Categories
Criticism

Thomas Sowell’s Deregulated Brain

During the height of the BLM protests last summer, there was a focus on listening to black voices, the likes of Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and so on. But some people countered this, querying why people didn’t listen to or read black conservatives such as Candace Owens (which…y’know…c’mon). But one name came up a few times and I’ve seen it cited in a few different corners of the internet. Thomas Sowell. Having looked through two of his books, The Thomas Sowell Reader and Controversial Essays, I have found some inane and at times startling comments. Here I will be dissecting some arguments put forward in Controversial Essays as I found both the title and the enclosed essays more striking.

            In ‘Minimum Journalism’, Sowell complains about a piece published by the Wall Street Journal on minimum wage workers. The Journal’s focus on middle-aged women irks Sowell as ‘just over half the people earning the minimum wage are from 16 to 24 years of age. Just over half of the minimum wage earners are working part-time.’ He considers this focus on middle-aged women as being ‘clever propaganda’, arguing the politically correct line is that people can’t afford to raise families on these wages. Although Sowell provides more perspective to this conversation on minimum wage, I think we can go a step further. As a study by the Public Policy Institute says, two thirds of minimum wage workers are neither spouses nor single parents within the family unit, although that is not to say that their income contribution is not necessary to the family wellbeing. The importance of the minimum wage worker cannot be undersold, when looking at the remaining one third of workers who are spouses or parents, they are said to bring home more than half of the family’s earnings. The study concludes that although not all minimum wage workers are poor, only one in four are, 60% of wage earners in poor families would benefit from a dollar increase in the minimum wage. This study and Sowell’s article are contemporaneous, coming from 2001. But there is still more to discuss. Sowell argues most of the younger workers ‘have better sense than to have children that they cannot feed and house.’ What has changed in the coming years? A study in 2013 highlights that only 30% of fast food workers are teenagers, 30% are aged 20-24, and the last 40% are 25 and older. As the study puts it ‘many teenagers do work in fastfood, but the majority of fast-food workers are not teenagers.’ 70% of fast-food workers fall in the range of the $7.25 federal minimum wage and the $10.10 wage proposed in legislation. Turning back to the question of families, 26.6% of workers aged 16-19 have a child whilst 36.4% of those aged 20 and over had a child. There is also a question of societal stigma. I suggest that the job role associated with minimum wage work particularly fast-food is one that dehumanises the worker in tandem with their low pay. Essentially, society knows these workers are poorly paid and more often or not require the income, and has no problem treating them badly. Furthermore, Sowell contends that minimum wage laws ‘increase unemployment among the least skilled, least experienced, and minority workers.’ A Vox article from 2019 makes the point that Democrat-run cities and states that have increased the minimum wage above the federal minimum ($7.25) have not seen a drop in unemployment. In a meta-analysis of 37 studies on minimum wages from 2001-2016, the authors found that the effect on employment levels was minimal. Their reasoning for this is that over the last 15 years, teenagers have become less important to the functioning of the labour market but simultaneously in the last 25 years the service industry has become increasingly important to the labour market. Overall, it shouldn’t be discounted that in 2001 and in the following years, minimum wage workers have various family situations, and a minimum wage increase would be beneficial for those on low pay.

            Next, Sowell delves into academic performance and race in ‘Losing the Race.’ Here, he refers solely to the book ‘Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America’ by John McWhorter to contend that overall, the gap in academic performance between black and white youth comes from a cultural context rather than one of systemic racism. Unfortunately, I cannot get hold of a copy of this book but given it is the only source Sowell discusses in this piece I hope he wouldn’t mind if I use multiple other sources more readily available. Sowell says of McWhorter ‘of the things he wants done is putting an end to excuses and to the whole victimhood mentality which spawns excuses.’ This is an interesting claim, and one that seems to disregard the very real information about race and education. McWhorter’s justification for the claim that black youth are culturally lazy is that Asian-American students outperform them even coming from similar economic backgrounds. First, I would contextualise this with an Economic Policy Institute study that states that ‘black and Hispanic students—even if they are not poor—are much more likely than white or Asian students to be in high-poverty schools.’ Additionally, attending a high-poverty school for any student regardless of race had a negative effect on reading and mathematic achievements, with the biggest negative influence being for Asian students, even if they are working hard, they are not achieving as well as Asian students in low-poverty schools. Although supposedly McWhorter recognises the historical background of ‘slavery, discrimination and poverty’, he discards these factors when looking at black youth from middle class backgrounds who still fail in school. Again, even if these youth are not poor, they end up attending underfunded schools which would account for their poor academic performance. It is also incredibly noteworthy that outside of high school, systemic racism prevents black people from getting equal wages or opportunities as white people even at the same education level. In the Urban Institute’s report ‘Examining the Racial and Gender Wealth Gap in America’, they clearly show that when looking at full-time, full-year workers aged 25 to 64, that even those black people who have high school diplomas or college degrees are both underpaid and have higher unemployment levels than their white cohorts. Interestingly, white people with no high school diplomas on average have better wages than black people who have finished high school. I wonder how Sowell or McWhorter would explain this discrepancy? Additionally, the discriminatory hiring practices of the past and present have particularly hurt black women as they suffer both from racial and gender prejudice. At every education level, black women are paid lower than white men, black men, and white women. Overall, I find the contention that culture somehow is the primary reason black people underachieve isn’t convincing when we look at the data.

            In ‘Reparations for Slavery?’, Sowell ridicules the notion of reparations as well as any notion of America apologising for slavery. I will argue that these two concepts should be treated singularly, that in a sense reparation would be the correct response to slavery and its continuing impact on America as well as an apology to the people who it has hurt. Sowell argues ‘during the era of slavery, most white people owned no slaves. Are their descendants supposed to pay for the descendants of those who did?’ He is correct here that most white people didn’t own slaves, but the problem is, they and their ancestors have benefitted from systemic racism against black people. The Homestead Act starting in 1868 granted acres of free land to mostly white families whilst leaving black people in the lurch. As Keri Leigh Merritt puts it in an article, ‘to receive 160 acres of government land, claimants had to complete a three-part process: first, file an application. Second, improve the land for five years. Third, file for the deed of ownership.’ Freshly emancipated slaves struggled with the bureaucracy of obtaining land from the government and had little to no money for necessary travel or the filing fees. As well as this much of the land was unfarmable, meaning even if black people could obtain it, they would struggle to work it for the mandatory five years. Across the several decades of the various land acts, over 1.6 million native and immigrant white families were granted land. By comparison, the number of black claimants who were granted land was about six thousand. Merritt concludes ‘the number of adult descendants of the original Homestead Act recipients living in the year 2000 was estimated to be around 46 million people, about a quarter of the US adult population. If that many white Americans can trace their legacy of wealth and property ownership to a single entitlement programme, then the perpetuation of black poverty must also be linked to national policy.’ Policy after policy in the last 200 years reveals discrimination against black people. Sowell deploys an interesting tactic by asking whether ‘does anyone seriously suggest that blacks in America today would be better off if they were in Africa? If not, then what is the compensation for?’ But of course, by 1914 90% of Africa was colonised. Spain, Italy, France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, and Belgium effectively dominated an entire continent and bled it dry of resources for their own benefit. If slavery and colonisation had not occurred, who is to say what today’s Africa might look like? Sowell tries to discount slavery in America as of course it has occurred all over the world throughout history. The problem here is that America from its foundation, has been linked to slavery and continues to feel the effect of its impact in the laws following its abolition.

            Sowell argues in ‘Blacks and Bootstraps’ that most ‘blacks did lift themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps—before their political rescuers arrived on the scene with civil rights legislation in the 1960s or affirmative action policies in the 1970s.’ Sowell cites the statistic that in 1940 87% of black families lived below the poverty line but this fell to 47% by 1960 without ‘any major federal legislation on civil rights and before the rise and expansion of the welfare state under the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson.’ So, the argument here is that black people progressed economically without major government programmes or assistance. It’s hard to tell what Sowell suggests allowed black people in this particular period of 1940-60 to escape poverty. As Sowell pointed out, 87% of black families were below the poverty line in 1940, but it shouldn’t be discounted that New Deal programmes like the Works Progress Administration helped employ many black people. About 425,000 black people worked under the WPA, a higher percentage than in the overall labour force. The jobs under the WPA allowed black workers better wages and access to more skilled roles than were previously available to them. Of course, it should also be noted that racism still undermined New Deal policy; federal housing programmes benefited many white Americans but strengthened segregation of the black population, often leaving them in unsafe living conditions. The discriminatory housing policies no doubt held black families back but efforts like the WPA helped normalise desegregated workforces and offered better working conditions. But again, poverty didn’t really decline until the period between 1940 and 1960. So, did the free market automatically lift everyone out of poverty in this period? Not exactly. Before and during World War Two, the government managed to convince 85 million Americans (the population was 132 million in 1940) to buy bonds worth over $180 million. Once the war was over and people were able to cash in on these bonds, they had more purchasing power and consumption increased. Not only this but growth during the war was down to government spending which increased the GDP whilst consumption was kept fairly level. As the Institute for Economics & Peace states though, America was already experiencing post-Depression growth prior to the war, and the increased spending and growth during the war acted as a bubble, one which reverted to pre-war baseline growth. It might also be worth noting that federal programmes during the war allowed many black people the chance to train in specific trade skills at historically black colleges and universities. The National WWII Museum highlights this new focus on education: ‘sixty-five black colleges participated in federal programs such as the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training (ESMWT) program. Twelve of those institutions had direct contracts with the federal government and offered a total of 74 courses in physics, mathematics, management, engineering, and chemistry.’ These colleges and universities were a mix of public and private institutions and reflects the larger overall cause of reduction in black poverty, it was not some mythic overcoming of systemically ingrained racism but a mixture of private enterprise and extensive public spending.

            In ‘Global Hot Air’, Sowell gets testy about a National Academy of Sciences report that isn’t specifically written by scientists and somehow this means global warming isn’t occurring. Sowell builds on his scepticism by pointing to the ‘global cooling’ and ‘new ice age’ hysteria of the 1970s which clearly didn’t come to pass and therefore global warming has been debunked as the same hysteria. In an American Meteorological Society paper, the authors highlight that much of the concern around global cooling was manufactured by media figures misreading scientific literature selectively. The paper notes that as far back as 1957 there were scientists working in Hawaii and Antarctica jointly concluding that their data meant ‘that atmospheric carbon dioxide was rising as a result of fossil fuel burning.’ Much of the scientific literature of the 1970s trended towards believing in global warming over cooling. This point of hysteria about cooling therefore doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Sowell then refers to two scientists, S. Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen who are extremely sceptical of climate change.  Both men have worked for and on behalf of right wing think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute, which have received funding from the oil and gas company ExxonMobil. S. Fred Singer once made the claim on his website ‘Science and Environmental Policy Project’ that ‘555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich have been growing since 1980’, a claim reproduced in New Scientist Magazine by sceptic David Bellamy. When George Monbiot checked with the World Glacial Monitoring Service, they stated that this claim originating from Singer was ‘“complete bullshit.”’ Monbiot continues, ‘he had cited data that was simply false, he had failed to provide references, he had completely misunderstood the scientific context and neglected current scientific literature. The latest studies show unequivocally that most of the world’s glaciers are retreating.’ Singer hardly seems convincing. On the other hand, you have Lindzer. In a blog for the Cato Institute, Lindzer wrote ‘climate alarm belongs to a class of issues characterized by a claim for which there is no evidence, that nonetheless appeals strongly to one of more interests of prejudices. Once the issue is adopted, evidence becomes irrelevant. Instead, the believer sees what he believes.’ If you were to change the word ‘alarm’ to ‘denialism’ it works significantly better. Grifters like Singer and Lindzer always operate on either cherry-picked evidence or in Singer’s case, they make it up. Sowell does try to make the case the NAS report doesn’t wholly explain ‘that the timing of temperature increases does not coincide with the timing of increases in greenhouse gasses.’ This may cause some doubt but in a paper to Environmental Research Letters, Ricke and Caldeira write that using carbon-cycle and physical-climate model intercomparisons, they estimate that there is a delay between emissions and maximum warming of about a decade. Emissions are not immediate in their effect. Overall, Sowell relies on two very biased individuals which are heavily undermined by the overwhelming consensus amongst scientists that not only is climate change and global warming a problem, but it is also one we are causing. Perhaps of interest to Sowell, is that as NASA points out, 10 of the warmest years in the 141-year record occurred since 2005.

            In ‘Gay Marriage’, Sowell makes some familiar arguments and some I haven’t heard in relation to gay marriage, maybe I’m just so lucky. First, he starts off by complaining that ‘homosexuals were on their strongest ground when they argued that what happens between consenting adults is nobody else’s business. Now they want to make it everybody’s business by requiring others to acquiesce in their unions and treat them as they would other unions, both in law and in social practice.’ Now, to be fair, I think gay people wanted their marriage to be everybody’s business in the same way that straight people make marriage everyone else’s business already. Sowell argues that straight couples can reproduce which is of course important, but ‘this consideration obviously does not apply to homosexual unions’ is downright wrong. In data provided by the Williams Institute, between 2014 and 2016 16.2% of all gay couples were raising children, with higher rates of childrearing amongst married gay couples. Not only this but 68% of gay couples were raising biological children through means like surrogacy and in vitro fertilization. Although the majority of gay couples were raising biological children, they were still more likely (21.4%) to adopt than straight couples (3%) or foster (2.9% to 0.4%). Sowell argues that as men and women are biologically different, the issue of responsibility for the child is different and the couple must be made jointly responsible by law. In one paper Manning, Fettro, and Lamidi find that children living in gay households fare just as well as children in straight households accounting for factors like: ‘academic performance, cognitive development, social development, psychological health, early sexual activity, and substance abuse.’ So gay couples marrying and raising children is as equally good for society as when straight people do it. Sowell also contends that marriage between straight couples is beneficial in terms of divorce settlements for potentially disadvantaged women, as if gay people do not face any disadvantages in society that could be alleviated by legal marriage status. Sowell says, ‘when they are simply “consenting adults,” they can consent on whatever terms they choose to work out between themselves. It is nobody else’s business and should not be the law’s business.’ Unfortunately, whether Sowell likes it or not, it is already the law’s business. As highlighted in a Vox article, if gay couples can marry, they can file taxes jointly, and in cases where only one person is working this can lower taxes. If a husband or wife dies, the surviving spouse can inherit the estate without being subject to estate or gift tax. Married couples can procure family rates for health insurance plans. On the matter of ‘nobody else’s business’ as Sowell puts it, if a gay couple are married the government cannot force them to disclose information privately discussed during a marriage and couples may also have visiting rights to places like prisons and hospitals where access is restricted to only immediate family. Sowell concludes ‘the issue of gay marriage is just one of many examples of the victim’s ploy, which says: “I am a victim. Therefore, if you do not give in to my demands and let me walk over you like a doormat, it shows that you are a hate-filled, evil person.”’ I think Sowell is being overly sensitive here, as I am unaware of how equal marriage rights implies gay people walking all over straight people. As the literature shows, there are a great many benefits to allowing gay people to marry. No matter how hard he tries to intellectualise it, Sowell comes off as a crotchety old man who doesn’t understand the struggles of gay people. Also, as of 2015 gay marriage has been legalised in America nationwide, and the sky did not in fact fall on the country nor did the traditional unity of man and woman wholly collapse.

            This sample of Sowell’s large work doesn’t cover every topic, but I thought it provided enough of an exploration of fairly diverse topics. Overall, I find it odd Sowell has the acclaim and audience that he does. His ideas around race in particular seem regressive to me and are utilised by people wishing to undermine movements like BLM or others looking for racial justice. I am not saying all of Sowell’s ideas about economics must be inherently wrong or flawed, but when looking at his approach to topics of social justice, he seems to so often miss the mark and then appear smug about doing so.

Further Reading:

Public Policy Institute’s ‘Workers at the Bottom: An Update on America’s Minimum Wage Workers’: https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/econ/dd65_workers.pdf

Center for Economic and Policy Research’s ‘Slow Progress for Fast-Food Workers’: https://cepr.net/documents/publications/fast-food-workers-2013-08.pdf

‘Behind the Arches: How McDonald’s Fails to Protect Workers from Workplace Violence’: https://www.nelp.org/publication/behind-the-arches-how-mcdonalds-fails-to-protect-workers-from-workplace-violence/

Vox’s ‘A $15 federal minimum wage won’t cost Americans jobs, new study says’: https://www.vox.com/2019/7/2/20678821/15-federal-minimum-wage-increase-study

Meta-analysis: ‘15 Years of Research on U.S. Employment and the Minimum Wage’:

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2705499##

Economic Policy Institute’s ‘Five key trends in U.S. student performance’: https://www.epi.org/publication/five-key-trends-in-u-s-student-performance-progress-by-blacks-and-hispanics-the-takeoff-of-asians-the-stall-of-non-english-speakers-the-persistence-of-socioeconomic-gaps-and-the-damaging-effect/

Urban Institute’s ‘Examining the Racial and Gender Wealth Gap in America: https://people.umass.edu/fidan/Kurtulus_AffirmativeAction_AEJSubmission_06_26_2012_web.pdf

Keri Leigh Merritt’s ‘Land and the roots of African-American poverty’: https://aeon.co/ideas/land-and-the-roots-of-african-american-poverty

The Living New Deal’s ‘African Americans’:

Institute for Economics & Peace’s ‘Economic Consequences of War on the U.S Economy’: https://www.economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/The-Economic-Consequences-of-War-on-US-Economy_0.pdf

The National WWII Museum’s ‘The Double V Victory’: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/double-v-victory

American Meteorological Society’s ‘The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Consensus’:

http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/11584/1/2008bams2370%252E1.pdf

George Monbiot’s ‘Junk Science’:

https://archive.is/UUQY

Ricke and Caldeira’s ‘Maximum warming occurs about one decade after a carbon dioxide emission’:

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/9/12/124002#erl505119s4

NASA’s ‘Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming’: https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

Williams Institute’s ‘How Many Same-Sex Couples in the US are Raising Children?’:

https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/same-sex-parents-us/

Manning, Fettro, and Lamidi’s ‘Child Well-Being in Same-Sex Parent Families: Review of Research Prepared for American Sociological Association Amicus Brief’:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4091994/

Vox’s ‘Same-sex marriage in the US, explained’:

https://www.vox.com/2015/6/26/18093652/same-sex-marriage

Categories
Politics

Swimming Lessons for Statues: British History as Abstraction

There is an Orwellian doublethink when it comes to British history, particularly the history of its empire. At once we are invited to be proud of our many achievements, to bask in our island’s individualistic endeavour for greatness, so long as we do not in fact think about history. When we are told to be proud of our history, we are not actually meant to engage in it, we are not meant to think of it in fact but instead picture it, through the gaze of vague disinterest and fumbling nationalism. I say fumbling nationalism because I find so often patriotic appeals to Britain’s greatness to be all too flimsy. Colonialism seems to be the colossal C-word from which public conscience simultaneously cringes from its invocation before then proceeding to mount a defence in its name.
In the wake of the BBC Proms controversy over the National Anthem, Boris Johnson stated: ‘I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.’ To be honest, I am still not sure when exactly we started feeling appropriately embarrassed at our history of slavery and colonialism. As a nation we have rarely if ever formally or materially apologised for colonialism, the one major instance in the last few decades is when Kenyan victims of torture successfully took the government to court and received £19.9 million in compensation. This was on all accounts a begrudging ‘apology’ and compensation from the British government whereby the Foreign Office tried its best to prevent any compensation claims. William Hague, foreign secretary at the time, said ‘we do not believe that this settlement establishes a precedent in relation to any other former British colonial administration.’ Clearly, this compensation was meant to be an exception.
There is a sense of manufactured outrage surrounding the attempt to discuss colonial history. When the National Trust produced a report called ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’ (title isn’t snappy I know), conservatives went wild. Ben Bradley MP for Mansfield along with 27 other Tory MPs wrote a letter protesting the Trust’s report. Bradley even appeared on the BBC to try and defend the view that the Trust was engaging in revisionism and was anti-British. The issue here being that history is by no means a fixed entity, the more we uncover, the more we view the past and present (and future) differently. In the letter to the Trust, the signatories write ‘history must neither be sanitised nor rewritten to suit snowflake preoccupations.’ It should be apparent to anyone that accurately tracing the historical significance of sites of British heritage to the colonial past around them is anything but sanitising. The hilarity of this letter highlights the danger of those who want history to be a mere touchstone, a floating signifier of Britain’s greatness; Churchill and his aura must be forever beyond reproach, to even consider his family home of Chartwell in relation to his imperial preoccupations is blasphemy. Perhaps these same people think when we tourists visit Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in Poland, we shouldn’t pay any mind to Nazism or the Holocaust.
This abstraction of history as only ever a point of reference for patriotism reaches new heights of hysteria on the topic of statues. This last summer, during the BLM protests in Britain, the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was torn down and thrown into the harbour in protest. The removal of the statue by protesters should not come as much of a surprise. Beginning in 2018, the Bristol City Council planned to produce a new plaque for the statue to replace the original which read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. There is no mention to Colston’s exact source of his wealth. The second plaque was intended to amend this in frank terms, detailing his involvement in the slave trade and the number of Africans trafficked, as well as using his status as a Tory MP to defend the right to trade slaves. A Tory councillor objected to this proposal and a historian representing Merchant Venturers tried to revise the proposal into cleaner terms. They tried to change wording like ‘trafficked’ to ‘transported’ and removed mention of Colston’s selective philanthropy grounded in religious kinship. Although this revised proposal was ultimately vetoed by the Mayor Marvin Rees, the attempt to sanitise British history is all too evident. But even when Colston’s statue, a commemoration of a man responsible for the trading of some 80,000+ plus Africans was thrown into the harbour, the attempt to save his reputation and that of Britain was still underway by some foot soldiers in the cringeworthy culture war.
Enter Save Our Statues, a not-for-profit organisation that has tasked itself with protecting the nation’s statues and monuments from those who want to see them removed. The organisation pledges to ‘deploy all legal, educational and political domains available in order to save our beloved national history and culture from intentional destruction, distortion and deterioration.’ It is interesting here that statues are considered national history and culture in their own right, rather than commemorations of said national history. From abstracted history, these statue simps (as Joel Golby calls them) use physical monuments as receptables for this abstraction. The organisation began as a Twitter campaign headed by property developer Robert Poll who argues ‘judging historical figures by our modern laws and morals is a futile exercise.’ Whilst it is not straightforward to hold past societies or figures to present day standards, Poll’s argument here is inherently flawed in presupposing that nobody contemporaneous with people like Edward Colston thought that slavery was wrong. Samuel Gorton, an early settler of North America and a republican, was a fierce critic of economic slavery and stated in 1651: ‘there is a common course practiced amongst English men to buy negers to that end they may have them for service or slaves forever; for the preventing of such practices among us, let it be ordered, that no black mankind or white being forced by covenant bond, or otherwise, to serve any man or his assigns longer than ten years.’ The institutions of slavery and the anti-slavery movements were contemporaries and to suggest we cannot hold slavers accountable due to historical circumstance is either ignorant on the part of people like Poll or purposefully obfuscating historical fact and our ability to think critically about our past.
Peter Whittle, ex-UKIP deputy leader, acts as the chairman of the organisation and in a moment of what I can only assume is extreme detachment from reality states ‘never was a campaign more important than this.’ Personally, Peter, I’m not so sure about that one. I’m all for a bit of hyperbole but given this whole campaign began in reaction to Black Lives Matter protests there might in fact be more important issues at hand. What organisations and individuals like these mean for social justice is an obfuscation of real concrete issues and instead a focus on outrage and fetishizing British history. I think the real smoking gun of discourse around British history can be seen in Steven Yaxley-Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson)’s rant about Colston’s statue where he says ‘who gives a shit what it’s about and what the man’s done? It’s part of British history.’ In essence, any statue is worth saving no matter the context of who is being commemorated.
Britain has a difficult and troubling past when it comes to our empire and colonialism. I am not sure whether I am a patriot or not, I certainly don’t feel proud for being born here. I didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter. I am grateful being born in Britain for having a degree of material comfort other countries do not possess as strongly. I am grateful I can write this freely (unless I end up with a bullet in the back of my head tomorrow in which case joke’s on me). But I am interested in my socioeconomic standing in relation to other countries as well as people in Britain. In Britain ethnic minorities have unemployment rates of 12.9% where White people only have 6.3%. Black people with degrees on average earn 23.1% less than White workers. The homicide rate stands at 30.5 per million for Black people, 14.1 for Asian people, and 8.9 for White people. 35.7% of ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty compared to 17.2% of White people. I cannot be proud of Britain’s history because it is so large, so far-reaching, and so abstract. I am proud however, of those who throughout its history, have stood up against inequality and against powerful establishments. As can be seen in the statistics I have listed here, work still needs to be done. This must occur through economic investment, proper and affordable housing, democratising workplaces, and criminal justice reform. What good are the monuments to a dead empire if its surviving ancestors are still facing the challenges of racism and capitalism in its death?

Further Reading:

Boris Johnson on BBC Proms and British history:
https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/boris-johnson-uk-embarassed-history-proms-row-a4532761.html
UK Compensating Kenyan Torture Victims:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/06/uk-compensate-kenya-mau-mau-torture#:~:text=Britain%20is%20to%20pay%20out,%2C%20William%20Hague%2C%20has%20said.&text=%22We%20understand%20the%20pain%20and,events%20of%20emergency%20in%20Kenya
Ben Bradley on National Trust:
https://www.indy100.com/news/tory-mp-slavery-ben-bradley-national-trust-9724954
National Trust Report:
https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/colionialism-and-historic-slavery-report.pdf
Edward Colston Statue and Bristol Council:
https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/second-colston-statue-plaque-not-2682813
Save Our Statues Website:
https://saveourstatues.org.uk/our-cause/#issue
‘A bat signal has gone out to Britain’s proud patriots: Save Our Statues’:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/10/britain-statues-edward-colston-bristol-slaver
Abolition and Republicanism over the Transatlantic Long Term, 1640-1800:
https://journals.openedition.org/lrf/1690
Equality and Human Rights Commission Statistics on Race:
https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/race-report-statistics

Categories
Criticism

Douglas Murray and Gender Illiteracy: Conservatives Don’t Like Science

I’ve spent a small amount of time on the conservative side of YouTube and have encountered interviews with Douglas Murray where he speaks on various topics but the one that stands out to me is his views on transgender issues. Murray comes off in some of the interviews as smarmy and makes some generally uninteresting if not unfounded statements around trans people that I wanted to explore further. These ideas he espouses stem from his 2019 book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. It would therefore be unfair to take the snippets of comments he makes in interviews as the full articulation of his opinions, so I will instead be discussing the portion of his book which talks about trans people. Not to spoil this piece but overall, I find it fairly dissatisfying. If there’s one thing I find when I’m reading conservative voices, it’s that I’m jointly scared and excited that somehow my mind will be fundamentally changed by what I’m reading. This did not happen here. I think Murray put some time into this book (at least the chapter concerning trans people I’ve read), but it is woefully lacking in an engagement with the scientific and social literature on trans people, instead relying on individual case studies and anecdotes which at times raise appropriate concerns but overall muddy the wider picture of trans issues. My critique of this chapter is systematically and linearly picking through the text, so I apologise for the potential length of this piece.

            Murray begins with the case of Nathan Verhelst, a trans man from Belgium who was dissatisfied with his gender-affirming surgery and elected to die from Euthanasia four years later. Verhelst’s experience is undoubtedly sad for many reasons, he was treated poorly as a child by his parents, his surgical transition left him unhappy with his body, he chose to die over the possibility of detransitioning. What we have here is a very complicated case. Verhelst transitioned as an adult but surgery did not help how he felt. Could more have been done for him? It might have been possible to resume a life as a woman, there are those who regret transitioning and do revert back to their birth gender. For now I don’t want to talk too much about detransitioning as it will come up later but what I will say is it feels like Murray is treating Verhelst as the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the lived experiences of trans people.

            As a small point, when discussing the seemingly sudden arrival of trans people in the zeitgeist, Murray does refer back through history to various examples of gender-fluid and trans persons in the work of Ovid, the Indian Hijras, the Thai Kathoey, and the Samoan fa’afafine. It’s definitely important when discussing topics as wide ranging and deep as trans issues to look at the examples throughout history that give a place of recognition and cultural dignity to trans people. I like the effort made here, although later when Murray discusses non-binary people, we will see how these inclusions will bite him in the ass.

            Murray places a certain value of legitimacy on intersex people in comparison to trans people, owing to the inherently biological basis of intersex people’s identities as such. Murray states: ‘intersex people exist and should not be held responsible for a situation over which they have absolutely no control. A considerable amount of sympathy and understanding can be felt for anybody who is born intersex. What else should people feel about fellow human beings who have found themselves born with a set of cards which are – to say the least – sub-optimal? If anything in the world is undoubtedly a hardware issue then it is this.’ Murray laments the lack of attention paid to intersex people, inferring that trans people cast a large shadow over them. To make a slightly dumb sounding point, the acronym of LGBT is extended to LGBTQIA+, which includes intersex people. Intersex people are acknowledged in the queer community and trans people and intersex people fight in each other’s corners. This is not to say that intersex people and the LGBTQIA+ community do not have issues. Mauro Cabal, co-director of Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE), spoke about the actions trans people can take to help intersex people in a statement on Intersex Awareness Day 2016. Here, Cabal highlighted the problem of trans people conflating trans and intersex as categories. Whilst navigating the troubling medical patholigisation of intersex people, Cabal speaks of the coalition between trans and intersex people in this endeavour. I will quote him at length: ‘Recognizing and respecting intersectionalities differences while working on common goals is not only a good way of building emancipatory alliances: it’s the only way. When I started doing activism two decades ago I didn’t have the right words –for me, for my body, for my identity or for my sexuality. I just wanted to stop the hell I was going through. In the last 20 years I have seen many incredible changes produced by truly amazing activists from different movements. However, stories like mine –and many, many other stories of stigma and discrimination, ‘normalizing’ mutilation, rape, pain and silence- keep repeating, in different hospitals in my own country and, most likely, in your country too. We –you, me, all of us- deserve to see the first generation of intersex people fully enjoying their human rights. Let’s work together to make that happen in our lifetime.’ On top of this open discussion of coalition building between trans and intersex people, there is the 2013 Malta Declaration from 30(!) organisations where intersex activists wrote demands for the community at large. One of these demands was ‘to ensure that sex or gender classifications are amendable through a simple administrative procedure at the request of the individuals concerned. All adults and capable minors should be able to choose between female (F), male (M), non-binary or multiple options. In the future, as with race or religion, sex or gender should not be a category on birth certificates or identification documents for anybody.’ So it seems like there is definitely evidence to suggest intersex people are visible within society and can work alongside trans people to meet their goals and support one another.

            The next topic that caught my eye was Murray’s inclusion of autogynephilia. He presents it uncritically and seems to make apologies for the outrage it causes as a theory: ‘One of the most striking trends as the trans debate has picked up in recent years is that autogynephilia has come to be severely out of favour.’ He frames the understandable objections of trans people to the idea they are purely sexualised abnormalities as being unreasonable. Although Murray focuses mainly on Michael Bailey’s work within autogynephilia, it would make sense to consider Ray Blanchard’s originating research and why neither of these people should be taken seriously. Blanchard’s fundamental proposal that trans people exist due to a sexual drive e.g., a trans woman wearing a dress to get off, is unfounded and I could spend a lot of time dismantling the theory but there is one aspect in Julia Serano’s critique that got my attention. Blanchard did not control for cis people during his research. He apparently didn’t consider that cis people, particularly cis women, may feel a sense of arousal or sexual thrill from wearing certain clothing that they might find affirming i.e., fancy lingerie or heels. Data from C. Moser showed 65% of cis women surveyed agreed to prompts suggesting arousal from self-contemplation. Serano argues ‘it seems both illogical and needlessly stigmatising to single out trans women as supposedly being ‘autogynephiles’ for having similar erotic experiences (unless, of course, the label is primarily intended to pathologise trans women’s sexualities even when they are female-typical).’ Murray does not spend any time looking at data or studies which undeniably refute autogynephilia but instead clutches his pearls at the protests and hostility towards figures like Bailey who continue to push this reductive and illogical theory. ‘All this happened simply because Bailey had performed detailed research to get to the root of a crucial question and come back with an answer that had just become unpopular. Because for the best part of this century so far the idea that trans is in any way about sexual enjoyment has become an outrage and sexualizing slur.’ Bailey’s research and subsequent findings aren’t just unpopular, they’re incorrect. Murray neglects to consider why it is trans people want to avoid being heavily sexualised outside of the immediate undignified implication. Research from the 2015 U.S Transgender Survey suggests about half of trans people are sexually assaulted. The sexualisation of transgender people is an effort to dehumanise them, keeping them at an objectified distance whilst reaping the satisfaction of sexualising them.

            This next section might be my personal favourite. Murray describes the time Ben Shapiro went on a TV panel and was explicitly transphobic not only to Caitlyn Jenner (who wasn’t present) but also another panellist. The human embarrassment that is Ben Shapiro argued everyone was delusional for respecting Jenner’s identity. Despite being reprimanded, Shapiro continued to refer to Jenner using her old pronouns and claimed ‘How he feels on the inside is irrelevant to the question of his biological self.’ He bases this on the argument that all of Jenner’s body was still male. Unsurprisingly Shapiro does not understand the difference between sex and gender, a distinction many scientists and medical professionals have emphasised across studies. The interesting point is even if we consider Jenner’s body or ‘biological self’ to be wholly male, pronouns are a product of linguistics and social construction, they are not innate or objective. When Zoey Tur made the point that chromosomes didn’t necessarily convey someone was either male or female, Shapiro pushed back and referred to her as ‘Sir.’ Once again Murray clutches pearls at the idea that transgender people might get angry when they are mistreated or dehumanised. Tur threatened to put Shapiro in an ambulance if he misgendered her again. This whole episode is treated as something deeply concerning rather than an embarrassing display of bigotry by Shapiro.

            A small side note again, Murray’s general writing when referring to trans people seems pretty gross and misinformed. I say this because in sentences like ‘Rather than ‘unlocking’ the intersections of oppression, as the intersectionalists had claimed, trans simultaneously throws their own movement’s aims into the starkest possible relief and produces a veritable pile-up of logical contradictions’, the use of trans as a monolithic entity reads as clumsy and awkward, like someone who hasn’t spent time with trans people or studied trans issues.

            Murray talks about the conflict between certain feminist figures and trans people on the grounds of what constitutes a woman. He cites Julie Bindel as concluding an article with a ‘flourish’: ‘‘I don’t have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man.’’ Ultimately, it’s hard to care what Bindel thinks, she has no scientific basis for this belief. After condemnation of a transphobic comment made by Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill launched a vicious attack against trans people using terms like ‘‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’ and ‘a bunch of bedwetters in bad wigs.’’ Murray notes that Burchill’s career had suffered from this article, implying that this was potentially wrong. How dare someone suffer the consequences of their actions, I say. Then cometh Germaine Greer. ‘Perhaps the most famous modern feminist of all’, Murray declares. As Murray notes Greer essentially devotes one chapter in a single book to transgender people, unfortunately it’s a series of unfounded and gross opinions. Greer loses the potential favour she once possessed and is denied public talks in some instances. Murray says students at one university ‘didn’t want to hear from the most significant feminist of the late twentieth century.’ I can’t really recall the last time outside of transgender-related controversies that Greer was relevant to contemporary feminism. I’m not disputing at one time she probably had something to say but that time has long since passed. Murray seems to think it’s a sort of betrayal of previous feminist activism to dispose of Greer, but she was by no means the sole figure of the movement. There are many activists preceding and contemporary to Greer that would find her views reductive and useless. Here, I think of Judith Butler, Shulamith Firestone, Simone de Beauvoir, Leslie Feinberg, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson. Posie Parker (Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull) makes an appearance when she spent £700 hiring a billboard to display the dictionary definition of a woman. Apparently, she was concerned about the word becoming appropriated to mean anything, of course words do tend to change over time and therefore different definitions and requirements come along. Keen-Minshull spends most of her time campaigning against trans people and doesn’t seem to spend any money on fixing women’s, even just cis women’s, issues. She uses the same tired and disproven ideas around trans people being dangerous or predatory to cis women that every transphobe is inclined to use.

            Here I want to make another point about the discussion of TERFs or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists in conflict with trans people. Murray states ‘perhaps the most obvious point of non-overlap with the trans movement is that in many ways trans does not challenge social constructs about gender, but reinforces them.’ Is this true though? Youtuber Blaire White is used as an example of a trans woman with ‘the body type of a sort of teenage male fantasy pin-up woman: all prominent breasts, flicking hair and pouting lips.’ The opposite end of this is activist Jane Fae who knitted during a panel at the University of Manchester. Surely two examples of two diverse representations of transwomen does not a good argument make. Trans people, whether they identify as male or female or non-binary present themselves in all manner of ways. There are trans women with shaved heads, there are trans men with man buns, there are non-binary people with beards and with clean faces. This seems like a pretty flimsy point to raise. People choose to present themselves how they feel best affirms them, it is not stereotyping if there is a broad range of gender expressions on display. Also, surely it is the pinnacle of feminism that a woman or a man or a non-binary person may choose to present themselves how they like. If people want to wear sun dresses and bake cakes why not? If people want to cultivate beards and wear spiky leather jackets good for them. I don’t see the fall of Western Civilisation coming (at least not from the self-determination of every individual in their gender expression).

            Next, Murray covers the general representation of trans people in the media and goes onto linking this with trans children. I think the concern Murray raises here is the possibility of detransitioning or regret. He finds it disconcerting that Dr Olson-Kennedy has at times prescribed hormones for children as young as 12. Murray calls Olson-Kennedy ‘dogmatic’ in her beliefs surrounding medical treatment for trans people, which is an interesting characterisation of somebody following the scientific outcomes which overwhelmingly state that those who transition whether with surgery or hormones or both feel no regret. He chides her for her off-hand comments about those who get chest surgery, her argument being ‘‘If you want breasts at a later point in your life you can go and get them.’’ His indignation at this seems fairly irrational: ‘Really? Where? How? Are people like blocks of Lego onto which new pieces can be stuck, taken off and replaced again at will?’ Perhaps a small amount of Googling would have told Murray that people who receive mastectomies can in fact have breast implants, as is evidenced by women who have mastectomies owing to breast cancer. Again, here Murray looks to the exception of those who regret surgery as being the rule. These people who detransition deserve an equal amount of treatment and care as trans people do, but they are in the absolute minority and it would be disingenuous to see their experience as some sort of wider problem within trans discourse. As if to compound Murray’s illiteracy or inability to see the facts, Olson-Kennedy’s study (which he cites), is where I take the overwhelmingly positive outcome of transitioning from.

            Towards the end of this chapter, Murray says ‘The demand that everyone should agree to use new gender pronouns and get used to people of the opposite sex being in the same bathrooms is at the relatively frivolous end of the spectrum of demands.’ This is incorrect for many reasons. Using a person’s right pronouns is an obvious step in the right direction considering the major reason for trans people’s potential suicidality is being rejected by society. It is not unreasonable to become accustomed to trans people using the same spaces as cis people. One study shows when framed neutrally, 69% of respondents were supportive of transgender access to their preferred bathrooms. When transgender people were framed as a danger to women or children, the support dropped to 50%. Of course, the important point to note here is that there is no evidence to suggest that trans people pose any significant threat to cis people, if anything they are more likely at risk of attack or assault. It is usually framed as cis women being the victims of trans women yet according to one study cis women actually perceive trans women as less dangerous than cis men do. Not only this, but cis men are more likely to blame trans victims of assault and consider the assault of trans people less severe. Here we see a public perception of trans people (mostly from cis men) which does not correlate with the actual lived experiences of trans people. There is nothing frivolous here about using the right pronouns or allowing trans people into the same spaces as cis people.

            The final point I will highlight is a very small section on non-binary and gender fluid people which I think is where Murray shoots himself in the foot. For some reason Murray claims that non-binary and gender fluid people as ‘concepts’ have been invented from the atmosphere of trans discourse where cis people are not allowed to speak or object. Here, he is essentially arguing non-binary and gender fluid people exist because cis people can’t criticise trans people without being publicly shamed for it. Murray literally began this chapter with a history of non-binary and genderfluid people from varying cultures throughout history! Does he not remember when he wrote this? Non-binary and genderfluid people aren’t new, Douglas, you acknowledged this!!! He claims that the BBC video (you can find on YouTube) called Things Not to Say to a Non-Binary Person is just attention-seeking on the trans people’s part, but it’s a film that’s meant to raise awareness about a misunderstood demographic. That’s why they’re being filmed! The mind boggles.

            Murray concludes ‘The problem at present is not the disparity, but the certainty – the spurious certainty with which an unbelievably unclear issue is presented as though it was the clearest and best understood thing imaginable.’ As has been the case throughout the chapter, here when Murray argues that certainty on trans issues is spurious, he is suggesting that the vast majority of scientific literature which supports trans adults and youth is invalid on…some grounds? Of course, there is more research to be done and is being conducted all the time, but so far the scientists and medical professionals who are proponents of trans rights do so with full knowledge of the ongoing literature. Maybe next time Murray should cite some.

Further Reading:

On Intersex People: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/10/its-intersex-awareness-day-here-are-5-myths-we-need-to-shatter/
https://oiieurope.org/malta-declaration/
https://web.archive.org/web/20161103133403/https://transactivists.org/2016/10/26/iad2016-a-message-from-mauro-cabral/

Autogynephilia: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0038026120934690

Violence towards LGBTQIA+ people: https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community

Difference Between Sex and Gender: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2689237/

Chest Surgery: https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/reconstruction-fact-sheet#will-health-insurance-pay-for-breast-reconstruction

Detransitioning: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/news/dispelling-myths-around-detransition

Attitudes Towards Trans People: https://gap.hks.harvard.edu/using-experiments-understand-public-attitudes-towards-transgender-rights
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12147-016-9181-6

Things Not to Say to Non-Binary People film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8b4MZjMVgdk&ab_channel=BBCThree

Generally, a great resource on gender and sex science: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/stop-using-phony-science-to-justify-transphobia/

Categories
Criticism

Questions for Poetry

What is a poem? Is it heightened language? When is a poem not a poem? When it is prose? What if poetry and prose can be one? Does verse still have merit in ultramodernity? Does poetry have merit? Is beauty attainable? Is beauty taken to be the inherent goal of poetry? Can something be beautiful and anti-beautiful? Is poetry refined streams of consciousness?

            What is the voice in poetry? Is it plural? Does a poem stand on its own? Or does it co-operate and form a wider collection of text? Is it useful to question poetry? Is a poem for me or for you?

            Does a poem have to constitute cohesive language? Can it possess narrative? Is this a short story on fast forward? Does a poem have characters? Or setting?

            Is a poem airing one’s dirty laundry? Is it airing someone else’s? Should poetry be therapy or a diary or neither? Does one write poetry to uplift or undermine the art?

            Can a poem contain positive substance? Does anger come across in poetry? Should an overall emotion be clear? Does poetry ask anything or does it answer something?

            If a poem incorporates sound does it become music? Doesn’t poetry inherently incorporate sound? Would a series of pictures qualify as poetry? When is somebody a poet?

            Who is the poet and who is the voice? If you have to imagine, would a cat or a dog be more likely to read poetry? What about write it? When is the best time to write? In the morning? At noon? After supper? In the dead of night?

            Does poetry come out fresh on the page as concise and refined text or does it start life as a probing mass? Is poetry better when it is shorter or longer?

            Can a poem convey the season without mentioning it by name? What does it mean to be timeless? Or is everything only of its time? Is poetry of the bourgeoisie or is it in the contemporary moment classless?

            Is a poem over at the final line or does its indentation in our minds prolong its life? Which words belong to whom? Is it okay to borrow? Do you discern this from stealing?

            If a poem can be a declaration of love or an attempt at seduction can it also act as an apology? Can a poem inspire revolution? Is it better suited to stuff the neck of a petrol bomb? When is erotic poetry effective?

            Is it better to adhere to known form or to attempt utter newness? Is new possible after modernity? Should you write drunk and edit sober or never start drinking and never stop writing? Can writing produce pleasure akin to alcohol?

            Is a poem more like a Moscow Mule or a pint of bitter? Does ekphrasis illuminate the original piece of art? Can one commodify the poem? Does commercial poetry exist? Is this agreeable or objectionable?

            Is it rewarding to see a relative or a stranger cry reading your poetry? Do you show your poetry or keep it your dirty little secret? Does it matter if a poem is conceived on paper, phone, or computer?

            What is the relationship between poetry and philosophy if any at all? If one wanted to write poetry should one also write in conjunction a novel? If a novelist writes poetry would it undermine the poet? If one is a novelist and a poet is one a writer?

            Is poetry an exercise in thought? Is it necessary to play with language? Is it possible to un-play with language? Should poetry possess moral character? How much poetry should a poet read?

            How do you justify the imagery deployed in poetry? Does inconsistency work? Is purposefully confounding the reader clever or annoying or elitist? Is there an end to poetry? Would it be with a bang or with a whimper? If poetry meets its end has humanity gone the same way?

Categories
Politics

Plandemic: Covid, Conspiracy, and Child Abuse

I don’t think anyone would contest that 2020 has been a strange and exhausting experience so far. The thing that has suffused our recent, collective history and our daily experiences has of course been Coronavirus. We are all sick of it, so to speak. The science on Coronavirus is in parts sketchy, we are still getting to grips with the disease and how to combat it. There have been human trials ongoing throughout the summer and talk of a possible vaccine by the end of the year, although this seems to be viewed with scepticism. At the time of writing, there have been over 40 million cases of Coronavirus worldwide with over 1 million deaths. In the UK, there has been nearly 800,000 cases and over 40,000 deaths. In America, there has been over 8.5 million cases and over 227,000 deaths. With these numbers it’s hard to dispute the gravity of the situation except…some people appear to be doing just that, including the President of the United States. How reassuring.

I

A certain word has been thrown around social media in relation to Coronavirus: Plandemic. It is an incredulity by the population with our leaders and with the media that by way of conspiracy theory they have concluded the pandemic is a means of societal control à la 1984. I think the root of this distrust of authority comes from a place of genuine neglect on the part of the people in positions of power. That is not to say that outrageous conspiracy theories can solely be blamed on the people at the top, scientific education and critical thinking are two disciplines that need to be better instilled amongst populations. I am not advocating for thought-control or strict party lines, only that we should focus ever more on discerning and refuting fake news.

            The origin of the term Plandemic, as far as I can see, is with the documentary, ‘Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19.’ The video was taken down from Youtube and Facebook but had already accrued millions of views. Judy Mikovits, a discredited doctor, is the central voice of the documentary and proceeds to make numerous false claims such as the virus being manipulated in a laboratory, that hydroxychloroquine is effective against the virus family, and that wearing a mask ‘activates’ your own virus. Mikovits isn’t merely some scientifically incorrect eccentric, she’s an opportunist who works for dubious medical companies and organisations that prey on desperate and sick people. Leonid Schneider, writing at For Better Science, extensively documents her career and highlights the many job roles she has had including but not limited to Genyous Biomed International which peddled Traditional Chinese Medicine as cancer cures by rebranding them ‘with more clinical-sounding titles to increase their credibility.’

            Perhaps Mikovits is an exception, who else would take her or any of these claims seriously? In March, Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine (a malaria drug) as a possible treatment for Coronavirus despite there being negligible evidence that the drug was effective. The danger of this careless statement resulted in panic buying of the drug meaning people who required it as a form of regular medication were finding it more difficult to obtain, as noted by Mendel, Bernatsky, Thorne, et al. for the British Medical Journal. Not only this but one man in America died from consuming a parasite treatment intended for fish because it contained chloroquine phosphate. Clearly the discourse surrounding Coronavirus and potential treatments can be dangerous. If this needs further testimony, Trump reported to be taking doses of hydroxychloroquine to ward off the virus before then contracting it at the beginning of October. The White House’s flouting of safety guidelines at public events and downplaying the severity of the virus made for a potent combination which undoubtedly led to Trump taking ill.

II

A concern I want to raise is the presence of the QAnon conspiracy, a product of Trump’s rise to power, that seems to have married into Coronavirus denialism. If postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism as Frederic Jameson claims, then with QAnon comes the most postmodern type of belief system. The followers believe shadowy satanic paedophiles control society and that Trump is going to bring them all down in ‘the Storm’, an event quintessential to any good doomsday cult. The anonymous Q, propagator of the namesake conspiracy, leaves breadcrumbs of information for followers to pore over and interpret, essentially allowing any conclusion desirable to be made.

            It makes sense that this outlandish conspiracy does merge with Coronavirus denialism, as I said before there seems to be a distrust of governments regarding the coronavirus response, at least from my perspective of the American and British landscapes. The merge begins when QAnon followers and adjacent conspiracy theorists claim that the virus and all the government action is a way of covering up the ongoing elite paedophile ring. The problem here is that not only is the virus very much real and very serious, but there is no elite paedophile ring, at least not one that controls all of society as we know it. There are undoubtedly paedophiles in the top echelons of society, Jimmy Saville’s fetid presence still lingers in the public conscience, and Jeffrey Epstein’s suspicious death and extensive network is fresh on everyone’s minds. Child abuse and assault are violent issues that must be combatted at all levels of society, that it occurs at the top is not especially significant except that sometimes the rich get away with it. If I could cast any doubt on the QAnon conspiracy, it would be that child sexual abuse is often committed by individuals known to the victims, only 7% of the time are the perpetrators strangers. I also find it interesting that the people who want to bring the elite paedophile ring to justice rely on Trump to do this task. Trump has been accused by at least 26 women of sexual misconduct, not only this but he had close ties with Jeffrey Epstein and had a lawsuit brought against him for the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1994. The lawsuit was dropped after the victim had received numerous threats in the same manner of many of Trump’s other accusers. This is the man who will pull back the curtain and expose the paedophiles in the Democratic Party and Hollywood. I wait with bated breath.

            There has been a long diversion here and for that I’m sorry. I have made visible a small fragment of the varying discourses and claims that interlink and undermine the safety of ourselves and society. Governments need to be challenged and there does need to open debate about policies and abuses of power. However, the charlatans behind Plandemic, Trump, QAnon, none of these groups or figures are the way to go about it. I’ve seen QAnon spread to the UK and it is a scary thing to behold. Ultimately these ideas play on people’s fears and doubts, much in the way that Judy Mikovits and her colleagues profit from rebranded Traditional Chinese Medicine.

In a discussion (argument) on Facebook, a man criticised my cautionary stance by mentioning some 12,000 scientists and doctors who warned against using masks or going into lockdown. The closest thing Google could throw up was the Great Barrington Declaration, and what a great declaration it is. The Declaration calls for herd immunity as a way of combatting the virus, although there are two interesting points to this document as noted by Nafeez Ahmed. Firstly, the vetting process for signing the Declaration seems next to non-existent so anyone can claim to be a medical professional. Secondly, the funding for the meeting that sparked the Declaration was from the American Institute for Economic Research, a beneficiary of none other than billionaire Charles Koch, the man behind much of America’s climate denial discourse. I am sure he and all the libertarian think tanks he props up with oil money has the population’s best interests at heart when he wants people to get back to work. But that’s just rude. Surely nobody in Britain acted dangerously in order to pursue financial and political gain during a pandemic?

III

The Coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, late last year. By the end of January, the World Health Organisation had declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a declaration usually considered a last resort and one that states have a legal duty to respond to under the International Health Regulations. Sadly, Johnson neglected to attend five consecutive Cobra meetings in January and February but did find time to host a Chinese New Year reception at Downing Street. Maybe it’s cynical to assume this was a trade-related move and not a celebration of culture. In a speech at Greenwich on British trade deals, Johnson outlined that Britain must be the Superman-like figure of trade contrasting those who have ‘a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage’ in the face of the virus.

            The UK went into lockdown at the end of March and some people question whether the country should have shut down sooner. I think a clear symptom of the government’s incompetence in the face of the virus is the inability of them to settle on what day lockdown started: was it the 16th March? the 23rd March? Matt Hancock and his colleagues had differing opinions it seemed. Regardless of when exactly it started there is a general sense that Johnson was staving off the lockdown for as long as possible for economic purposes. The case that lockdown measures were lifted early for economic growth is easier to see as much of the rhetoric around it was business-charged. Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme did in the short-term aid businesses across the country although during this period of eased restrictions Coronavirus cases were on the rise again. Multiple factors come into this naturally but the nationwide de-escalation of lockdown and the growing confidence in returning to a sense of normality cannot be discounted.

            My focus on the economic factors around Coronavirus is because there is a true antagonism in society that isn’t between us regular people and elite paedophile rings. It’s those who have and those who have not. A report from UBS highlights that billionaire wealth soared between April and July, a time in which many people were struggling either to hold onto work or find new work, and even having to dig into their savings to get by. Coronavirus denialism and QAnon conspiracy theories are useful strategies for the wealthy elite, they engineer the population to get back to working and to consuming, and they drive clefts into the possibilities of solidarity amongst all of us who might wish to make the ongoing crisis better. The people who believe in stuff like QAnon come from a place of sincere concern and presently if they wish to ‘save our children’, they could start nowhere more perfect than with the Tories having just voted down on providing free school meals for children over holidays. The free meals would benefit 1.4 million children across the UK, the government can prioritise getting people to eat in restaurants again but when it comes to the wellbeing of children where there may be no immediate financial gain, they are not concerned. At the time of writing, Coronavirus cases are still on an upward trend, the end is by no means in sight. At least the conspiracy theorists seem to come from a place of care, the government doesn’t give a shit.

Further Reading:

Nafeez Ahmed, Climate Science Denial Network Behind Great Barrington Declaration, Byline Times. Available at: https://bylinetimes.com/2020/10/09/climate-science-denial-network-behind-great-barrington-declaration/

Pippa Allen-Kinross, When did lockdown begin in the UK?, Full Fact. Available at: https://fullfact.org/health/coronavirus-lockdown-hancock-claim/

Nisreen A. Alwen, Rochelle Ann Burgess, Simon Ashworth, et al., Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: we need to act now, The Lancet. Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32153-X/fulltext

Rory Carroll, Woman accusing Trump of raping her at 13 cancels her plan to go public, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/02/donald-trump-rape-lawsuit-13-year-old-cancels-public-event

Stephanie Cockroft and Rebecca Speare-Cole, Trafalgar Square anti-lockdown protest shut down by police after thousands of maskless demonstrators ignore social distancing, Evening Standard. Available at: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/trafalgar-square-antilockdown-protest-thousands-a4556931.html

Erika Edwards and Vaughn Hillyard, Man dies after taking chloroquine in an attempt to prevent coronavirus, NBC News. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/man-dies-after-ingesting-chloroquine-attempt-prevent-coronavirus-n1167166

Daniel Funke, Fact-checking ‘Plandemic’: A documentary full of false conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, Politifact. Available at: https://www.politifact.com/article/2020/may/08/fact-checking-plandemic-documentary-full-false-con/

Oliver Gadney, Aline Haerri, Annegret Meier, et al., Riding the storm: Market turbulence accelerates diverging fortunes, UBS. Available at: https://www.ubs.com/content/dam/static/noindex/wealth-management/ubs-billionaires-report-2020-spread.pdf

Sara Hiom, How coronavirus is impacting cancer services in the UK, Cancer Research UK. Available at: https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2020/04/21/how-coronavirus-is-impacting-cancer-services-in-the-uk/

Boris Johnson, Boris Johnson: Britain must become the Superman of global free trade, The Spectator. Available at: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/boris-johnson-britain-must-become-the-superman-of-global-free-trade

Brendan Joel Kelly and Hatewatch Staff, QAnon Conspiracy Increasingly Popular with Antigovernment Extremists, Southern Poverty Law Center. Available at: https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2019/04/23/qanon-conspiracy-increasingly-popular-antigovernment-extremists

Arielle Mendel, Sasha Bernatsky, J. Carter Thorne, et al., Hydroxychloroquine shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, British Medical Journal. Available at: https://ard.bmj.com/content/early/2020/05/20/annrheumdis-2020-217835.full

Maria Nicola, Zaid Alsafi, Catrin Sohrabi, et al., The socio-economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19): A review, US National Institute of Health. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7162753/

Toby Phillips, Eat Out to Help Out: crowded restaurants may have driven UK coronavirus spike – new findings, The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/eat-out-to-help-out-crowded-restaurants-may-have-driven-uk-coronavirus-spike-new-findings-145945

RAINN, Children and Teens: Statistics, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Available at: https://www.rainn.org/statistics/children-and-teens

Eliza Relman, The 26 women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/women-accused-trump-sexual-misconduct-list-2017-12?r=US&IR=T

Leonid Schneider, Judy Mikovits’ Plandemic COVID-portunism, For Better Science. Available at: https://forbetterscience.com/2020/06/24/judy-mikovits-plandemic-covid-portunism/

Will Sommer, What Is QAnon? The Craziest Theory of the Trump Era, Explained, Daily Beast. Available at: https://www.thedailybeast.com/what-is-qanon-the-craziest-theory-of-the-trump-era-explained

Peter Walker, Boris Johnson missed five coronavirus Cobra meetings, Michael Gove says, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/19/michael-gove-fails-to-deny-pm-missed-five-coronavirus-cobra-meetings

Ollie Williams, Post-Coronavirus The Rich Will Get Richer From Rising Inequality, Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliverwilliams1/2020/06/24/post-coronavirus-the-rich-will-get-richer-from-rising-inequality/#680f5aa4774a

Zoey Williams, How out of touch are the Tories? The free school meals row tells you everything you need to know, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/23/how-out-of-touch-are-the-tories-the-free-school-meals-row-tells-you-everything-you-need-to-know

Categories
Criticism

Is The Haunting of Bly Manor Scary?

Opinions seem to be divided on Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor. Some people deride it for not being scary, others (in the medium of clickbait article titles) claim it to cause them sleepless nights. I guess what I’m interested in is what does it mean for something to be scary? Is it the mechanics behind which stuff is visually represented, the sound design, the timing, the design of the characters? Or is it the implications, the themes that underline the story? Or is it all these factors? I’d wager Flanagan’s previous series The Haunting of Hill House is scarier on an immediate visual level, although I would argue Bly Manor still has something to offer.

            Whereas Hill House dealt with issues surrounding familial trauma, Bly Manor seems more directly interested in what constitutes ghostliness and haunting, in a word:  memory. I read recently in Dan O’Brien’s An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge that our ability to conceive of ourselves is only viable in consideration of our past and future, put another way, how do we know things if we have no memory, if every moment was stripped of prior context? I suppose what I am getting at here is that Bly Manor delves into the implications of being forgotten, or being remembered only through trauma.

            The ghosts in Bly Manor are interesting in that their sense of self is dependent on those still living, as can be seen with Peter and Rebecca, Viola and Perdita. The representation of being forgotten is chilling in the early episodes, seeing Perdita in the corner of the attic, faceless and yearning for attention, gives almost obvious credence to the loss of personal identity. It seems as if there are multiple ways to remember and forget within Bly Manor.

            In the tragic cases of Viola and Perdita their identities are wiped away, they still exist, albeit more so as sensations than fully formed people. There is no-one left to truly remember them as they were and they are cursed to linger on the grounds of their old home. With Peter and Rebecca, they are still remembered by the staff of Bly Manor but are visible and manifest to the children, Miles and Flora. The other, less visible forms of forgetting and remembrance come with the treatment of the children by their uncle Henry and of the commemoration of Hannah by Owen.

            Henry’s guilt surrounding the death of Miles and Flora’s parents makes him distance himself from them, limiting contact even through their nanny Dani as much as possible. In his estrangement from Miles and Flora, he potentially allows them to be forgotten, in so much as they are at risk of joining the ghosts of Bly Manor under Peter’s scheme. It is only with his hurried arrival in the final episode that he not only aids in rescuing the children but frees them, taking on the parental role he has long neglected.

            With Hannah, her remembrance is simpler in some regards to that of Viola. When Viola is invited into Dani, Hannah and the other ghosts of Bly Manor are allowed to move on. With the transferal of the traumatic wound, Viola, Hannah is allowed to be at peace and thus remembered properly. Owen hangs a photo of her in his restaurant, remembering her as she was and bringing her in memory as close to their shared dream of Paris as possible.

            Perhaps it is not necessarily scary, but it is undoubtedly tragic that Dani frees all the inhabitants of Bly Manor at the cost of herself. Henry, Miles, and Flora all forget what has occurred. All the ghosts bar Viola have moved on. Dani tries to make a life with Jamie but in inviting Viola into herself, she has absorbed the traumatic wound that festered Bly. She cannot forget Viola, cannot forget what has happened to herself and the others. In every reflection, a reminder of past pain and of past violence. The pain of the past becomes Dani’s present.

            There may be more frightening media out there, more jump scares and more chilling ambiences, but Bly Manor’s concentration on memory remains with me. The idea of being forgotten, of our identities blurring and distorting into almost nightmarish mannequin-esque anonymity could frighten anyone. At least, there’s the rub. Even after our biological deaths, the memories of ourselves are playing against the clock. Maybe for a little while we can be remembered like Hannah, through simple photographs and in the hearts of good-natured people. The most we can hope for is that we do not become like Viola, that we do not open the traumatic wound for those after us. The implication that we could be stubborn to death like Viola and become the dehumanised and raging lady of the lake, is to me personally scary.  

Categories
Culture

What does the Ghostface mask ‘mean’?

Everybody knows Edvard Munch’s famous painting ‘The Scream’, and if you’re reading this you probably know the Ghostface mask from Wes Craven’s classic Scream. What is their relation? I think there is more to it than the Ghostface mask simply being a hurried selection from a costume store before filming began. Munch’s painting and the Ghostface mask are not coincidentally related, it’s not just that the latter was inspired by the former. Critic Frederic Jameson saw the painting as being a portrait of pure anxiety in the context of modernity, arguing ‘its gestural content already underscores its own failure, since […] the cry, the raw vibrations of the human throat, are incompatible with its medium (something underscored within the work by the homunculus’ lack of ears).’ The weird figure in ‘The Scream’ is ineffective in its self-expression, of its attempt to scream out and proclaim its own individuality. The disturbed individual and its specificity within the painting both contrasts and corresponds to the Ghostface mask. The killer and its identity become one of a lifted aesthetic, a notion of some previous period re-emerging, in Roger L. Jackson’s words: ‘retaining a mournful sadness that’s almost dreamlike.’ The subject of the painting which screams transformed becomes within the film the contemptuous and sardonic subject which inspires screams. No longer is the screaming subject silent but neither is it entirely as personable as the painting. Ghostface is anonymised, as Wes Craven says ‘that horrible ghost face killer is us and […] to me the most important thing that we all have to do as human beings is stop externalizing evil and look inside of ourselves.’ As critic Walter Benjamin argued, film transcends paintings for its ability to traverse space in completely new ways, but I would also argue in addition that the innovation of sound in film lends another dimension to its revolutionary potential. The subject of the painting, once trapped within its soundless scream, is transformed by Ghostface, whose voice grants themselves at once a cruel and detached personality and power. If one looks at the original concept art for Ghostface we understand in its cartoonish forms and its pointed eyes that it bears almost too much personality as it were, rendering them too close in a sense, to the original painting. The final design of Ghostface is the postmodern answer to Munch’s work, sanitised of fleshy blemishes and the human character, liberated by its ability to speak and in turn inspire screams.

Categories
Criticism

American Horror Story – Cult: Liberal Nihilism

You’re not a hero. You’re a symbol, one I created! Killing people doesn’t get the men hard and the ladies wet anymore. But Americans lose their ever-loving shit when you destroy their symbols – statues, flags, pledges of allegiance, $20 bills, white Jesus and Merry fucking Christmas! You come for any of that stuff, you’ve got rioting in the streets and domination of the news cycle for weeks.

-Kai Anderson, Cult.

American Horror Story: Cult felt like the lamest of the show’s iterations. I have no problem with media that wishes to tackle contemporary political issues, but Cult was both heavy-handed and inept in its attempt. I quote Ben Gazur writing for the Guardian about the season:

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016. This was a problem for the world in general and American Horror Story in particular. Horror and satire died that day. Nothing the writers could imagine comes close to the visceral shock of that moment – but they decided to offer their hot take anyway.

I agree with the sentiment of Gazur’s point here and would expand to say that American Horror Story floundered in addressing contemporary politics precisely because the rise of Trump and the Alt-Right is a quintessential American Horror Story. Perhaps satire died or was wounded, but horror? How could horror still not be used to address the profuse evil and ugliness that was more and more visibly rearing its head? I argue that the ideology of Cult is one of liberal nihilism, it tries to contend that the Democrats and the Republicans are both cults, whilst offering only a vague mutation of both establishment groups as a way forward. There is nothing inherently profound to the idea that politics and political groups are akin to cults, read Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (more technical) or First As Tragedy, Then As Farce (more polemical), and you can understand the basic principles of belief and contradiction that make up ideology. It is not just the overall ideology of liberal nihilism which I have a problem with, but also the absence of the Left proper so to speak. In this show we get liberal small business owners, we get MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters, and we get Alt-right basement-dwelling militias a la Fight Club. Where is the Left, I ask? Apart from a brief couple of minutes of people (readable as antifascists) protesting in the park against cult leader Kai’s speech, there is no real sense of an alternative to him, there is no opposite end of the spectrum in the show. There are only people working within the capitalist-Symbolic order as it were, who are aware there is something wrong with the society and the people around them, but are only able to address it within the very limited confines of Liberalism. I am not suggesting the show should have had Joseph Stalin burst into a scene, rifle in hand, but it could have done more with its subject matter than basic, lame caricatures from a very narrow window of American politics.

            I would say that Cult tries to address two contemporary issues that encapsulate part of America’s political landscape, one is racism and the other is sexism. Racism feels present in the first few episodes, we see Kai antagonising migrants to frame them as being violent, but then race sort of tails off from the season. Sexism is the issue given more attention throughout, and often it feels awkwardly handled. It feels like the presence of feminism within the show is of a liberal, white variety. It does not really have any interest past surface level appearances of injustice. Characters like Winter and Ivy are outraged that Hillary Clinton lost, and the show frequently, whether it agrees with this idea, frames Clinton as being a feminist, or an icon of feminism. If Clinton is viewed as a symbol for feminist change and progress, she is an empty one, she speaks only to the visibility of women within capitalist-patriarchal structures. Her politics and history are anything but feminist and the show glosses over this. In fact, I do not think the show looks at politics in any especially interesting way, no policies are mentioned, no consequences for the victims of these policies are really seen. It is all spectacle, all show – women in positions of power are good, no matter what their politics are.

There is an interesting focus on Valerie Solanas which brings with her the closest thing to a ‘radical’ opposition to sexism. I think the portrayal of Solanas by Lena Dunham is symptomatic of the show’s larger problems. Dunham is at best a problematic feminist figure and at worst an obstructive one, managing to articulate herself poorly on various issues and at times lashing out against black women. Her rejection of Aurora Perrineau’s sexual assault accusation against Murray Miller speaks to a wider problem within white feminism, a tendency to not support and extend their focus beyond the most mainstream issues and therefore leave women of colour out in the cold. The casting of Dunham and the general focus on white women within Cult leaves me disappointed. Generally, I think American Horror Story is pretty good with ethnic minority and queer representation but in the one season where both these categories are perhaps most necessary to be given voices, they occupy a very small portion of the show. Beverly is the only non-white main character whilst Ally and Ivy are at least centre stage lesbians, although sadly the perceived queerness of other characters like Kai and Samuels seems to just link homosexuality with women-hating. I’m not saying these representations alone are the problem so much as it is the fact that it is often poorer queer white and non-whites who are at risk in America be it economic instability or violence carried out by bigots and fascists.  

            Kai refers to numerous famous cult leaders within the show, including Charles Manson. He claims Manson snapped America out of the haze of the hippy movement. In False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kathleen Geier mentions that during the hippie movement Clinton spoke vocally in favour of women’s progress within society before then diverting into a more subdued, corporate legal career. Does the increasing deindustrialisation and expansion of capitalism within America spiriting Clinton away from her radical hippiness not mirror Manson’s dismantling of hippie conceptions via his race-war inspired murders? It feels like within Cult we are meant to be aware of the explicit violence within society which causes traumatic change of the political landscape e.g. terrorist attacks, school shootings, without being aware of the wider, more all-consuming powers which truly bring about ideological extremes such as Trump and the Alt-Right. When Manson spoke about his driving motivations, famously sampled by Death Grips, does he not in a sense reflect the wider powers that be?

What the hell I wanna go off into — and go to work for?

Work for what, money? I got all the money in the world

I’m the king, man

I run the underworld, guy

I decide whos does what and where they do it at

What am I, gonna run around and act like I’m some teenybopper somewhere, for somebody else’s money?

I make the money, man, I roll the nickels

The game is mine

I deal the cards

Sure, Manson spoke these words, but could we also not attribute them to politicians, to capitalists, to those in hierarchal positions of power, who in their conscious and unconscious machinations engineer the very discontent, anxieties, and hatred which fester and grow into a form which is not controllable, at least not beneath Liberalism?

            The ending of Cult felt somewhat like Liberal fantasy to me – Kai is of course written to be ridiculous and hateful (his last words being ‘make me a sandwich’), but the points he makes about symbolism chime true. I quoted them at the beginning of this essay because I feel the idea of visibility, of symbolism, is the core of Cult’s politics. It doesn’t matter really what someone like Hillary Clinton stands for, she’s a woman! It doesn’t matter what brought about the empowerment of the Alt-Right or Kai, he’s dead! Pay attention to Manson, his violence is easy to consume and understand, do not pay attention to the disarmament and absorption of the hippie movement into capitalist culture. When the show ends on that final sting of Ally in the mirror wearing the cloak of the Solanas-cum-Zodiac cult, what are we meant to make of this? It feels like a continuation of political action within the very space of Liberalism which only further breeds political discontent across all aisles. Ally and the others all miss the point again, Kai understood partly the importance of optics, the others merely operate within its regions.

Further Reading:

False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, edited by Liza Featherstone.

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, by Slavoj Žižek.

The Sublime Object of Ideology, by Slavoj Žižek.

‘When good TV goes bad: how American Horror Story got Trumped’, by Ben Gazur. Accessible at:  https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jun/04/when-good-tv-goes-bad-american-horror-story

‘Zizi Clemmons: ‘It’s Time For Women of Color…to Divest From Lena Dunham’”, by Whitney Kimball. Accessible at: https://jezebel.com/zinzi-clemmons-its-time-for-women-of-color-to-divest-1820587768

Categories
Politics

The Illusion of Trump’s Economy

What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?

-Bertolt Brecht.

I really wish people would shut up about Trump building an amazing economy, when really the economy seems to be performing in line with the recovery manned by Obama after the 2007-2009 recession. I hate even having to talk about this because I am thoroughly an anti-capitalist. I have no respect for a system that causes poverty and hardship whilst effectively bailing out the banks that caused said poverty and hardship. However, the present situation of the world is so skewed that things have to be asserted without a shadow of a doubt. To suggest an elitist, fascist-adjacent figure such as Trump has been exceptionally good at handling the American economy is egregious in its falsehood and dangerous because so many people seem to buy into this idea that he has been a positive figure within politics. For clarity, I don’t think I have respect for any single American president, but we still have to be as truthful as possible.

            I have heard two common arguments from Trump supporters about the president: 1) Trump has created a great, if not, record-breaking amount of job growth and 2) The American stock market, in the context of Covid-19, is doing well. If we look at job growth in America, Trump claimed in his State of the Union address that he had created 7 million new jobs since his election. FactCheck.Org places his job creation at 6.7 million once he had taken office, pointing out that he was in fact taking credit for job growth that occurred whilst Obama was still in office. For further context, Obama entered office under an economic recession which was the largest downturn since the Great Depression and according to the Federal Reserve Board cost every single American approximately $70,000. Trump entered office under a significantly healthier labour market than Obama did, and it is thanks to his predecessor that Trump has relatively stable economic growth. CNN Business tracks job growth and unemployment rates, contextualising that Trump benefited from continually decreasing unemployment numbers under Obama and in fact had less job gains in his first 35 months than Obama had in his last 35 months of presidency.

            We’ve established Trump hasn’t done anything particularly magical with employment, there is no reason to believe that he has personally contributed to growth except from benefitting from the economic recovery undertaken by Obama. If we turn to the stock market, we can acknowledge that after having tanked under the Covid-19 pandemic it has recovered. Is this something that we can: 1) attribute to Trump and 2) does the stock market’s health have the same positive effect as employment? Neil Dutta, writing for Business Insider, argues that various factors contribute to the stock market’s rise even during the ongoing pandemic. The reopening of parts of Europe has led to a potential confidence which benefits the US dollar exchange rate. Dutta notes that businesses like restaurants, hotels, and movie theatres make up less than 5% of private GDP and that the bulk of the stock market is concerned with industrial and technological businesses that might be less restricted than retail. We like to think that the stock market doing well automatically means that we, the average Joe, benefits from it. But…do we?

            So far, I’ve addressed employment levels under Trump and the stock market in the context of Covid-19, but I think we need to talk about these topics with further context. Even as unemployment has been steadily declining, real wage growth has been stagnant for about four decades even accounting for inflation. This means that a worker has less purchasing power whilst more money is accrued by the people at the very top. Drew DeSilva, for the Pew Research Center, posits one theory that employers are less inclined to increase wages based on other benefits such as health insurance, although this may not account for the fact that 70% of employee compensation comes in the form of wages. A potential factor I find personally interesting is the decline of labour unions, a form of employee solidarity discouraged widely over the last century. A potentially egregious note, which I’m inclined to make, is that similarly to wage stagnation, the gap between wages and productivity has grown wider. From 1979 onwards productivity rose 108.1% whilst hourly wages only grew 11.6%. Capitalists have grown richer and richer whilst the majority of the workforce have stayed in the same place, having to live in accordance to the health of the economy in general.

            Wage stagnation has an arguable correlation with an inability to invest in stock, meaning most of the workforce has not got much in the way of stock hold. Robin Wigglesworth, quoting Goldman Sachs, states that the richest 1% of Americans account for more than half the value of equities owned by US households. This level of disparity is staggering. When the stock market is performing well, how are we meant to reasonably conclude that it is to the benefit of each and every American? Zack Friedman, writing for Forbes, cites a study that notes that more than half of minimum wage workers have to work more than one job to make ends meet. According to the same study more than 1 in 4 workers do not accrue savings each month and nearly 3 in 4 workers are in some form of debt. It doesn’t seem to stand to reason that the health of the stock market is congruent with the health of the worker or their wealth.

            Finally, some thoughts on the recession which Obama inherited and subsequently dealt with, in the process benefitting Trump with a positive net gain of job growth. The 2008 recession was a result of deregulation which led to banks granting more subprime mortgages to people who truly couldn’t afford them and essentially causing a bubble which then burst when returns weren’t possible. The banks responsible for the crisis were not in any sense reasonably punished nor reprimanded but instead bailed out by the government. Gautam Mukunda, writing for the Harvard Business Review, states that none of the banks’ CEOs were fired nor did the bailouts stop executives from being generously paid. What are we meant to make of this when millions of Americans lost their jobs and had to scrape by whilst the rich were relatively unaffected? Where do we find ourselves now?

            Some of Trump’s success with the economy is attributed to his policies of deregulation. The 2008 recession was brought about by Randian-inspired deregulation, how much faith can we place in Trump’s deregulation of various industries? The decline in regulation of greenhouse gases emissions standards will be detrimental to an environment that has passed the threshold whereby the annual increase in global temperature will continue to the point that the oceans will rise and forest fires will increase and little can be done to reverse these disasters. With banks being deregulated yet again under Trump, should we expect a different if not positive outcome compared to 2008? Not only this, but certain health and safety regulations have been repealed to help speed along the building of the border wall with Mexico so we can only wait and see to how the stripping back of said regulations will benefit the people at the top and the workers. Slavoj Žižek, in the spirit of Marx, says that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. If the 2008 recession was a tragedy, then…well.    

            The economic problems shadowing Trump despite the supposedly positive figures have been there since Obama and have been there for several decades. Ultimately, neither Trump nor Obama has greatly combatted the real causes of wealth disparity or economic hardship in America but have responded as and when is strictly necessary. Deregulation will hurt the working class in the long term and unless solidarity is cultivated amongst the workforce, there is no reason to believe that wages will truly grow any time soon nor will economic disparity narrow. I wish I knew how to end this blog but truthfully, I am the furthest thing from an economist and I just feel depleted whenever somebody says Trump has done incredible things for the economy. Trump is at most working in accordance with the general tracking of Obama’s recession response and is looking to strip away certain liberties and regulations which would potentially affect workers first and foremost. Please, please, please shut up about Trump and the economy.

Further reading:

Courtney Bublé, ‘Watchdogs Criticize Trump Administration’s Deregulation Efforts During Pandemic,’ Government Executive. Available at: https://www.govexec.com/management/2020/05/watchdogs-criticize-trump-administrations-deregulation-during-pandemic/165371/

John Cassidy, ‘As a Businessman, Trump Was the Biggest Loser of All,’ The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/as-a-businessman-trump-was-the-biggest-loser-of-all

Drew DeSilver, ‘For most U.S. workers, real wages have barely budged in decades,’ Pew Research Center. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/07/for-most-us-workers-real-wages-have-barely-budged-for-decades/

Neil Dutta, ‘There are clear reasons for the stock market’s surge, despite the terrible pandemic news,’ Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/why-stock-market-rising-despite-coronavirus-pandemic-higher-us-cases-2020-7?r=US&IR=T

Economic Policy Institute, ‘The Productivity–Pay Gap,’ Economic Policy Institute. Available at: https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/

Bill Fay, ‘Poverty in the United States,’ Debt.Org. Available at: https://www.debt.org/faqs/americans-in-debt/poverty-united-states/

Zack Friedman, ‘78% Of Workers Live Paycheck To Paycheck,’ Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2019/01/11/live-paycheck-to-paycheck-government-shutdown/#5f5a5bdc4f10

Chris Isidore, ‘How Trump’s three years of job gains compares to Obama’s,’ CNN Business. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/06/economy/trump-obama-jobs-comparison/index.html

Brooks Jackson, ‘Trump’s Numbers January 2020 Update,’ FactCheck.Org. Available at: https://www.factcheck.org/2020/01/trumps-numbers-january-2020-update/

Eugene Kiely, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, et. al., ‘FactChecking the State of the Union,’ FactCheck.Org. Available at: https://www.factcheck.org/2020/02/factchecking-the-state-of-the-union-3/

Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, ‘Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power,’ Scribner.

Gautam Mukunda, ‘The Social and Political Costs of the Financial Crisis, 10 Years Later,’ Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-social-and-political-costs-of-the-financial-crisis-10-years-later

Mayra Rodriguez Valladares, ‘The Weakening Of Big Bank Regulations Under Trump Is The Seed For The Next Financial Crisis,’ Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/mayrarodriguezvalladares/2019/05/22/the-weakening-of-big-bank-regulations-under-trump-is-the-seed-for-the-next-financial-crisis/#3f93a2474f4c

Robin Wigglesworth, ‘How America’s 1% came to dominate stock ownership,’ Financial Post. Available at: https://financialpost.com/investing/how-americas-1-came-to-dominate-stock-ownership

 Joseph Zeballos-Roig, ‘Trump keeps touting the fact that more Americans are working than ever before. But the boast is almost meaningless for one key reason,’ Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-record-high-employment-jobs-numbers-boast-meaningless-2019-11?r=US&IR=T

Categories
Criticism

Godzilla 1998: Atomic Nothing

Why is…Godzilla? What is…Godzilla? Who is…okay I watched 1998’s American Godzilla on VHS too many times as a kid. There is no accounting for taste. Clearly any chance to watch a giant monster is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on. I recently re-watched Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla on Netflix because there isn’t a lot else going on at the moment. But seriously. I watched it again after a gap of many years, and of course it is bad. It’s corny as all hell. The acting, the characters, the story, the monster design, it’s all very corny. But there’s something below all that stuff, something ingrained in the thought of the film which is kind of just barren. It feels like Godzilla forgets itself, or at least, in the transition to an American production it loses what 1954’s Godzilla had.

In August of 1945, America in agreement with the United Kingdom, dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The brutal and unnecessary show of force by America killed between 129,000-226,000 people. The blast of an atomic bomb is such that it vaporises individuals, bleaching the ground and leaving shadows where once humans stood casting them. The original Godzilla is an embodiment of fear of nuclear annihilation and of a planet at odds with its human inhabitants. What is 1998 Godzilla about? Big monster. New York City. Be ruthless, then don’t be. Godzilla in this film is specifically linked to French nuclear testing and the mutation of lizards, it’s keeping with the theme of nuclear weaponry and their consequences but…it kind of feels like the movie is more just blithe spectacle and a Jurassic Park-esque wonder and fear of Godzilla. The consequences of nuclear testing in the film seems of little importance to the overall story beyond acting as an origin for Godzilla. The same goes for the fact that it is the French who are responsible for the testing and therefore Godzilla’s creation, they are sort of a B plot to the film led by Jean Reno. I guess one could argue that the French and Americans working together shows there must be an international effort to combatting disaster and particularly our relationship with nature but…should we talk about the military?

Are they kind of good? Are they bad? Are they competent? Are they inept? I guess in typical disaster fare they struggle for most of the movie with various strategies against the big monster before finally reigning victorious. However, it must mean something that it was written so the military in this film would cause massive amounts of damage to New York City in its fight against the monster. One of the most vivid scenes of the film is of helicopters firing and missing Godzilla and instead blowing up the Chrysler building. The tone of the movie in this regard is so odd; how excusable and almost laughed off disaster brought on by the military can be. It seems like to a degree it’s a product of its time, as Lindsay Ellis outlined in a brilliant video essay, disaster movies after 9/11 kind of took on a much bleaker and sombre tone in many regards than those of the 90s and 80s. Films like Emmerich’s Independence Day and Godzilla have sentiments that seem a bit off. They contrast heavily with 2014’s Godzilla, inarguably a superior product in terms of production, tone, writing, and its ideas.

Whereas in 1998 Godzilla you had a sense of surface level wonder for this monster, in 2014 Godzilla he inspires this sense of almost pure, devastating awe. When Godzilla wades into Hawaii from the ocean, the innocent bystanders watching him do so in silence, even as the flares of the military illuminate and highlight his vastness, the screams only begin when the military start firing at Godzilla over the heads of the bystanders. Films offer introspection at least on some level by their conclusion but what is the introspection of 1998 and 2014’s Godzillas? When Godzilla is defeated at the end of the 1998 film, there is a brief sense of sadness for the death of this creature, but then it kind of quickly moves on. In 2014 Godzilla, after he defeats the two other monsters, Godzilla retreats back into the ocean, whilst humanity tries to make sense of all the destruction, in part hailing Godzilla as an anti-hero.

Godzilla offers a chance for us to reconsider our relationship with nature. In 1998 Godzilla it feels like the monster is slightly misunderstood but ultimately still a threat to humanity, especially with his ability to produce eggs. When I said just before about the film moving quickly on from the death of Godzilla, it does come back to it, like it ends on a surviving baby Godzilla emerging from its egg. I guess this is a cheap way to end a movie and offers the chance for a sequel (it was part of a planned trilogy) but I think it also inadvertently says something bigger than there is a monster people forgot about, almost like in killing off Godzilla and his babies, humanity hasn’t really dealt with the existential threat at all…because it hasn’t really grappled with the concept of what it means to be vulnerable and smaller to nature as much as sometimes nature is vulnerable to our meddlings.

2014 Godzilla answers this failed reconciliation with a Godzilla who is not bent on destruction but inadvertently causes it when he comes into contact with humanity. Unlike 1998’s Godzilla, ultimately this incarnation is at odds with the other big monsters, the MUTOs, and seems to have little to no interest in humanity…so kind of ends up saving it? In this film it feels more like there is a sense of trying to work alongside nature for something akin to a common goal. With Emmerich’s Godzilla I felt cheated, like there was no real meaning behind the film, or if there was one it was diluted by gratuitous spectacle.

I am not trying to put too much meaning into 2014 Godzilla but it feels like the message behind the monster of Godzilla should be one of reconciling ourselves with our past actions, both towards humanity and nature. We cannot revert the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We cannot wipe the slate clean when it comes to our planet and its wildlife. 2014 Godzilla offers a sense of redemption for humanity, that maybe despite our crimes we are able to find for ourselves a place in this world where we co-exist and live with our consequences.

Further Reading:

Lindsay Ellis, ‘Independence Day vs. War of the Worlds.’ Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KioF1sTQFtE

The Japan Times, ‘Britain backed use of A-bomb against Japan: U.S. documents.’ Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/08/04/national/britain-backed-use-of-a-bomb-against-japan-u-s-documents/#.V0xHPzYrJyp

Edward McDougall, ‘Spirited Away With Heidegger’, iai news. Available at: https://iai.tv/articles/spirited-away-meets-heidegger-we-killed-the-gods-with-technology-but-the-sacredness-of-life-is-continuous-auid-1104

Geoffrey Shepard, ‘It’s clear the US should not have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, Quartz. Available at: https://qz.com/472146/its-clear-the-us-should-not-have-bombed-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/

Bruce Stokes, ‘70 years after Hiroshima, opinions have shifted on use of atomic bomb’, Pew Research Center. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/08/04/70-years-after-hiroshima-opinions-have-shifted-on-use-of-atomic-bomb/