Thursday, 12 March 2015

On the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett

(Sex Unknown)
Those were the words that grabbed me: the two-word description of Great A’tuin, the Star Turtle on the back of my dad’s copy of The Colour of Magic. “Hold on,” my nine-year-old self thought. “You created a world that is flying through space on the back of four elephants, themselves perched on the back of a giant astral chelonian—a world populated by wizards who don’t do magic, gods who play tabletop games with mortals and a sentient wooden trunk on legs—and the question you’re raising on the back is ‘what sex is the turtle’?”[1]
The clever bugger even put it in brackets. Like he was writing for a science journal.
That was when I realised I had to read on and find out if the characters ever find out what damn sex the turtle was.
That was the genius of Terry Pratchett: it wasn’t that his world was absurd that made it work, it was that it was constructed. Deliberate. This was a man who could take the sex of a space-turtle, make a joke about it, and then turn it into a plot point.
I started reading my dad’s Discworld books because they were naughty and had words like “sod” in them, which seemed extremely clever to my nine-year-old brain. It turned into something my dad and I could share: it gave us our own little in-jokes and secret code. We associated real people we knew with the characters. My mum was syncretised with Granny Weatherwax: practical, intimidating and Absolutely Not To Be Crossed. My sister[2] reminded my dad of Susan: precocious and mature despite her age, but had he lived he’d probably have found she had more in common with Tiffany Aching, the girl who took on the Queen of the Fairies with a frying pan.[3] Sisters are like that. They don’t take shit from people.
When my father died, Pratchett was my link back to him. In grammar school, whenever a grown-up asked me what sort of thing I was into and I didn’t feel like I could really say “video games and Mongolian history”, I would say “reading.” And when they asked what I read, the first thing I answered with was “Discworld.” When my English teacher told me to read something else, I read the rulebook Vampire: The Masquerade, just to piss him off.[4] Discworld wasn’t the first fantasy series that I read, but it was the first fantasy world that I loved.
Which, when you think about it, is the wrong way round. By the time I was a moody teenager playing Warhammer and Baldur’s Gate and reading Lord of the Rings, I was more familiar with the parody than the source material. He introduced me to the classics before I even knew they existed. Redheads in chainmail bikinis. Talking swords. Unspeakable Things That Man Was Not Meant To Know. These are the sacred cows that Pratchett roasted in his first book. Once I knew exactly what Pratchett was making fun of, he’d already moved on to Shakespeare and pop culture. Once I’d read those, he was sticking the boot into racism and nationalism. When I’d finally caught up, he was onto digging into the really evil, noxious stuff, like newspapers and the post office. I always told myself that one day I’d find the time to catch up, before he shook hands with Death. I’m sad to say I never managed it.
Pratchett taught me a lot, when I wasn’t too dumb to listen: woman’s magic is different from man’s magic, but is certainly not weaker; psychology fixes more problems than witchcraft; old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill; the existence of God(s) doesn’t mean we have to believe in them; we should all be nice to orang-utans. I never did learn the sex of the turtle, but I did learn that Death wasn’t something to be scared of. Pratchett’s Death can be ominous and imposing, but more often than not he’s just a dude you want to hang out with, who likes cats and curries and camomile tea, who plays a mean guitar solo and who’s prepared to take over for Santa Claus and save the world when necessary. And people don’t react to him with fear, or even regret: Pratchett’s post-mortals are always given a chance to air their grievances with The Grave of All Hope before he encourages to dust themselves down and move on. Or not. It’s there choice, really. Pratchett’s Death isn’t fair, or kind, or particularly nice. And he doesn’t care if you’re good or bad, rich or poor, old or young. But he isn’t cruel: just terribly, terribly good at his job and what matters most when you meet him isn’t what you’ve done in life, but how you react to it when it ends.
Terry Pratchett made Death cool. Let’s hope that Death has returned the favour.

[1] My younger self probably used shorter words
[2] Who wrote a letter to Sir Terry (before he was Sir Terry) asking about whether he thought Nanny Ogg was suitable for children. She still has his reply.
[3] And won
[4] He didn’t notice

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Five-year old boy discovers he's a girl, unfairly maligned by parents, psychiatry, tabloids

I can remember that very moment I stopped trusting the Metro, when their review of The Matrix Reloaded kept insisting that the protagonist of one of the biggest film franchise of the 2000s was named "Nero".

Evidently things have not improved.

I read this story in the print addition, because it was lying on a seat on the bus and it was on the front page, and the whole thing left me near apoplectic with rage. The gist of the story is this: a five year old child, born biologically male, has adopted a female gender identity. On it's own, not exactly anything to stop the presses, certainly not front page material. Little things, that reflect an orthodox, inflexible gender binary that tries to fit all children into a pattern, often to the detriment of the child. Why is Dora the Explorer assumed to be "a television programme" aimed at young girls, when Thomas the Tank engine is, by extrapolation, dripping with testosterone? Why do they insist that there is something wrong with a child choosing an identity of than that society deems it should have. They refer to the child as "he", despite their apparent identification with femininity (which is understandable: I'm avoiding gendered pronouns myself because I'm not too sure what the correct etiquette would be). Why is the child said to be "trapped" in the "wrong" gender, instead of "liberated" from the constraints of biology? If they are trapped by anything, it's the frankly unhelpful attitude of their parents, who insist on treating the kid as abnormal because they don't meet their expectations. something was wrong because their five-year old boy announced that he wanted to be a girl, had him diagnosed (probably for life) with a mental disorder and sold their story to a second-rate sensationalist tabloid.

I think the thing that bothers me most is the fact that "Gender Identity Disorder" is a recognised condition. Not just a condition, but an "illness". I really am shocked to learn that transgenderism can still be considered a mental illness in the year 2012. Leaving aside the wider debate about the efficacy and morality of using labels for psychological conditions, I fail to see how identifying with a gender distinct from one's biological sex is a disorder. True, the child has body issues, having apparently attempted to amputate his penis (or "cut his willy off", as the Metro so helpfully narrates), but it seems to me that this neuroticism stems from an outside supposition that one's identity must be binary. Male/female. Yes/no. Black/White. Maybe if the parents they sat down and talked to the kid and made them feel comfortable in their chosen identity instead of diagnosing them with a "disorder" they wouldn't feel the need to mutilate their genitals...

There are little flashes of sanity towards the end of the story: The kid's school have approached the subject with more maturity and sensitivity than the Metro has by having gender-neutral toilets- which, incidentally, or probably a good idea for society at large to adopt. The other children are apparently unfazed- it's almost as if gender binaries are an artificial construct imposed unnaturally upon the young! Mermaids point out that identity issues tend to get sorted out at puberty (which is really what puberty is for) and Anne Atkins points out that slapping someone with a meaningless label is probably not conducive to beneficial long-term development.

I wonder how this story would have been different if it centred around a girl who had decided they were a boy, and glued a penis between their legs? Would it be the same transphobic bullshit? Or would it lionise the brave young amazon who has broken the shackles of her wretched femininity and joined us on the mighty plateau of manhood? Because everyone knows that being a man is the aspiration of every woman, but being a woman is the greatest curse one can inflict upon a man!

Every time a boy is forced to be boy, a girl is forced to be a girl. If you insist on strength in men, you encourage weakness in women. Every time you try to force an identity onto one child, you place every child in bondage to expectation.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

David Starkey has no idea what he is talking about, and no one should pay him any heed

*Ahem* Apologies for lack of bloggery, there were some... things I had to take care of.

Actually I thought about blogging about the riots down south (Newcastle has been spared for now), but I found the whole thing very depressing. Not just the riots themselves, the the witless bellends who went on the telly to blame the cuts and the Poles, as if it was a legitimate protest and not just a glorified mass-mugging; but also the revelation that virtually everyone else in the country is a closet Mail-reader who wanted to cut benefits to some of the worst off in society, bring back national service, give the police licence to unmask anyone they deem a threat and disrupt social networks, the general kind of illiberal shittery we condemn in Middle Eastern despots.

In the end I had to give up, since my feelings have been better articulated by others. and I've actually summed up much of my feelings in one paragraph anyway. But since renowned Tudorphile David Starkey has decided to stick his ill-suited oar into the dirtied waters of debate surrounding the riots, I feel obligated to respond: I wouldn't put up with this shit from Ferguson: why should Starkey be any different?

I'm not going to spend much time dignifying Starkey's ridiculous comments by disputing them: it should be manifestly obvious to all concerned that his views are simplistic and ill-informed at best. Deliberately invoking Enoch Powell was so patently daft that it makes me wonder if Starkey is deliberately goading outrage: why else would he bring up a name so loved by the far-right, so indelibly linked with hatred and tolerance, and yet so thoroughly discredited for painting an outlandish and, as it turns out, completely inaccurate vision of the future?

I think what he meant to say, albeit in as foolish and offensive a manner possible, was that youth culture 1. has been heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean strands and 2. glorified violence, both of which are fair (though debatable) statements in their own right. But he also went further by implying causation, that it is the influence of black culture that has inspired the glorification of violence- in effect, that black culture is inherently violent. This is a dull and tedious stereotype that I've no doubt that a man in his sixties of conservative persuasion has no difficulty believing. Suffice to say that I suspect Dr Starkey has had basically zero interaction with black (or indeed urban culture) besides what he sees through the distorted lens of the conservative press: an endless tirade of dark-skinned rappa-gangsters showing off bullet wounds, singing stuffy old songs about the buttocks and generally posing in warehouses, boasting like Celtic chieftains about how very dangerous they are. Starkey is working on a logical fallacy, that "black" equals "urban", and that "urban" equals "violent". It's an easy trap to fall into, and one that requires absolutely zero critical thinking: even a little bit of thought would have revealed to Starkey 1. that so-called "black culture" is not homogeneous, and that it includes such luminaries as Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Benjamin Sisko and 2. that the pastiche of urban thuggery Starkey has bought wholesale is a construct not only of Fideo Cent and Snoopy Dog, but of their non-black contemporaries like Eminem, Dappy and, um, Vanilla Ice, in addition to a dozen other sources that are wholly unrelated to black culture, like the cro-magnon exploits of footballers, the tabloid obsession with train-wreck celebrities and easy access to cheap alcohol brewed by the black monks. Yet Starkey seems in no hurry to suggest that the Rule of St Benedict is responsible for the London riots.

The problem with David Starkey as it was with Ferguson, is raging egomania. Good historians don't make television as good as bad historians do, because they have to accept that their views are subjective and fallible, whereas bad historians can arm themselves with the indefatigable, photogenic confidence of someone who knows they are right (but usually isn't). Neither Starkey's PhD nor his appearance on terrestrial television makes him qualified to comment on politics or sociology. The basic logic here seems to be that academic=smart, and that smart=qualified to mouth off on any damn subject under the sun. It's a strange real-life humanities version of the way fictional scientists like Emmet Brown or Tony Stark or Robotnik are masters of every scientific discipline under the sun, no matter how divorced from their core discipline. One would think that if Newsnight needed an actual rent-a-quote racist, they would have an actual sociologist on standby without resorting to someone who's primary interest is in the sex life of a fat men centuries dead.

The fact that David Starkey is a racist doesn't surprise me, really: the man has already shown himself to be a hateful sexist when he argued that history was being ruined by women turning it into a giant soap opera that focused unduly on Henry VIII's love life, a statement that is not only manifestly untrue and profoundly unhelpful (since any approach to history that comes from sources other than middle-aged white dudes like Starkey and my self is valuable and welcomed), but is also a tad hypocritical: a man who's entire career has revolved around Henry VIII, who has published numerous books and TV series about Henry VIII (including one that was even named The Six Wives of Henry VIII) and who was a consultant on renowned sexorama The Tudors cannot turn around and say that someone else is obsessed with Henry VIII's dick and where he put it.

Women! Know your limits! Look what you've turned history into!

If the sexism seems irrelevant at this moment, it isn't: the point I'm trying to make is that David Starkey is a hateful little publicity hound who has no idea what he is talking about (unless it's about Anne Boleyn's favourite position), and that we should all just ignore him. These are dangerous times: community tensions run high, and the public mood is the ugliest I have ever seen it in years. Already Starkey's unhelpful comments have been taken as a rallying cry for Stormfront, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the EDL used his comments as intellectual ammunition if they ever learn how to read. The last thing we need is for someone intelligent and knowledgeable to give the racists credibility. Let's not pretend that David Starkey is that person.

Edit: inevitable as the tides, some fools have come out to suggest that Starkey is correct and totally not racist, and absolutely did not say that black culture is violent and thuggish even though that's exactly what he said. There's an article on Five Chinese Crackers refuting it with far more aplomb than I could manage. There's also a brilliant analysis by Nathaniel Tapley outlining Starkey's failures as a talking head.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Phillip Davies is a despicable coward, and not just for the obvious reasons

I think we can all agree that it's a pretty shitty thing to suggest that disabled people should ask for less in order to secure employment. It's totally backward thinking: society should be tackling the prejudices that disabled people face, rather than seeing them as a cut-rate Tesco-value version of "real" employees. It is such a blatantly offensive and shameful thing to suggest that even Phillip Davies' own party has distanced itself from his comments, so we might hope that his future career as an MP is now likely to be a short one.

But I'm not sure his comments are really about disabled people. I think it's about the minimum wage.

Now, the minimum wage is something of a scam, since when it was introduced it was accompanied by a loss of benefits that actually meant those receiving it actually had less money prior to its introduction. That is not the point: I think that most reasonably minded people would now agree that the institution of the minimum wage- the concept that there is a minimum standard of income that should be provided to all employees to insure an acceptable standard of living- is fundamentally a sound idea.

Some Tory commentators might raise objections about the implementation, and may even be opposed to the principle. That's not unreasonable in itself, though it is a bit uncharitable. Today's comments suggest Phillip Davies is one of those opposed to the minimum wage, and that today's statement is meant as a direct challenge to it.

If one Sets aside the discussion about disability in particular, one could apply his suggestion more broadly and claim that to the able-bodied unemployed would also be better served by agreeing to work for a reduced wage. And if employers know that jobseekers are prepared to work for a reduced wage, then there is no motivation for them to stick to the national standard. They could even set their own, sub-par, wage, and the jobseeker would be forced to either accept the reduced wage or look elsewhere.

This is a worst-case scenario I have devised for rhetorical effect, a Dickensian dystopia where all employees are hired and fired by the day for a pittance insufficient to feed their starving children. After all, the minimum age is barely a decade old. But it does reflect the ideal of certain economic conservatives to do away with the minimum wage in order to encourage competitive business practices, even at the expense of the average standard of living.

There are therefore two possible explanations behind Davies' statement. The first is that he is simply an idiot, so out of touch with both popular mood and the realities of life on the dole that his perspective has been warped. In his eyes, people should be grateful that they have a job at all. He might earnestly believe he is doing them a favour by standing by standing up for the little man's right to be treated like shit. If that is so, then his plan seems to have backfired spectacularly

The second explanation is that he is simply a Tory dickhole who wants a job market where employers can set any price they want, and rely on the fact that there will always be someone desperate enough to apply. In this scenario the mention of disability is a smokescreen, that allows him to present his views as if they were shared by the unfortunate minority that he has decided to champion whilst claiming the moral high-ground against those wicked lefties who would rather the disabled were unemployed before they sacrificed their minimum wage sacred cow. His Twitter feed suggests he is indeed using the issue of disability to defend his views. That would make him a coward as well as an asshat who uses the vulnerability of the disabled to disguise an attack on the unemployed in general.

Davies might well be deluded enough to believe he speaks for the vulnerable in society. If that is so, we can hope that the overwhelmingly negative response to his stupid statement jolts him out of his fantasy. But I suspect it's far more likely that he honestly believes there people should be grateful to receive less than their peers for doing the same work.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

My thoughts on Nadine's Dorries bonkers legislation, and a morality tale about a man and his penis...

Fair warning: this post is probably NSFW. Unless you have a very interesting job.

So this is a huge pile of bollocks.

I’ve mentioned in the past that sex education (or the lack thereof) in Britain is of huge personal concern to me, but before I go into why the coalition policies in this field are bullshit I should probably reiterate my personal experience with its failings. I offer my apologies to anyone who has already heard this story, and a warning to those of a delicate disposition that it will include a fairly detailed description of my penis.

Anyone still reading? Alright then…

When I was a young(er) man of twenty-one summers, I discovered that my foreskin didn’t retract properly, particularly when erect (a condition referred to in fancy Greek-talk as phimosis [NSFW!!!]). I was still a virgin at the time, and was informed by a surgeon with entirely too much money that there was a danger that my foreskin could tear if I engaged in sexual intercourse, which is generally something to avoid, or so I am told. It also meant that condoms wouldn’t fit me correctly, and that the head of my penis would be extremely vulnerable if it were to become exposed. The upshot of this is that I needed to have a circumcision.

The operation itself was quick, but in the aftermath I’m sure you could appreciate I was in a certain (but manageable) degree of pain for a period of weeks. I also had to have the operation performed privately, since I was still at and it would have been disruptive to myself and to others if the issue were not resolved swiftly. Consequently it was not cheap, and I have never been more grateful to my mother than when she agreed to pay the frankly exorbitant fee for an operation a good rabbi would have performed for free (I was slightly more concerned to discover my mum had also googled “self-circumcision” on her desktop, mind).

Now this is not a procedure I would have wished upon anyone without good religious or medical reason. There’s a reason Jewish and Muslim boys are circumcised at a young age, so that (1) they don’t have any memory of the procedure and (2) any scarring is less likely to be permanent, as mine was (and is). As with any surgery there are risks, and had it not been medically necessary I do not think I would have undergone the procedure in a thousand years.

But I did need it, and the truth is that it would have been best had I had it at a young age. It would have probably been asking a bit much of the poor (Catholic) priest who baptised me to have lopped off part of my dick whilst I was naked anyway, but certainly it should, ideally, have been dealt with at the onset of my adolescence. It wasn’t, and though I am relieved to report that my undercarriage now works fine (as far as I know), there is still some rather unsightly scarring that might have been avoided had I received the procedure when I should have.

The point of this unavoidably explicit story is this: why did I not discover there was something wrong with me until I was an adult, when it should have been reported years earlier? Why was it that I had to discover this sensitive detail from someone else (whom I shall not name, but to whom I shall be forever grateful for their delicate sympathy), instead of learning it for myself, which would have meant considerably less embarrassment.

The answer is simple: no one had ever told me- let alone showed me- what an erect penis was supposed to look like.

I’m sure it seems ridiculous that an adult male had no idea how his penis was supposed to work. Honestly, I find it a little preposterous myself with hindsight. I am not a stupid person. Well, I am, in many ways, but I’m not an ignorant person. I pride myself on knowing things, I hate not being knowledgeable about anything. The idea that I couldn’t have known what a dick was supposed to look like is, quite frankly, laughable.

Nonetheless, it is true: I simply didn’t realise there was anything wrong with me. As far as I knew, everyone’s penis was the same: the foreskin wasn’t meant to retract, but was meant to hug the head of the penis like bacon around a Christmas chipolata. You can imagine that I had some very strange ideas about what circumcision actually involved: let’s just say I pitied the Jewish boys at school and leave it at that.

Here’s the bit where I Blame Society For My Misfortune: the reason I thought my condition was the norm was because no one had told me otherwise. Not once in two decades had anyone ever thought fit to tell me that the foreskin is meant to retract behind the head of the penis. Why would they? But the thing that gets to me is that I never had the opportunity to discover that something was wrong with me. I was taught about sex primarily by my mother, who was always open, direct and honest, but I’m sure you can appreciate there were subjects I dare not broach with her. My father had died when I was thirteen, so I was perhaps lacking a male figure with whom I could converse on such matters, but even had he lived I can’t imagine bringing the subject up with him. My “official” education on the subject consisted primarily of old men at school showing clinical videos about the differences between men and women, without ever actually showing sexual intercourse in practice. My unofficial education… well, I grew up in the nineties. There were plenty of exciting sensual delights on Channel 5 in those carefree days, but it was forbidden to show a man with an erection on television, and in an age before broadband, actual pornography was not as accessible to curious teenage minds as it is now.

The closest I ever saw to an actual stiffy was a terrible sex-ed video in RE at the age of fifteen in which a thermal image of a semi-erect penis was slowly revealed to the accompaniment of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. I am seriously not making this up.* The first and only time I have seen an erection that wasn’t may own, and it was presented in fuzzy Technicolour on a tiny monitor with exclamations of the Rapture in the background. How the hell was I going to learn anything from that?

Anyway, to sum up the key points of my rambling, I earnestly believe that British sex education let me down. I feel that a culture in which middle-aged men in tweed suits nervously explain to curious teens that they shouldn’t ever have sex ever or they will get pregnant and die is the wrong approach. I feel that there is a culture of ignorance that permeates traditional sex education, where people are barely given enough information to propagate the species, let alone emerge from their first experience with their sanity and their self-respect intact. I believe there is a tendency to treat sexual activity as shameful, to present sexually active people as immoral even whilst society places pressure on them to be sexually active as soon as possible. I believe that ignorance helps nobody, that keeping information from young people and failing to deal with their concerns seriously fucks them up, emotionally and physically, and is a tantamount to a form of abuse that will stay with them the rest of their lives. I believe my own experience is the thin end of the wedge: I was lucky to have my problem eventually solved. There are many thousands of people who will face far greater sexual problems that will not be so fortunate. I believe that bad sex education does a greater disservice to the young than people realise.

The reason I have presented this rather personal confession is to highlight the reasons why I believe that good sex education is absolutely vital to ensure the physical and psychological wellbeing of future generations of adults. I also want to stress just how flawed this legislation is, and why I believe that Nadine Dorries is a dangerous cunt.

It is because of people like Dorries that the culture of embarrassed ignorance permeates British society at every level. It is because of legislation like this that I was kept from learning something I should have learned when I was fourteen.

Put crudely (and somewhat melodramatically): if people like Dorries had their way, I would have literally had my knob ripped off as soon as I had sex for the first time.

Some of the obvious criticisms of her policy- like the fact that it is sexist and won’t work- have already been pointed out, and needn’t be reiterated here. What I will say is that abstinence is not the answer. I’m not opposed to abstinence per se, nor am I opposed to empowering women to say no to sex (though God knows Nadine Dorries has precisely zero interest in empowering women, judging by her record). I have been largely abstinent myself now for some time (though whether by choice or circumstance, I could not say), and one of the things I find most grating about modern society is it’s constant expectation that sexual activity is the norm and sexual inactivity is somehow freakishly aberrant, a view perpetuated by trendy sitcoms set in New York. In fact, I believe Dorries could go further in her message and extend it to boys, who often face a similar pressure- albeit from their peers- to engage in premature sexual activity.

But the fact that Dorries is a neo-Victorian misogynist is tangential to my main point, which is that abstinence training is dangerous. Not only because it manifestly doesn’t work, since telling young people not to have sex is about as effective as telling the rain not to fall or getting Nick Clegg to promise not to raise tuition fees, but because it adds to the confused and contradictory message that young people already receive about sex. They want to have it, but they mustn’t do it. It’s cool to have sex, but it’s cool to say no. I wouldn’t even begin to describe the psychological harm such a policy must have. People are hard-wired to want to have sex all the time, a trait they share with every living creature to have ever walked the earth, apart from pandas and Tories. That doesn’t mean they have to do it all the time, but it certainly doesn’t mean they should be told that they are guilty of some moral failing if they choose to have sex, for whatever reason.

The most sinister aspect of abstinence based “education” is that it is often used as a cheap means for the conservatives (small “c”) in society to avoid proper sex education altogether, and option that must seem particularly attractive to the current government and their policy of cutting funding to anyone without a knighthood. And if I have learned anything from my own experience with sex education, it is that more education is needed, not less. Really, can anyone think of any aspect of human endeavour where more information about a topic is not immeasurably preferable to less?

The last thing I want is for other people to go through what I had to go through, not least because I imagine their experiences might be much more severe and much more permanent. Denying people education- wilfully leaving them ignorant- is quite possibly one of the worst things they will do. If sex education is replaced with abstinent programs, where will young people learn about sex? From their parents? They might not be willing or comfortably talking about sex with their children. From trendy Channel 4 documentaries? Sure, so long as one is happy that children learn more about how to staple mithril to their fannies than about sex, health or relationships? From pornography, which bears about as much resemblance to the reality of teenage sexual relations as Twilight does? No, the truth is that young people will probably be left on their own to figure what goes where, when they inevitably do have sex, with predictably disastrous consequences.

But more than that, I believe that my experience came about because of a culture of ignorance and embarrassment about sexual health. And I believe that part of the reason I emerged from it healthier is that I learned not to feel embarrassed about it. Rather than hiding the reason why I was off work, I told people the truth, and to a man my co-workers were all sympathetic I talked about my problem. I made jokes about it: my favourite was telling Daily Mail readers I was getting circumcised in order to convert to Islam (the looks of horror on their faces were priceless). The point is that I owned it; I drew strength from it. Far from being a subject of shame and embarrassment, it became a point of pride for me that I has undergone a painful and sensitive experience and emerged the better for it. I felt more confident in my own skin, better able to talk about myself, and my feelings, even about intimately. To this day I still talk about my circumcision more than I really should, even on Twitter and, it would seem, on blogposts that will be read by literally half-dozens of people! I probably shouldn’t. It’s not what one does in polite society. But I honestly think that being honest, open and transparent about this aspect of myself has been immensely beneficial. I want to live in a society where human sexuality is not a big deal, where people are encouraged to talk about their problems so that they can handle them with maturity and optimism, instead of feeling dirty and ashamed of their own bodies or feelings.

Doesn’t it seem healthier to encourage young people to talk more about sex, instead of telling them not to do it? Hell, they’re going to do it no matter what you say, so you might as well ensure the experience is positive, fulfilling and healthy, instead of stigmatising it, just like everything else fun that teenagers like to do.

*It might not have been the Hallelujah chorus, but it was certainly religious and Handel-esque. It was, at any rate, hideously inappropriate.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A ridiculously petty post about the BBC's technology news coverage

Dear BBC: the shittiness of your tech coverage is getting ridiculous…

I love the BBC, and I’ll defend to the hilt from the brain-dead cryptoracists of the Mail and their cronies, but the tech coverage on the BBC news website is really starting to annoy me. Not content to reiterate tech stories roughly two years after they first become relevant unless it is something really like Second Life or Twitter, their coverage of the announcement that Nintendo is working on a new console shows a worrying lack of effort to either research or write it.

The headline declares that “Nintendo announces Wii 2 console” and the very first line claims that “Nintendo has announced it will launch a new version of its Wii console in 2012”.

So far it all seems perfectly simple. Except for the fact that Nintendo hasn’t announced they are making a new Wii.

The actual announcement states that “Nintendo Co., Ltd. Has decided to launch in 2012 a system to succeed the Wii” (emphasis mine). The distinction is important: they haven’t announced a new model of the Wii, or a console bearing the Wii name. They have announced an entirely new console that they intend to succeed the Wii, as the Wii succeeded the Gamecube and the ‘cube succeeded the N64. Although details about the console are currently thin on the ground, rumours suggest that it is extremely un-Wii-ish in nature and is unlikely to share the name (which was, lets face it, a profoundy stupid name).

The BBC story is presenting the new console as an update, in the same way the DSi improved upon the DS or- perhaps more tellingly- in the same manner as Apple updates its products every year. They actually state that “some observers had speculated that the Wii 2 would simply update the existing machine” without actually stating who these anonymous observers were and despite the aforementioned rumours that the next console will not just be a "gimmick" like the Wii.

I know this seems like a petty point- and, in the grand scheme of things, it is- but it just annoys me. It annoys me that Nintendo’s new console is presented as an Apple-esque update without evidence. It annoys me that is called the “Wii 2” even though it hasn’t been named. It annoys me that the “b” in “Xbox” is capitalised despite being used three times in the article, petty as that may sound.

The constant drip-drip of irrelevant, outdated or poorly researched tech articles suggests it is a low priority for the BBC. I can only conclude that whoever they have writing these articles is unfamiliar with the systems they describe or the broader trends in tech news. I know they are facing some pretty stringent cuts, and I know it isn’t the BBC’s job to provide the most in-depth tech coverage. That’s what Wired is far, after all, and its not like there aren’t literally hundreds of blogs and a surfeit of podcasts from which to get the latest videogame news. But I do expect a certain degree of fact checking and accuracy. I’m not a tech expert either, and even I’m noticing the low standard of tech news stories these days. Is it really so hard to believe that no one on the BBC News team plays video games extensively or makes it a point of professionalism to pay attention to game news? I mean, I manage it, and I’m an unemployed history graduate, not a professional journalist!


Monday, 11 April 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Six: All Work and No Facts Makes Niall a Disgrace to Thucydides

In the final episode of Civilisation: Is The West History, Niall Ferguson finally loses the plot completely.

When discussing the last episode I lamented that Ferguson has neglected to cover the role religion played in fuelling the West’s domination of the rest of the world. I suggested that, since he is primarily a financial historian, he might not be interested in the ephemeral minutia of spiritual matters.

It turns out I was wrong, for in this last episode Ferguson finally gets round to describing how religion gave the Western world the self-confidence to impose itself on the rest of the world.

As usual, he makes a dog’s dinner of it.

1. Weber of Lies

Ferguson states that he was raised atheist, but he always felt a certain affinity for Weber’s “Protestant work ethic”, which encouraged Westerners to work hard in the hopes of spiritual rewards, unlike the lazy Papists and those drug-addled Mohammedans that populate his version of non-Western world (or “Resterners,” as he names them, which surely must be an illegal slur). That statement should immediately set off a few alarm bells, not least of how hypocritical it is for him to later condemn Europe as godless and shallow when he himself is not a believer. But it also raises the question why Ferguson is so focused on Protestantism as one of the West’s- *sighs deeply*- “killer apps.” One assumes he was also raised a Ranger’s fan.

Certainly it is consistent with the definition of “the West” that he has hitherto failed to elaborate on: the Protestant sphere happens to overlap with Northern Europe and the Anglosphere but also includes his beloved Prussia. It also includes Scandinavia and parts of Switzerland and the Low Countries, but he never mentions them even though it might help his case. Probably because they are a bit foreign.

Equating the West with Protestantism at least explains why he is so dismissive of South America, which is overwhelmingly Catholic. And it allows him to do what he does best: dismiss non-Western cultures by suggesting they lack the virtues that made the West awesome- in this case suggesting- and, in the case of the Middle East, outright stating that it is lazy as well as ignorant and overly bureaucratic.

Here’s the problem with the Protestant work ethic theory: it’s bollocks. Wikipedia has provided a convenient summary of the criticisms of Weber’s theory, but what is relevant here is that it totally downplays the role of Catholics and their church in establishing Western supremacy. Ferguson may have been raised atheist with Protestant leanings, but I am a humanist raised Catholic, and I can tell him that the Protestant work ethic has nothing on the power of the Catholic guilt complex. Of course, one might argue that the distinction between working in the knowledge one will be rewarded in the hereafter and working to in the fear that failure will leave one consigned to the Inferno is six of one, half a dozen of the over, but the point is that I don’t think Protestants work significantly harder than Catholics. They’re probably just happier about it.

What is relevant is that “Protestantism”- which, incidentally, is a term that covers a broad spectrum of beliefs, some of which differ but a little from Catholicism- has historically been the minority faith in the Western Europe, limited largely to Britain, North America, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and northern Germany, whereas the Catholic powers have included Spain (the conqueror of most of the Americas), Portugal (the nation that gave the West its dominance of sea trade), France (the most successful non-Anglophone colonial power), Austria (the dominant central European power for most of the modern period) and Italy (the birthplace of the Renaissance). One might also point out that one of the constituent countries of Great Britain at its height- Ireland- remained largely Catholic despite attempts at Protestant colonisation, and that many areas of Britain with significant Irish Catholic immigrant populations- like Liverpool, Jarrow and Ferguson’s own Glasgow- were amongst the centres of industry that fuelled Britain’s global dominance.

To the concert of Europe we may add Russia, which, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, and Turkey, which isn’t Christian but did rule over all denominations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere with remarkable tolerance and famously drew its soldiers from them. We might even add the Papacy itself, since it did at least organise a rather significant experiment in European domination of a non-European populace in the Middle Ages.

We might also add the major non-Western economies of the twentieth century, such as Japan and the Asian Tigers, where Christianity has had a negligible influence. It would be hard to describe the Japanese as lazy, after all.

Finally, in focusing on Protestantism Ferguson overlooks the Jewish contribution to Western civilisation: men like Einstein, Oppenheimer, Kissinger, Friedman (hell, here's the damn list!) who were hardworking, brilliant, and incontrovertibly not Protestant

2. One Nation, Under God

So Ferguson is off to a rocky start in claiming the Protestant work ethic was a “killer app” for the West, since most of the West didn’t have it. As evidence for his ridiculous claim he invents a schism between Europe and the United States, saying the former has lost its way and is now only interested in shopping and pornography, too busy fapping its way into oblivion to realise its end draws near. For this he blames Freud in a bizarre and oddly self-important rant about how psychiatry has made Westerners selfish and godless. A cruel observer might point out that Niall Ferguson is in no position to criticise anyone for being self-absorbed, narcissistic and obsessed with money, but I am of course above such spiteful jibes. Perhaps he is secretly a Scientologist as well as a Ranger’s fan. I shall however point out that his weird Widdecombe-esque critique of “European” society says more about how Ferguson views the British than it does about Europe as a whole, where religion remains an important factor of society. Even in Britain, religious feeling remains strong enough to fuel sectarianism, as we have recently been tragically reminded.

Anyway, Ferguson contrasts godless Europe with pious America (home of the largest pron industry of the world, by the way) by visiting a church in Missouri which has a Christian rock band that reminded me all too much of Metalocaplypse and speaking to a pastor who (of course) is eager to reiterate the idea that religion makes people work harder and become better people.

Now here I must accuse Ferguson of deliberately misleading the audience. He is trying to equate economic prosperity with religious faith, despite the fact that in terms of national GDP the most important areas are a generally on the east and west coasts, where attitudes are more secular and Christianity is less influential, whereas the areas where Christianity is strongest are in what politicians patronisingly call “the heartland,” and tend to be more agrarian and underdeveloped. It is not entirely the case that religiosity is inversely proportional to economic importance- Texas has the second largest economy, for example, though it is also the second largest state. But it is certainly not the case that religious faith has gone hand-in-hand with economic growth.

In fact Protestant faith- and, to be fair, Catholicism- has done much to retard progress in the United States, in the realms of science (by opposing stem-cell research), legal rights (by opposing a woman’s legal right to do what she wants with her body- and in fact by opposing the well-being of women in general), demographics (by opposing birth control), the environment (by denying the link between carbon emissions and climate change) and education (by encouraging creationism be taught in schools alongside or instead of evolution). It also encouraged long, unnecessary and ugly foreign wars that diminished America’s reputation and exposed its weakness. It also barely needs mentioning that it was a Protestant nutter who inflamed the passions of idiots in Afghanistan to kill United Nations personnel by threatening to burn a copy of the Qur'an.

3. FYI, It Was The Franciscans Who Brought Christianity to China

Protestantism might therefore be charitably described as a mixed blessing to America and the West. Where Ferguson really loses touch with reality is when he starts talking about Christianity in China.

Put simply, Ferguson believes the Protestant work ethic is alive and well in China, and he points to a few Chinese businessmen who are Protestant.

Now, the number of Christians in China is disputed, with estimates ranging from 40 million to 100 million. Most are Protestant, but the number of Catholics is likely to be higher than reported, since Catholicism (or at least communion with Rome) is officially banned. What is apparent is that the total number of all Christians in China make up less than 4% of the population, way behind Buddhism, traditional religions and atheism and probably comparable to the number of Muslims, most of whom are concentrated in the west and are ethnic minorities like the Uighurs, Hui and Kazakhs. Officially the state is atheist, and it is hard to imagine that Protestants represent a significant presence either among captains of industry, the Communist Party, or the government in general. Ferguson claims that it is possible up to 30% of the Chinese population will be Protestant in thirty years: as far as I know, he has pulled this statistic out of his arse, for there is no convincing evidence to suggest that this is the case.

More to the point, I don’t think you have to make China Protestant to explain its productivity. Ferguson claims that the average Chinese citizen works longer hours than the average Westerner. This is true, but it has nothing to do with religion: it is to do with different working conditions, readily available cheap labour, government-set targets and poor human rights legislation that has allowed dubious work practices like sweatshops and extended working weeks. One would hardly call Foxconn a model of Protestant virtue (or, for that matter, a haven of worker’s rights), but one cannot argue with its output.

Lest we forget, China is officially communist, and communism has always exalted the role of the working man by calling upon him to work longer and harder for the benefit of the people and the state. That might result in terrible working conditions and appalling human rights abuses, but it definitely gets results, as demonstrated by the Soviet Five Year Plans. I don’t want to overstate the case, both because of the failure of programs like the Great Leap Forward and because of the monstrous human suffering it involved, but China’s communist history- and present- surely provides a more immediate and logical explanation for its work ethic than any fictitious Christian influence.

In fact, Ferguson never mentions communism in relation to China. Not once. One assumes he doesn’t want to give Marxism even that much: the possibility that a successful, modern and dynamic economy could possibly owe anything to its communist heritage is clearly so anathema to him he has to invent some bullshit about the Chinese becoming Christian, in one of the most flagrant examples of historical fiction I have ever encountered.

4. "They wouldn't follow him to India..."

Sadly communism is not the only subject that goes unmentioned. The other potential non-Western world powers go curiously unmentioned in this episode- Turkey and Iran (Turan? Irkey?) are once again thrown together to represent the Middle East as if either was in anyway typical, but otherwise the superpowers-in-waiting like Brazil (about 98% Catholic) and India (whose Christian population makes up less than 3% of the population) are nowhere to be seen. In fact, it has only recently dawned on me that Ferguson doesn’t mention India throughout the entire series. I don’t remember him mentioning it in passing, even as part of the British Empire, despite the fact it is surely a model example of the adoption of Western values, the largest liberal democracy on Earth, one of the fastest growing economic and military powers and has nuclear weapons. It even plays cricket! One can only assume he chose to use China and a homogenised Middle East as his principle rival civilisations because Muslims and communists are so much more frightening to his audience of middle class mail-reading pseudo-intellectuals than democratic Hindus.

5. Turns Out The West Isn't History At All

There is more problem with this episode worth mentioning: the end is frankly bizarre- Ferguson starts channelling Savonarola by quoting Revelations and wailing how the West tends to see its destruction everywhere in environmental degradation and economic hardship (and I would like the record to show out that I mentioned millennialism was part of his appeal in the last blog post), where children are not being taught science (which is a bit hypocritical, coming from him) and our greatest weakness is our own loss of self-confidence (again, a bit hypocritical since he has spent six weeks trying to erode that confidence). He concludes by saying the West still has an edge, but he isn’t sure of its place in the future. He states that it has another advantage: the freedom, that he so enjoys, to say what you want, that encourages invention and development. One wonders why he didn’t mention this seventh “killer app before”- presumably Channel 4 were only willing to give him six episodes. It is, in other words, a typical reactionary call to arms, about how our civilisation is fragile but special, with enormous potential but facing enormous threats from lazy and superstitious foreign tyrants. It’s a narrative that has been repeated throughout Western history, from Cato the Elder and Herodotus to Enoch Powell and Frank Miller: the West is special, but we have to be constantly careful those damn foreigners don’t come over and ruin it. Even though they never do.

There are other criticisms to be made, but I think I’ve made my point: the Protestant work ethic is a myth, and Ferguson spends an hour trying to make it seem real. His argument is confused, speculative, grossly oversimplified and in direct contradiction with earlier episodes that extolled the virtues of the scientific rationalism and consumerist society he now condemns in favour of Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

6. The Two Killer Apps

In making such a poor argument, Ferguson is at least consistent with the rest of his series. So the time has come to make a final judgement on his series. I think it’s clear that his central claim that the West is “history” is untenable: even he abandons it in the end, and the evidence he has provided for the forthcoming Gotterdammerung is sparse. That the West will face rising competition from the rest of the world is an economic and demographic certainty, but to read in that the downfall of our civilisation is scaremongering for ratings, pure and simple.

When it comes to the role of the “killer apps” themselves, his record is mixed: I agree wholeheartedly with assessment of only two of them- the first two, competition and science. I agree that capitalist competition between states and individuals drove Western domination of trade and industry, and I agree that liberalism and the Enlightenment paved the way for scientific progress that was turned into a profound military edge. Although I agree with his conclusion, I find his argument to be sloppy and full of contradictions.

I don’t agree that property laws were the reason behind Western expansion in Northern America: I believe it was driven by more complicated factors behind emigration from Europe and forced emigration from Africa. I don’t see how his discussion of medicine was relevant, and I don’t see how it is distinct from the conversation about science. I believe consumerism was a by-product and adjunct of the dominance of Western capitalism, not a cause of it. I think the idea of a Protestant work ethic is bullshit, and I find it insulting to the non-conformist contribution to Western civilisation. I believe the reasons for Western dominance are complicated and multifaceted, and not all of them are as glamorous as Ferguson intimates, as I have suggested in the past.

7. Why Niall Ferguson Is (Hopefully!) History

As for the man himself, he has done nothing to convince me he is not a lazy, ignorant and smugly self-satisfied arsehole obsessed with his own celebrity. Were he a financier, a banker or a political pundit I could perhaps live with him, as I have learned to live with so many Tory arseholes, by ignoring him. Unfortunately, he still maintains the pretence that he is a historian, despite the fact he never shows any evidence of knowledge of history before the fifteenth century, and even within his own sphere of knowledge his arguments are old-fashioned and fraught with errors.

Conveniently enough the man has provided an insight into his motivations in today’s Guardian in which, tellingly, he talks about his own status and reputation much more than he talks about history. He presents himself as the bogeyman of the left, the man they love to hate for his abhorrent political views and his arrogance, and justifies himself by stating that self-confidence is important to success: a fitting philosophy, since it accords so well with the conclusion of his series that the West has lost its self-confidence.

Niall Ferguson is an arrogant neo-imperialist Tory bastard, make no mistake. But I began commenting on his series to demonstrate that he is a bad historian, first and foremost, and I hope that I have mostly avoided simply dismissing him because I happen to disagree with him. There is a perfectly good argument that could be made in defence of Western imperialism, and an equally good argument that could be made that its place in the sun is coming to an end. Niall Ferguson makes neither argument convincingly. The fact that I disagree with him is a simple difference of opinion: it’s the fact that his argument is poorly made yet he remains so unrepentantly and arrogantly committed to it that makes him a bad historian.

His self-confidence is undeniable, but historians should not be self-confident: they must constantly question sources and interpretations for weakness and contradiction. They must even question themselves, or they risk becoming inflexible and parroting the same old tired arguments uncritically. They must not let their affection for a particular political system, culture or economic model get in the way of an objective conclusion- if they did, I would call for the immediate liberation of Constantinople from the Turk!

Ferguson dismisses the dangers of relativism for daring to teach that morality is not absolute as damaging to the fabric of Western civilisation. To question a system or an idea does not undermine it, but proves its strength if it resists scrutiny. The historian is obligated to approach her subject from a standpoint of moral relativism: there are no absolute truths, only different interpretations of the same evidence. The historian must be objective, open-minded, willing to accept that her interpretation may be faulty and willing to adjust it. She must accept that there is no single truth, that all opinions have validity so long as they are well made. She must be intellectually curious about other cultures, and prepared to revel in their differences from her own. Ferguson embodies none of these traits, instead choosing to be arrogantly certain of his believe in the superiority of Western civilisation and dismissive of the achievements of the rest of the world- including any part of the Western world he doesn't like. It’s as if he first learned history in the 19th century that the world needed to be ruled by the white man because it was better for all involved, and has remained stubbornly resilient to the passage of time and further research that has obligated more reasonable minds to accept a broader view of past events. Ferguson's conviction might make him a sound- if devious- politician; he might even be a great economist- I really have no way of knowing. What I do know is that he is a bad historian, and if we cannot stop him regurgitating half-baked theories then we should at least discourage his audience from mistaking his pseudo-intellectual posturing for actual history. His arguments are old-fashioned, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history, leaving him free to write columns for the Daily Mail.

A Big Thank You

Still, I suppose I should take this moment to thank Prof. Ferguson for giving me something to write about for the past six weeks. I estimate I may have written as much as twenty thousand words denouncing him, more than any of my dissertations, and in considerably less time. It has encouraged me to research, however briefly, aspects of history that I was previously ignorant. It’s provided some interesting conversations with other historians, some of whom agree with Prof. Ferguson, and others who do not, but all concerned about the state of history and its teaching in today’s Britain. It’s given me something to do on Mondays instead of pretending to find a job. It’s given me a chance to focus my rage on someone truly deserving and eminently dislikeable. Above all, it’s given me a chance to write something, it’s given me purpose to write this blog, and it has helped it take shape as a platform to escape the lies and deceits of bad historians around the media.

So let me make this as heartfelt as possible: Thank you, Professor Niall Ferguson BA (Glasgow). My second-greatest hope is that you continue to produce more tedious unhistorical lies for me to critique and expose.

My greatest hope is that you truly do become history, and I never have to see your conceited face on my telly again. Unless it's on Hole In The Wall.