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24 November 2015 @ 12:52 pm
The caption for this 1934 cartoon reads: "Let the Goyim believe that we can be Americans, Englishmen, Germans, or French. When our interests are at stake, we are always Jews, and nothing but." I get the impression that this is how a lot of people in Western countries think about Muslims.
I used to use yoga as a reductio ad absurdum of cultural appropriation, but it turns out some students are actually protesting against yoga classes on these grounds. Following the fashion of the hyper-privileged banging on about oppression, some students at Ottowa University lambasted the free yoga classes on campus, stating that many of the cultures Yoga comes from "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga." With the pusillanimity we have come to expect of universities these days, the administration reacted by cancelling the classes, though it was at pains to point out that this email was not the sole reason. Suuuure.

But let's assume that the university, after consulting with all parties (i.e., anyone who can invent a grievance), decides to resume the courses in a more ideologically sound manner. How exactly would we be mindful of oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas while practicing yoga? Should I be thinking about the British-inspired famines in India while relaxing in Savasana? Or should I be thinking about how Mr Patel who runs the corner shop has been diasporised? (As well as being a cultural stereotype, of course.) FFS, do you think about the Greek diaspora every time you eat feta cheese?

This aside, an indication that the person who typed the mail was simply vomiting rhetoric rather than actually thinking is the claim about "cultural genocide." It is sometimes meaningful to talk about cultural genocide, though personally I avoid the term, as I think it lessens the impact of the word "genocide", which in my humble opinion should only be used for actual genocide. But yoga comes from India, and India has not suffered cultural genocide; on the contrary, it has a vibrant, self-confident culture which it has exported worldwide, one manifestation of which is yoga.

In more specifically Canadian political silliness, the yoga teacher offered to rename the classes "mindful stretching" but that was dropped because they couldn't translate it into French.
18 November 2015 @ 01:46 pm
One of the sillier commentaries on the Paris attacks I have read so far is Niall Ferguson's "Paris and the Fall of Rome". It's ironic that it comes from a historian, given its romanticised view of history. The author draws an analogy between Daesh/ISIS's attack on Paris and the Goths' sack of Rome, quoting Gibbon to illustrate the savagery of both:
In the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed … a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and … the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies … Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless.

Apart from the fact that you can't really compare the sack of a whole city with a terrorist attack, Gibbon was, as usual, playing to the gallery. As it happened, the sack of Rome, far from being an unprecedented act of barbarity, was mild by the (admittedly brutal) standards of the day. Certainly a lot of Roman civilians were killed or enslaved, but that wasn't the Goths' main aim; their aim was to show the government in Ravenna who was boss, and carry off loot. The city was not put the torch and there was no systematic massacre. The Goths didn't want to destroy the Roman Empire but to be part of it, preferably the part that was ruling it.

Ferguson also goes along with the pop-history narrative whereby empires fall because they get soft and decadent. In this view, empires are started by hardy, plain-living folk who epitomise the manly virtues (think of those hunky guys in 300). Their descendants become victims of their own success, succumbing to luxury and debauchery, throwing orgies and eating big bunches of grapes. (It's a trope in historical/fantasy films that soft people eat soft fruit.) Too effete to practice the arts of war, they are overthrown by manly barbarian hordes, and so the cycle continues. Like Rome, Ferguson warns, Europe will be overrun by barbarians because we let our martial prowess droop.

There are two things blatantly wrong with this argument. The first is that the Roman Empire became more, not less, militaristic as time went by. From the end of the second century, the empire was basically a succession of military dictatorships, with the most powerful general becoming emperor. (Incidentally, "imperator" was originally a title bestowed on successful generals by their troops.) Late Roman field armies could wipe the floor with anyone—the problem was that there weren't enough of them because there weren't enough Romans. (The reasons for that are up for debate; poor agricultural practices, a slave economy and even lead poisoning have been suggested.) When the empire split into East and West, the depopulated, impoverished West didn't stand a chance, while the wealthy, populous Byzantine Empire carried on for centuries.

The other mistake is to think that Europe, because it has been relatively peaceful, is militarily weak. European states played a considerable role in the adventurism that brought about the current mess, from Iraq to Syria. It's true that mounting a full-scale invasion of a Middle Eastern country would be beyond the capability of any European state, but then wars these days are fought by coalitions, and a coalition of EU states, even without American support, could probably take out any of Europe's neighbours except for Russia. In any case, if we're talking a fall of Rome scenario, then Daesh would have to come over here as an army, not a handful of serial killers, and such an army wouldn't get further than the Turkish border. Alarmism about Europe's supposedly weak defences is no more useful now than it was during the Cold War.

It may be true that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, but we need to learn the right lessons. We also need to learn what things are different. Europe is not the Roman Empire, its neighbours are not barbarian hordes, and modern warfare is a world away from the Dark Ages.
18 September 2015 @ 02:43 pm
I've just been reading a touching but rather confusing article by a lapsed vegan that frequently mentions animal rights. After a while I realised what it was that I didn't like about this term. Our relations with animals should be based on compassion, not rights. It's a fairly safe bet that higher animals, including some of those we eat, are sentient, and if a creature is sentient then we probably don't want to cause it unnecessary suffering. Whether that implies veganism, free-range eggs, humane slaughterhouses or whatever, I'll leave to others to debate.

Rights are different. Rights are for people we may feel little compassion for but nevertheless have to get along with. Consider health care, which in most countries is regarded as a right. My granting you this right does not depend on my wanting to ease your suffering or promote your health; I accept your right to health care because if I don't, nobody gets that right. I don't have the option to provide health services only to people whose health I care about; if that were the case, it would be a privilege, not a right. Similarly, I respect the right to free speech of groups that I would happily see wiped off the face of the earth. With people we like, we don't generally think about rights; in fact, they can sometimes get in the way. If I'm preparing a meal for my wife and myself, I don't consider how much of it I have a right to. If we start thinking about rights, then we have a problem, because rights are about dealing with conflicts of interest.

Because of this, I don't see how rights enter into our relations with animals. If I argue that chickens should be allowed to roam freely rather than being cooped up in factory farms, or even that we shouldn't keep chickens captive at all, I'm not arguing that we're in some kind of social contract with chickens; I'm saying that I don't want chickens to suffer (assuming here that they're on the right side of the sentient/non-sentient divide). I'm arguing on the basis of compassion, not rights.
02 September 2015 @ 12:35 pm
I've just read Yasmin Alibhai Brown's article "I like Corbyn, but let's face it: we don't need another white man at the head of a political party" because it was generating so much controversy, with even Richard Dawkin wading in. Many of the comments accused Brown of racism, though I suspect many of these commentators hadn't read much further than the (admittedly very long) title. Personally, I found the article confusing. That could be because I teach academic English and I've come to expect a thesis statement that lays out the argument somewhere near the beginning, and I tend to get lost with this kind of op-ed journalism where you just ramble around a topic without coming to any definite conclusions. Not that there's anything wrong with that (in fact, it's pretty much what I'm doing here) but it's confusing to encounter someone taking what is obviously a controversial stance without being sure exactly what that stance is. Brown likes Corbyn's politics but would prefer the leader of the Labour Party to be female and non-white; that much is clear. The rest of the article is not.

Brown is obviouslyt saying that identity politics is important in Britain, but I'm not sure whether she regards this as good, bad or merely inevitable. Most confusingly, she praises the American political system for its acknowledgement of identity politics and its tacit admission "that America proclaims oneness but is, in truth, a land of many peoples, competing interests, and hostilities." Is she seriously suggesting that UK politics become more like US politics? Could it possibly be a good thing when a candidate's gender, skin colour or sexual orientation become as important as their policies? A lot of people voted for Obama because of his race, but then a lot of people voted for Margaret Thatcher because of her sex, and we don't want to go back down that road.

Brown does make some good points, though. Britain may well be less united than politicians would have us believe. She is also right that those in privileged groups (white, well-off males, for example) have a natural tendency to promote unity and underplay conflict because it is in their interests to do so. This does not mean, however, that unity is in itself a bad thing, or that conflict is inherently good.

Like Brown, I would also be happy to see more women, members of ethnic minorities and other marginalised people leading political parties and other organisations. However, my perspective is somewhat different. It would be great to see, for example, an Asian woman as prime minister of the UK. But this is not because Asian women would make better PMs, or that they would represent Asians or women better, or because I'm an Asian woman. (I'm not, by the way.) It would be good because it would be an indication that British political culture had progressed to the point where an Asian woman could become PM. This is where Goodhart's law comes in: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." (Note: this quotation is often misattributed to Charles Goodhart; the actual wording, though, comes from Marilyn Strathern). Goodhart's Law is the fly in the ointment of diversity. If we were to decide that Corbyn had the best policies and personal qualities to lead the Labour Party but voted for another candidate because we don't want another white man running a political party, we screw up our measure. Once identity politics rears its ugly head, we don't know if a candidate is being elected for their ideas or their identity.
06 July 2015 @ 05:16 pm
We all expect our idols to have feet of clay (except for the really expensive idols, which have feet of solid gold, but it's hard to get hold of those these days.) I'm a big fan of Noam Chomsky, for example, despite the fact that I think he talks rubbish from time to time. Some things, though, are deal breakers. There should be a long German word for* that sinking feeling you get when someone you'd always admired, or perhaps had just started to like, says or does something that wipes out all the good stuff. Recent bits of news reminded me of three people I feel that way about.

1. Pope Francis
Great stuff about the global warming, capitalism etc., shame about the sexual politics. On the other hand, I'm more forgiving of Francis than the others on the grounds that he is, after all, the pope. He's supposed to be like that.

2. Aung San Suu Kyi
For years I had a kind of lefty crush on Aung San Suu Kyi. She was beautiful, brave, inspiring and a damned good writer. Now she's trying to paper over a pogrom.

3. Barack Obama
I know most of my Amercian friends love him, but once you get outside the USA, he doesn't look so good. I'm very happy for all those people who now have health care, but that pales beside having a civil war on my doorstep.

* In fact, there should be a long German word for "there should be a long German word for."
16 June 2015 @ 02:30 pm
I first came across the political use of the terms "exclusive" and "inclusive" in the context of nationalism, specifically when someone was explaining how Turkish nationalism was more inclusive than exclusive. Exclusive nationalism is when the nation is defined in terms of a Volk which must be kept pure; German and Japanese nationalism give us some obvious historical examples. Inclusive nationalism occurs when the nation is paramount but anyone can join if they identify with it and subscribe to the values of the culture; American and French nationalism are of this type. These days, though, the word "inclusive" has gone viral, getting applied to the inclusion of a wide variety of groups in a wide variety of activities: women in technology, black people in video games, trans people in sports or whatever. Personally I think this is wonderful, but of course I have to explore the problematic areas, because that's the way I am.

One controversial topic at the moment is the lack of inclusiveness in The Witcher 3. For those of you unfamiliar with this title, it's a fairly typical fantasy role-playing game. I haven't played it, but I messed around with The Witcher 2 a bit and found it enjoyable to play and visually impressive. (My only gripe with the game was that the so-called "native Linux" version was just the Windows version with a Linux wrapper, which meant it took ages to load.) The problem for some people is that all the characters are white (and, I assume, heterosexual and cisgender). As usual there are the two stereotypes at the extremes of the debate—"social justice warriors" and "gamergaters"—but there are more thoughtful approaches too. I was going to write a whole article about Witcher 3, but found I didn't need to because Erik Kaine has written an excellent piece for Forbes, "Should 'The Witcher 3' Feature More People Of Color?" To summarise, the argument against including "people of color" (I've already blogged about how I hate that term) in fantasies like The Witcher is that they are based on historical worlds which were not racially diverse, so including, say, Black people, would be unrealistic. The counter-argument is that it's silly to talk about realism when you have orcs and dragons. (Another counter-argument would be that medieval Europe wasn't as lily-white as we think, but let's leave that one to the historians.) The truth, Kaine says, is somewhere in the middle. Fantasies are based on realities: The Lord of the Rings was a deliberate attempt to create a new Anglo-Saxon mythology; Westeros is based heavily on medieval Europe; the Arabian Nights are kind of Arabian, and so on. You can stretch that reality quite a bit (otherwise it wouldn't be fantasy) but not infinitely.

A very white witcher.

An interesting point that Kaine misses, and that would have served his argument well, is that the Witcher series is not just a generic North European fantasy; it is intended to be a specifically Polish fantasy. This has sparked much debate about whether Poles have enough pagan heritage to get a fantasy world out of, but the interesting point is that this fantasy seems to have been created by a particular cultural group for the purpose of preserving and enriching their culture. It's a bit like The Lord of the Rings, except that unlike the British, who at the time Tolkien was writing still ruled the world's biggest empire, the Poles managed a bit of an empire way back when, but since then have generally been shafted by all around them. One might mischievously ask what right the predominantly-American critics have to impose their standardised multiracial culture on Poles. What is inclusive for some may exclude others from finding their voice, perhaps.

An additional irony is that Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher novels actually tackle racism head on; it's just that they use actual races to do it. You know, like elves and dwarves. Non-human races are regarded as second class citizens and herded into ghettoes, an obvious reference to Polish history: Poles have been both racists and victims of racism. [Aside: just in case anyone is about to say "White people can't suffer from racism," please remember that whatever the merits and demerits of this argument in a US context, Americans did not invent racism and do not have copyright on the term. There's a place called Europe where a man called Hitler had some very interesting racial theories, which counted some white people—including Slavs—as different, and inferior, races.]

Anyway, I said I wouldn't write a whole article on the Witcher controversy, so let's get on to the second issue, which is hijabi sportswear. An article in Mashable bears the title "This workout hijab just made athletic wear more inclusive," which is the kind of title you expect from Mashable. I must confess to being even more perplexed by this than the Witcher case. The article tells the story of a successful Kickstarter project named Veil Garments, which makes hi-tech hijab-compliant sportswear so that Muslim women can work out without dissolving in a puddle of sweat. This is obviously a clever idea, but is it really inclusive?

Water-resistant hijab
Veil show off their water-resistant fabric

At a superficial level, yes it is. Sportswear is normally produced with "Western" fashions, and hence values, in mind; in particular, it tends to be tight and revealing. Producing sportswear that conforms to the values of other cultures ought, then, to be inclusive.

One argument against this is a bit like the "medieval realism" argument about fantasy. Sportswear, according to this argument, is not tight and revealing because of Western values, or feminism, or sexism or anything like that; it's tight and revealing because that's the most practical way to design it. This argument has a certain appeal; after all, people at Nike and Adidas weren't thinking "Oh we don't want any Muslims, Amish or Orthodox Jews at the gym, so let's design something they can't wear." But this is rather naive. Companies like Nike and Adidas don't just design sportswear to be practical; they design it to be sexy, because that's what sells, and sexiness is a culturally-charged idea. Muslim women might well say "We don't want your Western sexiness."

But it gets more complicated than that. The whole concept of "hijab" is open to abuse from all sides. The mere mention of it in the article predictably unleashed a storm of Islamophobic comments, so as usual the real issues went unnoticed. The real problem with this version of inclusiveness is the idea of "Islamic culture" with a homogeneous group of "Muslims" who can be included in our wonderful multicultural gyms. The reality is that there is no such thing as Islamic culture; there are only Islamic cultures (and subcultures, and microcultures). These cultures include people who dress in an astonishing variety of ways, from bikinis to burkas. There is no consensus in the Muslim world about what clothing is appropriate; what counts as modest dress in Iran would be shameless in Saudi Arabia, while a Turkish or Bosnian woman might not look any different from a non-Muslim. To label a certain dress style "hijab" and assume that this is what Muslim women wear (or want to wear, or are forced to wear) is a cultural blindness which ironically excludes many of the people you are trying to include. Equally important is the fact that clothes have a different significance according to where you are; what might be inclusive in America might be exclusive in the UAE. Given men's tendency to try to control what women wear (and women's tendency to try to control what other women wear), it's always a short step from "women can wear X" to "women must wear X."

Fortunately when we get down to practicalities, there is a lot of room for compromise. Game designers can usually manage to include a few non-white (or gay or trans) characters without irreparably damaging their worlds. A few hijabis in the gym won't bring shariah to the West. Let's just be careful not to make our inclusiveness exclusive.
13 June 2015 @ 08:35 pm
Every time I go to see the doctor to have blood-boogers removed from my nasal cavities, my body sulks afterwards and doesn't want to do anything. The interrnal conversation goes a bit like this.

"You HURT me."
"No I didn't. That was the doctor."
"You let him stick things in me."
"It's for your own good."
13 June 2015 @ 05:48 pm
Happy birthday, ironed_orchid!
07 June 2015 @ 04:27 pm
Happy birthday chr0me_kitten!