Monthly Archives: May 2013

Godwin’s Law escapes the internet…again

Apparently there’s only so much nationalism one nation can take. UKIP’s lovably demented leader Nigel Farage found himself the wrong end of a small but vocal protest, which gathered 50 or so Scottish left nationalists around some, for the most part, whimsical chants (“Nigel, you’re a bawbag, Nigel you’re a bawbag, na, na, na, hey!”). All too much for our Nigel, who was clearly put out of sorts by the experience. He said:

If anybody from Ukip says anything on Facebook that is in any way homophobic or mildly racist you guys jump down my throat and demand that I condemn them and expel them from the party, which of course I do. It is about time Scottish nationalism was put under the same level of scrutiny. It has long been known in Scotland that there are some elements of Scottish nationalism and the SNP that are deeply unpleasant. This needs to be talked about.

He is perhaps being ignorant, or perhaps a little cheeky, to blame this altercation on the SNP – who are, after all, a very sensible bourgeois party of devolved government, whose fairly workable (as these things go) plan for Scottish independence consists effectively of turning Scotland into a cosmopolitan corporate tax haven on the model of pre-crash Ireland (but do try to avoid those dastardly housing bubbles, Alex). Add in the pseudo-social democratic guff, and you have what amounts to tartan Blairism. No, this is almost certainly the work of the SNP’s decrepit left bag-carriers, the splintered and mutually biliously hostile remnants of what was once a thriving Scottish far-left.

Or, as Farage seems to believe, ‘fascist scum’. I have no love for the Scottish left (after all, how can I love you if you don’t love yourself?); and we in the CPGB had a long running habit of referring to the Scottish Socialist Party as ‘national socialist’ in a deliberately provocative way (for anyone still labouring under any illusions – no, we didn’t consider Sheridan and McCombes to be a Hitler/Goebbels double act in waiting; Hoxha’s Albania would be a more likely model for an ‘independent socialist Scotland’), but accusations of fascism are pushing the boat out just a little. Farage’s outburst looks more like the famous Nazi Tourette’s of fruitcake American rabble-rouser Glenn Beck; or former arch-bigot of Canterbury George Carey’s comparison of himself and other homophobic clergymen to the victims of the Nazi genocide.

Nazi comparisons are a useful indicator of how degraded political discourse has become. Godwin’s law has spread outwards from Usenet to the web, and finally to ‘real life’ (although the paranoid delusions of a Glenn Beck stretch the word ‘real’ beyond all reason). What used to be the last resort of those on the wrong side of a debate – indeed, on the wrong side of history – has become the first. Welcome to the club, Nige – you old bawbag.

Still, it has to be said that if there is one force that eased the transition of Nazi comparisons from the net to the flesh-and-blood interactions of political actors, it is the far left. The Socialist Workers Party’s insistence on labeling every gang of far-rightists as “Nazis” has long stretched beyond parody – the NF, the BNP, the French National Front, the Austrian Freedom Party, David Irving: all are supposedly Nazis. Except UKIP, for some reason, to whom different rules apply (God only knows what they are, if every other far-right populist party in Europe qualifies for the brownshirt slur). We note another of the chants employed by the Scottish demonstrators – “UKIP scum, off our streets” – is a barely rephrased Anti-Nazi League/Unite Against Fascism shriek of rage.

There are two models for contemporary politics. One is exemplified by the typical parliamentary debate which sees David Cameron and Ed Miliband pretend to disagree about things. The other would be a putative debate between, say, Weyman Bennett and Nigel Farage, in which each can accuse the other of leading the country down the road to Auschwitz. Perhaps there is a helpful book that the combatants could read, in order to land a few genuinely killer blows instead of just screaming at each other? Hmmm…



Breasts and boosterism

More fun from the feminist-o-sphere, which has emerged briefly from the disturbing recesses of rape culture to discuss a matter of even greater importance – Angelina Jolie’s tits.

Jolie, as readers of either insert-scandal-sheet-of-choice or the Guardian cannot fail to have noticed, has gone public after having a preventative double mastectomy, when it turned out she carried a gene which gives her a frankly terrifying chance of contracting breast cancer. The decision to have the surgery is hardly more than ‘human interest’ grade news; a bit of a no-brainer for anyone in the same situation who values, you know, continuing to be alive and stuff. No, it was the decision to go public, for the purposes of (what else?) ‘raising awareness’, that caused everyone able to stifle a yawn to plunge into boosterism about the run of the mill actress’s ‘courage’.

Almost everyone, that is. There’s always something a little fishy about sleb advocacy, which is often as narrow and blundering as it is well-meaning; and sometimes, when an individual utterly misses the point from a position of invulnerable saintliness, then somebody else will see their temper snap. Enter Ruth Fowler, writing for CounterPunch.

What exactly has she done that deserves praise? She wrote about an invasive, often brutal medically (un?)necessary procedure which 56% of women with breast cancer in the US choose to undergo. Hands up everyone in the US who hasn’t heard of breast cancer and mastectomy! Anyone? Umm, anyone….?

OK. So now, thanks to Jolie, we’re MORE aware. And guess what? There are really, really expensive tests you can get which tell you beforehand how likely you are to get cancer and die! Hands up who knew about that one? Oh, quite a few of you? Mainly the ones who can afford it, am I right? The ones who can’t afford it – well what good is knowing that there’s a test out there only privileged rich people can get?

Ouch. Fowler’s piece is guilty of the distasteful habit of privilege-baiting (although Angelina Jolie is a better fit for privilege than many), and on the whole probably a little bit more obnoxious than it needs to be (yes, yes, pot kettle black); but the core message is absolutely on the money, or rather lack of money. The problem is not that people are ‘unaware’ of breast cancer, or common treatments for cancer (which traditionally involve cutting the affected bit off), but that (in the US, at least – and give Jeremy Hunt a couple more months…) there is no public healthcare; that making a big deal about what is possibly not the right solution for all women in a similar situation will lead to unnecessary surgeries and treatment (a lot of women end up corralled into unnecessary breast surgery).

Unfortunately, Fowler dared to break the sacred circle of sentimental boosterism. In particular, her piece has received a reply from Sharon Smith in the US version of Socialist Worker. And if you thought Fowler was obnoxious…oh boy! One of my pet peeves with feminism (pretty much all sub-schools suffer from this particular syndrome) is that it tends to interpret all critical commentary as ‘patronising to women’, which is of course itself patronising to women, who are perfectly well capable of deciding their own allegiances without some professional ideological caste to speak for them. So I will say no more than that, if I were Ruth Fowler, I would find Smith’s article patronising to the point of inciting homicidal rage. In any case, it is diversionary, schoolmarmish and intellectually moribund.

Smith’s first complaint is that the CounterPunch strapline – “Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits” – is sexist, because it contains the word ‘tits’. Fowler is oh so graciously absolved of guilt on this particular point:

Fowler’s article never actually mentions the word “tits.” But like smirking adolescents, the editors insert it … in their contemptuous title.

It is a little disturbing that the very idea that a woman would use the word “tits” is considered so exceptionally unsisterly that it is safer to assume that some sniggering oaf on the editorial team put it in for a laugh. Really? How divorced from actual womankind are some of these people? And while Fowler’s article does, indeed, not use the word ‘tits’, it is sarcastic and venomous in tone, and far more aggressive than the strapline – be it hers or the ghost of Alexander Cockburn’s.

“Using boob jokes to introduce an article about undergoing a double mastectomy to prevent a potentially deadly disease constitutes a descent from sexism to misogyny,” hectors Smith; but the boot is on the other foot. Calling boob jokes ipso facto sexist, and off colour jokes about fatal diseases ipso facto worse, is merely devaluing the words sexist and misogynist – especially as the ‘boob joke’ in question appears to be, er, the use of the word “tits”. If that alone is enough to prompt a giggle from comrade Smith – before the humourlessness bulkheads slam shut, at any rate – then that is her problem, not those of us who are no longer school age. (I note in passing that “boob” occurs frequently in Smith’s article, sometimes in a pseudo-humorous context, from which I deduce that it is not a sexist word for a mammary gland, unlike the T-bomb. Perhaps there is a helpful chart us mere mortals could consult?)

As far as Fowler goes, there is a lot of diversionary huffing and puffing:

Fowler ridicules Jolie for “your elaborately reconstructed chest and your incredible bravery in submitting to top-end, essential preventive treatments in order to avoid a painful and abhorrent death,” as if Jolie endured multiple surgeries over a period of months as a colossal act of narcissism.

Had Smith actually bothered to read the article – rather than stared at it just long enough to find a couple of ‘scandalous’ quotes to rip out of context – then she might have noticed that Fowler’s whole point was not that having surgery was narcissistic, but that making an empty and grandstanding gesture out of it was. As it happens, I would disagree (far be it from me to impugn the motives of Lara Croft!), but there is a real point here, which Smith misses: in making a public stand on her mastectomies, Jolie makes her mastectomies public property. She wants them to ‘mean something’, but that something is fatuous. Fowler objects: she says the main issue is lack of access to healthcare, and she is not prepared to let the saintly aura of Jolie’s gesture get in the way of making the point. All to the good.

Smith is caught in no man’s land – on the one hand, this supposed r-r-revolutionary socialist believes, of course, in equal access to healthcare, free at the point of use. On the other, her hopeless entanglement in bureaucratic-sentimentalist moral reflexes means she has to advocate it via defending a vacuous philanthropic gesture on the part of a grandstanding sleb. “It should not be difficult to understand why millions of women who, facing an epidemic of breast cancer, breathed a sigh of relief on May 14 upon reading Jolie’s honest and eloquent account of removing her breasts to save her life,” runs by far the funniest line in the whole piece. Which millions of women would these be, who are relieved to hear a distressing story about pre-emptive cancer surgery? Presumably they are the same ones who find the word “tits” mortally offensive.

There is a bigger problem here than what we make of Angeline Jolie’s tits: we have on one side a liberal writer for a left-liberal website, and on the other, Ruth Fowler for CounterPunch. Just kidding! On the other, a Marxist writer for a Marxist paper. Yet it is clear which of the two is more credulous, more restricted to Guardianista ideology (the Graun is on the sharp end of another of Fowler’s put-downs), more trapped by the fear of offending anyone or slaying a sacred cow – and that is the Marxist. It’s a sorry state of affairs. Why this particular sort of Marxist ends up being that particular sort of degraded liberal is a question that will have to wait for another day.

It’s not the future – it’s a load of fucking shit for twats

I. Those who can condense their thoughts into 140 characters or less do not have any thoughts. For the 95% or so of the population who do have thoughts, Twitter does no favours, chopping up any discourse into chunks that the very technical design of the site demands be taken out of context.

II. Twitter is thus a discourse of thoughtlessness. This is most obvious in the periodic storms of outrage that set it ablaze, like the proverbial prairie fire. For there to be a prairie fire, more than a spark – Jan Moir, Jeremy Clarkson, Liam Stacey or whoever – is needed. The prairie has to be dry. These outrages take hold because twitter is thoughtless: and thus it increasingly approaches its ideal form, a seething swamp of busybodies, curtain-twitchers and copper’s narks.

III. Behind thoughtlessness lies the dominant ideology. This is a general point, but it needs particular emphasis here. Ideology abhors a vacuum – what is not said by the subject is said, instead, by the Subject. Chomsky, for all his faults, understands that it is more difficult for him to make a simple point in the accelerated world of bourgeois TV news than a reactionary political opponent, because the latter has all the dead inertia of common sense behind him. Twitter is more accelerated still; it is something like a supercollider, which will maybe allow keen observers to measure the weight and behaviour of a single particle of pure ideology.

IV. On Twitter, no-one can hear you scream – unless you are a celebrity. It is tempting to view the logic of ‘followers’ as a mirror reflection of the market. In truth, the market no longer behaves this way, if indeed it ever did. It is better to think of it as a staging of the ‘pure’ categories of classical political economy, a frictionless world of un-ideas exchanged according to an anarchic but efficient principle of distribution. Of course, Marx has shown that the ‘pure’ categories of political economy do not produce a society of equal petty producers, as perhaps Adam Smith imagined, but lead instead to the concentration of capital; and, more importantly, that capitalist society was and is constantly shaped by factors extrinsic to the abstract logic of capital. The first ‘critique’ is visible in the accretion of attention to those who are a good source of outrage (Joey Barton’s a reliable one) and those who most promiscuously spread it (Stephen Fry). The second is simply the manner in which attention in the wider world is replicated in the swamp.

V. Is Twitter due for a bout of ‘primitive accumulation’? In fact it is no doubt already happening, and the scale will only increase with its prominence as a form of cultural discourse. Dynamically-generated web content is ripe for certain skilled ‘proletarians’ to manipulate – trends will be manufactured, to the inevitable benefit of one or another power-that-be. Corporations will rake the money in – purveyors of CIA or equivalent black propaganda will struggle to stifle a laugh at how easy it is to touch a nerve among this uniquely thoughtless population.

VI. Twitter is not a threat to the mainstream media. Nobody, apparently, has told the media. The agenda for public discourse is still largely set by the press; and part of the press agenda is recycling this absurd myth that we live in an age of unmediated communication with one another. This puffs up the image of Twitter, causing the likes of the Guardian to fawn ever more cravenly before it.  The Guardian is on the brink of winking out of existence, largely because its incompetent management have not found a way to screw money out of the internet – thus trends on the internet and in new media appear before it as an awesome, conquering force. The Guardian discourse on Twitter is akin to the sense of wonder experienced by the luckless earthling at seeing a vast alien spaceship, just at the moment that it lets rip with the death ray.

VII. Any leftist who recycles the r-r-revolutionary credentials of Twitter is thus exposed as an opportunist cretin. The opposite case – that Twitter is an obstacle to revolution – is closer to the truth. It represents an area whose dominant  ideology is structurally bourgeois, in which everything that happened more than five minutes ago is already ancient history. The left cult of Twitter is simply the penetration of this ideology, and the collapse of historical time, into the forces whose purpose in society is to fight that ideology and preserve that historical memory.

VIII. The actual consequences of ‘Twitter politics’ are amply demonstrated in its flagship intervention: the Egyptian revolution. The eyes of the West were fixated on the tweets of the Tahrir Square protestors. When Mubarak fell, these elements were swept aside: the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology venerates the social forms of the first millennium AD rather than the third, have been the main beneficiaries, thanks to their disavowal of infantile faddishness in favour of long term, patient work among the masses.  There is still no substitute for this work.

IX. The contemporary left is repressed. It is a case for psychoanalysis. The collapse of the USSR, and the concomitant catastrophe that befell a global left that was not able to make whatever distance its parts may have taken from the failed experiment in ‘socialism in one country’ real in the minds of the masses, could be confronted in a principled way. Yet it is much easier to just repress the trauma – “that was the old world, with old conditions! Now we have new movements like Occupy and UK Uncut!” The model thus becomes precisely those movements who make a virtue out of the absence of any obvious history, and hinge their appeal on novelty. Their novelty is utterly false, and founded on the fact that predecessors to these movements failed so completely and radically that even their failure is lost to historical memory. The ideal medium for the outpourings of such oafish elements is one where success is rapid but shallow, and nothing is thought, and nothing is remembered. Step forward Twitter. Their ideal ally is one desperately aspiring to a prelapsarian condition, before memory and before knowledge. Step forward the opportunist left. All those genuinely concerned with making revolution should bear in mind that we have far more to learn from the Muslim Brotherhood than UK Uncut.

X. There is a certain tendency to dismiss this sort of critique as ‘technological determinist’. In fact, it is not. Twitter determines nothing – it is determined, instead, by the dominant ideology. Those who view it as a neutral medium for communication, on the other hand, are guilty of a metaphysical separation of form and content, in which form is viewed as a kind of jug into which content is poured, and from which that content is poured into your brain. The relationship between form and content is rather more complex than that: the form of Twitter, certainly, marks it out as a transmission belt for ideology.

XI. Twitter is limited to twitches, yelps and other unconscious reflexes. The point is, in Trotsky’s words, to ‘learn to think’. (That should be the end – but the author will permit none of these theses to fit into 140 characters.)

Trigger warning!

I want to begin with a definition. There are many different varieties of identity politics – by which I don’t mean feminism vs LGBT vs black vs Asian and so forth; differences exist here, but they are functionally identical. Rather, there are distinctive trends in the academic literature, such as it is; serious principled divisions on matters historical, philosophical and so forth (which, tellingly, tend not to add up to much in the ‘real world’). I have not found one I agree with, but some books and academic papers I’ve encountered in this line of things over my long march through the institutions have enlivened things in a seminar room, and others still have at least not left me spitting my own teeth out with rage.

But there’s one particular variant that I’m going to call “bureaucratic sentimentalism” (serendipitously, BS for short), which has two premises: firstly, it is ‘sentimental’ in the sense that political questions are judged in that very American, post-war way, according to the shrink’s question of cliché immemorial – “And how did that make you feel?” The ambiguous old women’s lib slogan, “the personal is political”, is presented in its most absurd form, as a kind of hedonic calculus. Political rectitude consists in being ‘inclusive’ to the most diverse experiences of oppression. As with many things that seem, on the face of things, to be terribly progressive and liberal, this is necessarily bureaucratic – it throws up a need for a kind of police force, to manage what is said and done according to the calculus.

The trigger warning serves this kind of politics right up to you in a sesame bun. For those not in the know, a trigger warning is a kind of puritanical cross between NSFW and one of those comically helpful BBFC summaries (“rated PG for infrequent language and mild threat”). ‘Properly’ used, it goes above an account of some horrific trauma or other potentially disturbing content, with the official purpose being to prevent a ‘trauma trigger’ – a pathological psychological response by somebody who is exceptionally vulnerable to the particular subject.

The problem of trauma triggers is a real one of live interest to those in the psychological and psychiatric line of work, of course. This is a pretty nasty world, in which many people experience more horror in an afternoon than anyone should have to face over their whole life. The human mind’s coping mechanisms, like most of its other mechanisms, are bizarre, and often fail in ways that cannot easily be predicted and require serious and sober academic study, not to say sensitivity and attentiveness on the part of mental health practitioners dealing with traumatised patients.

In the hands of the low-rent bureaucratic sentimentalist blogger, however, the trigger warning is not a serious matter. It is an affectation.

Take, as the classic example, a bureaucratic feminist blog which carries a shock story about some case of sexual violence. The inevitable trigger warning is supposed to warn off traumatised rape victims. Just think about that for a second. Imagine you are a traumatised rape victim, and you happen to be sent into psychological chaos by accounts of rape. The internet, as a whole, is not going to be a friendly place; but just about the worst place you can go is this kind of feminist blog, where it is rape for breakfast, rape culture for lunch and rape denial for tea. In reality, the trauma trigger set are not the audience for accounts of traumatic violence. They know well enough what it is to be a victim. The audience is, in the first place, people who share the BS political outlook in some form, and in the second, those who do not, and thus need to be confronted with their insensitivity.

And such is the audience, equally, of the trigger warning. It is about establishing a shared experience of disgust at the particular horror, with a collective self-affirmation at how seriously everyone is taking things.  This frivolous sentimentalism has the bureaucratic impulse as its obverse: the duty to police writing, in the name of an absent third party.