Wednesday, 14 November 2012

History Being Made

Given the sheer number of photoshopped pictures on the internet, and the fact that we have situations like this where a giant mecha robot found its way into a painting of the Russian Revolution that was used in an actual high school senior exam, I predict that in five hundred years students will be taught the history of our current period from a curriculum that is at least fifty percent pop culture. At the very least it's going to confuse the hell out of the alien archaeologists that dig up our planet in five thousand years.

That was an actual thing that happened.


This is awesome as well: it's the producer from Blue Scholars rapping about how much he loves pho. Somebody snorts Siracha sauce. Go watch it.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Crispin On Himself

This post by Crispy is interesting:
my view is that each of those things - specifically because of its status - is extremely likely to be false. and deep inside you know they're false, or you wouldn't need to exempt them from examination. indeed, i take, for example, the inquisition, as a demonstration that no one - least of all the inquisitors - actually did believe catholic theology. well have you ever looked squarely at catholic theology? honestly no one could believe it or even figure out what it could possibly mean to believe it, so simulation had to be enforced. that's why pol pot had to execute you: not because he was a fanatic, exactly, but because deep in his heart he knew marxism was bullshit, and he knew you knew it too.
 I have a great deal of sympathy with this position - that there are a host of unquestioned beliefs most people hold, unquestioned precisely because they are almost certainly bullshit - but I think Crispy is doing here what he accuses Democrats and Republicans of doing to each other in this post. It's obvious, Crispy says, that people who hold mainstream views (the importance of voting, christianity, etc) don't actually hold those views in a considered way! They get them wholesale from the dominant culture and treat them like holy writ, never to be questioned. There are shades here of the infuriating Christian critique of atheists: "atheists don't actually disbelieve in God; in their hearts they know He exists and they deny him out of spite".

Crispy, is this what you're saying? That people who disagree with you know you're correct, deep down? That is the kind of worldview that evokes a rich inner mythology; another way of putting it would be 'conspiracy'.


I do want to agree that this stuff: "Everything which belongs to Christ - everything which makes Christ Christ ‑ is present in the Blessed Sacrament. This consequently means that Christ is present in His divinity as God and in His humanity as man. Christ is present in the Eucharist with His human body and human soul, with His bodily organs and limbs and with His human mind, will and feelings ‑ "the whole Christ." Latin reads Totus Christus," along with a ton of critical theory and philosophy, can only be believed by fiat since it is so obviously incomprehensible. Indeed the incomprehensibility seems more a feature than a bug - if it were stated in plain English in a way that avoided obvious contradictions (or was at least ashamed of them) it would be much harder to believe.

Saturday, 27 October 2012


Alright, enough already. I'll answer the question you all keep screaming: what do I think about Crispy's post on Taylor Swift's new album, Red, and by extension the album itself? In short, I think Crispy is too optimistic in his assessment of Taylor's new direction, and while I'd like to celebrate Red as a successful creative work, there are some problematic elements in the music that need to be unpicked.

Red marks the end (or at least the final stages) of Taylor Swift's metamorphosis from chintzy small-town country-pop girl-next-door to fully-fledged pop princess. The music is much more obviously produced, the synth lines are more prominent, and the familiar Taylor guitar is in the background when it's audible at all.

Let's deal with the obvious criticism: that Taylor's sold out, that she's gone corporate and abandoned her authentic roots, that she's now indistinguishable from any other successful pop robot. Crispy does a good job of dismissing this argument. All the major threads of Taylor's style are still present, if a little muted - from the occasional clever line in the bridge, put there to catch you off-guard, to the use of a "stepped-down version of the chorus as an intro", in Crispy's words - so long-time fans will find plenty to like here.

What about Crispy's claim that Taylor inverts the current pop paradigm? It's undeniable that instead of singing about partying and a commitment-free life, she generally sings about family and marriage. This is a clear continuation of her past work - even songs like Back to December, which feature a protagonist who casts aside commitment, demonstrate clear regret. But is this as interesting or as desirable an antithesis as Crispy says?

Taylor's good-girl attitude is an (authentic or manufactured) product of Small Town America. With her blonde hair and summery dresses, she projects the image of a girl-next-door. Think about the music video for You Belong With Me, where Taylor plays both the cute blonde love interest and the hot, black-haired cheerleader rival. Just as the girl-next door can't exist without the cheerleader, Taylor's focus on commitment in her music relies upon the current pop paradigm instead of subverting it. Rather than providing something truly new, she satisfies herself by occupying the other end of the current dichotomy. It's like the old madonna/whore dilemma in feminist theory - when the Catholic Church venerates the Blessed Virgin, that works to prop up its traditional misogyny instead of undermining it.

Enough with the themes, though. What about the music? It's, well, okay. Not bad. Starlight is good, as is The Lucky One, but songs like I Knew You Were Trouble fail to grab me. Taylor's country roots are still there, but they're in danger of being smothered. In his post, Crispy assumes that Taylor has arrived at her pop-princess pedestal - and if she has, that's fantastic - but I'm not so sure. What worries me as I listen to Red is the direction Taylor's taking: less guitars, more synth; less soul; more pop. Can she pick a path forward without drifting towards Britney Spears? I don't know. And I'm not sure I can bear to watch.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Harlem Roulette

The loneliest people in the whole wide world
are the one you’re never going to see again.

And four hours north of Portland, the radio flips on.
And some no one from the future remembers that you’re gone.
Armies massing in the dusky distance, ghosted in the ribbon microphone.
Leave a little mark on something negative, take the secret circuit home.
Nothing’s in the shadows but the shadow hands,
Reaching out to sad young frightened men.

The loneliest people in the whole wide world
are the one you’re never going to see again.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Essential Driving Safety Tips

Every year, hundreds of people are killed on our roads by drunk drivers. It's a sobering thought - that this carnage is happening all around us - and it shines a spotlight on the reckless and cavalier behavior of many drivers. Of course I'm talking about the victims: those who die, or are left with horrific injuries, or a lifetime of chronic pain. Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that these people are at fault; I'm just saying that if they had made different, more responsible choices, they wouldn't have put themselves in their predicaments. It's a hard world, and we have to be sensible about the risks we take. There's no use taking up the mantle of victimhood and whining from the comfort of a hospital bed about how bad and evil drunk drivers are - it is, in the words of the philosopher, what it is. Instead, follow these driving safety tips and change yourself from a potential victim to a proactive and adult participant in the dangerous world of traffic.

1) Drive a Visible Car

You were crashed into from behind, were you? You were following all the road rules and the driver who hit you was off his mind on cocaine? Well, let's think about it rationally: if you had been more visible to the cocaine addict behind you, you wouldn't have been hit at all. Was your car black, or grey? Even bolder colours like red and yellow don't show up well at night. Really, unless your car is bright pink you've only got yourself to blame. To be safe - after all, safety is the goal here, and who could argue with that? - drape bright Christmas lights all over your car. It's expensive, sure, and ugly, but such is the price of responsibility.

2) Drive on Safe Roads

As responsible adults, we have to recognize that many roads and highways are very dangerous. To avoid an accident, only drive on roads with working streetlights. If a streetlight is broken or damaged, turn around and find another route. Especially in the country, highways will often have few streetlights. If you are forced to drive in these areas, park your car as soon as the sun sets and don't start driving until it rises again. Lack of light isn't the only issue - there are regions where the traffic is more unruly and less trustworthy in general, like cities or suburbs. If you see more than one other car on the road with you, pull over immediately! Otherwise you're accepting a serious risk (along with a degree of responsibility for the inevitable accident).

3) Drive at Safe Times

It's a statistical fact that most drunk driving accidents occur at times when people are likely to be drunk. Friday and Saturday nights are the most dangerous - really, if you're in a car on a weekend night, you've only got yourself to blame - but during the weekend, any driver you pass could be drunk as a sailor. Of course, if you're driving your children around, you'll want to be completely safe and never drive after midday, even on weekdays. Need to pick them up from school? Don't - instead, move house so you're living a short walk away.

Of course, following these helpful tips doesn't guarantee your safety. Risk is an inevitable and healthy part of life. However, if you get hit and injured by a drunk or drugged driver and you weren't following these tips, don't expect my sympathy. We live in a dangerous world, and it's hardly 'blaming the victim' to suggest that making yourself vulnerable to a risk that you could potentially avoid is foolish. In the aftermath of an accident, concentrating on driving visibly and safely is much more helpful than wallowing in self-pity. Let's work together to take responsibility for our actions and avoid the toxic mindset of victimhood.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Cry For Judas

Some things you do / just to see / how bad they make you feel

I love the song - and the new Mountain Goats album, oh my - but this music video doesn't really live up to my expectations for Mountain Goats music videos.

On the one hand, all the ingredients are there - from the obviously symbolic, like the rat poking its way around the dollhouse/maze (and at one point freaking out in the 'bathroom', I have no idea how they got that shot) to the completely impenetrable, like John Darnielle reciting lyrics to a silent child in a tiger mask. There's the child researching and performing his Satanic ritual, echoing The Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton. There are even strains of the lapsed Catholicism that informs so much of Darnielle's efforts. But they don't fit together very well. What's the significance of the pregnancy test? Why does John Darnielle get killed by Peter Peter Hughes?

Thematically it's a jambalaya, a mix of all the elements in the music of the Mountain Goats, thrown together in the hope that it will work. It sort of does, like the music video for This Year. Still, it's got nothing on the best Mountain Goats music videos, which pick one visual theme - pictures in pictures, say, or dynamic text - and run with it.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Contra Ivan

I'm still catching up on From Wine to Water, but I thought this post was worth commenting on. Ivan argues that, in spite of the obvious fact that two contradictory statements cannot be true, our day-to-day thoughts contradict themselves all the time. As an example, he describes a person who eats meat because it tastes good but also believes that killing animals is morally wrong. I enjoyed reading the post, but I don't think Ivan is correct here for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the actual contradiction he teases out is not entirely accurate. get an out-and-out contradiction, we need to do a bit more work, and probably to draw upon other things we believe to be true. For example, we might believe that 3) we will eat animals since they are delicious, and 4) we will not do things that are terrible. The explicit contradiction now emerges: We will not do things that are terrible, such as hurting animals. And we will hurt animals to eat them, since they are delicious. We both will and will not do something terrible. P and not-P.

What Ivan meant here with point (4) - and, Ivan, please correct me if I'm wrong - sounds more like 4b) we should not do things that are terrible. There's no contradiction between "we will eat meat because it is delicious" and "we shouldn't eat meat because of the cruelty involved".

Another possibility is that Ivan meant 4c) we do not do things that are terrible. This seems closer to the way most people think, since after all it's very hard for anybody to accept that they do terrible things. But there's no necessary contradiction between "we do not do things that are terrible" and "hurting animals to eat them is terrible"! We might imagine a point 5) if we do not eat this meat, somebody else will, or a point 6) eating this meat helps the farmers and abattoir workers feed their own families. Neither of these points are particularly good arguments, but that is not particularly relevant*. To the extent that meat-eaters usually think their meat-eating out, it's highly likely that hey avoid a contradiction by the use of some such rationalization.

Most importantly, though, I want to question Ivan's implicit assumption that most people do think out their practices in this way. Since there's no immediate and obvious contradiction in "hurting animals is wrong, but I still eat meat", the law of non-contradiction does not apply**. In the absence of a serious philosophical inquiry into your own justification for meat-eating, your justification is far too vague to contradict or be contradicted by anything!

Unlike Ivan, I think that people usually do obey the law of non-contradiction in their own thought. You can see this if you argue against, say, somebody who eats meat. If you point out an apparent contradiction, as Ivan did in his post, they will invariably argue against you or come up with an alternate rationalization for eating meat (assuming they don't change their mind). What they will not do is shrug their shoulders and calmly accept the contradiction. Ivan is wrong to argue that human cognition does not obey the law of non-contradiction, but he's not all wrong. Human action, of course, breaks the law of non-contradiction all the time - and that's why we need philosophy.


* Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian who believes that eating meat is ethically wrong.

** If there is an "immediate and obvious" contradiction here, then there is also a similar contradiction in this example: "I wish to go to the post office, which lies due south from my apartment, but in order to get to the door of my apartment I first have to take five steps north."

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Ghost Of IOZ

As a rule, the most unseemly thing about any presidential candidate is his desire to be president. How is it that making zillions in private equity isn't enough? How was it that the ruling over an entire American state did not quench your thirst for power? What insatiable impulse drives your dark ambition to reign over the richest nation on earth? Surely the person put in charge of the sentient drone army should not display a naked desperation for dominance. Surely the answer to this yearning for power isn’t nomination but therapy.

So speaks Kerry Howley over at Slate (oddly enough, in the XXFactor section, misogynistically subtitled "what women really think"). If that first paragraph didn't raise the hairs on the nape of your neck, then perhaps the rest will: Howley writes an impassioned plea to vote for an unpopular third-party Marxist candidate who, even if she were to receive enough votes, would be too young to serve as President anyway. It is the best US election commentary I have read this year, and certainly the best article on Slate ever.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Gettier Cases: You Don't Know That

Can we imagine a case where you believe something, you're right, and you've got good reason to believe it - and yet you don't know that thing? We certainly can. Let's say you're a teacher at a high school, and the principal drives a very conspicuous car: a pink Ferrari. You show up to work one morning and see the pink Ferrari in the car park. In the staff room, another teacher asks you whether the principal's at work today.

"Yes," you say. "I saw his car."

As it happens, the principal is at work - but the pink Ferrari in the car park is, by pure chance, not his car but somebody else's. Did you know that the principal was at work?

By any reasonable standard, seeing an identical car to his in the car park would constitute good reason for your belief. And he is at work, after all! But intuitively, we don't want to say that you knew it.

Here's one reason why. If you had been informed that the pink Ferrari was not the principal's car - perhaps the other teacher replies "yes, I saw the car too, but it has a slightly different numberplate" - you would have changed your mind. In order to know something, it seems like there ought to be no true piece of information out there that, if you knew it, would make you decide you were wrong.

This kind of case is called a Gettier case after the first person to formulate one, Edmund Gettier. The general principle is to propose a situation where you have a true belief, but your justification for believing it happens by sheer chance to be wrong. Gettier cases pose serious problems for people who think knowledge is "justified true belief". Can a better definition of knowledge be found? Can the JTB definition of knowledge be altered to accommodate the Gettier cases? There's no consensus in philosophy right now, but I'll outline some competing theories next post.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

An Ode To The Expendables 2

After a month-long hiatus, this is what I bring you: a paean to the sequel of an action film that well deserves the dubious title 'action film'. Indeed, all other elements of the film - plot, character development, the thematic heft - exist only to tie together a series of more and more ridiculous action scenes. Of course I am talking about The Expendables and its sequel, The Expendables 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Interesting Dan, over at Shittin' Diamonds, is convinced that the sequel has against all odds turned out to be good.

"The Expendables was an attempt at making an eighties action flick in 2010, and it sucked because it was a 2010 action flick with eighties action stars in it. The Expendables 2 doesn’t succeed because it puts more 80s action heroes on the screen, although its producers seem to think that’s the answer. (By the way, Arnie’s not fun any more, and Chuck Norris saying a Chuck Norris Fact isn’t actually that funny)."

Want to know why The Expendables 2 does succeed? Read the rest of the article here.

Monday, 20 August 2012

I'm Not Saying We Wouldn't Get Our Hair Mussed

At Balloon Juice, Bernard Finel writes on the increasingly likely prospect of war with Iran:

There has been some debate in strategic studies circles about whether this represented a warning against war or whether it was an effort to diminish expectations of catastrophic consequences in order to justify an attack on Iran. It sounds bad—war on “multiple fronts,” “hundreds of rockets and missiles”—but when you get right down to it, a month of conflict and 500 deaths could easily be seen as a small price to pay to end Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
 Finel quotes Israeli defense minister Matan Vilnai:

Vilnai said the government has prepared for the possibility of hundreds of rockets and missiles falling on Israeli population centers each day, with the expectation of 500 deaths.
“It could be that there will be fewer fatalities, but it could be there will be more. That is the scenario that we are preparing for according to the best experts,” he said. “The assessments are for a war that will last 30 days on a number of fronts.”
Five hundred deaths could easily - easily! - be seen as a small price to pay. Five hundred Israeli deaths, of course, using Matan Vilnai's estimate. There's no need to think about the Iranian casualties, or the victims of hundreds of Israeli rockets and missiles. No, the price of ending Iran's possible nuclear ambitions is five hundred deaths, more or less, depending on the breaks. What other deaths could matter?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Seth Sentry

Here's some great Australian hip-hop for a change - Seth Sentry's track Warm Winter. It's political:

So we came home, handshakes and ticket tape parades
Ace of spades swinging from a rope, 'hip hooray for the saviours'
We didn't even notice the changes, a disease born more contagious than AIDS is
Yeah, paranoia had changed us, the fear made us insane, afraid of our neighbours
The mere delay of a train was taken as strange
And every brown paper bag was an Al-Qaida attack
And every street corner had an armed Marine on it
Peacekeepers here to keep the peace that we wanted
They took the streets from us, our own leaders
Who the fuck would invade a country for no reason? Oh Jesus.

Not particularly subtle though.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Can't You Follow Instructions?

A few days ago I saw a dump truck full of rubble and twisted metal bars inching its way up a small street. Two men in construction gear were involved: one driving the truck, and the other walking in front making sure the way was clear. A few cyclists were heading up the street in the other direction, and as they approached, the man in front of the truck held up his hand and told them in an authoritative voice to go past on the footpath.

The cyclists gave him funny looks. There was plenty of space either side of the truck, after all, and due to the very heavy load it was moving too slowly to be dangerous. Ignoring the red-faced man, they rolled past the truck with a bike-width of clearance on either side.

"What's the matter with you?" cried the driver, incensed. "Can't you follow instructions?"

The cyclists were certainly capable of following instructions, but they were also capable of thinking and assessing risk for themselves. More importantly, they were capable of ignoring pointless and toothless instructions. If there wasn't enough room to pass safely next to the truck, they probably would have jumped onto the footpath.

This is what I mean when I say that anarchism is a thoroughly practical philosophy: quite apart from the question of whether obeying the driver's commands would have been sensible, there's the question of where the driver gets the right to issue any commands at all.

Nietzsche was right about this, at least - following orders does not come naturally, and anybody who finds it second nature to do so has probably been beaten or bullied into it. It's easy (and fun!) to scoff at adolescent rebellion, but beneath the tantrums and petty narcissism is the basic and praiseworthy human instinct to make our own decisions. Smothering this instinct is very difficult, but fortunately we have a similarly powerful drive to make decisions for other people. This is the primary purpose of almost every educational institution, workplace or prison - to mould its inmates into the kind of people who follow instructions.

We've gotten very, very good at it: a long time ago, you needed a constant threat of physical force, made real by reminders like public executions and torture. Now you can do it with a relatively small number of policemen and an array of cameras. The cameras don't even need to all work! The law is ever-present, omniscient, and possessed with a superhuman ability to collate and understand the information it gathers. Disobey legal-sounding orders, and you'll be found out and punished, so in general we obey.

It's good to know that we're capable of not following instructions, though - up to a point. If the man walking in front of the truck had been a policeman, after all, I doubt any of the cyclists would have stayed on the road.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Coffee & Snow 2

Just some chill Blue Scholars to ring out the last weeks of winter. It's not political or even particularly deep, but Sabzi's beat is magical and Geo hits all the right moments. Even if you folks in the northern hemisphere have totally different weather, this song should probably still work for a lazy afternoon.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Knowledge

So we accept that knowledge (or at least the possibility of knowledge) exists. Now what? Now we try to establish what we know about knowledge, starting with its conditions. What are we talking about, precisely? Let's unpack a particular claim of knowledge.

I know the Eiffel Tower is in Paris.

What do I mean when I say this? In other words, what would have to happen for me to be wrong? Well, at the most basic level I appear to be saying that I personally think that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. If I believed that it was in Berlin, say, then I would be lying when I said I knew it was in Paris. So I am making a claim about what I believe. We can generalize this and say that knowledge requires belief.

I'm not just talking about my belief, though - otherwise I would have said 'believe' instead of 'know'. I'm making a claim about the outside world, in particular about the architecture of Paris. If I believe that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris, but I happen to be wrong, then I don't really know it, do it? The concept of 'wrong knowledge' is incoherent. So we can say that knowledge requires both belief and truth.

Now we are getting somewhere. If I know something, that must mean that I believe it and that it is true. But is this sufficient? Suppose that I have no acquaintance with any facts about Paris, or the Eiffel Tower in general. In fact, I only heard about the Eiffel Tower (which I dimly imagine to be a rifle-thin copy of Saruman's lair from the Lord of the Rings) a few minutes ago, when it came up in conversation. Feeling intellectually outgunned, I jump into the conversation with a wild guess: The Eiffel Tower is in Paris! Do I believe it? Let's say yes, since I'm the kind of person who very quickly develops certainty for no reason. Is it true? Yes, by sheer luck I've picked the right city. But do I actually know that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris?

Of course not. So there must be a third component of knowledge; some reason to think that your true belief is true. I must have some kind of justification for believing that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. Photos, for instance, or multiple references in books and films. Knowledge, then, requires (at least) three things: that you believe a certain thing, that that belief is correct, and that you have good reason to hold that belief. This is what philosophers call "justified true belief", or JTB, and it was considered a full definition of knowledge for considerably more than a thousand years.

Is it, though? Can you think of a case where the three conditions - justification, truth and belief - are all met, but the belief still does not count as knowledge? If you can deduce it yourself (I certainly couldn't), then you'll find my next post on epistemology trivial.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Discussing Knowledge

To sceptical outsiders, the philosophical investigation of knowledge (epistemology, that is) might seem like an argument over nothing. Can't we simply answer the biggest question - "what is Knowledge" - with a link to an online dictionary or, failing that, a brief explanation of semantics and the nature of context? In other words, 'knowledge' means nothing on its own; its meaning is derived from the sentence in which it sits. You can draw out general senses from this and list them in a dictionary: "being aware of a fact", "familiarity with a concept", "practical skill in a certain area". Capital-k Knowledge has no existence unless it's defined, and the definition is essentially arbitrary; that is to say, almost every possible definition is equally valid.

This is wrong! To see why it's wrong, consider a field of discussion with obvious value, like car mechanics. It's obvious that there's meat there, that there's something of interest to be studied. However, try defining 'car' or 'engine' properly. The same problems that come up when you define 'knowledge' are here as well. Isn't 'car' used in different ways by different people? What counts as an engine? Can you construct an elegant definition that rules out trucks and buses without ruling out actual cars? Ought broken cars and engines count, and if so, where do you draw the line? And so on. Nevertheless, it's still possible to learn how to fix an engine without once touching the tricky philosophical problem of definition.

We drive our knowledge around every day: trivially, whenever we tell other people things. If you make a surprising claim about reality, you're likely to be asked 'how do you know that?' Whether you're a philosopher or not, you need to be able to answer that question - and, in order to do that, you need to have some vague idea of what it means to know anything in the first place.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Dear True Believer

I know you've been devastated in my absence. It was, of course, a week of crazed joy spent in contemplation of the Mountain Goats' new album, Transcendental Youth - of which a track, Cry for Judas, is now freely available! Check the horns! Check the bass line!

(Actual, scheduled content coming up soon. I promise.)

Sunday, 22 July 2012


This guy, right here. He's got Eminem-like rhyme schemes and delivery, but with the sharp lyrics of Blue Scholars. Hopsin sounds like a guy who's spent years perfecting his craft only to find that mainstream rap is talentless and inauthentic, so he raps against the very genre he uses so well. Listen to this.

Friday, 20 July 2012


The ballot or the bullet, some freedom or some bullshit
Will we ever do it big, or keep just settling for little shit

We brag on having bread, but none of us are bakers

We all talk having greens, but none of us own acres

If none of us on acres, and none of us grow wheat
Then who will feed our people when our people need to eat

So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding

Cos all we seem to give them is some balling and some dancing

And some talking about our car and imaginary mansions

We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting

Hand the children death and pretend that it's exciting

Listen to this. The flow is pretty simple, but it's produced by the absolutely incredible El-P and the lyrics are amazing. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Gallows Humour funny when one prisoner is telling it to another. It's commiseration, a way to cope with shared hardship. When the executioner is the one telling it, it's just cruelty. This is why jokes about some terrible things, like the general unfairness of the world, work: because we are all in Schopenhauer's words fellow-sufferers. Nuclear war, death, and aging all fall into the same category. When you belong to the group that is statistically far more likely to rape - not to mention the group that benefits from rape culture - telling rape jokes is not funny.

Look at it this way. Police brutality jokes work best when they're being told by members of the groups that suffer the most abuse (say, Dave Chappelle), but they work pretty well in general because most of us exist below the cops in the hierarchy of everyday power. If, on the other hand, a policeman is telling police brutality jokes...

At best it's grossly insensitive. At worst, it's a threat.

(h/t to the Pharyngula commentariat)

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Police Motorcycle Boots

I generally don't post search terms that led here, but this one is priceless:

can you jump a fence wearing police motorcycle boots?

Unfortunately, I don't think I've answered that question on this blog. Sorry! But, thinking about it, you'd need either good upper body strength or a fence with really wide links. Motorcycle boots (although I don't know about the police model) wouldn't jam well into chicken wire. However, since the question read 'jump' not 'climb', you should be able to hurdle a low fence easily in police motorcycle boots, assuming you can build up sufficient speed in your run-up.

If you're running from motorcycle police on foot, make sure to pick a fence that's at least head-height - while their boots might not slow them down, motorcycle pants tend to be quite restrictive and hard to climb in.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Now We Are All Morlocks

Check out this review of HG Wells' novel The Time Machine. It's easy to romanticize books we read when we were young or books that defined a genre, and The Time Machine was both of those. The review doesn't slam it, but it doesn't pull any punches either - especially when the Time Traveller himself is concerned.

"I really like the concepts of the future that are explored, but by being presented from the perspective of the world’s most casual scientist, we see very little of how the new societies actually worked. At one point in the book I did question how this person managed to create a Time Machine considering nearly every problem they face is one born of their own stupidity."

Read more here.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Capitalism And You

I've written a little, mostly whimsical article about McDonald's restaurants in Melbourne. Given that it touches on capitalism, I figured it might be of some interest to you radical types.

If 'Coca-Cola' is the most recognised word in the world, then McDonald's golden arches would have to be the most recognized symbol. There are McDonald's restaurants in one hundred and nineteen countries, and economist Thomas Friedman once famously said that no country with a McDonald's has ever gone to war with one another.

He was wrong, of course – take the US invasion of Panama, or the 2006 Lebanon War – but McDonald's has nonetheless gained a certain currency among capitalist, free-market types. Even in liberal Melbourne, where 'capitalism' is a dirty word, street corners throughout the CBD blossom with fibreglass-fronted, golden-arched fast food restaurants.

The rest of the article is here.

Monday, 9 July 2012

We've Got A Date!

The Mountain Goats' new album, Transcendental Youth, finally has a release date: October 2. The few songs I've heard live (Diaz Brothers, White Cedar, Counterfeit Florida Plates) have been incredible. It feels so good to be excited about a new Mountain Goats album - All Eternals Deck and The Life of the World to Come were good albums, but they didn't really grab me. I hope this one does.

In celebration, here's a live video of Diaz Brothers, a piano-heavy, energetic song inspired by a throwaway line in Scarface.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Snow White And The Huntsman

...was arguably the worst piece of film I have ever seen, bar none. I'm talking about sheer incompetence on the director's part, on the writer's part, and on the actors' parts. It managed to stretch over more than two hours while delivering nothing in the way of pace - seriously, the setup was a few minutes of narrated exposition and the plot stopped before anything like an actual ending. Excellent actors like Charlize Theron were reduced to cheesy video game villain territory: screaming an unconvincing 'You cannot defeat me!' while literally on fire. Kristen Stewart was given barely any lines at all, preferring to stare vacantly at the other characters and scenery.

Also, I suspect that Kristen Stewart is contractually obligated to have two competing love interests in every movie she's in: one rebellious bad boy, one baby-faced good guy. Chris Hemsworth was entertaining, at least, and a great deal more convincing than any of the other actors. 

Let's not forget the dwarves! The dwarves felt like they were shoehorned in at the last moment, probably because they were. They fell on the good-magic end of the Snow White and the Huntsman world, with Rowena's mirror magic on the other end. The mirror magic was kind of cool in a special-effects way, but it committed the cardinal sin of fantasy magic systems: inconsistency. Vagueness is fine - we don't know the nature or origin of the Mirror itself, or of the blood-magic thing - but when a rule is explicitly stated and then immediately broken, with no explanation, the whole thing falls through. We can't have Rowena claiming that her powers don't work in the dark forest and then, in the very next scene, see her brother exercise those very same powers in the forest with no problem at all. It's unconvincing, and worse, it's lazy.

These are minor criticisms, though, and pale into insignificance before the general badness of each line and of each line's delivery. My theory is that the director was shooting for a cartoonish, exaggerated fairy-tale mood, and succeeded. Like a fairy tale, we are told, not shown the major plot elements. Everything is black and white, everything is transparent. On the other hand, the director was also shooting for a gritty, realistic mood. People die. The film is uniformly serious. These two things (cartoon fantasy and gritty realism) do not work well together! Let me repeat: cartoon fantasy and gritty realism do not work well together. Or not, at least, when the film takes itself as seriously as this.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Jumping Fences

 When I was in high school there was a fence that ran around the entire outside area. It was about chest-high for most students, and covered in chicken wire, so all but the most unfit could climb it easily. A small number of students jumped over and back in every break, choosing to get lunch from a nearby cafe rather than the school cafeteria. Most people didn't, though.

I've been thinking a lot about the schooling system recently - thanks in no small part to Ivan's wonderful series of teaching posts - and what is especially interesting is how empty of real physical authority schools are. Teachers, now more than ever, are restricted with how they can manhandle children, and many parents are on the alert for physical and other abuse. Which is a good thing! But what it means is that teachers are given a strange task: to control and discipline students without any recourse to physical power. Disrespect a cop, and he can arrest or harass you (if not legally, then practically) but disrespect a teacher, and he can - what, yell at you? Send you to a more powerful teacher to yell at you? There's no credible threat of violence to back up the teacher's authority - and yet many teachers somehow manage to control their students.

The fence that surrounded my high school was easily climbable, but fences are never just fences. They're symbols of power, little signs that say: "you will be punished if you cross this boundary". If you fear the associated punishment, even a knee-high fence is impassable - if you don't, you can scale a fence that's twice your height. Even though the punishment was negligible in practice (a stern talking-to or an hour sitting in detention), almost everybody internalized the idea of fence-as-boundary very quickly.

It's not simply the fear of getting caught, either. When you are constantly surrounded by Authority, you develop (as I did) a little teacher in your head, or what the great philosopher Terry Pratchett calls a "policeman in your skull"*. Foucault wrote about the disciplinary powers of the 'panopticon', a prison where each prisoner is under constant observation. To be watched, without knowing exactly when or how, is to be always looking over your own shoulder. In the end, you police yourself; you fall victim to the great illusion that associates Authority with an all-powerful God. You become totally incapable of accurately assessing the actual power that authority figures - teachers, police, etc - hold over you. Even in situations where you know you can jump the fence and get away with it, you don't; or you do so with extreme agitation.

This is how you create and maintain authority over a huge group of people: you catch them young, you monitor them all the time, and you punish the extremely disobedient. It only takes minimal use of force to get people to police themselves - if most of them are already doing it. If you ate your lunch at the back of the oval, where more people jumped the fence, a strange thing happened. You saw people go over, and come back, without anything happening to them. You saw people break the rules and not get punished. You learned that you didn't have to police yourself, and that you could buy or eat your lunch wherever you liked. You broke a part - a very small part - of your conditioning.

The food at the cafeteria wasn't so bad. But food that you buy yourself, at a place you choose, tastes so much better.


* He put it much better than me, in Thud:
"Coppers stayed alive by trickery. That's how it worked. You had your Watch Houses with the big blue lights outside, and you made certain there were always burly watchmen visible in the big public places, and you swanked around like you owned the place. But you didn't own it. It was all smoke and mirrors. You magicked a little policeman into everyone's head. You relied on people giving in, knowing the rules. But in truth a hundred well-armed people could wipe out the Watch, if they knew what they were doing. Once some madman finds out that a copper taken unawares dies just like anyone else, the spell is broken."

Sunday, 1 July 2012

So Long Mom

Here's a little Tom Lehrer to tide you over:

While we're attacking frontally, watch Brink-er-ly and Hunt-er-ly describing contrapuntally the cities we have lost. What excellent rhyme echoes!

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Why Do We Confuse Ethical And Legal?

Last time I posed the question: why are people so keen to conflate questions of ethics with questions of legality? One possible explanation is that the law offers people a ready-made ethics, backed up by social pressure and convincing punishments, so it's easier to just go along with that than put in the effort to think up an ethics of your own. That explanation is very self-congratulatory, though, so for that reason alone I'm inclined to reject it. What other options are there?

Well, you might say that discussing ethics is pointless, since there's no way institutions are going to respond to ethical accusations. They might respond to legal accusations, though, so discussing legality is useful. However, discussing ethics can help you decide whether you support the way an institution is acting - it won't affect the institution, but it might prevent you from taking unethical actions later (say, joining the army).

You might argue that the law, in general, is ethical - that the existence of the law is morally a good thing, despite the problems with it. To obey the law is to maintain it, since the law in part is sustained through constant obedience, so obeying the law is a good thing. This doesn't seem like a major consideration, though. If we're debating whether to drop bombs on some Middle Eastern dictatorship, is general social attitude towards the law really that important?

Monday, 25 June 2012

Legal Is Not Ethical

Conducting interventionist wars is wrong. Whether you agree with that statement or not - and, while I'm confident in my position, there are arguments on both sides - you have to admit it's a statement about rightness and wrongness, not about the law. That is, it's an ethical claim, not a legal one. You might mount a detailed, sourced and accurate argument that interventionist wars, under certain circumstances, are not illegal and are in fact mandated by certain provisions of international law. Spend ten minutes on any political blog's comment section and you'll see a hundred examples of this kind of argument. However, the law is totally irrelevant to the question of whether we ought to use military force (read: kill people) in Syria etc. I think that the irrelevancy is obvious, but I'll argue for it anyway.

Here's the obligatory argument against using the law as a basis for morality. Unlike ethics, which in theory proceeds from empathy, rational thought, conscience and so forth, the law proceeds from political considerations. Even if we conceive of the State as a wholly benevolent entity (which, as an anarchist, I do not) the law is still not a guide for ethical action, but rather a guide for how a far more powerful third party might force people into acting as ethically as possible. That's why we don't have laws against being rude or lying - not because those things aren't wrong, but because it would be wrong to try and enforce politeness with the police. If we conceive of the State as a partially-benevolent or minimally-benevolent entity, then using the law as a basis for morality is laughable. Here are some reasons why, each of which is decisive:

1)  Unethical laws exist in every real-world State. Segregation, protectionism, criminalization of things that should not be criminal. If the law was a basis for morality, this trivial statement would be incoherent.

2) Seeing the law as inherently moral gives us no way to fight back against and change bad laws - which is what defenders of the law generally want people to do.

3) The process of how law is formed is transparently influenced by corruption, compromise and political consideration, none of which are appropriate ways to form ethics.

So while the legal system might help us judge what we ought practically to do, if we wish to avoid the boot and the Taser, it's poorly suited to help us judge what we ought morally to do. The larger question, however, is this: why do people constantly bring legal considerations into discussions of ethics?

Friday, 22 June 2012


This series is kind of amazing. If you've ever wondered how the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio is found in nature - or, more interestingly, why - these videos explain it clearly and entertainingly. Bonus: they also show you how to turn pinecones into cool Christmas decorations.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

I Get Plagarized

I write articles about things to do in major Australian cities. One of those articles - about some strange illegal things to do in Melbourne, so it might have some interest for you filthy anarchists - was recently copied almost word-for-word on the site of one guy who has since taken the article down for good and will remain unnamed. Apparently he paid for some freelance content that he didn't know had been stolen from me. Here's a tip for people soliciting articles: do a quick Google before you put work up on your website, just in case the writer has, ah, cut corners.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

I Rap About Rainbows

I post a lot of hip-hop, but this is the first Australian track I've posted: a short rap from Jeremedy, formerly of the Melodics, currently of Grey Ghost. It's a tragedy that he's not better known.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Sexism In The Anarchist, Atheist Movements

Check out this article by Angela Beallor on problems with sexism within the anarchist movement. She argues that combating sexism is a difficult, moment-to-moment struggle - not something you do once and are thus purified, but an incessant process of questioning your words and actions. She warns against male feminists who proclaim themselves to be allies so loudly "that they fail to hear the voices of women". And she cautions that, in removing structure, we make it more difficult to protect oppressed groups (women, people of colour) in political organisations.

Here's the key paragraph:

Structurelessness is often a means to perpetuate sexism, racism and class stratification. If men are socialized to be leaders and women are not, then it is not hard to imagine who would develop into leaders in a non-structured organization. A lack of structure provides no means of balancing those with certain privileges with those who are oppressed. We must create organizational structures that inherently guard against these forms of power imbalance.

And the preceding quote from Jo Freeman:

The idea of structurelessness does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. A 'laissez-faire' ideal for group structure becomes a smoke screen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power. As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to the few, and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules.

There's an interesting parallel here to the current kerfuffle in the atheist movement. People, especially women, are speaking out about sexual harassment at atheist conventions, and advocating for explicit sexual harassment policies to be put in place. They're receiving a certain amount of pushback from the convention organizers and other attendees, especially men. DJ Grothe, the man behind The Amazing Meeting, accused the complaining women of spreading rumors and driving other women away from the convention, which sparked predictable (and justified) outrage among many people.

I think there's a clear reason why many atheists minimize or dismiss sexual harassment at conventions. The vast majority of religions are systems for keeping women oppressed, obviously. Atheists comment on this with commendable regularity. However, there's a temptation to go a step further and say that religion is the main or only system for the oppression of women - and that in removing religion, the primary vector for misogyny is removed too. Atheist conventions are theoretically religion-free, so they must be harassment-free as well. If women contradict this by reporting their experiences of harassment, then they must be exaggerating or lying. Those silly, hysterical women. Can't they see we're their allies?

Do you see where I'm going with this? The state is a vast system for keeping women oppressed (men too, but women slightly more so), obviously. Some anarchists comment on this with commendable regularity. However, there's a temptation to go a step further and say that the state is the only system that oppresses women - and that when the state is smashed, misogyny is smashed with it. Anarchists, then, simply can't be sexists. So there's no need to put in place sexual harassment policies in anarchist organizations.

Unfortunately, religion and the state are only lenses; focusing mechanisms which amplify the existing tendency humans have to oppress those weaker than us. A world without guns would be a world with less death, but of course there would still be a horrible amount of violence. Removing the mechanism is desirable, but it won't combat oppression by itself. Solving the problem of sexism is harder than many male atheists and anarchists believe. It's a task that is performed in the heart more often than the courtroom or the houses of government, and it's a task that forces us men to relinquish much of our own power, much of our own privilege.


Of course, IOZ got here long before I did.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


...was a very pretty movie. It would even have been a good movie, if it had an ending. The big question it raised - the relationship of the creation to the creator - went entirely unanswered. The single alien (spoilers ahead) who could have dispensed an answer was content to blunder about like a Frankenstein's monster with better complexion. The female lead, although she filled Sigourney Weaver's shoes pretty well, lapsed into sentimentality at the end.

David, the android, was far and away the best character (not coincidentally, he's the only one I remember by character name instead of actor name.) Prometheus is worth watching for him alone. Idris Elba is excellent as well, of course.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Aspire To Be Maladjusted

Hat tip to SC over at FTB for this:

Engaging in behavior that reflects the dominant culture, and ours is a sexist-misogynistic culture, is adjusted.
You should aspire to be maladjusted.

When you consume popular media - television, film, books - you should expect moments of discomfort, friction with the culture. When you talk to 'normal' people, people who are entirely comfortable in their social milieu, you should expect the occasional disconnect and mis-communication. Keep track of these carefully. They're markers that you're 'maladjusted', that the forces that shape our culture haven't managed to shape you totally. 

If there's one thing I believe about capital-S Society, it's this: nothing that the crowd believes is right. The boilerplate anti-racism and anti-sexism in Western countries (you can say the word 'bitch' but not the c-word,  and as long as you stay away from the dreaded n-word you're okay) is only correct in the most general sense. In practice, it's thoroughly racist and misogynist, serving mainly to focus on the 'great gains' we've made and obscure the current manifestations of privilege and oppression. Any ethics that is comprehensible by millions of people simultaneously is not even worth consideration; like daytime television, you can immediately assume that its primary purpose is entertainment, not edification.

Kierkegaard wrote that one's relationship with the 'crowd' is a quick test of one's Christianity. If you're loved and praised, if you wield political power - if, hypothetically, you wear a golden crown, fancy red shoes, and live in a palace in a small country you rule - then you are as far removed from Christianity as it is possible to be. If the crowd is more ambivalent towards you, you're doing a little better, but you can only be sure that you're on the right track when the crowd turns on you and kills you.

That's relevant to ethics in general. True positions are not popular positions, and if a true position somehow catches popular attention, it will quickly be stripped down to a milquetoast variant fit for public consumption. Ethics by its nature is confronting: it demands full commitment and scorns compromise. As soon as an ethicist advocates half-measures, she loses her authority (or at the very least transitions from discussing the ethical to discussing something else - the 'practical', perhaps). Where we are at as a society - where we have always been, maybe - is fully removed from that. In general, we celebrate compromise and scorn commitment*, and we label individuals capable of independent thought as 'maladjusted'.

* One huge exception here is in the domain of history. When an independent individual dies, she's often converted into an idol, a 'moral hero', before the last shovel of dirt has fallen on the grave. While he lived, MLK was a dangerous radical, but in death he's venerated. This is what Kierkegaard wrote about when he discussed society's attitude to the "monumental" - by raising people like Shakespeare and Gandhi to divine status, the keepers of society discourage others from imitating them in the present, which would be, uh, inconvenient.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

More Dinosaur For The Cadillac

That's Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free), the new single from the upcoming sequel to Food and Liquor. Lupe Fiasco's previous album Lasers was mostly trash - corporate, bland, meaningless - which, compared to Food and Liquor, was a spectacular disappointment. This track gives me hope, though. Any anarchist who's into hip-hop (especially an American anarchist) should love it, since Lupe's political sensibilities are thoroughly radical.

And we marvel at the state of Ottoman
Then turn around and treat Ghana like a garbage can
America's a big motherfuckin' garbageman
If you ain't know, you're part and parcel of the problem
You say no you ain't, and I say yes you is
Soon as you find out what planned obsolescence is
You say no they didn't, and I say yes they did
The definition of unnecessary-ness manifested
Say that we should protest just to get arrested
That goes against all my hustling ethics
A bunch of jail n***as say its highly ineffective
Depart from Martin, connect on Malcolm X tip

What a delicious shot at civil disobedience.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Non-Voting As Privilege

As a dirty anarchist, I see voting as fundamentally deceptive. Like the button at a pedestrian crossing, it's there to give the illusion of control; the traffic will eventually stop for a moment, but on the city's timetable, not yours. Moreover, I see many state practices - harmful military and economic intervention in other countries, domestic imprisonment of drug users - as immoral, and I feel that by voting I lend legitimacy to those practices. It's a small symbolic act of defiance: I can't impede the functioning of government, but at the very least I can refuse to participate in its PR exercise.

However, I've recently found myself unable to give a coherent response to voters who make this argument:

Yes, both parties are bad, but one is marginally better than the other on particular issues - abortion, women's rights, employment rights - so not voting for the slightly better party causes real harm.

My previous response (and I suspect the response of many anarchists) is this: you're claiming that state-sanctioned foreign murder and domestic slavery is less important than a few bones the political machine tosses its citizens every now and then. I used to think that a symbolic blow to state power is worth more than a few political gains. Here's my current response to that:

Choosing an airy symbolic victory over, say, abortion rights is almost always an act of extreme privilege. If you're a white man, you have the opportunity to weigh up harm to minorities and women against your own involvement with the war machine. If you're a minority yourself - or you're pregnant, or you might be pregnant one day - then you don't really have that opportunity. You've got to protect yourself. People who will never be harmed by anti-woman or anti-gay laws can afford not to really think about them. They can disassociate themselves from the real consequences of such laws and consider the issue from a pure, objective standpoint. However, the problem with an objective standpoint (and here I stand on the shoulders of the Great Dane himself) is that to reach it you have to set aside your own subjectivity, all that makes you human - and by the time you're capable of considering things objectively, you've lost sight of everything of real importance.

Well. You might respond that by not voting, you hasten the eventual fall of the state, which will bring serious long-term benefits to women and minorities alike. Here, in brief, is my response:

You're fooling yourself. Sure, not voting takes away a little legitimacy from the state, but you're still paying taxes. Refusing to vote is an act of hand-washing, cleansing oneself symbolically while simultaneously funding immoral practices. Legitimacy is not primarily conferred by the practices with which it sustains itself; rather, at base it is conferred by the possession of money, guns and lawyers. When the state finally crumbles, it will be because it's run itself into the ground, not because a few anarchists are letting their lives (or one day of their lives every four years) be a negligible friction in the machine.

If you don't vote, your illusion of utopia is harming real people, right now - people without the luxury of enjoying masturbatory survivalist fantasies of an anarchist country. You don't have to like it. In fact, if you like voting, there's something seriously wrong with you. But you're ethically obliged to do it.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Drunk On Your Breath

This is Drunk On Your Breath, by Catherine Traicos. She supported the Mountain Goats on their recent Australian tour - chosen, in fact, by John Darnielle himself after he saw this video. I hope you'll agree with me that she's woefully underappreciated.

If you didn't like that, maybe you'll like this! It's Catherine Traicos singing a duet with a saxophone - wonderfully discordant and interesting.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Poems I Like #6: In The Desert

In the Desert
by Stephen Crane

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

This is a poem I've liked for quite some time. In high school I wrote it all over my books, copying it out again and again. It's hard to explain the attraction: there's no particular technical skill, no turn of phrase or flowery language, and yet the whole thing turns on itself so that any word replacement would seem to destroy the effect of the poem. Crane's genius here is in the idea he expresses. I won't be able to express it half as well, but perhaps I can make a little headway.

Picture this 'creature' - not human, but a thing - who is naked. He is unprotected, uncovered, and surrounded by a great empty desert. Still worse, he is bestial, he squats. He is removed from you and I culturally, physically, by his nature and by his actions. What he is doing is cartoonishly horrible: holding his own (presumably still-beating) heart in two hands and tearing it with his teeth. It is hard to imagine a more terrifying creature, or a being more Other.

And what does the poet say? "Is it good, friend?" Friend! It's a shocking word, 'friend', identifying the poet (and, by extension, the reader) with this self-cannibalising beast. It is the first turn of the poem, where we realise that the poet is in the desert too, along with us, and that the creature in the poem is closer to us than we think. It is not such a hard thing, after all, to find a desert. Many people manage it without ever leaving the house.

"Bitter--bitter," the creature says, and of course eating your own heart is a bitter thing. It carries connotations of buried desire, of self-pity, of thanatos. But then we have the second turn of the poem: the creature likes it. He finds pleasure in its bitterness, in the fact that it belongs to him and him alone. This is a true drive to self-destruction, thanatos expressed cleanly and simply. It's the same idea expressed in many Mountain Goats songs  - "I hope I never get sober", "I'm going to kill everyone in this room", "if anybody comes into our room while we're asleep / I hope they incinerate / everybody in it". 

Is that so strange, really? If you are in the desert, and if you are in pain, then even if you are causing the pain yourself it is still yours. Were Crane to try and snatch the creature's heart away, the creature would kill him, understandably so.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Property, Violence and Anarchism

So it's time to tackle a weighty question: is property damage, strictly speaking, violence? Anarchists and assorted radicals tend to say with Proudhon that property is theft, and that property owners deserve what's coming to them. Rich people and centrists tend to say that property damage is as bad as physical assault, and that vandals should be punished harshly. Despite my anarchist leanings, I don't fully agree with my faithful straw anarchists - I find it hard to draw a strong distinction between property and not-property that has my body on one side and my possessions on the other.

Can we say that since property damage causes emotional harm and physical violence causes physical harm, physical violence is worse? I don't think so. Certainly there are kinds of property damage that would cause me physical harm, and kinds of physical harm that would cause me no emotional harm. I've been working on a novel manuscript for the past year. If you destroyed that and all copies, I would consider that you had attacked me - the act of deleting files and burning paper would constitute real physical harm. If, on the other hand, you held me down and cut my fingernails - undeniably part of my body - I would think you were strange, but it wouldn't bother me if I never felt I was in actual danger.

What I am saying is that all harm is property damage. If you consider your body to be your property, then somebody who harms it damages your property. To the extent that you consider an object in your possession to be your property - very much so in the case of my novel manuscript, not much at all in the case of my fingernails - damaging it harms you. A Stoic whose only property is his ability to make moral judgments can only be harmed by that ability being damaged. Beat him, burn him, lock him up and take his money, and he is unperturbed. The only person who can damage his property is himself. A rich man who owns much and considers his houses and cars to be part of his identity is heartbroken at the slightest property damage.

So if you break a shop window, are you committing an act of violence on the shop-owner? Well, maybe not, if the shop-owner doesn't care much about his shop. But this is a terrible excuse. If you punch a random stranger in the chest, that may not be an act of violence if the stranger turns out to be Stoic or Buddhist. That doesn't mean you're justified in doing so - since most people care about their bodies and shops, you are ethically obliged to assume that any person chosen at random will. Protesters who spray-paint buildings and loot convenience stores are not engaged in peaceful protest; they are engaged in violent protest.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that property damage is wrong. Violence in certain cases might be fully justified, such as violence in self-defense or violence against an immediate oppressor. Let's own up about our violent tactics, though, and not use mealy-mouthed arguments to try and make ourselves seem blameless at the very moment the brick hits the glass.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Against Social Contract Ethics

I endlessly come across people citing the social contract as a basis for ethics. "It's just self-interest," they say. "I avoid harming others because I don't want to set myself outside of the contract and be harmed by others." This has come up most recently on Pharyngula, where PZ Myers says this: "Where does this value [respecting consent] come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well." Now, this isn't the only basis PZ gives, but I'd like to use it to present a 'gotcha' question to people who make this arugment:

If you were in a situation where you could break the social contract to gain advantage and nobody would know, would you? Why not?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

No Faith In Blackbird

The amusingly-named Hoodie Allen's song, "No Faith In Brooklyn". While I don't think he's got the technical excellence to make my list of favourites, there's something about his delivery that keeps me listening to the track.

And this 'Blackbird'-inspired track, by Left Boy, is completely brilliant.

Sunday, 20 May 2012


Many anarchists use violence. If not against people, then against property, especially in protests. The motivating principle of anarchism, though, seems to be a rejection of coercion. To use Professor Crispy's definition (again), anarchism is the idea that all human associations should be voluntary. When you punch a cop, though, or recommend that crime victims hunt down and hurt their attackers, are you still expressing an anarchist idea?

Don't get me wrong. I think that, in certain situations, vigilante justice or punching cops (not necessarily mutually exclusive activities, mind you) are morally justified - but while I can reconcile those actions with my conscience, I have more difficulty reconciling them with my anarchist principles. Does coercion somehow become not-coercion when you're coercing somebody who's coerced you in the past?

In practice, anarchism comes welded with a libertarian-ish ideal of justice and retribution. Unlike libertarianism, however, anarchism is fundamentally idealistic about human nature and free will. It's also more principle-based than consequence-based, in my opinion: anarchists are more likely than most to say "screw it, let the world burn so long as I have my freedom". Again, I'm not condemning this attitude! Like Hume almost said, it's certainly not irrational to prefer even the total destruction of the universe over the slightest encroachment on your liberty. What I would like to question is how the idealism of anarchism works together with the idea of retributive justice. Because if it's okay to kill a man who murdered your friend, then surely it's okay to pay another man to kill the murderer. And surely it's okay to pay a group of men to kill murderers in general. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Thursday, 17 May 2012

God Commands The Good

(In which I get overly lyrical.)

One way to justify Divine Command Theory - the idea that a God can provide objective morality - is to say that "what is good is good because God commands it". I'm having trouble marshalling a coherent argument against the that idea, so until then, here's my intuitive problem with it: even if I were to receive convincing proof that God exists and has laid down certain commandments, that would not replace my inner sense of morality.

I recoil instinctively from the idea that the commandments of God cannot be morally assessed - like Job, I want to challenge what I think is unfair. If I'm wrong, I want good reasons. In fact, my problems with Divine Command Theory can be pretty well sketched out with constant reference to Job. When God speaks from the whirlwind and Job backs down, I don't see that as a triumph of morality over pride. I see that as a triumph of power over reason.

In Job, we see that like gravity on spacetime, power exerts a distorting influence on morality. Infinite power, like a black hole, can collapse everything around it to become the only relevant point in the moral landscape. But I reject this framework! Like the Stoics, I want ethics to be the one thing untouched by power. I want the courage to stand in Job's position
 and tell God that despite the torture - and it is torture - I will continue to demand a reckoning. He can take everything from me, including my life, but the only person who can bend my ethics is me. If God reaches out to alter my ethical framework, I cease being me anymore - it is as if he has killed me, and so I win.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Acid Raindrops

Let's have a mid city fiesta with your west LA connections
Hop inside the vehicle start crossing intersections
We learning life's lessons
While we blaze this herbal essence
A man was still a child and I have so many questions
A struggle on my life till we 'vade the misconceptions
To find a place to live between the negatives and positives
While trying to make money slanging synonyms and homonyms

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Problems With Divine Command Theory

Atheists with philosophical leanings - like the inestimable Ivan - tend to cede ground to theists on the issue of morality. They agree that you can't ground objective morality without a God, that atheism entails a kind of existential despair, understood as a lack of purpose. And this makes sense! Atheists don't have any goals independent of our own desires and wishes.

Let's continue to agree with theists that morality without a God is irrational. But let's go further, too, and claim that objective morality doesn't exist even with a God. Take the best case scenario:

God appears in the sky, accompanied by angels and trumpets, and tells all inhabitants of the world to follow a single moral code, which he communicates clearly and which - through some miracle - nobody misinterprets.

But would even that allow us to claim that rightness or wrongness is a factual matter? Here are some considerations that a rational believer would be forced to make, in the event of a divine visitation.

Am I going crazy? On the balance of evidence, it's probably more likely that I'm having a mental breakdown than I'm actually seeing God. There are a small number of people each year who receive 'divine commands' - on what grounds do I dismiss their personal experience while accepting my own? Now if everyone in the world receives the same visitation, that would seem to rule out mental illness. It wouldn't rule out mass hysteria, though, or the possibility that my individual delusion is severe enough to include the illusion that everyone agrees with me.

Is this figure God? Even if the man in the clouds proclaims his divinity and performs miracles, that's only evidence of some power, not omnipotence. A technologically advanced alien might be able to 'play God' with a high degree of effectiveness.

Finally, and most importantly, why should I listen? David Hume's is/ought distinction has an almost mathematical exactness - there's no possible way to connect facts about the external world with moral obligations, even if those facts are delivered by a deity. If I'm a strict deontologist (a believer in moral rules) and God descends from heaven to say "sorry guys, the utilitarians are right", why should I accept his judgement? Because you're defining God as having knowledge of all things, factual and moral? Well, unless you give me a very good reason to believe in the existence of 'moral facts', I'm going to call that definition of God incoherent. (Of course, if you presuppose the existence of moral facts you can propose a God that would justify all kind of things - like the existence of moral facts.)

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Song For An Old Friend

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, emoting like a madman. Say what you like about his slapdash approach to melody and his technically unimpressive guitar playing (well, compared to some), he gives the song everything he's got. It's not often you see somebody do that.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Yes There Is (A Problem Of Evil)

Over at From Wine To Water, Ivan takes another stab at addressing the problem of evil. His main argument, simply stated, is this: the Bible doesn't depict God's love as anything like our love (in fact, it's alien and dangerous, it provokes fear) and therefore to say "how would a loving God allow [Auschwitz/cancer/the cancellation of Firefly] is to misunderstand the concept of love. I won't tackle the hermeneutic question of whether the Bible does depict God's love as sufficiently alien - that would be a pretty mammoth effort - but I will give another objection to Ivan's argument.

In his post, Ivan asks "What job are you expecting God to do? And how do you justify that expectation?" The implication here seems to be that there's no biblical justification for expecting God to make everything happy and easy. But I contend that there's a clear moral justification! In the words of the great philosopher Parker, power is directly proportional to responsibility. The more you can do, the more you ought to do. If, like God, you can do almost anything, you've got a near-infinite obligation to act all the time to help people. Imagine you gained the powers, not of God, but of Superman - you'd have to help out with natural disasters and suchlike, at the very least. How much more, then, ought God to do?

The only way out from this argument that I can see is to propose that God is already acting to help people, and since He's omnipotent you shouldn't second-guess Him. This is the position ridiculed by Voltaire in the character of Pangloss, and it's not a very good one.

Of course, it doesn't follow from this that there's no God - simply that if there is a God, he doesn't conform to our standards of morality. In Ivan's words, "there is not some God who acts toward you exactly like your loving Dad did, or exactly like you think a loving Dad should." [1] But this presents a huge problem for believers. If your God is infinitely loving and kind in a way that I can comprehend, however dimly, then I've got a reason for believing in the face of huge odds. If your God, on the other hand, is 'loving' in the sense that somebody who is born paraplegic is loved, then my reason vanishes. I don't want to be in God's love for eternity if it's the same kind of love He showed the Auschwitz dead. You can bite the bullet, like Ivan, and dismiss the problem of evil - but in doing so, you dismiss the main intuitive attraction of Christianity.

[1] The word 'exactly' there bugs the hell out of me, by the way. Would you tell a victim of child abuse that they haven't been treated 'exactly like you think a loving Dad should'? No, of course not. That word trivialises the very real, very horrific reasons that many people have to doubt the concept of a loving God.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Tougher Colder Killer

Tougher Colder Killer off El-P's new album, Cancer For Cure, which dropped only a few weeks ago (at least on the internet). Best Youtube comment, from doc7114: "I loved killer mike's verse so much that i didn't even notice that he rhymed "motherfucker" like 3 times." Will you notice? Only one way to find out!

I was looking for $4 Vic/FTL (Me and You), the final track, but it doesn't seem to be on Youtube yet. If you know the album or choose to acquire it - totally legally, of course - keep an ear out for the Beowulf-style alliteration:

See the blood moon hunters moon hear the howling
For the habit and the hammered and the cowering
In the magic with the haunted and the doubted
There are ghosts here
There's a presence there's a power.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Anarchism and Authority

I'm becoming increasingly fascinated with the philosophical questions about 'authority': What is it? Where does it come from? Can it be rationally justified? It seems like anarchism can't answer a trivial 'no' to that last question, since parental authority seems thoroughly rational. So why can some forms of submission to authority be justifiable and some can't?

Habermas tried to rehabilitate the post-Enlightenment concept of authority by claiming that it makes sense to submit one's judgment to a person of superior insight - that, rationally, there are times when we ought to recognize the limits of our own reason and let somebody else think for us. Habermas was no anarchist (in the same essay, he describes the anarchistic utopia as a 'hermeneutically false consciousness', which certainly sounds bad), but can anarchists make use of his take on authority? On the surface, it seems like it might give reasonable criteria for 'justified authority': superior knowledge, for instance, or moral judgment.

And is authority such a necessarily poisonous concept, anyway? If there are forms of it that don't necessarily entail coercion - as the Abonilox suggests in the comments of my previous post - might anarchists embrace some form of authority without any problems at all?

I'm asking a lot of questions here, so I beg your patience. I've got no answers yet.


One final note: I notice that I'm rehashing a lot of the same ground that Helen Rittelmeyer covered years ago here. I don't want to immediately agree with the claim that authority and individuality aren't at odds - it sounds too similar to the 'freedom through submission' doublespeak of Christianity - but it is an excellent post.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Anarchism and Parenting

Anarchists generally believe that the use of force to coerce others is unnecessary at best and evil at worst. If they deal with the obvious rejoinder - what about murder/bad people/war - at all, they argue that the solution is to change the culture: to create a world where violence is a last resort instead of a constant way of life. To this, I'd respond by asking about parenting.

What about raising children? Here it seems like a degree of coercion is necessary, and even morally praiseworthy. While it's probably true that the less coercion, the better, I agree with Louis CK that you can't always explain everything (relevant part starts at 6:20):

So here's my question: how do you create a culture where coercion is considered unacceptable when you're using coercion as an integral part of raising children? And if coercion is necessary for such a basic part of life, does the anarchist's rejection of coercion make sense at all?