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Posts Tagged ‘liberal’

(content note: murder, gets a bit grisly in places, no pictures or anything, it’s basically fine)

A lot of contemporary pop culture is about terrible people doing appalling things.

This is not new or surprising. I mean, real life is so lovely and free of conflict these days, it’s only natural we’d seek out stories of sadism and cruelty as a way to escape the comfortable banality of our everyday lives.

Ahahaha. Oh, what frivolity. Such larks.

Anyway, we’re obviously used to seeing villains and antagonists committing vile acts of evil and terror – killing people, subjugating and enslaving whole populations, and the rest – before being soundly and rightly defeated by the brave heroes. But since they’re not generally the obviously relatable characters we’re meant to empathise with, getting into those bad guys’ heads can be fascinating.

But while it’s written under the guise of “exploring a dangerous and twisted yet still distinctly human and underappreciated mindset”, I’ve noticed distressingly often these kinds of narratives reading like some sort of lefty/liberal revenge fantasy, in a way that’d be creepy and sinister and utterly objectionable if the political allegiances were switched.

And I sometimes wonder how much these “explorations” are genuinely about finding the humanity in someone different from you – finding something human to connect with in a character whose motives and values in general appal and disgust you – and how much they’re about indulging the part of you that kinda does just want to murder people.

You’re not a monster, though, so they’d have to be people whose values seriously disagree with yours – maybe over a political issue like gay rights, or something else far more important than the ethics of killing other people.

The obvious example from TV is Dexter. He killed a lot of people, which we’re not supposed to be okay with. But he also had a career and a family and we liked him. And a crucial part of that dichotomy was the moral code he lived and killed by. The show was pretty inconsistent in dealing with what really drove him and why he felt compelled to limit his killing to those who “deserved” it, to the extent that he did. But importantly, the code was something we could relate to. The people he killed were often themselves murderers, or violent thugs, or rapists, and often tended to be casually homophobic and misogynistic and racist.

In other words, they’re people you don’t mind seeing die horribly. You wouldn’t want to actually kill them yourself, in the real world, obviously – but when you’re watching Dexter, you can kinda get behind him.

And this seems to matter. Dexter’s not a relatable anti-hero because of the contrast between his uncontrollable sociopathic violence and all the other delightful, human, recognisable, charming aspects of his character. We don’t see the good in him and wish he could somehow conquer this one horrifying flaw. Instead, the thing that should be his least likable, most alienating aspect is the primary draw. The fact that he’s a serial killer is shaped such that it’s a positive factor in itself.

In Christopher Brookmyre’s book Snowball In Hell, the viewpoint narrator throughout much of the text is a charming and witty serial killer, who targets a right-wing newspaper columnist and goes to great lengths enacting an elaborately ironic revenge fantasy. (Think Saw, but without the grisly “appreciate your life more” parables.) The book expresses contempt and disdain for the homophobic xenophobic bigot and his inhumane views, it marshals a rational argument against them through our charismatic narrator and ridicules them for the vacuous nonsense they are, and then the main character tortures him to death.

The message, at least in part, seems to be that despising and wishing ill on an asshole with hateful politics is not only wholly reasonable and appropriate, but also not that big a step from sadistically making them suffer and ending their life.

Even the main protagonist’s reaction when she hears about this brutal killing is basically “Well, I’ll try to solve this crime and catch the bad guy, because that’s the technically correct thing to do and it’s my job, but I’m not in any way sorry that shithead’s dead.” Because, you know. Why mourn the malicious and vindictive snuffing out of a human life if they’d said some horrible things about gay people? For all that the murdered journalist was portrayed as appallingly intolerant, he was never so unable to tolerate someone else’s lifestyle or opinions that he slit their throat and let them bleed to death while they begged for mercy. The guy who does that to people is cool and suave; the bigot is just gross.

The narrator-murderer also gives us enough of a direct diatribe about his infuriation with things like manufactured pop music and reality TV, that I’m not convinced we aren’t meant to be going along with it and continuing to agree with his worldview. If it’s really just a satire on the ideas he’s espousing, it’s played very straight and a large part of the audience are going to be taking it literally, missing the satire in ways the author has no excuse not to have seen coming.

It becomes more clearly self-aware further in, I think, but this character’s fashionably cynical perspective provides around 100 of the first 150 pages, and it doesn’t feel at all as if it’s supposed to be alienating or other or different. We’re meant to connect with his contempt, it’s meant to tap in to the way other people feel.

Which could support the argument that he’s satirising the danger of that whole lefty-liberal revenge fantasy thing, except it’s still just played too straight for me to buy that explanation. He’s not writing American Psycho here. That book – if I’ve in any way understood anything (not a given) – was about the frustrations of modern corporate life, and how close to psychotic murder are a lot of the emotions it genuinely induces, in huge numbers of people. It was about the disconnectedness that its protagonist felt, and it was really saying yes, this destructive force might be in you too, or at least not so far from home, and that should worry and unnerve you because this is not a nice person.

Whereas Brookmyre’s attitude seems closer to: Hey, this guy is kinda like you, only he gets to kill those people you pretend you don’t hate. Fun!

It feels like these kinds of stories aren’t really about getting into the head of someone truly alien, whose desires and feelings and thought processes are beyond us, so that we can try to understand someone with a completely different worldview from our own. The message is that these psychotic murderers aren’t that different from you, and you should feel fine about that. Their moral code is almost always understandable to a large degree – they’re offended by the same things you are, they’re impatient with bigotry and injustice just like you – but they have this extra aspect to them that means killing people is permitted. They’re still likable and charming and you’re inside their head because of the way the story’s told, but rather than helping to normalise the other, what this does is make the angry, violent, murderous feelings buried under your supposedly benevolent worldview seem understandable and human and maybe even not so morally wrong.

Murder isn’t treated as a moral evil in the same way as, say, writing disparaging things about gay people and immigrants in a newspaper column, or objectifying women, or sometimes simply “being arrogant”. It’s not that these aren’t really bad things; the point is that they’re not as bad as murder, yet they often feel like they’re even worse, so long as it’s the right kind of murder. We’re coaxed into empathising with murderous protagonists all the time, but there are certain rules; you can’t kill any children, it’s generally safer to stay away from women, and you have to have a wry quip for every occasion. It’d be more of an actual challenge to make a relatable protagonist out of a bullying homophobic jerk than a socially liberal assassin. Persuading us to understand someone’s humanity would be trickier if you let them consistently and carelessly break that kind of viscerally understood cardinal sin.

In Brookmyre again, while we’re following the murderer-narrator and still finding him kinda dashing and charming, there always has to be some lefty-acceptable reason for the people he kills – a racist comedian, a vapid bimbo WAG. Somehow it’s never just an actual innocent who doesn’t deserve it who gets killed while we’re watching him be all suave and charming about it. If we couldn’t other and dehumanise the victim based on their politics, then their murder might start to feel like a real tragedy.

There’s an element of the same issue in the film of Kingsman. You know the scene I’m talking about (unless you don’t, in which case do catch up), and it is quite breathtaking, but the purpose in making those people Westboro Baptist proxies seems to have been to make sure we’re less distracted when they get slaughtered, letting us revel more joyously in the carnage. Which I totally do, that scene is fucking incredible and just typing a sentence about it has made me have to go and watch this amazing edit again as a substitute for revisiting the whole film – but it’d be harder to enjoy the beautifully shot ultraviolence if the people getting killed weren’t homophobic and racist bigots. Which says something uncomfortable about the value I seem to place on the lives of other humans when it turns out they’re not keen on gay people.

I’m not sure what the answer is to any of this. I’m not sure there’s even a coherently posed question. And I haven’t even mentioned Hannibal.

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I often remind myself, these days, of how recently it was that I generally bought into the Democrat/Republican good-guy/bad-guy narrative. Remembering that I meant well, and wasn’t simply being vindictive or a complete dumb-ass, is what stops me getting as cross as perhaps I should at a lot of people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and others with whom I’m of a like mind on many things.

But look, people, progressives, sensible liberal types who want to help everyone and think that government is an important tool for doing that: you really need to look at the tribalism on your side of the aisle, as well as just denouncing it when you correctly spot it on the other.

Sometime in November, I tweeted something to the effect of:

“The wrong person won the election and now THE WORLD IS DOOMED!!1!” – crazy Republicans. Also most of you if the numbers had been a little different.

It’s not that the people who saw Obama’s re-election as the moment their country was lost to an Islamic socialist conspiracy aren’t comical. But the number of people with whom I share almost all my values, and yet who cheered Obama on and would have declared the US a complete lost cause if Romney had won, gave me an irony headache.

The idea that, because of the obvious stupidity and meanness of the American right, supporting the left means joining forces with progressive freedom fighters of tolerance and equality, is entirely misguided. You really need to realise that Obama is not your friend.

Before the recent US election, there was a lot of speculation on the left that the President would really start getting things done in his second term. Things he wanted to do, but which wouldn’t have been politically viable for him while he was still trying to get re-elected. This is troublesome for a number of reasons.

It surely indicates a catastrophically broken system, if you’re saying we can’t trust anything a President says or does in his first four years in office. That’s a long time for them to hold the most powerful political position in the world’s primary superpower, while having to prioritise their own popularity above the things they were elected to do.

Lawrence O’Donnell, a man who had hundreds of reasons to vote for Obama in November, made it clear that the President had “absolutely no intention of having that discussion” (about the war on drugs he totally plans to end) until he was re-elected. So if Obama thinks it’ll hurt his political career to talk honestly about his feelings on the important political issues facing the country, he’s just going to keep quiet until he’s in the clear.

That’s coming from someone firmly on Obama’s side. In the face of his failure to do what they want him to do, and act according to his own alleged conscience, their defence is to say “It’s okay, he’s just lying so people will vote for him”.

When it comes to that, you really need to ask why he’s worth defending at all.

Especially when it becomes apparent that he has no goddamn intention whatever of suddenly becoming the liberal Messiah everyone seemed to think he was four years ago. He’s not leading the way in some gloriously progressive, tolerant, loosening of insane drug laws and ushering in a new world of relaxed attitudes to personal use of enjoyable substances. He’s entirely failing to keep up with the pace of public opinion, and in fact is actively struggling against it.

Colorado and Washington both recently voted in favour of legalising recreational marijuana use. In Colorado, legal pot got more votes than Obama did. But the only news about his administration’s changing attitudes to the drug war implies that he’s considering efforts to step it up, and will be going out of his way to enforce federal laws to overrule these few democratic victories.

For some time now, Obama’s been stepping up harassment of even medical marijuana dispensaries, let alone people who just want to get high and have some fun and do things with their own bodies which they should be entitled to.

People such as himself. Obama’s own history of drug use is well recorded. He’s never been cagey about the fact that he smoked marijuana in his younger days, and stronger substances too. But, of course, he stopped, because he wanted to make something of himself someday, and he was concerned about the negative effects. He’d seen what regular use can do to people, how it can damage the intellect and blunt the senses. Drugs are bad, mm’kay.

What we’re supposed to take from that story is that drugs are a scourge which destroy people’s lives, and it’s just as well Obama overcame that temptation, so that now he can fight to stop others indulging in something so potentially damaging. What I actually take from it is that Obama used drugs when he was young, never got thrown in jail for it, made his own grown-up fucking decision to stop, and now he’s the goddamn President.

And now he doesn’t want other people to have the chance to make the same decision and take the same life path that he did. If he’d been subjected to the law which he’s now forcibly and expansively trying to implement, he’d have been a black kid with a criminal record for drug offences and a history of jail-time. Legally interfering with his life would have ruined it. Leaving him the hell alone let him become the most powerful man in the country.

Obama is not your friend, progressive liberal sensible nice people. He’s not the good guy. He’s not on your side. I’m not saying you should forget that Mitt Romney is appalling or that Republicans seem to say something new and moronic about rape or abortion on any given day that ends in a ‘Y’. But that doesn’t mean the other guy is the one you want. Don’t let the inane, two-team, pick-a-side mentality of US politics blind you to the fact that, if you’re in favour of cannabis decriminalisation, this President might be the worst in history on that metric. Stop fixating on the inanity of the Republicans who oppose him; look at the shit he’s actually pulling.

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This is an interesting thing about the differences among libertarian views on corporate power.

I tend to find right-wing libertarianism very tedious, and often largely self-defeating, given how authoritarian can be the ultimate results of its basic tenets about capitalist property rights. I came to the libertarian socialism with which I now hesitantly identify through a fairly mainstream liberalism.

The line of thinking that got me there is typified by the kind of argument suggested by the above article, in response to the classical liberal claim that more government intervention is what’s needed to keep corporate power in check:

I agree with you that corporate power exists, and share your concern with its evil effects, but I believe you’re mistaken about its causes and remedy. The evil effects of corporate power result, not from government’s failure to restrain big business, but from government propping it up in the first place: this government support includes subsidies to the operating costs of big business, and protection of big business from market competition through market entry barriers, regulatory cartels, and special privileges like so-called “intellectual property.”

The fact that capitalist power can even be amassed in the first place, into such concentrations that it supposedly needs to be “reined in” by the government, relies on numerous such forms of tacit government support which don’t often get seriously questioned. Maybe taking some of that support away, instead of trying to add more safeguards for corporations to find ways around, will actually achieve at least some of what many liberals are really aiming for.

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Dan Savage, not for the first time, is mostly right.

His plea in this video is to those Christians who consider themselves in the liberal and tolerant subset of their religion, who keep reminding him that not all Christians are bigoted homophobes.

The problem, as he points out, is that they issue these reminders by emailing him personally, much more often than they do so by publicly denouncing other bigoted or homophobic Christians. He wants them to do more to join non-religious types in condemning the extremists, and do some good while boosting Christianity’s credibility as a source of tolerance and compassion.

And I think it is worth trying to bring some liberal Christians onto our side here, and to ally with them to some degree in combating values that we both find abhorrent.

(We’re still going to think your faith is ridiculous. Fair warning. But that doesn’t need to be constantly on the table while we’re talking about stuff like gay rights or abortion.)

The thing to remember, though, is that these abhorrent values are unequivocally Christian values. The history of Christian progressivism or fundamentalism has been a complex and bumpy one, but The Good Atheist is right to suggest that “hijacking” is an over-simplified description of what the conservative fundamentalists are up to. Their justification for bigotry comes straight from the same Bible that liberal Christians find their inspiration to be compassionate and charitable.

One thing that’s different, though, is the claim to speak for all Christians. That is something you only here from the right-wing nut side of things, and this is to the liberals’ credit. But Dan’s right to point out that, a lot of the time, the end result amounts to “silent complicity” by the latter group of the former’s prejudices.

A lot of the liberal Christian reaction is limited to emailing complaints to people like Dan Savage for their unfair characterisation of Christianity as being wholly bigoted and homophobic. But members of the bigoted and homophobic wing of the religion are out there debating with him on national TV shows, and this is the kind of thing responsible for defining the public face of Christianity. If that face is one of intolerance and hate, whose problem is that? Who should it fall to to correct the imbalance, to stand up for a compassionate, tolerant, liberal Christianity, to make sure this is a view that’s also heard and appreciated and understood?

Not mine. Not Dan Savage’s. We’re not part of that movement. We can’t be responsible for its PR.

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A new law in France, in effect as of today, forces women going out in public to show their faces.

The rationale behind the idea, supposedly, relates to the fact that the country’s more conservative and authoritarian Muslims insist that women cover their faces when out in public. This infringement of people’s rights is what the new law seeks to counteract.

Lawyer and political blogger David Allen Green is against the law, and sums up a good portion of his reasoning in his closing paragraph:

Many secularists and liberals would prefer a world where individuals do not want to hide their faces a part of their social interactions; many secularists and liberals would welcome a world without any face veils. But for such a world to be imposed by legal force makes it a secular and liberal world not worth striving for.

I would certainly prefer some versions of this world to others, and everybody feeling comfortable to make their own decisions regarding how much of their face to show in public seems like a better state of affairs than any alternative. But passing laws to coerce everybody to abide by how I would prefer the world to be is a dangerous road to go down. Even if I’m right, dammit.

Every time the Westboro Baptist Church do anything newly obnoxious, there’s much liberal hand-wringing from the left about the dilemma of supporting free speech but abhorring this speech. And it is a wrench to forego the desire to impose your preferences on society, even when it’s perfectly clear to everyone with an ounce of sanity that your world would be a lovelier place.

In the case of the burqa, some law-makers have decided that it’s time for action. But I’m not sure if they know exactly why they’re doing it.

According to the BBC’s reporting, it’s the way the veil “undermines the basic standards required for living in a shared society” which has prompted the French government to deem it unacceptable, and is why women wearing it risk being fined. Apparently wearing the veil is an undesirable and antisocial act in itself, whether forced or not, and enacting laws against antisocialism is presumed to be within the government’s purview.

From this angle, I suppose there is a worthwhile discussion there to be had about whether this form of “personal expression” causes society sufficient outrage or discomfort for the state to clamp down. Indecency laws no doubt have some place in the world, notwithstanding disagreements on whether their influence should stretch as far as, say, public breast-feeding. A private shopping centre might choose to take a more authoritarian stance on groups of teenagers wearing hoodies on its property. And you may want to insist on seeing people’s faces unobstructed, both in person and on their passport, before letting them fly on your airline.

But the argument that a few thousand Muslim women in France wearing veils is to the general public detriment isn’t one that’s been made a lot. Instead, the decision to pass this law has generally been sold as a liberal one, which stands up for women’s rights and defends them against a more virulent form of oppression. It’s not the veil itself that’s bad, so much as women being forced to wear it by men with purportedly divine justification.

(The truth might in fact be some odd mixture of the two: we don’t like the idea of the burqa, for reasons we’re disinclined to closely examine, and so justify legislating against it with claims that it’s the liberal thing to do.)

So the world we’d prefer isn’t necessarily one in which women didn’t wear the veil, but one in which they weren’t forced to by some patriarchal authority. But the laws against this latter case are, presumably, already in place. I don’t know exactly how some women are being forced to wear clothes they don’t want to, but if it’s through physical violence, or detaining them against their will, then these are already illegal means.

If the ban on the burqa is intended to make these laws easier to act on, then I don’t see how. Making criminals of the women who might have been so coerced won’t obviously bring to light new evidence of the coercion. Nor will inducing them to be urged simply to stay indoors.

In some cases, perhaps the brutal oppression that forces women into adopting a veil isn’t physical, but rather depends on the social pressures of a misogynistic system, and ends with the women themselves choosing the veil through a seemingly contorted form of free will. But when does the state stop passing legislation which claims to know what we want better than we do, once it’s started? If a woman does her best to honestly and sincerely express the desire to wear a veil, and the government insists she mustn’t because the patriarchy have probably just brainwashed her into wanting to do so… well, I can think of a number of worlds preferable to that one.

It seems likely that the burqa is a central part of some Muslim men’s efforts to keep some Muslim women under the thumb, and that this policy will cause more social damage and injustice the more widespread it becomes. The same could be said of Fred Phelps’s clan’s picketing, much of which is solely intended to induce grief and anguish as they gloat in others’ misery. But I don’t want anyone’s right to use placards curtailed, and I wouldn’t even if there was almost nothing they were used for except homophobic fury.

Of course, in the case of the WBC, few liberal commenters simply express a defense of their rights to spew what bile they like, and then leave it at that. They emphasise that these are terrible, wrong-headed people whose hateful message deserves to be utterly reviled – and this tends to play a more significant part in the conversation than the fact that, much as we would like to, we can’t really justify oppressive legal action here.

Although I oppose the ban on the burqas, that shouldn’t be the end of the ongoing conversation, or even the biggest part of it. The problems of oppression and social injustice which the ban seeks to address are still there. So what can we do about them? Is it just a matter of continuing the conversation, adding to the public discourse, and hoping that a free flow of information and opinion will lead inexorably to a freer society?

That’d certainly be handy for me. It’d mean I’m already doing everything I need to do to save the world.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.


Aggregator of awesomeness Boing Boing has been doing a pretty thorough job of documenting the exploits of the TSA in recent months, highlighting many examples of how illiberal, unnecessary, awkward, expensive, humiliating, time-consuming, pointless, and downright authoritarian and abusive the US government’s attempts to crack down on terrorism can be.

On top of all that, it looks like they’re not even effective.

We can’t know how many terror attacks, potentially on a scale that could have dwarfed 9/11, were foiled while security staff were drenching a retired cancer patient in urine, taking naked pictures of passengers with untested equipment, stealing thousands of dollars, planting white powder in people’s bags as a prank, frisking five-year-olds, or just enjoying some good ol’-fashioned ball-grabbing.

But we also can’t know exactly how many .40 calibre loaded guns and twelve-inch razor blades people have walked onto planes with in spite of all this.

If I had to guess, I’d say the second number might be a little bigger than the first.

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The thing about drugs ARGH SCARY is that it’s difficult for a lot of people to have a sensible conversation about them.

They can be a genuine nightmare, after all. Becoming physically and psychologically dependent on heroin DEATH DOOM DESTRUCTION is no doubt a horrifying experience, and can lead to every single aspect of a person’s life crumbling if they don’t get help. And that’s not even the most insidious drug CRYSTAL METH WILL RAPE YOUR BRAIN widely available today.

And yet, many people seem unwilling to even think about drugs FLEE IN TERROR any further than the knee-jerk reaction that they must all be wiped out and obliterated utterly. But making decisions based on nothing more than the immediate, gut reaction and scary ideas that flash into people’s minds whenever drugs SAVE THE CHILDREN are mentioned might not be the most helpful strategy. They’ve been around for centuries; they’re unlikely to seize any more of a stranglehold over the planet if we take five minutes to think about what might actually work.

As always, it pays to be wary of fundamentalism. If eliminating the presence of drugs completely is the only acceptable course of action, you have to wonder why people are so convinced that this is necessarily a good thing in itself. There’s nothing intrinsic to any particular chemical compound to render its very existence unacceptable. It’s about their capacity to do things that are bad.

The war on drugs – if it’s not just a blind ideology that’s completely lost track of the effect it has on real people – should really be a war on drugs’ capacity to fuck you up.

And so if a campaign against drugs isn’t going to just barrel on with a zealous, zero-tolerance approach which completely disregards its results, it needs to pay attention to what strategies tend to reduce drug use, and what tend to exacerbate it.

Which is why it’s a shame that nobody in the UK or the US seems to be serious about doing that.

Possessing any drugs for personal use was decriminalised in Portugal nine years ago. Before then, drug use had been going up. Since then, it’s gone down.

There really does exist a middle ground between incarcerating half a million people for drug offences and replacing the Presidential inauguration with a cocaine party. It’s just not true that if you let your mind contemplate loosening your drug policy even for a second, waves of swarthy opium dealers will be battering down your door to haggle for your 8-year-old son’s pocket money.

You can make some changes, find some new ways to offer treatment, and keep some laws in place – as Portugal has done with trafficking – and things can get better. Teenagers will be less likely to start taking drugs if you dare to deviate from the accepted orthodoxy that all drugs are always terrible.

If you care, that is. But as Johann Hari excellently points out, some just seem to be set on raving manically against anything that sounds like it should fall into the category they’ve chosen to label MOST DEPLORABLE EVIL EVAR. The mephedrone fiasco is a fine example of the standard route that the discourse seems to take.

And if people are simply dead set against more effective campaigns on principle, because the most vitally important thing to them is that they’re not seen as being “soft” on the problem of drugs, then I can only conclude that they don’t really care how many people are taking drugs and killing themselves. If either harm reduction or respect for personal liberty was as high a priority as the perceived adherence to accepted dogma, they’d consider other options based on what works.

(The title is a Brass Eye reference, incidentally, partially explained here.)

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