One Child

“One child is enough for you, the rest you will discard.
It’s in our nation’s interest; this choice is not so hard.”
A parent’s pure delight is turned into a source of woe,
As they decide which child to keep and which they should let go.

Millions are torn to pieces while still in the womb,
Their tiny bodies adding to another smoky plume.
Many more are left to freeze upon a winter’s day,
Abandoned in the street as if they all can make their way.

Shafts of light come filtered through the roadside’s fragrant trees,
The smells of woks and pans at work, all carried by the breeze,
Piano music interrupted by a teacher’s scold,
None of this brings comfort to a little girl that’s cold.

She’d love someone to scold her for an errant finger placed,
Since then they’d think their time’s investment in her not a waste.
She pines for Grandma’s village hut, with its floor of earth,
Nought but worms to play with, but folk grateful for her birth.

She makes it all the way back ‘home’, but then is left once more,
Each time the police bring her back to that unloving door.
Until at last that father is imprisoned for his crimes,
The girl sent to an orphanage to see more pleasant times.

Those places, though, are more like prisons; she soon runs away,
But there is no long-term escape, the world is bleak and grey.
All these troubles teach her that all parents are a fraud,
That Mother State and Party are her only loving lord.

The chairman of a boarding school then contradicts this thought,
He takes her and her cellmates in and treats them as he ought,
As children, pupils, precious lives of worth and purity;
He sacrifices plenty to restore their dignity.

(For this and other kindnesses, he’s later thrown in jail,
Performing better than the state, that’s far beyond the pale!)
The school’s house mother lavishes her love on all of them,
Soothing all the fears and pain from which her anger stemmed.

As years go by, a loving family seems a distant dream,
No-one will adopt a girl who’s now into her teens;
She must now start to think of when she’ll be a full adult,
On her own, responsible for each choice and result;

Then comes the news of a kind couple from a distant land,
Who long to take her in and hold her with their loving hands.
They’ve sons and want a daughter; they’ve come thousands of miles
To love someone this state discards, to treasure her sweet smile.

Inside her, softly, safe despair gives way to deadly hope
That tempts her from her lonely ledge to grasp this rescue rope.
Her broken self will have to die to birth a new creation,
As she is flown to her new life in that wild, distant nation.

In that odd land, one child is precious—missed when they are gone;
For those strange folk, one child is valued—each and every one.

———————————————————————-

Selected Verse: Faith and Family is now on sale for only 99 cents until the 4th of December:

Selectedverse-ffcoverv17

Amazon Stumbles Over Parody Book

John Scalzi Banned This Book

Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed my generally favorable disposition toward Amazon. I consider it a public service to refute the deceptive zombie memes spread by Amazon’s less scrupulous detractors.

These actions are rooted in my commitment to support what’s best for readers and authors. In most cases there’s no question that Amazon treats their customers–both writers and readers–better than legacy publishers do. However, I have no qualms about calling Amazon out when they drop the ball.

A disappointing case of Amazon violating their customer-centric prime directive has developed in the last few days. The incident arose in response to an ongoing flame war between best selling author John Scalzi, who recently signed a multi-million dollar contract with Tor Books, and game developer/SFF editor Vox Day, whom one might describe as the sci-fi equivalent of a heel wrestler.

The full details of the controversy can be found here. The part that interests me is Scalzi’s request to have a parody book with a highly unflattering invocation of his name in the title removed from the Kindle Store–a request which Amazon granted.

Taking a moment to dispense with an obvious objection, Scalzi sought expert advice on the book’s legal status and was informed that it is clearly recognizable satire protected under the First Amendment. So the book’s unknown author is guilty of breaking no law.

I also understand that Amazon is a private sector company that has every right to decide what it will and will not sell. That’s not the crux of my argument. I maintain that, even though removing the book was well within Amazon’s rights, they were stupid to do so.

Bowing to the demands of a best selling, millionaire author makes Amazon look like they’re siding with the establishment against the little guy–and in this case, they are.

It doesn’t help that the same author chided Amazon back in 2010 for doing what he’s just turned around and asked them to do.

Even more disturbing, some customers have reported the book missing from their Kindle libraries (see comments 5 and 10). Amazon has deleted eBooks from customers’ Kindles before. Even Amazon president Jeff Bezos called the practice “stupid”, but that didn’t stop them from doing it again.

And since the book in question was the #1 parody title on Amazon, a lot of people may have had their purchases deleted. Amazon has always issued refunds when they’ve done this, but it’s the perception of confiscating property without the owners’ permission that makes this move a huge customer service failure.

Postscript: the book is back in the Kindle Store under a new title. It’s to be hoped that Amazon learned the lesson that Sonny Corleone ignored to his peril: don’t interfere.

How to Defeat Ingsoc

Imagine you are confronted with a society run by left-wing fascist elitists. They are determined to fix the problems of mankind – which also means fixing you. They routinely monitor the thoughtcrimes of their enemies, and of their comrades. They rewrite history, they invent statistics and they justify persecution through cod psychology, as bolstered by the scientists who work for them. They will even amend language, trying to force everyone to think better thoughts. This is a familiar scenario, and not just because we have watched The Lives of Others, and recognize how East Germans were treated before the fall of the Berlin Wall. George Orwell outlined the defining characteristics of this society in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When confronted by a society like this, how should we respond?

Last week I wrote about superversion and subversion, arguing that subversion should not be an end in itself, but superversives should sometimes employ subversive tactics. In particular, Winston Smith should not be criticized for trying to subvert Ingsoc, the ruling party in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Being in no position to offer a positive alternative, the most Winston could accomplish would be subverting Ingsoc where possible, and hoping the results might encourage others to do the same. However, Anthony Marchetta pointed out a serious difficulty for my argument.

How, exactly, would you fight the society of “1984”? The problem as I see it is that Orwell has created an essentially unbeatable dictatorship.

I think Anthony is correct. Orwell did create an unbeatable dictatorship… if the socialists he wrote about are right to believe that everything in the world is malleable, including human behavior. If Ingsoc has acquired the capability to change people, then nothing could defeat them, which is why they are so terrifying. This is how Winston thought about the philosophical problems raised by Ingsoc’s power.

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?

Winston’s fears are later confirmed by O’Brien, the party’s interrogator:

O’Brien silenced him by a movement of his hand. ‘We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation — anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.’

The basis of control is further developed in this exchange:

‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’

Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.

‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.

For Ingsoc to be invincible, we need only to agree that suffering can be used to control human minds, and that control of human minds gives control over everything. These ideas are somewhat intuitive, and reflect what governments do in reality. The Khmer Rouge convinced themselves that they would resurrect the glories of the Angkor Empire by reeducating the Cambodian people and purging foreigners. On a smaller scale, every so-called ‘liberal’ rule that censors beliefs or mandates behavior, no matter how well-intentioned the objective, must be backed by the power to inflict suffering. There can be no deterrence if the guilty are not punished. That is the correct context for judging whether awarding USD135,000 damages for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding is a genuine reflection of the distress caused to the gay couple, or else motivated by a sincere desire to control the behavior of bakers. To give some perspective, when academics calculate the benefit of clearing land mines in Cambodia, they have often concluded that a Cambodian life is worth only USD2,000.

However, I do not believe that Ingsoc’s view of human nature is correct. Human beings have resisted change throughout history. They have desires that cannot be reasoned with, and which prompt them to break rules and risk punishment. This means resistance to Ingsoc would not be futile. On the contrary, it would be inevitable, even if often invisible.

One relevant example features prominently in Nineteen Eighty-Four: sexual desire. Human beings have devised many systems with the intention of curbing sexual activity, and defining what is acceptable and what is considered deviant. However, none were wholly successful. In a society which uses the force of law to prohibit sex, even a private sexual act can double as undisguised political subversion.

Extreme policing, education or changing language will not stop ‘crime’ if the individual believes they are doing nothing wrong. Perspectives on right and wrong are influenced by desire. Perhaps Ingsoc could change some desires, but I doubt they could control them all. And if the party permits freedom in one domain, it becomes possible to imagine freedom in every other domain. If I choose who I have sex with, might I not choose what substances I put in my body? If I choose what substances I put in my body, might I not choose who I bake cakes for?

If the party polices words and changes language, it may take away the individual’s ability to justify their actions. But human beings are not rationality machines. They can have desires without first seeking rational justification for them. They can want things, even if they lack the words to express what they want.

As much as I admire Nineteen Eighty-Four, I do not believe such a society would behave the way Orwell describes it. There may be a few like Winston, prone to philosophical fretting. But many more would be simply insane, breaking rules without being able to explain why. Their actions may be despicable and ill-focused – a baker might spit in the cake mix although he feels no enmity to any specific customer. Though shapeless and rarely identified, these acts would still be subversive. A free society allows frustrations to be vented, and so permits a greater share of the population to be considered normal but different. Without the tolerance of a free society, and without the words to explain their choices, there would be no way to categorize society’s willful outsiders and refuseniks, except to consider them mentally disturbed.

In Orwell’s society, irrational anger would prompt some to engage in violence and destruction, reflecting the violence of society upon relative innocents. Others would turn their violence inwards. Consider that East German suicide rates were considerably higher than those in West Germany. And it is dangerous to dismiss a large minority as insane, because the larger the number excluded from rationality, the more the individual realizes that rationality is just a choice, and they may choose not to be rational.

Contrary to the writings of revolutionaries like Che Guevara, it is not necessary to have a plan or objective in order to have a revolution. The success of a revolution does not depend on whether anyone presents a coherent alternative to the status quo. All that really matters is that the governing order is disrupted. This can be achieved by the mad and angry without requiring the services of the theorist and philosopher.

In an oppressive society, grievances will fester, only to be inflamed by something trivial. Being unable to compromise, a party like Ingsoc would have no way to prevent grievances from building. Then something trivial will spark a wider conflagration. In the Indian Rebellion of 1857, it was the suspicion that army ammunition had been greased with animal fat. The Tiananmen Square protests followed the death of a former Communist Party General Secretary. The Tunisian Revolution began when a street trader’s stall was confiscated, and his frustration reached a point where he set fire to himself. The Arab Spring followed soon after. George Orwell does not describe events like these in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He can create a fictional dictatorship that is perfect in its stability because he never needs to allow for the genuine unpredictability of human nature.

American readers may now wonder why their country had a revolution. Was it because a three percent duty was levied on tea, and used to pay the salary of unelected bureaucrats? That might seem like a laughable reason to go to war, compared to some impositions now placed on American citizens by their elected government.

Today’s left-leaning fascists still offer explanations for why they will prevail in constructing utopia, just like Ingsoc. They believe their victory is mandated by the irresistible march of progress, though usually with less mention of boots stamping upon faces. Other, better theorists can be called upon to counter these extravagant claims. For example, Nassim Taleb and Mark Blyth wrote an excellent analysis of the Arab Spring, which begins with the observation that governments that try too hard when suppressing the mad, bad and different will only succeed in making their world less predictable.

Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” — that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.

The Liberal philosopher Karl Popper was similarly convinced that social reforms should be conducted on a piecemeal basis only, whilst insisting that utopian social engineering only ever leads to tyranny. As such, he railed against the pseudoscience of Marxism and tended toward a view of reform which resembled Burkean Conservatism.

Philosophers should consider the fact that the greatest happiness principle can easily be made an excuse for a benevolent dictatorship. We should replace it by a more modest and more realistic principle — the principle that the fight against avoidable misery should be a recognized aim of public policy, while the increase of happiness should be left, in the main, to private initiative.

Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom.

The former quote is from Popper, the latter from Burke.

So how do we defeat Ingsoc? Not by emulating their strategy of centralizing power, and using it to command and control. People defeat authority by outflanking it. To be superversive, and offer a better alternative, we should look to how free markets deliver superior alternatives. They do it by being varied, and through experimentation. They spread their resources wide, and trust customers to signal which offers are the most appealing. Revolutionaries can do the same. Our notion of revolution is so tied up with Marxism that we struggle to imagine revolutions that involve choice. However, if we learn anything from the confusing mess that followed the Arab Spring, it was that different factions fought to overthrow existing dictators for conflicting reasons. That post-revolutionary imbroglio may sometimes be more harmful than the suffering caused by a tyrant, but at least it unleashes the human dynamism that will often lead to a better settlement in the long run.

To defeat the subversives of Ingsoc, we should subvert all of their methods. If they write a rulebook for language that is as tall as the Tower of Babel, we should encourage diverse communities to develop and speak many languages, ranging from textspeak to new branches of mathematics, Klingon to new forms of poetry. This will render the rulebook irrelevant. If Ingsoc try to reinvent history and science, then we should encourage those with independent minds to conduct their own research, allowing the force of facts to trump revision. Let us counter statism by creating the hothouse conditions where many thought experiments may flourish. And if Ingsoc wish to regulate commerce, stooping so low as to sanction bakers for their religious beliefs, then we should favor freedom of exchange. We know that, in the long run, the power of choice and recommendation will more reliably reward those who give the best service.

Finally, if Ingsoc construct a treasured mountain from literature and art, so only the blessed elite may climb to its very top, then we should scatter our words and pictures across the ground, where anyone may pick them up, and anyone may add to them.

There is only one way to defeat the self-righteous. They cannot be overpowered by rules or force; such tactics only strengthen them. We can only win with tolerance, and compassion, for real people, and their disparate desires. We must be resolute when fighting evil, but quick to forgive sinners. We know that authority flows from the choices made by individuals, who must be granted the utmost freedom to explore and use their human faculties. Ultimately, we must trust in human diversity, which also leads to unpredictability, and makes it hard to govern people. The right response to Ingsoc is to encourage people to be somewhat ungovernable, and often imperfect. That is the one subversion that Ingsoc could never overcome.

Why is Donald Trump so Popular?

An interesting article up called Donald Trump Was Inevitable that talks about the surprising popularity of a clown like Donald Trump as he runs for the GOP nomination. It explores the idea that so many of the accusations that will be leveled at him are completely played out. The left has been crying wolf for the last decade or so and now the inevitable has happened. The salient quote from the article is

That he’s a racist? So is anyone who criticizes President Obama’s golf swing these days.

That he’s a sexist? So is anyone who defends due-process rights.

That he’s a phony? What politician isn’t?

That he’s a fascist? So were the last two presidents, depending on which books you read.

That he’s a crypto-Nazi? Yeah, because Lyndon Larouche hasn’t beaten that one to death at all.

See the problem? Even if all of these labels were true of Trump, they’ve all been used to cry “wolf” so many times that now no one thinks they mean anything anymore. Short of openly waving a Nazi flag, eating black babies, or sexually assaulting someone on live television, there’s little Trump could do to actually give these labels the power to scare people.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Mad Max was not Feminist

I congratulate the makers of Mad Max: Fury Road. Half the world seems convinced they made a movie inspired by feminism, about threats to our society and environment. In truth, they made a live-action version of Wacky Races, but with lots more violence and skin. How did they get away with making a film that ticks all the necessary boxes for teenage boys, whilst persuading others they had reimagined Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex in a post-apocalyptic desert setting? What prompts people, who take themselves too seriously, to write things like this:

The film does not judge its heroines on age and beauty: Together (sic), all of these women give the lie to the notion that there is any proper way to be female on film. Supermodels and white-haired warriors with faces like withered fruit fight side-by-side under a leader whose beauty is in no way sexualized. Together, they are formidable.

…the world director and writer George Miller has created shows the horror of sexism and the necessity of freedom from patriarchy. That is what’s truly terrifying to some men – not that Theron has more lines than actor Tom Hardy.

We need to support those game developers, film makers and creative types who are helping to diversify geek culture… With the widespread critical acclaim of the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road… perception is starting to change.

And worse still, what makes some idiot men think things like this?

Mad Max Is The Latest Offense In Hollywood’s Long Tradition Of Social Engineering

I respect the ‘perception’ of these armchair critics much less than I admire the ballsy bravado of the makers of Mad Max: Fury Road. The latter know how to entertain audiences by showing them what they want to see. The former see what their prejudices instruct them to see, and little else. Here are five observations about Mad Max: Fury Road that should make some feminists, and anti-feminists, think again.

(And yes, spoilers do follow. But as the plot involves driving in one direction for two-thirds of the movie, and then driving all the way back for the final third, nobody watched this film for the story.)

1. Women are young and pretty, old and haggered, or middling and fat.

Some people wrote how Mad Max showed a diversity of women. They must be as mad as Max. These are the stunning women we mostly see on screen:

theron

Mad-Max-fury-road

Later on, we briefly see old women who look like this:

oldwomen

Notice how the old women are more conscious of skin cancer than the young’uns. You might think that, freed of men, they would let it all hang out, like the final group of women we only occasionally glimpse in the background:

milk

That is the Mad Max menu of female role models: young strong supermodels in the foreground; tough old crones in support; and obese docile women-as-cows in the background. The diversity of women presented in this film is almost as lacking as the diversity of men.

2. Sometime between now and the future, women became really pathetic.

Who runs the Bullet Farm? A man. Who runs Gas Town? A man. Who runs the Citadel? A man. Who owns lots of sexy young supermodel ‘breeders’? The man who runs the Citadel. Who owns a shitty bit of desert beyond the bit that used to be an oasis but was ruined because they did not build irrigation channels? Women.

In our present era, women run things and own things. Instead of portraying women as strong and capable, this film is predicated on the idea that women are unable to protect what they have. To realize the supposedly feminist victories of Mad Max, women would first need to relinquish every single gain made by feminism. They must allow themselves to fall victim to a level of sexism that was uncommon even amongst savages.

If you want to present women as successful, it might help if you start from a position where they are not so utterly inept. One criticism of the ‘patriarchy’ is that it succeeds by encouraging low expectations for women. The same could be said for this film.

But perhaps this version of the Mad Max universe contains other, more civilized human settlements, that may still be run by women. We know of Bullet Farm and Gas Town, but judging by their skin, nails and teeth, the supermodels must sometimes visit Spaville, Cosmetic Village, and the Dentistry Hamlet.

3. Mothers can be feminists, and even a patriarchy needs children.

Where did all those warboys come from? It seems the demographics of the future involve a lot of young men, a smattering of other age groups, and no children whatsoever. We see women with bulging pregnant bellies, but there is scant evidence that any woman is a mother. Perhaps the crones of the former oasis were mothers, though none gave birth to a son. Or if they did, they relinquished the child to someone else’s care. Only Max behaves like someone who might have been a caring parent, though if he had children, they must have died.

Most men and women are motivated to make babies, at least at some stage during their lives. By not dealing with this most fundamental of human drives, the film skips the need to address the consequences, for both men and women. You do not need to be familiar with A Clockwork Orange to know young men want to screw. It beggars belief that an army of warboys could be conditioned to think of women as property, whilst never seeking to obtain property rights of their own. And stripped of the desire to procreate, it is harder to understand why these characters care so much about their survival. Did none of them read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, prior to the apocalypse?

4. Charlize Theron’s character is not just a badass. She is also a dumbass.

Apparently, this was the feminist plan, as literally driven by Theron’s character, Imperator Furiosa:

  1. Steal a truck and bundle some supermodels into it because they are incapable of escaping without your help.
  2. Intend to reach safety by simply outrunning the thousand trucks driven by homicidal crazies who are right behind you.
  3. Race toward a destination you vaguely remember from youth, in the hope that a society exclusively composed of women has learned how to sustain themselves without the help of any men. Rationalize that all they need is some more women of child-rearing age, one of whom is pregnant with a boy.
  4. Arrive at your destination, fortuitously ahead of the chasing pack, only to discover your fantasy oasis turned into somewhere really awful.
  5. Go home again, turning the tables on your pursuers by arriving back before them, allowing you to take control of the place you were fantastically lucky to escape.

5. This is what a strong woman looks like.

Ellen_Ripley_badass

I have a one-word riposte for everyone who thinks Mad Max: Fury Road is a turning point for women in science fiction films. The word is: Ripley.

Ellen Ripley flies spaceships, fights like a marine, wins the respect of an all-male prison colony, and is not afraid to tell an alien queen that she is acting like a bitch. More importantly, Ripley is brave enough to show her mothering instincts.

Furiosa can drive a truck, and shoot a gun. She shaves her head and comes up with lousy plans. If your life depended on it, which one would you pick to fight for you?

To top it all, Alien was released in 1979. That undermines the theory that Mad Max: Fury Road is some kind of feminist breakthrough. Ripley is a science fiction hero who is also a rounded woman and believable character. She can fire a grenade launcher, operate heavy machinery, save a fallen soldier, and still find time to wipe a dirty kid’s face. She does all this whilst also being a pain-in-the-ass who riles both male and female crew-mates. Ripley takes on a string of fearsome opponents – extraterrestrial, robotic, corporate and criminal – and bends her knee to nobody. But none of her confrontations lead to a caricature battle of the sexes. Ellen Ripley showed us that a female SF hero can be the equal of any man, proving they do not need to be semi-naked or restricted to twelve lines of dialogue. Most importantly, Ripley’s gender was a part of her character, without ever being allowed to overshadow her character.

Though she smears grease across her forehead, Imperator Furiosa is essentially clean, and simple. She says little, and thinks even less. Her solution to the problems created by men is to run away from them. In contrast, Ellen Ripley is a complicated woman who deals with the messy realities of what life throws at her. She fights tenaciously for her life, and the lives of others. Ripley is also prepared to sacrifice her life for the greater good. She overcomes because she is organized, principled and quick-witted, in addition to being brave and hardy. Furiosa is a cartoon character, no more sophisticated than Penelope Pitstop, though drawn for a different age. Whilst three decades have passed since Alien, it is Ripley who continues to personify how strong modern women can be heroes to all.

The Culture War rages on

After the recent SCOTUS decision there has been triumphalism from the left about the courts recognition of same-sex marriage and finding it as a constitutionally protected right. I saw this interesting observation about the nature of the ongoing culture war, over reach and the future. It is an interesting read and I think in time this victory for the left might be seen as the high water mark this time around.

For those Americans who hoped the culture wars would finally end, the month of June reminded us they’re just getting started.

Within hours of the Supreme Court’s resolution of the battle over same-sex marriage—the triumph of a generation of gay-rights activists—some were already calling for further steps to take tax exemptions away from churches, use anti-discrimination laws to target religious non-profits, and crack down on religious schools’ access to voucher programs. We learned media entities would no longer publish the views of those opposed to gay marriage or treat it as an issue with two sides, and the American Civil Liberties Union announced it would no longer support bipartisan religious-freedom measures it once backed wholeheartedly. A reality TV star pushed the transgender rights movement into the center of the national dialogue even as Barack Obama’s administration used its interpretation of Title IX to push its genderless bathroom policies into public schools. And we learned that pulling Confederate merchandise off the shelves isn’t enough to mitigate the racism of the past—we must bring down statues and street signs, too, destroying reminders of history now deemed inconvenient and unsafe.

On college campuses and in the workplace, across mass media and social media, for American celebrities and private citizens, every comment, act, or joke can make you the next target for a ritual of daily attack by outraged Twitter mobs. It is now an unavoidable fact of life that giving money to the wrong cause, making a “clumsy attempt at humor,” or taking the wrong side on a celebrity, religious debate, or magazine cover can lead to threats of violent death, end your career in an instant, or make you the most hated person in America for 15 minutes—longer if you bungle the apology.

Whether you care about the culture war or not, it cares about you.

Read the whole thing

George Takei’s Racism Is Good for Science Fiction

George Takei, the actor who played the original Sulu in Star Trek, has some enviable qualities. Takei is likable, he has a gift for social media, and he possesses a wonderfully deep voice. However, he is not the smartest person in the world. This was recently confirmed, when Takei used an obviously racist slur to lambast a senior judge. Takei followed-up by arguing it was not racist to refer to the judge as a ‘clown in blackface’. A wiser man would have hastily admitted his faults, and apologized. Takei has now apologized, though the apology is so indirect and self-regarding that it only makes Takei seem even more conceited. But we should thank Takei for his flaws. Takei’s fame depends on his role in science fiction culture. Some treat science fiction like the path to enlightenment pursued by a misty-eyed seer, able to diagnose the illnesses of the present and chart the course to a utopian future. Takei has reminded us that SF culture also includes its fair share of stupid buggers.

Takei’s comical brouhaha began when he was asked, on a news channel, what he thought of the judgement of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The court determined that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right following a 5-4 vote of the judges, but Thomas was in the dissenting minority. Perhaps we should stop and reflect at this point. Takei, a man who is famous because he pushed pretend buttons on a 1960’s television show, was asked to review the legal opinion of one of the top judges in the USA, as given in a tricky case of historical significance. Maybe the USA’s legal system is imperfect, but I struggle to understand how a more utopian future will be realized by asking aging actors for their opinion on everything. Undaunted, Takei held forth. In particular, Takei objected to Thomas’ legal opinion on the grounds of too much ‘blackface’.

In a way, Takei was right about one thing, because Thomas does have a black face, or rather a dark brown face which people in some societies describe as ‘black’, as compared to paler skins. Thomas is the only Supreme Court judge who is black. But the intelligent amongst us know that judges should be chosen because of their skill at reaching a judgement, not because of their color. So, by any normal understanding of racism, Takei was being racist.

Realizing that he had committed a terrible faux pas, which would alienate him from many right-thinking, word-policing fans, Takei needed to excuse himself. He did this by pointing out that ‘blackface’ describes how actors applied make-up in order to play characters with different racial characteristics to their own. By that logic, highlighting how a black judge has a black face is not racist, because only a white judge could put on a real blackface.

I find Takei’s logic to be desperately contrived. It is certainly not of a calibre I would want from somebody who reviews the decisions of top judges. Instead of just leaving his insult with the assertion that Thomas is black – an accurate if irrelevant statement – Takei reinvented it as a much more racist slur than we first imagined. Thomas is black. But Takei tells us he meant to compare Thomas to a white man who is pretending to be black. It was one thing to needlessly refer to Thomas’ race, but it is something else to imply Thomas is a traitor to his race. And hence, we progressively learn that Takei’s deep voice is not evidence of deep thought.

There is no point bashing Takei. He is not smart enough to be worth it. He said something stupid and offensive in the heat of the moment. Then he slowly and carefully considered how to backtrack without losing face, and so wrote something even more stupid and offensive. When William Shatner came to Takei’s defence, I think he was being sincere.

My guess is that Takei is not a racist, in a malign or systematic way. His racism was of the easy, casual, everyday variety. Thomas wrote an opinion that came to a conclusion that Takei did not like, so instead of addressing Thomas’ argument, Takei started talking about the color of Thomas’ skin. Many people are prone to such irregular leaps in their thinking. They feel a logical argument has reached the wrong conclusion, but being unable to express what was wrong with the argument, they attack the individual instead. That was what Takei did. We should thank him for doing this, because it shows that policing thought will never succeed, because some people are not thoughtful enough to be worth policing.

Takei’s argument was especially misjudged because Thomas’ argument had a certain beauty to it. These are the words that Thomas wrote, and which prompted Takei’s diva meltdown.

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

You do not have to agree with Thomas’ conclusion to see that he presents an elegant and attractive argument. If a slave suffered the worst indignities, but still felt they were dignified in themselves, or that they were dignified in the eyes of God, then who should argue the slave was wrong to think that way?

Takei vehemently rejected Thomas’ point of view. As a result, he reveals the narrowness of his own thinking.

To deny a group the rights and privileges of others is to strip them of human dignity…

Takei’s thinking is narrow because it has not occurred to him that some believe human beings have immortal souls. It is not necessary to agree that humans have souls, to understand what a difference this would make to a person’s outlook. A slave has no less spirituality than any other person, and the role of the spiritual in your life will profoundly influence your understanding of a concept like dignity.

Thomas’ argument follows tracks laid down by ancient thinkers. This is not surprising: those same thinkers also influenced the original writers of the US constitution. Socrates believed we have souls, and that the soul could not be harmed by the actions of others. The only way an individual can damage a soul is by doing harm to themselves. Boethius, in The Consolation of Philosophy, concludes that the suffering caused by his own unjust imprisonment is of no importance, because the gifts of fortune are unreliable. Temporal assets, like health, wealth, or power, can be taken away, so soul and the intellect must be the route to true happiness. In the Bible, the character of Job comes to a similar understanding. After he is beset by disasters, Job better appreciates God’s design:

My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.

On the other hand, if you think that humans are purely physical beings, then it is easier to sympathize with Takei’s point of view. If humans do not have a soul, then there is nothing more important than their day-to-day treatment and comfort. If dignity has no spiritual aspect, it can only be understood in terms of the material and the legal.

Some may point out that Takei is a Buddhist. I am not a Buddhist, but I am forced to wonder if Takei’s understanding of Buddhism is as malformed as his views on race, and his grasp of law. Buddhists are conscious of the role of suffering in this world, and how personal enlightenment is the only escape from that suffering. Whilst Thomas was clearly following a Christian tradition, his view of the inviolability of human dignity is easier to reconcile with Buddhism than Takei’s argument that dignity depends on law.

Whether right, wrong, or confused, Takei is entitled to his opinions. As nobody has scientifically proven the existence of souls, Takei’s position has some merit. Maybe there is nothing more important than governments, and laws, and how they work in practice. But Takei was wrong to describe Thomas as a ‘clown’. A more thoughtful person would have understood that their difference of opinion is founded on a genuine and sincere disagreement about the nature of this universe. It is conceited to deride others for their spiritual beliefs. And Takei made a fool of himself by questioning Thomas’ competence as a judge.

Why am I analyzing this minor episode in such depth? Because there are so many parallels to debates that consume science fiction ‘fandom’. Small, petty, and unimaginative people like George Takei can sincerely believe they are as wise as Solomon. Idiots can be popular and successful. They can gather many followers. Chanting the tropes that define them, a community’s repeated confirmation of its own bias will lead its weaker members to conclude they are much wiser than they really are. Four legs good, two legs bad. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. With great power comes great responsibility. Pop fiction can deliver the same lines as great philosophy, but that does not make Stan Lee the equal of Voltaire. At the same time, audiences can behave like a mirror. When they perceive depth in others, they may only be witnessing their own superficiality.

There will always be some who mindlessly repeat slogans and mottos, whilst castigating, alienating, and demonizing anyone with a different outlook. Science fiction is not immune to this disease. When warriors like Takei start calling people names, they will insist this is forgivable, natural, and even desirable. That was why Takei felt entitled to lose his temper and racially abuse an intelligent and successful African-American, then deploy indignation and misdirection to retain an ill-deserved sense of moral superiority.

George Takei is convinced he is morally good. Takei’s belief in himself allowed him to do something morally wrong, and then to excuse his behavior afterwards. He is not the only person to suffer this combination of failings.

Because science fiction deals with the future, and alternative possibilities, it will encourage some people to believe they are smarter than they really are. They think that by consuming science fiction, they have a better understanding of the world than others. They are mistaken. Science fiction is a form of entertainment. It is not a division of science or philosophy. The best science fiction may complement science and philosophy, but the relationship is not infallible. It is easy to remember how Clarke contributed to the development of artificial satellites. It is even easier to forget that Asimov thought positronics would be commonplace long before medicine learned the secret of artificial insemination. And yet, the world has witnessed many more test tube babies than walking, talking robots.

Even good science fiction will often have a wayward understanding of how the universe works, or of the nature of human beings. The worst science fiction will fall much shorter. And because tastes vary, some will prefer the worst to the best. Fans with poor taste are still fans, but we should be wary of their pomposity. They should always be discouraged from believing they define taste, no matter how many of them believe it. Defining taste is a way to control people by bullying them, little different to arguing that the color of a judge’s skin should influence his decisions.

I hope that George Takei’s embarrassment will remind others to be more humble, and more respectful of genuine differences of opinion, and taste. Better still, it may discourage some of the lazy knee-jerk name-calling which dominate the outpourings of people who, like George Takei, consider themselves to be social justice activists. It is easy to use words like ‘racist’ to unfairly smear others. Takei’s racist outburst, which deserves to be described that way, begs the question of how honestly and consistently such pejorative epithets are used.

I have hope… but I am not wildly optimistic. As Bertrand Russell pointed out:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

The community of science fiction fans probably has the same proportion of fools and fanatics as the general population. We might fear that science fiction attracts even more than its fair share; fools and fanatics like stories that confirm their point of view, especially if the real world stubbornly refuses to yield to their fantasies. The answer is not to respond to fanaticism with equal and opposing extremism. Such tactics only encourage the true fanatics. It is better to wait for them to embarrass themselves. We can then politely identify the failings of the fanatics, whilst expressing our faith in the even-handed skepticism of the majority of the audience.