Wednesday, 6 December 2017

TERFs are wrong – why that’s a problem for the Left

“TERF” stands for “transgender-exclusionary radical feminist”. The term is very, very familiar to anyone who follows LGBT and feminist issues on social media, and probably quite obscure elsewhere. For what’s supposed to be a network for mutual support and protection, the online LGBT community spends an extraordinary amount of server space debating who belongs in it and who doesn’t. Nowadays it’s generally accepted that transgender people do belong; the big debate, online, is over whether asexual people do. But “generally accepted” isn’t the same as “universally accepted”, and the ones who don’t accept it can get pretty nasty sometimes.

TERFs don’t accept transgender people’s identifying gender, and in particular they don’t accept that trans women are women. Like other transphobes, TERFs read transgender women as “men pretending to be women” – a misframing which does real harm (an identity is not a pretence), but fundamentally a matter of perception rather than of fact. What distinguishes TERFs from other transphobes is the motive they ascribe to transgender women for this alleged pretence, namely “ they can rape lesbians.” That is a matter of fact, and the facts are clear. Transgender identities are not motivated by a desire to rape lesbians. TERFs are wrong. I’m not debating this point any further. I’m not going to waste space rehashing here what I’ve already written about gender identity, when trans people are far more worth listening to on the subject than I am; and the rape accusation is preposterous, but the people who need convincing of that aren’t likely to listen to me.

So why am I writing this? Because, preposterous as it is, TERF ideology is a necessary logical consequence of three propositions which the Left today holds dear. Since TERFs are wrong, one or more of the three propositions must be false. We need to find out which one and stop using it – even at the cost of having to mince words like moderate liberals instead of making bold sweeping proclamations about overthrowing oppressors and remaking society. The three propositions are

  1. Feminism. Women do not yet enjoy basic rights equal to men. This is due to men’s actions, and social structures upheld by men’s actions.
  2. Social constructionism. Most, if not all, things we perceive as enduring realities are in fact products of societal roles and institutions – gender most pertinently.
  3. Dialectical materialism. Institutions such as the state exist to allow powerful classes to exploit powerless ones. Classes are distinguished by having divergent material interests, and individuals act in their class’s interests, so the exploitation can only end if the powerless class overthrow the institutions.

See what follows when you put these together? Men, the powerful class, materially exploit women, the powerless class, by impregnating them. A woman is someone who can get pregnant and a man is someone who can make a woman pregnant; those are the material interests by which alone the two classes are meaningfully distinguished. Any other distinction is merely a gender role, socially constructed to maintain the power of men over women. If someone who can make women pregnant adopts womanly roles and calls themself a woman, it must be somehow a subterfuge to advance the interests of men, and the only way that makes anything remotely resembling sense is if they are trying to infiltrate the ranks of those women who have refused to act as brood-stock – i.e., lesbians. Hence TERF ideology. If we agree that the conclusion is preposterous (and if you don’t, please take the debate to a different post) then one or more of the premises must be false. Our remaining task is to find out which. Let’s examine them one by one.

Friday, 20 October 2017

I thought I would feel better about this than I do

As of when Winston Peters finally made up his mind who to go with yesterday, Jacinda Ardern is now Prime Minister of New Zealand, in a coalition government formed of Labour, New Zealand First, and the Green Party. I have mixed feelings about this. There was no big surprise in the special votes; as commentators evidently better-informed than me predicted, they took two seats off National and handed one to the Greens and one to Labour. And, as any New Zealander with half a brain could have told you, the prospect of a National-Green coalition (raised in all seriousness by some pundits evidently lacking that endowment) was a chimaera.

The good part of my mixed feelings is obviously that we’ve got a new government, which – if not for the presence of New Zealand First – would have been the left-most one of my lifetime. In concrete terms, this country’s decades-long trajectory towards Dickensian inequality and poverty might actually go into reverse. We might get a liveable minimum wage. We might get housing for homeless people. We might get unions strong enough to make a difference. We might get an economic strategy that doesn’t depend on turning our rivers into sewers and lying to the world about it.

The bad part starts with New Zealand First. I don’t think we’re in for a three-ring circus like the National-New Zealand First coalition government of 1997, because this time Winston hasn’t brought in a cadre of loudmouths with egos as big as his own. Jim Anderton’s old gibe, calling the party “Winston First”, is even truer now than when he made it in the 1990s. But I don’t know, and I’m not looking forward to finding out, how much of its left-wing promise the Labour-Greens bloc has had to concede in order to secure Winston’s support.

I do know, as I’ve said on this blog more than once, that Winston’s anti-immigrant stance is a cynical façade put on to garner votes. I also know that Winston is 72 years old, and likely to retire within a decade – possibly by next election, depending on how well his health weathers old age. What happens to New Zealand First then? Will it crumble, leaderless, into irrelevance? Or will Winston be succeeded by one of his many sincerely racist admirers? And then will New Zealand have its own Brexit, its own Trump, to deal with? These questions scare me.

Also not comforting is the fact that National still has two more seats than Labour and the Greens combined. I’m not confident enough in my expectation of a stable coalition not to worry about what that will mean if it does fall apart; and I’m bamboozled, frankly, by the fact that it happened at all. How does a government preside over as big a social and economic crisis as this one has and still attract more votes than its competitors? What does it say about my country’s soul that nearly half of us are prepared to shrug off the child poverty and homelessness we’re seeing now as long as the men in suits get to hang on to more cash come tax time? Are we all clones of Cersei Lannister?

I don’t like not understanding these things, I honestly don’t. It’s a cheap rhetorical trick to claim to be mystified by your opponents’ stupidity and malice, and more to the point it’s purely performative. It makes a good show if all you want is to assure people on your own side that you’re one of them, but it doesn’t budge your opponents an inch except to confirm their belief in your stupidity and malice. And if you really care about your political ideals, it’s your opponents you want to be shifting. The fact that I don’t understand what motivates people to vote National means I have no idea how we can motivate them to vote more leftward. Maybe that’s the real reason why this election result brings me so little joy.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Mass shootings are not a mental health problem

A few days ago, an old white man fired a lot of guns into a crowd of people at a music festival in Las Vegas. Apparently he also shot at a nearby fuel storage site in a failed attempt to cause an explosion. You can find his name on the news sites; in the distant hope of setting some kind of example with the ultimate goal of cutting off the notoriety that motivates others to emulate these killers, I’m not going to repeat it. He killed 59 people, I think the current count is, and wounded a number estimated at over 500. Some people are calling this the biggest mass shooting in US history, which of course has prompted others to bring up bigger ones, like the Greenwood Massacre of 1921 and the “Battle” of Wounded Knee in 1890. Perhaps they mean the biggest mass shooting by a single shooter.

Last month I said the following about the politics of climate change in the hurricane-torn US, and it goes treble for gun control and mass shootings:

More often, however, “Don’t politicize this problem” means “Your politics offer a better way of fixing it than mine do, and I’d rather people didn’t figure that out.” I can sympathize with a preference for peace over contention, but politics can be operationally defined as the set of problems which are more important than not being contentious.

Gun control laws work. They don’t prevent every single possible shooting, but they cut them down dramatically. Here in New Zealand, we have civilized gun laws. You cannot buy a gun in The Warehouse here like you can in Walmart in the US. You can’t open-carry in New Zealand. Nobody keeps a handgun for “protection” – you don’t need one, because you know other people don’t have them either. The last time anyone shot and killed members of the public here was in 1990, when I was twelve, at Aramoana north of Dunedin. (There have been a handful of incidents since when angry men shot their family members.) In Australia thirty-five people were killed at a place called Port Arthur in 1996, so they tightened up their gun laws and the government bought everybody’s guns off them, and they haven’t had a mass shooting since. You can Google other countries and their gun laws and mass-shooting prevalences for yourself. You’ll find the pattern holds.

Yes, there have been scary incidents in my life when I was exceedingly grateful that the person confronting me wasn’t allowed a gun; and no, they weren’t carrying guns illegally. Turns out our firearms licensing laws actually do make it difficult for dangerous people to get hold of them. So not many people in New Zealand want American-style gun “freedom”. But I’ve met one or two who do, enough to have figured out what’s wrong with their arguments. First up: no, America, you do not have more freedoms or better-functioning democracy as a result of your guns. New Zealand has the same freedom of expression that you do, rather better freedom of religion in practice, a much more representative electoral system, far less gerrymandering, automatic voter registration, and vastly more time to vote when elections roll around. Your idea that your guns keep dictatorship and corruption at bay is a peculiarly American fantasy.

The guy I’m thinking of reckoned the whole problem with American mass shootings was that they let people have guns without taking a mental health exam. He was recommending target-shooting as, he said, a tremendously calming sport. Apparently it’s meditative to squeeze a trigger and see a hole appear in the centre of a target. I told him this wouldn’t work for me because I have terrible, terrible aim. I can’t skip a stone over a lake or win a game of pool against a three-year-old or get past level 1 of a first-person-shooter video game. I didn’t add that I would fail his mental health criterion, that I have exactly the same psychiatric diagnosis as the guy who killed six people in Santa Barbara in 2014 – and also, at his age, the same difficulties with romance and sexuality that he was so enraged about.

Now if you’re wondering, no, I’ve never killed anybody, and no, I don’t think I would have done if only I’d had access to a gun at age 22. Which just goes to show: mental health is not the problem. Though hyperbolic, Michel Foucault’s assertion that mental health diagnoses are primarily a method of social control isn’t completely off the mark. I’ve seen an otherwise pleasant-seeming person try to get library security to eject another library user who was making a bit of noise, not because of the noise primarily but because – in a harsh, horrified whisper – “She’s a handicap!” As a funny-looking person myself (my fashion options are basically “deliberate eccentric” or “aimed at normal and missed”), I occasionally get things thrown at me in the street: usually water-balloons, once an egg, once a lighted cigarette. One acquaintance, when I mentioned this, responded with sympathetic incredulity “I guess some people just have mental problems.” No. This is how people treat people with mental problems. This is the behaviour of a mentally normal human being towards someone they feel entitled to disrespect.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t concede that like most laws, in practice if not on paper, gun restrictions disproportionately target people of colour. That has certainly been the case in New Zealand, from 1869 when selling guns to Māori became a crime to 2007 when armed police stopped traffic and raided people’s homes and arrested seventeen people, most of them Māori, on dodgy charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act. It’ll be the tenth anniversary in about a week, and I don’t think we should let them forget. But to suggest that Americans of colour are better off with their on-paper right to bear arms would be a joke in very poor taste. Ask Tamir Rice or Philando Castile how that worked out for them.

There’s always a lot of discourse about either race or mental illness after mass killings, depending on whether the killer was white. You don’t hear so much about gender, despite the fact that it’s a better predictor of deadly violence than either. I know of only one mass shooting by a woman ever, that being the one that inspired the Boomtown Rats song I Don’t Like Mondays. What does seem to come out repeatedly when people analyse these killers’ backgrounds after the police have shot them dead is anger, hatred, possessiveness, and entitlement, and especially towards women. It’s entirely unsurprising to me that people remember the Las Vegas killer pushing his girlfriend around.

Anger and possessiveness are going to take a lot of time and work to expunge from the culture. In the meantime, the quickest way to make a difference is to prevent these people from getting their hands on the means to kill dozens from a distance. In the longer term I can’t help thinking that the American sanctification of the right to bear arms – that is, the right to have the power to kill – itself encourages the attitude that deadly violence is an appropriate response to perceived social wrongs. Either way, America, you’re never going to fix this problem you have without gun control.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

We don’t know how our election went yet

I shouldn’t think anybody gets their news about New Zealand from this blog and has been waiting on tenterhooks. But in case my last post left you wondering, I had to go back to hospital again and it turned out to be a kidney stone rather than the gastrointestinal issue I was diagnosed with at first. Oh, the election? How did that go? Who’s going to govern New Zealand for the next three years? The answer, I can reveal, is: we don’t know either.

No party commands a majority in Parliament. On the votes so far counted, the neoliberal National Party has several more seats in Parliament than the edging-towards-social-democratic Labour-Greens bloc. But the key phrase there is “so far counted”. I’ve seen several media commentators jumping the gun at this point and talking about what happens next as if the count was over. It isn’t. New Zealand electoral law allows for people to cast what are called “special votes” before election day, if they’re not going to be in their home electorate on election day, or if they’re not enrolled to vote yet and want to cast a vote at the same time that they enroll instead of waiting, or there’s a few other things, I think. (Lately we also allow people to vote early just because they want to, but those don’t necessarily count as special votes.) The point is, special votes aren’t counted on election night. They’re counted over the next couple of weeks, since a lot of them have to come in from New Zealanders travelling overseas. So we don’t have them yet.

Special votes often swing one or two seats – generally not enough to upset the election result. This year, however, there was a record number of special votes, amounting to about 15% of the ballots. Before the election there were predictions of a “youthquake” driven by the rise of Jacinda Ardern. Some commentators are saying that didn’t happen after all. Those commentators, I hereby confidently predict, are going to end up with egg on their faces when the special votes come in. Elections across the Western world have been going quite differently, the last couple of years, from what pundits have predicted; it’s a good bet that the “youthquake” and the record special vote are the same thing. I’m not counting chickens.

Unfortunately, unless the special votes are wildly out of kilter with the other 85%, it won’t be enough to change the practical outcome of the election, which is that either bloc will have to make nice to Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party in order to gain a majority. This is the third time he’s held this position. In 1996, having campaigned on a promise to get rid of the National government, he supported National, who made him Deputy Prime Minister. In 2005 he supported Labour, whose then leader Helen Clark made him Minister of Foreign Affairs – but that time arguably there was a real risk of a Left government forming without him, if only Clark had had the stomach to reach out to the Greens. Now he’s back in the kingmaker seat again. Whether the final distribution of votes between Left and Right will influence his choice remains to be seen.

I’ve had occasion before, on this blog, to talk about what kind of a politician Winston Peters is. With apologies to those of my readers who don’t watch Game of Thrones: back when Metiria Turei resigned from the Green co-leadership, a Facebook friend of mine compared her to Ned Stark and National to the Lannisters. (Another objected that Lannisters always pay their debts.) On that analogy, Winston Peters is Littlefinger, playing off all the parties against each other and thriving on division – if Littlefinger, instead of being a preternaturally cunning manipulator, were a cynic who’d happened to find a single unvarying tactic that, depressingly, always worked. Think of Donald Trump for a moment (sorry). Remember how a lot of people last year were pinning their last desperate hope on the possibility that he was just faking it for votes? Winston is like if Donald Trump had been just faking it for votes. He runs the same campaign every three years, like clockwork, blaming immigrants for New Zealand’s troubles; then he gets voted back in, shoots his mouth off a lot, and does nothing whatsoever about immigration.

He does, nevertheless, do considerable damage to New Zealand political life by keeping open and inflamed the festering sore that is anti-Asian racism in this country. It’s 2017 and we still can’t have a sensible conversation about immigration policy without scads of conspiratorial rubbish about clandestine Chinese takeovers – asinine comments on the level of “Asians aren’t bad people but there’s too many of them.” To give credit where it’s due, National no longer pander to this particular prejudice, which is not to say that they’ve repudiated racism in general. I have lived to see the Left-Right cultural divide in New Zealand turn into a question of which kinds of racism we have to tolerate: racism against Asian and sometimes Jewish people, or racism against Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Muslims. No wonder it’s difficult raising political enthusiasm in young progressive types these days. And no wonder the electorates with the largest Asian populations were those which saw the support for National rise. I blame Winston.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Just one reason to vote Left this weekend

This was going to be a great big post setting down who I was going to vote for this weekend and why. But on Monday I fell ill during a lecture – severe abdominal pains – and took myself off to Dunedin Hospital, where I spent the next twenty-four hours. Pretty much the same thing happened to me about six years ago, only I didn’t have this job then and was in the middle of a life-modelling session for some local artists. And I’ll tell you, after six more years of tax cuts and government neglect, New Zealand’s health system is showing quite a bit of strain. I don’t blame the nurses and doctors for putting me off until they’d looked after other people. I blame the system that cut funding for health professionals to be paid and placed and allowed to rest appropriately. I blame the political ideology and the economic orthodoxy that hold that this is all for the good if it means more money in the pockets of the rich.

So who am I voting for? The Labour Party is the furthest left right now that it’s been in my lifetime, and they’re promising free tertiary education, which gladdens my heart as one whose political awakening began in 1996 with the chant “What do we want? Free education! When do we want it? Now!” But I’m still voting Green; partly because they still have a small edge over Labour in some policy areas, mainly because there’s a serious possibility that they’ll drop under the 5% threshold this election and if that happens then their six seats will be divided up between the parties that do get in, which means National will get two or three of them, and the Left may end up without a majority after all.

That’s about as much as I can manage right now. Hospital takes it out of you and I haven’t managed to eat much and keep it down over the last couple of days.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Hurricanes are not a matter of opinion

As I write, the southeastern United States is being torn apart by hurricanes, and the west coast ravaged by bushfires. I’d say I was wondering how long it’ll take before the global warming deniers admit they were wrong and apologize. But of course that isn’t going to happen. Individuals sometimes change their minds when presented with counter-evidence, but it never happens en masse. Don’t wait for it.

Perhaps the news shouldn’t be expected to make much difference. Science is already based on real-world facts; if you’re going to deny science, why should a hurricane in the Caribbean be any harder to handwave away than an oxygen isotope reading in the Antarctic? A small subset of deniers are consciously dishonest. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, told his listeners that Hurricane Irma was a government conspiracy and then quietly left town. More often, they query whether this or that particular hurricane is caused by global warming, which is hard to fact-check because it’s always difficult to demonstrate the causes of a single event by scientific means. What science can tell us is that phenomenon A (here global warming) will cause phenomenon B (hurricanes) to happen more often and get bigger. And lo and behold, hurricanes are happening more often and getting bigger. As evidence mounts, there comes a point where scepticism is just quibbling.

Once global warming becomes undeniable, deniers have a position to retreat to: yes it’s happening, but it’s not our fault. There are natural climate change cycles! they exclaim, apparently under the impression that climate scientists are unaware of this. (I wonder who they think the information comes from?) One particularly vociferous climate change denier in my Facebook feed keeps posting, over and over again, a graph showing cyclic changes in temperature over the last 450 thousand years from three sites in Antarctica – a graph which conveniently happens to be on too small a scale to show the drastic uptick of the last fifty years. Here’s a better visualization from xkcd.

Global warming is an imminent threat. We should be mobilizing against it the way our grandparents did against the Nazis. The problem with that, of course, is that it isn’t a personal enemy with a villainous face to trigger our primate “intruder-alert” instincts. The villain is ourselves and the very systems we have laboured so hard over generations to build so that those who come after us can have a better life. It’s not just one technology that can be stopped, excised, and cleaned up, like asbestos or chlorofluorocarbons. It’s everything. Part of the problem is that, having put off and put off and put off doing anything about it for so long, we now need both an urgent solution and a permanent solution, and those may end up being very different things. Nuclear power might have to be part of the urgent solution. It can’t be the permanent solution, because uranium, like fossil fuels, will run out.

Politically, global warming is a hard issue to pigeonhole: it’s scientific and environmental and economic and geopolitical and educational and a Left/Right tribal marker. And that leads to the weakest and worst last-ditch attempt to stop people talking about it in connection with the hurricanes: “Stop politicizing tragedies!” I mean, yes, sometimes politicians do cynically exploit unfortunate events to raise their own profile; I’m not excusing that. More often, however, “Don’t politicize this problem” means “Your politics offer a better way of fixing it than mine do, and I’d rather people didn’t figure that out.” I can sympathize with a preference for peace over contention, but politics can be operationally defined as the set of problems which are more important than not being contentious. Saving the world from disaster certainly qualifies.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

So glad I’m not an American right now

Living in a small country can be strange sometimes. Over here we’re gearing up for an election, and a change of government is looking likelier than it has for quite a while. Meanwhile it’s raising barely a ripple on the internet, except of course on New Zealand social media, but in numerical terms New Zealand is a minuscule niche interest. There are more Marvel Comics fans, more redheads, more intersex people in the world than there are New Zealanders. Nevertheless our politics are important to us, which is why I was busy writing about changes of leadership in the Green Party when, in the United States, the sewage treatment plant fire that was the Charlottesville incident was happening. By the time I had space to write about it, everything I could have said had already been said by somebody else.

But now Trump has done some more bad things: he’s pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio and made official his ban on transgender people in the military, under cover of the impending storm in Texas. Put together – I was about to say those things and Charlottesville had revealed something about Trump’s view of the world, but “revealed” would imply we didn’t already know it. Perhaps “confirmed” or “highlighted”. Something, anyway, that bodes very ill for the future of the administration and the country, and, given the United States’ international clout, therefore also for the world.

(Before I launch into that, though, I have an admission to make. Back in April Trump ordered a unilateral missile strike on Syria, and I commented: “If this isn’t the beginning of a war to dwarf Iraq and Afghanistan, I will publicly eat these words.” Since then, well, there have been ongoing white phosphorus attacks, but in five months there has been no escalation, no troop commitment, no bombastic public challenge like George W. Bush made to Iraq in 2003. Consider those words eaten.)

Now to the recent events. Responding to Charlottesville, Trump wriggled out of condemning the fascists even when he had a teleprompter telling him exactly what to say. However abysmal his verbal skills or his comprehension might be, they can no longer bear the blame for Trump’s bigoted stance. Despite being from a Union state, his sympathies, conscious and intentional, are with the Confederates. To him, Robert E. Lee and the rest are the good guys. So far so bad. We know his father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1927, which doesn’t prove anything per se but does add weight to the claim that Trump is a Klansman at heart himself. There’s not much doubt left to give him the benefit of.

Then there’s Sheriff Arpaio. Arpaio disobeyed court orders and was found in contempt, and now Trump has pardoned him. Court orders to do what? Trump says he was convicted for “doing his job”. If so, then we would have to conclude that an American sheriff’s job description includes profiling Hispanic people with a view to deporting them, and treating those in his custody with the greatest cruelty the letter of the law can be twisted to allow. Those, according to the current President of the United States, are the duties of a law enforcement officer. This is of course the same President who about a month previously advised the police to be more violent when making arrests. By itself the Arpaio pardon suggests a philosophy such as “Criminals deserve the harshest treatment we can dish out,” but that doesn’t sit well with Trump’s leniency to the Charlottesville thugs. What principle can we find that makes sense of both? How about “Brown people are inherently criminal and deserve the harshest treatment we can dish out”?

And finally the military transgender ban. I’m going to assume nobody reading this is naïve enough to be taken in by excuses about the cost of surgery or hormone treatments. There are several different motivations for transphobia, but we can eliminate most of them pretty quickly. Trump is not a transgender-exclusionary radical feminist, nor does he have religious concerns about sexual purity. To him the prime virtue is strength. Soldiers need to be strong, and, in Trump’s mind, being transgender is a weakness. I could write a whole essay linking this to his many derogatory remarks, public and private, about women. The point I want to make here is that he’s not alone. Gender diversity is one of the major front-lines at present in the battle between social justice and bigotry, and Trump has definitively sided, once again, with the bigots. Apparently being transgender makes you a “special snowflake” with paralysingly sensitive feelings. No evidence is ever of course adduced for this proposition, because there isn’t any.

Putting it all together, the most powerful person in the world believes, as of now, that strength is the ultimate good and that it is rightfully an exclusive possession of white cisgender men. The word “fascist” has been greatly weakened by being bandied about for anybody whose politics the writer dislikes, and I’m afraid my generation of Leftists must bear much of the blame. But there is no hyperbole in applying it to Donald Trump. He’s a fascist, and a fascist with access to nuclear weapons.

So you can see why I’d rather keep my head in New Zealand politics right now. Even in the worst-case scenario it’s a much more cheerful subject.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Don’t let them defeat us

Well, as everyone in New Zealand already knows, Metiria Turei resigned from the co-leadership of the Green Party on Thursday. Apparently she and her family have been subjected to an unbearable invasion of their privacy since she confessed to having claimed more from WINZ than she was supposed to. Apparently, according to various commentators, this is no more than she should have expected, which is a more damning indictment on the state of the New Zealand public’s soul than anything Turei was accusing them of.

The original Dependent Parent Benefit (DPB) which Turei was collecting back in the ’90s was, designedly, not quite enough to live on. There have been all sorts of overhauls to the benefit system since then, but that hasn’t changed. Even so, it’s always been too much for a certain segment of the population to accept, and the National Party has ridden to many election victories on the promise of reducing benefits. The first explanation that springs to my mind is that New Zealanders are a pack of selfish, compassionless pricks, but this is not much more charitable than the attitude I’m trying to criticize. A few might perhaps be motivated by the belief that social welfare cannot be competently managed by government departments, and as a former long-time welfare beneficiary I have to say they’ve got a point; but this can’t account for the contempt and anger that pulses through public discourse whenever the subject reaches the headlines. Nor can it explain why welfare is consistently under-resourced – mere random incompetence would lead to over-funding as often as to under-funding. The real consensus New Zealand attitude must lie somewhere between this creditable theory and my jaundiced initial prejudice.

Actually, I think my initial prejudice is a clue. All I have to suppose is that a lot of people have the same knee-jerk indignant reaction to people getting benefits that I do to people cutting benefits. They see benefits as a form of theft; they see people like me or Turei as lazy bludgers stealing what rightfully belongs to hard-working taxpayers. The questionable assumptions underpinning this framework are too many to go through in depth here. There’s the idea that the number of people who choose not to work increases linearly with the value of the benefit entitlement, which makes for a nice straight line on a whiteboard in an economics classroom but doesn’t have much else going for it. There’s the idea that capitalist systems naturally reward hard work and ability, which is false, and the idea that there’s nothing wrong with inequality in and of itself, which is also false. And there’s the idea that the personal qualities which make someone a productive citizen rather than a parasite – diligence, perseverance, respect, etc. – can only instilled by hardship, not inspired by kindness.

(That is presumably the attitude that the National Party is appealing to with their recently-announced policy of sending teenage criminals to military boot-camps. The evidence – which I imagine National will, if they win the election, magically rediscover right about when they have to start putting their promises into practice – shows clearly that, absent stable positive relationships with caring adults, what boot-camps basically do is turn young criminals into young militarily-trained criminals.)

In Turei’s case of course all the class prejudice is aggravated by her gender, race, and marital status at the time of the offence. New Zealand culture shares with America the image of the “welfare queen”, in Ronald Reagan’s words, who repeatedly gets pregnant outside wedlock so she can collect more money from the government without having to work. Reagan didn’t have to specify outright that he meant African American single mothers; in New Zealand, you don’t have to specify that a “DPB bludger” is a Māori woman. That way, you can leverage racist stereotypes and then affect injured innocence when people call you on it. The bogey of the Bad Māori Mother has caused at least one serious miscarriage of justice in this country, in 2006, when a pair of twin babies were beaten to death and all the evidence pointed to their father but the jury acquitted him for apparently no better reason than that their mother had gone out for the night and entrusted them to his care. (I say “no better reason” because the defence’s alternative theory was that she had swung by the house, nipped in the window, murdered them, climbed out again, and headed off to a nightclub.)

Turei has not left the Green Party, nor is she standing down from Parliament; she’s running for the Te Tai Tonga electorate. I haven’t seen the new Green Party list rankings – obviously, having resigned the co-leadership, she can’t be at #1 any more. But I accept, painfully and reluctantly, that she is not going to be our first Māori Prime Minister now. I’m writing this to explain why, nevertheless, my resolve is stronger than ever to vote Green in September.

I am not here for bromides along the lines of “Yes, it’s a shame, but we don’t live in an ideal world.” Not living in an ideal world is why we need leaders like Turei. I’ve read multiple different analyses of exactly what she’s supposed to have done wrong, but none of them add up to anything but: she confronted New Zealand class prejudice head-on. Apparently she was supposed to do that without suggesting that there might be good reasons why people bend rules designed to starve them until their self-discipline is strong enough to conjure job opportunities out of thin air. I’m all for strategic compromise if it achieves more than direct opposition, but that’s a very situational “if”. Sometimes you have to plant your feet and tell the truth.

But even less time do I have for the opposite error – that voting is pointless because all politicians serve the same wealthy interest groups and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. That, I’ve always felt, is a singularly inept metaphor. My carpentry tools could quite easily be used to dismantle my house if I were so inclined. If voting doesn’t make any difference, why have the powerful fought tooth and nail against every extension of the franchise – to the working class, to women, to people of colour? The system may be stacked against us, but you don’t unstack a system by failing to take advantage of what handholds it does afford you. Yes, lobbyists have inveigled themselves into the electoral process – but why did they need to? Why did the New Zealand Right mount their disgraceful hate campaign against Turei this past month, except that they feared she was going to make a difference where it counted? Evidently the wealthy interest groups don’t think all politicians serve them equally.

I’ll freely confess that I didn’t vote in last year’s flag referendum, because neither ballot had any option I wanted. Thing about the flag referendum, though? None of the options had any bearing on homelessness, child poverty, climate change, corporate power, racism against Māori or immigrants, or the possibility of New Zealanders being sent to fight for Donald Trump. (Though, credit where it’s due, even National is shying back from getting involved in this president’s wars.) I didn’t vote because it didn’t matter. When it does matter, voting for the least-worst option is better than not voting.

Yes, parliamentary democracy requires compromise and occasional acceptance of defeat. I’ve got some bad news for you: so does every other political system that's ever been put into practice. I’ll grant, for instance, that no party is likely to eliminate child poverty. But suppose that the Red party’s policies will reduce it by 50% and the Blue party’s policies by only 10%, while the Yellow party’s are likely to increase it by 5%. Is there no difference between the three, just because none of them reach the finish-mark? Do the thousands more children who get lunch and shoes and school books under Red party policies count for nothing?

So here’s my message to my fellow Metiria fans. If this makes you decide not to vote, it strengthens the bullies who pushed her out. If you supported the Greens with Metiria Turei at the helm, support them now with your votes and your voices. Don’t let her sacrifice have been in vain. Show the wealthy and the powerful and their lobbyists how many people in this country do care about the poor and the disadvantaged.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

In which I try and fail to be optimistic about next month’s election

So apparently there were some further details about Metiria Turei’s time on the benefit that she didn’t reveal a couple of weeks ago. I don’t see how they affect her ability to lead in the present. Nobody seems to be currently badgering Prime Minister Bill English about double-dipping into his ministerial housing allowance, which I would have thought was more relevant. The Greens remain the only party with both the concern for economic justice this country needs and any show of getting into Parliament, and Metiria’s public profile is a major buttress for the maintenance of both. But I seem to be in the minority on that score, and the proof will be in the election.

Meanwhile, the Greens’ prospective coalition partner Labour is in trouble too. It doesn’t usually bode well for a party to change leaders shortly before the election. I think they’ve finally made the right choice, but they’ve taken an unconscionably long time to figure it out. Can Jacinda Ardern lead Labour? I’m sure she can. Can she lead a Government? I don’t seriously doubt it. But can she bring Labour from under 25% in the polls to an election victory in just eight weeks? That’s a much tougher proposition, especially considering Labour now has to redo its campaign (which heavily featured her predecessor Andrew Little) from scratch.

If that does prove to be too much to ask, I do hope Labour won’t blame Jacinda and drop her – a tactic always to be suspected when a woman is suddenly placed in a leadership role with likely disaster looming ahead. Leadership is important, obviously; often your leader is the difference between winning and losing. But Jacinda is the fifth leader the New Zealand Labour Party has appointed since Helen Clark left office in 2008. None of the previous four were obvious bumblers, but none of them managed to revive Labour’s polls. Something is wrong with Labour as a party that isn’t reducible to its leadership.

I’m not a Labour voter; I still intend to vote Green on 23 September. But I’m not foolish enough to think the Greens are going to be able to help govern without Labour any time soon. Nor vice versa, if it comes to that. There is some small comfort in the fact that National is struggling in the mid-40s and that their “coalition partners” don’t look like picking up any of the slack. I put “coalition partners” in scare-quotes because they consist of three parties with four Members of Parliament between them. Unfortunately that only means that Winston Peters is likely to be holding the kingmaker position again come 24 September, and I’m old enough to remember how that went last time.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Am I a benefit fraudster?

Campaigning is finally getting going in New Zealand in preparation for September’s general election. In the weekend, Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the Green Party and my first choice for Prime Minister, admitted that back in the ’90s she lied to Work & Income New Zealand (WINZ) in order to get enough money to keep her young child fed. The context was that she was announcing a new Green Party policy on the social welfare benefit intended to ensure that no-one has to go through the same thing again.

After five years I am still grateful every day to have a part-time, seasonal job that gives me – most of the time – enough money to save that I don’t have to go back on the benefit. (Living with a partner who bought her house before the pricing bubble is also a critical factor, and I don’t express my gratitude for that often enough either.) I’ve previously been employed as the editor of a very small monthly student magazine which then went out of circulation due to the present Government making student association membership opt-in instead of opt-out in their first term; I loved that job too, but even with full membership the students’ association couldn’t afford to pay me enough to live, and I had to supplement it with the sickness benefit and, for two of those years, the student allowance.

I didn’t start out on the sickness benefit. I borrowed my way through university hoping to become an academic, but I suffered depression and sleep disorders and couldn’t cope with the energy demands of graduate study, so I ended up on the unemployment benefit. Back then, and I think it’s only gotten worse since, that meant you had to apply for two different jobs per day and bring proof of it in to regular meetings with your case-worker. That was how I discovered that I have a social anxiety condition. I physically couldn’t do it. I had to get counselling later for the terror I came to feel just opening the automated e-mails I’d signed up to with lists of job vacancies. Besides, given my life history then, I didn’t believe anyone would ever want me to work for them, only “believe” is far too weak a word. I just wasn’t a person who could persuade someone to employ them, with the same certainty as that I wasn’t a person who could get pregnant and give birth.

That caused a misunderstanding which nearly lost me my benefit, actually. I had a blog back then on LiveJournal which was mostly me saying “Sorry, nothing to blog about today,” but one day I wrote something along the lines of “Oh well, back to pretending to look for work tomorrow,” and was very shortly called in for an urgent meeting with my case-worker. I managed to explain to her what I really meant that time. But the unemployment benefit had a strict time limit, and despite the mandatory “how to get a job” workshops they sent me to, I eventually ran over it. I got called in again and told I was going to lose my dole. I had prepared a bunch of counter-arguments to present, but instead I had a shutdown and couldn’t speak and I think I sat there sort of rocking and crying silently, which was when my case-worker referred me to the sickness benefit instead.

The process of getting the sickness benefit was slightly more complicated, but considerably more pleasant, than getting the unemployment benefit. You needed six-monthly medical certificates, which involved regular doctors’ visits, but doctors unlike WINZ staff are kind to their patients and will generally take your word that you’re not lying about your symptoms. (Some WINZ staff have worse attitudes than others, but all of them work in a system which rewards suspicion and punishes empathy.) You do have to be getting assistance with your condition if assistance is available, and that’s how I ended up getting referred to the graduate clinical psychology student who diagnosed me with Asperger’s syndrome – as it was still called in 2005 – and the succession of students who helped me learn ways to overcome some of the difficulties the condition presents.

Here’s the thing, though. To get the sickness benefit your doctor had to explain on the reapplication form, every six months, how your condition prevented you from working in full-time employment. I would tell them that I still suffered from depression and that I had time management issues. These statements weren’t false, but they also weren’t the real reason why I couldn’t get work. There wasn’t an option on the form for “This person is able to work but their social disabilities and anxieties prevent them from applying for jobs anywhere near as often as they would have to in order to stand a chance of actually landing one.” My depression is mild enough that I can keep it at bay nearly all the time without pharmaceutical assistance, which I know is better fortune than many people enjoy. With counselling I’ve learned to manage time well enough that I actually reliably turn up for the beginnings of lectures, an improvement which would astonish anyone who knew me as a student.

So what do you think? Should I have been kicked off the sickness benefit because the difficulties my condition actually caused fell between the cracks of the official criteria? Does that make me a benefit fraudster? Or is the problem an overly harsh, strict, and dismissive social welfare system? What does that imply for other welfare beneficiaries in New Zealand? We have a growing problem with poverty; what does this experience say about its causes? I think I have a pretty good idea. And I have a pretty good idea who to vote for this September.

Monday, 17 July 2017

A philosophical quibble to upend the global order

One thing I like about philosophy is how often I can find real-world applications for it. I guess that’s because it’s so abstract, compared with, say (to pick another of my interests), zoology. It is very unlikely that I will ever find a use for my knowledge that elephants have two distinct charging behaviours, one when they’re charging to threaten and the other when they intend to kill. Cats and dogs and rabbits just aren’t the same. On the other hand, it’s a rare week when I don’t have to think about essentialism, or game theory, or survivorship bias, or some other concept at the intersection of philosophy and mathematics, for some reason or another.

Recently I came across a singularly important philosophical paradox. Oh, its importance isn’t instantly obvious. To be honest, at first glance it looks footling, one of those little quibbles that just go to show philosophers need to get out in the fresh air a bit more. I’ll take you through it first, but let me assure you: the deepest, most fundamental question in global politics for the last thirty years hangs on the resolution to this paradox. But I have to tell you what the paradox is first, before I can explain how. It’s called the Mere Addition Problem, or alternatively the Repugnant Conclusion. Here to explain it is the philosopher Julia Galef (whose work I regret not discovering years ago):

In case you scrolled past that without playing it, the problem is the three contradictory premises, all of which seem reasonable, but which can’t all be true. Galef phrases them as follows:

  1. Creating new people with lives worth living doesn’t make things worse.
  2. Increasing total and average happiness makes things better.
  3. A smaller number of very happy people is preferable to a larger number of unhappy people.

Consider three possible worlds. First, a world with a small number of very, very happy people. Second, a world with that same number of very, very happy people, plus a similar number of other people who are just kind of contented, but not actively unhappy. Third, a world with the same total number of people as the second world, who are all just a little bet less happy than the very-very-happy people but a whole lot happier than the kind-of-contented people. Now according to premise (1), the first world is no better than the second world. According to premise (2), the third world is better than the second world. But that means the third world is also better than the first world – a larger number of less happy people is better than a smaller number of very happy people – which contradicts premise (3). Look, it all makes sense with Galef’s visual aids, I promise.

This is called the Mere Addition Paradox because all you’re doing with premise (1) is “merely adding” people to the world, who just happen not to be as happy as the people already in it. It’s called the Repugnant Conclusion because, if you go through the same reasoning several times over, you end up concluding that a world with a vast population so unhappy they have just one thing keeping them from suicide is better than a world with a tiny population whose lives are healthy, fulfilling, exciting, and blissful. Mind you, given only those premises, it is possible to cheat our way out of the paradox, because there are a couple of additional premises which are necessary for the Repugnant Conclusion to follow:

  1. The law of transitivity applies to goodness.
  2. There is no threshold of happiness (above the zero point of “I’d rather be dead”) at which this logic stops working.

I say “cheat our way out” because, although we can avoid the Repugnant Conclusion if either one of these is false, either way we end up not making much sense. To falsify premise (5), we would not only need to quantify a threshold of happiness below which the logic did stop working; we would also need to specify which of the other premises broke down at that threshold and why. So that gives us a whole lot of extra work figuring out how to quantify happiness, and gets us no closer to a solution than we already were.

Premise (4) looks more promising at first sight. “The law of transitivity” is a jargony, technical sort of term; it looks like it means something complicated and esoteric. Actually all it means is the simple rule that if Thing A is better than Thing B, and Thing C is not better than Thing B, then Thing A must also be better than Thing C – in whatever sense we might be using the word “better”. So, for instance, if democracy is better than absolute monarchy, and military dictatorship is not better than absolute monarchy, it follows that democracy is better than military dictatorship. If solar power is better than gas, and coal is not better than gas, it follows that solar power is better than coal. If Wonder Woman is better than Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad is not better than Batman v. Superman, then Wonder Woman is better than Suicide Squad. If teriyaki beef is better than cheese-on-toast, and baked beans are not better than cheese-on-toast, then teriyaki beef is better than baked beans. Without a rule like that, we’d have to compare every possible pair of alternatives independently to determine which was the better of the two. It would be impossible to generalize about what makes one thing better than another, and hence meaningless to compare hypotheticals like the made-up worlds in the Mere Addition Problem. Any attempt at reasoning about values would boggle. Premise (4) stands.

Let me now clear up a further red herring – an attack on the problem which does make a certain amount of sense but doesn’t remove the Repugnant Conclusion. It goes “I’m not a utilitarian. Morality isn’t the same as maximizing happiness.” I, for instance, think morality is about maximizing trust rather than happiness. The reason this doesn’t work here is that the Mere Addition Problem is about goodness rather than morality. These two concepts are related but not the same. Morality is an intensely practical matter; it poses questions of the form “What shall I do?” If I answer “Earn people’s trust,” well, the way to do that is to consistently do good for other people, so I’m still left asking “What counts as ‘good’?” – which is the question that the Repugnant Conclusion raises problems for.

If you don’t make the subtle distinction between goodness and morality, you might think you had found another way to disarm the Repugnant Conclusion: “Creating worlds and manipulating people’s happiness by way of experiment is deeply immoral anyway.” I’d be inclined to agree. You, the Manipulator of Worlds, might personally know that you would never intentionally use your power to create misery, but you can’t reasonably expect your subjects – who live or die, rejoice or suffer, at your merest whim – to have the same certainty. By holding that power at all you create a situation in which you cannot be trusted. But the Repugnant Conclusion doesn’t in fact depend on the supposition that you (or anyone) are responsible for the existence of the world, its people, or their happiness. The unfortunate language used, of “creating” worlds and “adding” people to them, is not necessary to the Problem. As long as the posited worlds and people could conceivably exist, we’re still faced with the question “Which one would be better?”

So we’re back to Galef’s three premises. Which one is wrong? I’m going to eliminate premise (3) from the get-go. If the words “good” and “better” mean anything at all, then a world with a small happy population is better than a world with a large miserable population. Premise (3) is true. The Repugnant Conclusion is false. To call misery better than happiness is to talk nonsense. If that’s goodness, give me evil.

There remain premises (1) and (2), and this is where things begin to get political. I maintain, and will demonstrate, that the great global political question of my lifetime comes down to which one of these premises is false. I believe that policy-makers have chosen the wrong one, and that the disasters of recent decades – global warming, the financial crisis, Donald Trump – are all partly, and some entirely, consequences of that choice.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Were Māori the first New Zealanders?

(Spoilers: Yes. Yes, they were. Unequivocally, yes.)

In this time of resurgent racism and “alternative facts”, I suppose we should have expected to see yet another version of the “Māori Were Not Here First” myth bob up to the surface. And so it has. First, a couple of months ago, one Jaylene Cook posed nude for photos high up Mt Taranaki, which is sacred to the local Māori people, and so sparked a comment-war on Instagram. I’m not going to pass judgement on the photoshoot – I haven’t seen the photos and don’t know how sexual or otherwise disrespectful they were. I mention it because, during the comment-war, Cook stated that “Maori are not indigenous you ignorant t...” (redaction by Stuff).

Not long after that, some guy called Noel Hilliam dug up some Māori skulls and reportedly sent them to an Edinburgh University pathologist, who told him they were three thousand years old and Welsh. Whether he told the pathologist where they came from is a critical, and unanswered, question. See, if I were a pathologist and somebody sent me a skull, I’d assume they’d found it somewhere near my place of work and contacted me because I was local, and I’d start my search for matching features in nearby collections. To determine the age, you might first think of carbon-dating, but bones can easily be contaminated with ancient carbon and no archaeologist trusts an uncorroborated carbon-date anyway. I’d most likely look at the teeth, get some idea of what the person ate, and match it to a place and period when people seemed to be eating a similar diet – to a standard of “close as we’re going to get, probably”. So even if the nameless pathologist was an actual qualified pathologist (Edinburgh University denies having had any such contact), Hilliam’s ignorance of scientific procedure would pretty much guarantee a worthless result.

But, being so demonstrably ignorant of scientific procedure, Hilliam of course drew sweeping conclusions about New Zealand’s prehistory from this one piece of data. Or rather, he had already drawn those conclusions and desecrated a Māori burial site merely to confirm them. He went public with a “reconstruction” of one of the skulls:

Sketch of a woman’s face, showing white skin, blond hair, narrow nose and thin lips, with a very wide jaw-line and solid cheek-bones.

There is of course no such thing as a distinctive “Welsh skull”, but there are some characteristic features you can use, if you come across a skeleton in the South Pacific, to tell whether it belonged to an Islander or an early European visitor. In this case, I have to say those are an awfully wide, rounded jaw-line and robust cheek-bones for a European woman; they would be entirely unremarkable in a Polynesian face. The hair, skin tone, nose profile and thin lips are all guesses on the part of the sketch artist. I gather Hilliam claims his “expert” told him this person had blond hair, which means that either he or the “expert” are talking nonsense. You can’t tell hair colour from a skull.

Hilliam didn’t get his notion of white pre-Māori New Zealanders from the facts, but he didn’t get it out of the blue either. These “alternative prehistory” ideas have been going around since at least the 1990s in certain sectors of the Pākehā (white New Zealander) population. No surprise, they’re closely correlated with racist politics. Hypothetically, it should be possible to believe that someone else settled New Zealand before the Māori did and still support Māori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, since nothing in the Treaty is predicated on Māori being indigenous. But no-one actually seems to take that position. Conversely, people who publicly maintain that Māori are unfairly privileged by the Treaty disturbingly often turn out, in unguarded conversation, to also believe that Māori are a bunch of primitive savages who couldn’t possibly have navigated the oceans by themselves.

Friday, 9 June 2017

A lesson for the Left

Would Sanders have beat Trump? We’ll never know for sure. The polls seemed to say he would, but then the polls also seemed to say that Clinton would, and for that matter they also said that the UK would stay in the EU. Actually, given the parallels between this election and the Brexit vote, we might have a test for that. The UK’s Labour Party is currently led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is very similar in both politics and temperament to Bernie Sanders. If the UK were to hold a general election next year and Corbyn won convincingly, that might be an indication that Sanders could have beaten Trump. Unfortunately the UK’s next general election is not until 2020, by which time things will have changed a lot and it won’t be much of an indication either way.

That’s what I said seven months ago after Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Well, a couple of days ago the UK did hold a general election. Corbyn can’t exactly be said to have “won convincingly” – the result was a hung Parliament (no party holding a majority). On the other hand, given that only weeks ago the polls had Labour riding towards the biggest trouncing in a century, I think this result does strengthen the case for Sanders’ beating Trump if only he had been nominated. Assuming of course, as before, that the US and UK are riding on broadly the same political currents.

What happens now for the UK? Too early to say. Clearly Prime Minister Theresa May’s hope of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union with an improved mandate has gone to pot. Will her Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party manage to form a stable enough government to hold a majority in the House? I wouldn’t bet money on it. The DUP’s beef with Labour is purely due to Corbyn having entered talks with Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army decades ago to end the chronic violence between Catholic separatists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland, apparently successfully as it turned out, rather than – well, rather than what? Wiping Irish Catholics from the face of the Earth? You’d have to ask the DUP.

I’m not as surprised as most commentators seem to be by Corbyn’s success; in a country ravaged by unending austerity and stale promises of improvement just around the corner, promising to stop austerity politics was always going to be popular. The biggest surprise to me is Scotland. What has the Conservative Party done for Scotland lately, and how has the Scottish National Party failed it, that so many votes swung from the latter to the former? Did Scots see the SNP’s renewed calls for independence after Brexit as cynical opportunism? I don’t know how to answer that question. If, as seems likely, May loses her position as Conservative leader and it all triggers yet another election in a few months’ time, Scotland would be the place to watch. In any case, my prediction that the United Kingdom will cease to be United within a decade so that Scotland can remain European appears presently to have been wrong.

You wouldn’t know it yet to look at our news media, but New Zealand has a general election of our own coming up in a few months. Should any Labour or Green politician happen to read this post, I would urge them to take the lessons of the UK to heart. For a generation, nominally Left parties throughout the English-speaking world have put all their energy into winning centrist voters away from the Right. This strategy is not going to work any more. Business as usual is over. You need to get young people voting again, and to do that you need to provide them with a bold and credible alternative to the status quo. You are competing with the seductive, poisonous notion that immigrants and brown people are the cause of our economic struggles and we need to kick them all out. You won’t counter that with “Everything is fine, let’s just keep on the way we’re going.” Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, and Theresa May all tried that, and look where it’s got them. Please don’t deliver us into the hands of racists and bigots like they did. Please be strong.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Debating bigots: the role of allies

This post was originally published on my Tumblr about a week ago.

I’m autistic. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome back when it was still called that, in 2005; I was 27.

I like to think I can discuss most topics dispassionately and let my opinions be guided by the facts and reason rather than letting my feelings about it cloud my judgement. But I can’t stay calm when debating with anti-vaxxers. Well, I can as long as the debate stays within the bounds of “Do vaccines cause autism? Do they cause other health problems? Why should the mandate to vaccinate over-ride a parent’s personal choices about their children?”

When it gets into the realms of “Supposing vaccines might cause autism, are the benefits worth the risks?” – that’s my danger zone, because so many anti-vaxxers so quickly start saying things that I can’t help hearing as “I’d rather my child died of measles than ended up like you.” And I can’t debate that calmly. That person just told me I ought to be dead.

So I’ve learned to avoid those debates. But here’s the thing. I know perfectly well that just because I don’t get into those discussions, doesn’t mean they don’t happen. I know that there are people who think a child’s autism is a mitigating factor if that child’s parents murder them. I know there are people who think my neurological condition is a scourge on the Earth and humanity would be better off if people like me were eradicated.

I can’t engage those people in debate. So, allistic allies, I need you to do that for me.

Not necessarily to convince the bigots themselves; it’s extremely rare for someone to change their ethical or political belief for being confronted, no matter how rational the argument. Sometimes they go away and think about it and change their minds later and come back when they’ve figured out a way to save face. But far more importantly, the bigot isn’t the only one listening. I need you to demonstrate to people who haven’t made up their minds on the question, why the bigots are wrong. I need you to keep the bigots from expanding their numbers by converting impressionable outsiders.

I should not have to debate whether I have the right to exist. But because that debate is happening whether I join in or not, I need you, allies, to pitch in and take my side. Please don’t refuse to engage on the basis that there shouldn’t even be an argument. There shouldn’t, but that’s not how you stop bigotry.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Nudity: ethics and etiquette

In March I went with a local naturist group on an overnight retreat to Quarantine Island, in the middle of Otago Harbour. True to Dunedin’s weather – or maybe my life, I’m not sure – it was cloudy and cold all weekend and it was only comfortable to get naked in the lodge in the evening with the fire going. After we’d come home it was sunny every day for a week, of course.

I am a naturist, or nudist to use the more common word. I have two main reasons for this, both of them about equally important in my own life. One is purely personal. Presumably because I’m on the autistic spectrum, I suffer from a mild hyperaesthesia which makes clothes slightly but permanently uncomfortable. I’m told other people stop feeling their clothes after wearing them for a while; I don’t. Shoes in particular – conditions underfoot have to be very unpleasant indeed before it’s worse than squelching around in my own sweat, so I don’t wear shoes much. But there are no such things as comfortable clothes, not for me.

The other reason is ethical. A human body is a human being and vice versa. Everyone has one; indeed, everyone is one. It isn’t good for people to revile themselves as obscenities, and it’s worse to enforce that revulsion with the power of the state. And it’s dehumanizing to treat another person as an object for the purpose of sexual gratification. Human beings have the moral right to be treated as human beings regardless of what they wear, including if it’s nothing at all – which means not being arrested, fined, locked up, or subjected to any other legal penalty, if they’re not hurting anyone. In short, public nudity morally ought to be both legal and acceptable.

The word “naturism” obviously implies that the value of nudity lies in its naturalness, which is problematic in several different ways. Not all natural things are good, so being natural doesn’t automatically make nudity good. Also, it is arguably natural for humans to adorn themselves, since every culture does it. Naturists shave, style their hair, and wear jewellery, tattoos and piercings just like clothed people. But “naturism” is the name of the movement now, and there’s no point complaining about it. “Nudism” is a broader word; anyone who chooses not to wear clothes can call themselves a “nudist”, whereas to be a “naturist” implies alignment with the naturist ethos. Back in the early 2000s an Altavista search for naturis* would mostly filter out the voyeur sites that nudis* tended to dredge up, and that may have helped the spread of the term. Unfortunately the porn peddlers have gotten wise to this now.

Naturism is one of the more marginalized alternative lifestyles out there. Unlike those “lifestyles” which consist of opting out of various public health measures (like vaccines or water fluoridation), it doesn’t cause actual harm; yet it’s illegal to practise it in public almost everywhere in the world. I suppose we can at least be naturists in our own homes without police harassment, which makes us more fortunate than pot-smokers. On the other hand, there’s less restrictions on sharing pictures of pot-smoking than on sharing pictures of nudity. And ours is surely, bar none, the one lifestyle that is most sexualized by outsiders.

What does “sexualization” mean, and what’s wrong with it? I’m tempted to say “Ask any woman,” and leave it at that. I’ve seen confusion about this in other contexts as well. Does it make sense, for instance, to ask casual bloggers not to “sexualize” particular sexual orientations? Bisexuality is sexual, isn’t it? It’s right there in the name! How can you help “sexualizing” it if it’s already sexual? The answer is that “sexualizing” something doesn’t mean connecting it to sex as a topic; it means making it sexy (or trying to), which is not the same thing at all.

A medical lecture on the physiology of fertilization in humans will discuss sex in some detail, which makes it “sexual” in a reasonable, if technical, sense of the word. But it isn’t remotely sexy – trust me on this. That’s not sexualization. Conversely, I’m sure you’ve seen advertisements that associate all kinds of completely non-sexual things with revealingly-clad yet concealingly-posed women looking suggestively at the camera. I used to regularly walk past a local fish-shop van (I haven’t seen it in a few months now and I’m not inquiring after it) which was adorned with a head-and-shoulders photo of a young woman, apparently topless, caressing a dead fish whilst assuming what was admittedly a more successful attempt at a come-hither expression than I would have been able to muster in her position. That’s sexualization.

Now the foundation of the naturist platform is the proposition that nudity can, and should, be desexualized. I’ve seen a few blogs now – pretty much all on Tumblr, for some reason – claiming that naturist environments feature unrestrained public sex. If you find one of these, you should know it’s lying to you. It’s somebody’s sexual fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with having sexual fantasies, but there’s everything wrong with slandering a worldwide category of people in the course of expressing them. Again, ask any woman.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Syria: what I get and what I don’t get

So Donald Trump has fired missiles at Syria. So much for the theory that he was better than Hillary Clinton because he wasn’t a warmonger. I did tell you. If this isn’t the beginning of a war to dwarf Iraq and Afghanistan, I will publicly eat these words. I’m not betting either way on whether there will be a nuclear strike, but if there is it will be Trump’s doing.

At least some of the people who voted for Trump did so because they thought he wouldn’t do this. I get that. Clearly they were wrong, and frankly it should have been obvious that the reason he never voted for war was because he was never in politics. But I get why that would be your concern. What I don’t get is why some of his opponents are now suddenly calling him “presidential”. I mean, sure, yes, blowing people up in other countries without asking the people they’re pretending to try to help is something American presidents do, but that’s not supposed to be a good thing.

There’s so many conspiracy theories going around at the moment that it’s hard to get a handle on what’s true. I used to trust Wikileaks, but they’ve been so nakedly partisan for the last year or so that I’ve given up on them. The evidence for some kind of Russian interference with the American election continues to pile up, and denials from Wikileaks aren’t going to sweep it away. On the other hand, Putin is buddies with Assad, isn’t he? How is Trump’s attack on Syria supposed to advance a hidden Russian agenda? Or did Trump just get pissed off with everybody calling him Putin’s puppet? Is that what this is about?

The other thing I don’t get is why so many people who would proudly call themselves “radical” seem to support, or at least sympathize with, Putin and Assad. Putin is an aggressively homophobic dictator, and Assad is a lesser dictator with zero concern for human rights. I’ve seen a video of two journalists disagreeing over what’s happening in Syria, and the one who the viewer was supposed to agree with claimed that Assad was loved by his people because he got so many votes in Syria’s elections. How does an international journalist not know how elections work in dictatorships?

I think I do get why so many people think, “Well, the US has to do something.” I guess it’s like the recent trailer for Deadpool II, where the inept superhero title character tries to prevent a murder but can’t change into his superhero costume in time. The US with its giant military is the superhero, and superheroes are not supposed to sit around watching other people kill each other. Only, so far, the US’s record for solving problems with its powers is worse than Deadpool’s. Trump’s “rush in without a strategy” strategy will change that only for the worse.

I don’t know where the world goes from here. I don’t know how we solve this problem. I don’t know how we get rid of a dictator who kills lots of people without a war that kills lots of people and ends up installing a worse dictator who kills lots more people.

Trump doesn’t know either. But Trump will bring the whole world down around all our ears before he admits that.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Why abortion isn’t murder

A fertility clinic is on fire. In the storage area at the back of the building there’s a portable freezer unit containing 100 live human embryos. In the reception lounge at the front, trapped under a chair, there’s a screaming three-year-old child. You can save one, but as soon as you open the door and let in the oxygen the fire will take the building. Which one do you save?

You see where I’m going here, right? This sort of question is bread and butter for moral philosophers: think of a scenario where the answer is obvious, then extrapolate principles that can be applied to situations where the answer isn’t obvious. Most people choose to save the child. From this it must follow that they don’t value an embryo’s life the same as a child’s, or even at one-hundredth the price.

Try asking a pro-lifer this question and see how they respond. I’ll tell you how they don’t respond, or at least haven’t lately in my many arguments with them since joining Tumblr: they don’t answer “I would save the embryos, of course. It’s very sad about the one child in the reception lounge, but it would be immeasurably sadder to lose all the children in the freezer.” Instead the answer you repeatedly get is “I would probably save the one child, but that’s an emotional response and doesn’t have anything to do with right and wrong.” And you have to prod them to get even that much. Generally they evade the question until you’ve asked it three or four times.

First off, if morality isn’t about emotions, what is it about? Most moral philosophers will tell you that morality isn’t objective, because you can’t get from an “is” statement like (in this instance) “A child is in danger” to a “should” statement like “I should save the child” except by calling in another “should” statement like “One should always protect children”, and if you try and prove that second “should” statement you just go around the circle again, and so on forever. Without rational proofs or empirical backing, all you have to call on is your moral instincts. And here they’re pretty clear.

Pro-lifers, as a rule, seldom get their morality from philosophers, but they are disproportionately likely to pay at least lip service to a certain 1st-century populist rabbi who will be found to have said (following Rabbi Hillel) that morality is an expression of love and consists of doing for other people what you would want for yourself, and obviously love and empathy are both subjective emotional states. But religion doesn’t break the circle; “You should do what God says” is just another “should”.

Personally I think the philosophers are overly pessimistic. A “should” statement can, in fact, be objectively true if it rests on an “I want” statement; if I want functional teeth then I should cut back on sugar, if I want to sleep tonight then I should get off the internet. (To use more technical language, “should” statements may have no truth-value, but they do have utility-value.) Might there be some “should” statement that applies to any possible “I want”?

Well, if we’re really pedantic about what counts as “possible”, then no there won’t be, because for any “should”, someone can always say “I want to do the opposite of that.” But there are some “should”s that at least apply to any plausible “I want”, and one of them is “You should not destroy anything you might need”, and one thing you can count on always needing is other people’s trust. And it just so happens that our moral instincts evolved to allow us to trust one another. I have made a longer, but not necessarily clearer, case for trust-based morality here.

Now if you want to earn people’s trust, you can’t weigh every decision separately according to how much it’ll make them trust you, because then they have to worry that one day your calculations might tell you to harm them. You have to behave in a way that allows them to predict you won’t do that. Your actions must not only be benevolent, but clearly and consistently benevolent. For an individual, that means practising virtues – kindness, fairness, courtesy, charity, patience, and so on. For an institution or a society, it means treating people according to a consistent code of rights. And this is where we can start to buckle down to the abortion problem, because here it seems that one person’s right to life conflicts with another person’s right to bodily autonomy. It’s conflicts like this that send us looking for a deeper principle that can resolve them, and I say that principle is trust.

The pro-life position is that abortion is murder. Murder is the breach of the human right to life, and I do hope I don’t need to explain how that might erode trust between people. Two questions arise here. First, who or what has the right to life, and who or what does not? Where do you draw the boundary? And second, if you have to choose between one person’s right to life and another’s right to bodily autonomy, which one should win? Always life, always bodily autonomy, or sometimes one and sometimes the other?

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Jobs or wages: pick one

It’s getting to that time of year when the Government once again explains to the nation, with tears in their eyes, why they can’t raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. And it’s always the same excuse: employers can’t pay a cent more than they already do, so if the wage goes up there will be less jobs. Geez, you guys, you want steady jobs and livable wages? What rabbit do you want us to pull out of our hats next? Affordable education?

Well, they’d better be sure they’re right. Of all the reasons I’ve seen for why so much of the American working class voted for Donald Trump, the most convincing is that they were sick of the established order and Trump was a handy sledgehammer to bash it with, and the reason they were sick of the established order was that it kept telling them they had to choose between wages and jobs. Which doesn’t explain why they turned to the Right instead of the Left, but that’s an issue for another time.

They are sure they’re right, of course. In fact, to the National Party’s way of thinking it’s dangerously over-generous to have a minimum wage at all. It’s basic economics (and middle-level economics as well, come to that). A minimum wage is what economists call a “price distortion”. Here’s the theory. If the government sets a minimum price for any product which is above the natural market price of that product, some buyers can no longer pay for it – that’s what the natural market price is – so people buy less of it, the sellers have to compete to attract customers, and everybody ends up worse than before. Actually, in an economics class, any time the government lifts a finger you can pretty much jump straight to “everybody ends up worse than before”. And of course to economists labour is just another product, sold by the worker and bought by the employer.

There are several questionable assumptions here, but I’m going to focus on one key one, because without it the entire argument collapses. That’s the assumption that the employers are paying as much as they possibly can. This only follows if the workers have just as much power to turn down work as the employers have to set wages. If that’s not true, then the market will shift in the employers’ favour. By economic logic that would be a price distortion, which would reduce the wage below its natural market value.

So how good is that assumption? What indications might we look for? Here’s one. I’ve never gambled on the stock exchange or anywhere else, but you can’t sit through three semesters of finance lectures and not become familiar with the phrase “close of trading”. That basically means 5pm every weekday, local time, after which the stockbrokers all go home and do whatever stockbrokers do when they’re not broking stocks (I wouldn’t know). On Saturdays and Sundays they do no broking at all. Same as everybody else, right?

No, not everybody else. Before the National Government’s bold, exciting new job-creating economic policies forced it to close, the railway-carriage factory near my house was always busy. And I mean always. Didn’t matter what time of night you walked past it, you’d hear motors humming and sparks spitting, and there’d be lights in the windows. Factory workers work nights and weekends if they’re told to. Stockbrokers, despite the quadruple profit they’d get by trading all 168 hours of the week instead of just 40, don’t.

There are several possible explanations for this discrepancy. The one any economist will think of first is that factory work pays much better than stockbroking, with better bonuses and holidays, to encourage people to work nights and weekends. Or perhaps factory work attracts a demographic of people who love darkness and cold and closed shops during their free time, and sunlight and traffic noise when they’re trying to sleep. Or just possibly, and I really think this hypothesis might deserve some consideration, it’s that stockbrokers have more power than factory workers to determine their pay and conditions.

Now if some people have more power to influence the labour market than others, it necessarily follows that the less powerful people will end up getting less benefits than the more powerful people. If that’s the case, then the economic objection to raising the minimum wage is false. There is some slack in the rope. Employers could pay more than they do and still employ just as many people. They don’t because they don’t want to. The workers put up with it or lose their jobs.

In such a case the government would be well-advised to iron out the distortion, because not paying people enough is bad for the economy. Henry Ford (no friend to anything smelling of unions or socialism) paid his employees well and gave them the whole weekend off because he understood that they were also his customers. People who haven’t got much money can’t buy your stuff. Pretty basic principle, I’d have thought. Unlike the free-market apologetics above, I have yet to hear about it in an economics lecture.

The trouble with this is of course the free-rider problem. In an economy with lots of employers, each one can bet that nearly all their customers are other people’s employees, and pay their own ones less than anybody else. The first employer to do this will get big savings in labour costs and minimal loss of revenue. As more and more pile on, the whole system will go down the drain. But no matter how bad it gets, it will always be cheaper for any one person to pay just that little bit less. Rational self-interest won’t save us here.

Government intervention might – if we had a government that could be bothered to stand up to the employers. National obviously can’t, but there’s an election coming up in September. Just putting that out there.