made me think about funerals, and whether I might want one, and what I’d want it to be like. Notwithstanding my aim to follow Woody Allen’s path to immortality (which might explain why I don’t seem so bothered about creating any works that are likely to be remembered for all time), I suppose I have some thoughts.

While the traditionally dour affairs with their religiously stifling atmosphere aren’t at all something I’d want to take part in, I don’t quite go along with the popular idea of simply “celebrating my life” either. I’d certainly want my send-off to be mostly upbeat, something that does celebrate life and uses the high points from my own as an example, but the way some people seem determined to do it doesn’t leave much room for sadness and actual mourning as well, which I think is an important omission. The good cheer can start to feel forced, if it’s supposedly vital that that be the order of the day.

Out of all the zero funerals I’ve ever actually attended, here’s one of my favourite moments:

That is beautiful and perfect. There’s genuine and deep affection, there’s sadness at the absence of a dear friend, but there’s also utterly inappropriate black humour, made completely appropriate by the attitude everyone’s brought with them.

I think the part I feel most strongly about is that I’d want my funeral to be somewhere people can make jokes. As dark or as whimsical as you like. Crack a gag. Labour a pun. Start a terrible hashtag game themed around the possible fates of the recipients of my organs. Resist any lingering sense of obligatory moping that feels like it should accompany such occasions. Be aware of the company, and the members of it who might not be in quite the same place at any given moment – any parents who’ve outlived me might not be expected to look on the bright side, for instance – but contextually appropriate humour (and some which deliberately stretches that boundary) is heartily endorsed.

Just leave some proper space to be sad as well. You’re supposed to miss me, you fuckers.

Classroom discussion questions

1. What’s the colour scheme going to be at your wake?

2. Have you signed up to be an organ donor yet?

3. More importantly, how soon are we going to find a cure for physical aging, and start backing our minds up on some successor to the Cloud, thus rendering all such questions of death and funerals moot?

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If you’re in favour of the continued criminalisation of drugs, and you support law enforcement’s efforts to punish those people you’re defining as criminals, be aware of something.

People are doing what you want, in your name, on your mission, in a way that is cruel, unconscionable, vicious, and should make you feel ill.

A New Mexico woman claims she suffered for weeks after a Bernalillo County corrections officer strip-searched her and sprayed mace in her vagina.

Sadism” is exactly the right word, in fact.

This isn’t an unfortunate side effect of a necessary policy. This isn’t a tragic but unavoidable consequence of a general strategy which it’s important we maintain. And this sure as fuck isn’t an isolated incident.

This is just abuse. There’s not even a morally commendable goal being worked towards in unpalatable ways. If anything’s evil, this is.

Now, if you support drug criminalisation policies, you didn’t do this. You haven’t assaulted anyone. You didn’t ask for any police officers to sexually assault anyone on your behalf.

But you really should look into some ways of supporting the policies you want to see enacted, which won’t tacitly endorse the whimsical torture of the innocent.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is it conceivable, even in theory, that a “war on drugs” might be effective in its goals without shit like this being commonplace?

2. How many individual instances of hard drug use do you think lead directly to physical effects more traumatic and unpleasant than being subjected to a forced anal probe or being pepper-sprayed in the vagina?

3. What the fuck is wrong with America, seriously, I mean, Jesus, you know?

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Poverty

Here’s Alex Andreou writing about living in poverty and being homeless.

Here are 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless.

Here is someone else explaining Why I Make Terrible Decisions.

Just thinking about the kind of actual poverty that exists and that we let people fall into makes my stomach cramp with anxiety.

And hey, here’s a pretty fucking important question about, say, Alex’s case. At what point would he have been motivated out of his situation by harsher benefits cuts, or unpaid work experience, or being forced out of his house and made to find somewhere smaller in a different area because of the bedroom tax?

By what process could providing him with less support have motivated him to work harder and magically produce more for himself?

What, in short, the fuck, to be blunt, do you expect some people to do?

(There probably isn’t nothing which Alex could have done to avoid getting into such dire straits. With 20-20 hindsight, it may be possible to see different actions which might have helped him avoid his fate. Kinda like how women wouldn’t get raped so much if they stayed sober and dressed demurely at all times.)

This is reason #681947 why I’m in favour of a generous welfare state (insofar as there’s going to be a state at all). Because this is the reality for many people, and the way to improve things for everyone involves helping them.

Which isn’t an idea that seems to get a lot of play in the public conversation – in part, I suspect, because it’s just not a reality whose grisly details you get to see that often. Channel 5 haven’t commissioned a series called “Homeless and Ashamed“, to my knowledge. That wouldn’t tap into the right insecurities and prejudices and create a ratings-winning Twitterstorm of hate and division.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Where should the balance lie between helping people support themselves, and not supporting them so much that they become complacent and lazy?

2. Are you impressed I didn’t explicitly shoehorn in another chance to bang on about how much easier a universal basic income would make all of this?

3. Why haven’t those infographics I keep seeing on Twitter completely solved the problem of the general public’s flawed perception of benefit claimants?

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If I tried venting about every part of Peter Hitchens’s output of the last couple of months which has bothered me, I wouldn’t get to bed until it was 4am and I couldn’t feel my fingers any more. “Addiction” doesn’t exist, apparently. No, I’m not explaining what he seems to mean by that. I’ll let you extrapolate from there. (The case of Mark Duggan also demonstrates why we should bring back hanging. Somehow. Oh god, I’m losing myself down a spiralling pit of inanity. Break away, break away.)

There’s one thing he said that I do want to touch on, though, if I can do so without getting carried away. In talking about the effects of illegal drugs, he uses the phrase “unearned chemical exaltation”.

Of specific interest is the word “unearned”.

Peter Hitchens has a great moral objection to the use of drugs. That itself isn’t so bizarre or insupportable, but what’s interesting is that the “unearned” nature of the high they provide seems to be a significant part of his complaint.

He’s not alone in this; it’s an attitude I’ve seen before. Part of what some people find unacceptable and morally abhorrent about this particular form of artificial manipulation of one’s brain state is that it’s unearned. You haven’t worked for your right to feel good. You just took some drugs.

Never mind any damaging side effects that drug use might have on yourself and society; the bottom line is, you don’t deserve any chemical alteration of your mood.

You think you can just shortcut your way to physical pleasure or mental stimulation, without undergoing the toil and pain associated with the traditional ways of achieving such states? That’s cheating.

And so on.

And then this is used to justify laws against such cheating. And thus a staid, parochial attitude becomes global tyranny.

If you believe the outcomes of a liberal approach to certain intoxicants are so negative that a centralised authority needs to step in and crack down on their usage, that’s an argument to be made. But don’t just sweepingly decide that nobody deserves to feel good until they’ve earned it by suffering enough first.

Classroom discussion questions

1. If a hypothetical drug provided the “chemical exaltation” of, say, cocaine, but without the addictive nature or risk of harmful overdose, is there any reasonable grounds on which it could be outlawed? Could its use even be considered immoral?

2. How little attention does someone have to be paying if they really think that caffeine does not “in any way alter consciousness or perception”?

3. Why is Peter Hitchens?

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I’ve been thinking lately about making arguments that give away too much ground.

There’s three examples in particular that sprung to mind in quick succession, which should explain what I mean.

1. Born this way

Sexuality is not a choice. When somebody declares that a person “chooses to be gay”, they are, to within a margin of error, empirically incorrect. The idea that one’s sexual preferences are a mere matter of taste, which can be willed away or ignored if one simply stopped being so stubborn, is a falsehood, as many people have pointed out at length.

But if you’re arguing in favour of gay rights, it may be better to downplay this aspect of your argument, when engaging with somebody who is misstating facts in an effort to demean or denigrate homosexuality or homosexuals.

It’s not that you’re wrong to point out that you were “born this way” (or at least, that nature plays a strong role in determining sexual preference). It’s just an argument that gives too much ground.

Sexuality is not a choice. But so what if it was?

If you make the “born this way” argument your central theme, you’re implicitly accepting way too many of the homophobic assumptions behind the other person’s assertions. If most of your time is spent pointing out that a person’s sexual preferences are entirely beyond their conscious control, then it starts to seem like that is the lynch-pin of your argument, and should it ever turn out to be flawed – or even incorrect – then your opponents’ bigotry will be justified.

There’s always some value in correcting a factual misstatement, but beyond pointing out “It’s not a choice,” you might get more to the heart of the issue with: “Okay, say it’s a choice. If it is, it’s my choice. I’ve made it. Your problem with that is what, and I should give a fuck why?”

2. Big is beautiful

You don’t need to spend much time as either a vaguely attentive man or a barely conscious woman in the modern world to notice that there are some fucked-up standards of beauty out there.

There’s also an encouragingly prominent backlash against many of them. Unless you’re hanging out in very different parts of the internet from me, you’ll regularly be bumping into tumblrs and gifs and photoblogs and memes and other internet doohickeys intended to remind you that fat chicks are among the sexiest things you’ll ever see. That sentence doesn’t even need a citation linked anywhere in it. Just Google it. And make sure SafeSearch is turned off first.

It’s beyond trivially obvious that curves can be gorgeous, and the standards of beauty still considered conventional on many magazine covers are insanely narrow and restricted. This defiance is important and empowering, and no doubt helps many people feel better about their bodies – but again, there’s an assumption behind it which deserves challenging.

Even if every human above a certain BMI were universally considered physically unappealing, so fucking what?

Why should being sexually desirable or attractive be the factor most associated with improved esteem? I don’t for a second resent anyone searching this way for validation, or using attractiveness to encourage and bolster the spirits of those who it might help – but the fundamental question of whether it ought to be considered so important deserves a place in the conversation too.

And let’s not forget the chubby men, incidentally. The internet seems to be mostly about the curvy girls, but I hope there are zones of love for the fuller-figured fellas out there, too, in areas I haven’t spent as much time exploring.

3. “Hardworking people

There’s a lot for a lefty like me to get angry about when it comes to the government’s recent war on welfare and rhetoric about “hardworking people”. Many more active activists have pointed out data which render the coalition’s whole output completely asinine – such as that the majority of people struggling to make ends meet, visiting food banks, and claiming benefits are actually in work – completing undermining the workshy scrounger image the Tories in particular are so keen to propagate.

For many, work doesn’t pay; the system is fucked and allows the rich to exploit the masses for their labour without offering them a decent standard of living (let alone the inhumanity of workfare). This is all important to recall.

But there’s one more assumption tucked in there which it’s worth ferreting out, lest the argument take a turn and veer into the kind of divisive territory we should be trying to avoid.

I don’t want anybody to have to experience the stress of worrying about being able to feed their family, or keeping them warm over the winter, or getting behind on rent and bill payments and ending up homeless, even if they’re lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to get off their arse and look for a job.

Those relatively few people who actually look like what the Bullingdon crowd imagine all poor people look like? I want a welfare system which supports them non-judgmentally too.

Compassion and an unconditional level of basic financial security, for hardworking people and feckless scroungers alike.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is this a useful way to refocus the debate, or would it just distract from the liberating ideas that are already gathering momentum?

2. Are there any other obvious examples of this that I’ve missed?

3. How blatantly am I pandering to the overweight queer working class vote right now?

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I am currently sandwiched between a pair of prime twins. The last time that was true, I was barely legal. The next time it happens, I’ll be the Ultimate Answer.

I’m also the product of a series of the first consecutive primes. That hasn’t happened in 4! years. And if I want to see it happen again, Aubrey de Grey is going to have to step up his game.

The other thing I tend to do on my birthday is look at how much other historically successful people had achieved by whatever age I’ve reached now, but I think I’m done with that. I mean, of course there’s plenty of people who’d achieved all kinds of hugely impressive stuff by my age. I’m 30. I’m a proper, legitimate grown-up. There’s no point continuing to compare my own accomplishments to those of the most prominently well known individuals in various creative fields throughout all of history, as if there were some kind of expectation on me to live up to some equivalent level.

So I’m just going to go get drunk instead. Seeya.

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