What shoes to wear

I am amused to find that I am a small tumblr sensation.  Specifically, one of my first real posts, ‘The Badger Rampant’, has twice now gone on day-long sprees of reblogging among Harry Potter fans, leading my normally-trickling site stats to suddenly spike well over a hundred.  To celebrate, I am currently listening to ‘Popular’ from Wicked, which will probably then result in me listening to ‘Defying Gravity’ for the rest of the day, because daaaamn that’s a voice.  But this is not about that.  This is about other things.

First thing: it feels really cool to see that something I wrote can be meaningful to that many people.  I haven’t got a lot of responses to my writing since I stopped posting stuff to fanfiction.net.  This reminds me of how good it feels to win at writing, so to speak.

Second thing: it’s been that post, twice now, that’s brought in so much attention.  That post represents 13% of the total views of my blog.  Why so?  I mean, I’m proud of it, I think I made a good point about the value system in Harry Potter and how it reflects on valuing of traits in our culture, but I think I’ve had some good points to make in other posts as well and they definitely haven’t taken off like that at all.  Is it the ready-made fandom audience?  As a subsection of that, is it because Hufflepuff just so rarely gets the glory and it’s nice to be advocated?  Would regular features on things that are awesome about undervalued Harry Potter institutions get the same attention?

Third thing: having already confessed to posting on ff.net, I may as well note that I was unabashed in my shipping in every context.  I mostly wrote in ‘verses based on video games that tried to do a lot with a little in terms of characterisation – which was quite intentional on my part, since I don’t usually see the point in writing fanfiction for characters that are already well-written.  (Lord of the Rings fanfiction: I know lots of people write/wrote it, including some I know and respect, but I just can’t see the attraction.)  And one of my favourite activities was deciding who should hook up with whom.  I wrote canonical, I wrote deuterocanonical, and I made stuff up out of whole cloth.  It was so from my first fic (which was a more-or-less canonical retelling plus romance between Protagonist Dude and Staff Chick) to my last (which was an utterly noncanonical ensemble romp with a complicated pseudorelationship between two minor characters with an understated near-random beta couple in the background).

And all throughout that time I was trying to understand popularity, because I got unbelievably positive feedback – multiple people, independently, compared me to Terry Pratchett how is this a thing that they say – but only in small quantities, while other writers there got teeming masses of fans.  I was always trying to work out why.  And one thing that I did notice, mid-career, was that regardless of the romantic content of the stories, I always got more attention if I clearly labelled my pairings.  Pageviews for a Fire Emblem 8 fic that was, upon reading, all about two couples would nevertheless be ignored by many until I added [Eirika/Seth, Franz/Amelia]* tags in the summary.  I didn’t have to change the content in order to get twice as many readers, but I did have to help people realise that this was a story they were looking for, if they were looking for warrior-princess/faithful-knight yearnings, or magically-empowered teenage soldier couples fistfighting three-score skeletons while hashing out their jealousy issues.

For all that marketing gets cynically dismissed as people trying to foist onto us stuff that we don’t need, there is a tricky and useful art to helping people identify the stuff that they want.  And most things are wanted by someone, somewhere.

*Searching for art to illustrate those two, I noticed that the vast majority of the stuff for Eirika and Seth has her being all dainty and him being all bodyguardly.  Now, granted, when we meet them, this is the case, because she’s untested in battle and he has just been assigned to escort her through an army and across a country.  But by the end of the game, Eirika has grown enormously and tears up the battlefield better than he does (although he can still be a good and reliable comrade).  I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that fans imprinted on the pretty-girl-protected-by-burly-man image, but one of the things that’s nice about the Fire Emblem mythos is that it’s not as terrible about gender equality as a lot of medieval fantasy, and I would prefer that not get downplayed.  (Seth gets a lance in his gut for his trouble – being the Designated Bodyguard Gender sucks too.)

Through rhyme’s vexation

Apparently April was National Poetry Month.  Well, I knew it was in the US, but I didn’t check whether we just followed their lead up norph.  We do.  I am not always the best-informed when it comes to poetry-related calendar divisions, get off my back.  Ahem.  So, who can tell me where the name of this blog comes from?  Did I hear “the blogger’s fascination with the artistic angst of his own irretrievable past”?  Ten points to Hufflepuff!

But for reals, John Donne is amazing.

    I am two fools, I know,
    For loving, and for saying so
        In whining poetry ;
But where’s that wise man, that would not be I,
        If she would not deny ?
Then as th’ earth’s inward narrow crooked lanes
    Do purge sea water’s fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
    Through rhyme’s vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

    But when I have done so,
    Some man, his art and voice to show,
        Doth set and sing my pain ;
And, by delighting many, frees again
        Grief, which verse did restrain.
To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
    But not of such as pleases when ’tis read.
Both are increasèd by such songs,
    For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three.
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

“The Triple Fool”, John Donne

That is how we poet ’round here, y’all.  I have a different, unpublished post, which has been sitting in the queue since I started this blog, that also features The Triple Fool.  That post will be staying unpublished, because it is basically me whining in between stanzas of pretty excellent verse.  It’s a control-valve post, like that thing about writing letters and then not sending them, just for the feeling of getting everything out.  I’m suspicious of that kind of practice, because in my experience (both for myself and observing others) rolling thoughts over without ever actually expressing them to the person they’re directed at is usually just practicing being angry (or whatever other troublesome emotion) and makes the stress worse and the potential future outburst more raw, like a punch to a bruise.  Maybe it’s useful in emergencies.  I go back and edit that post every once in a while.  It contains a list of things I try not to think about.  Sometimes I notice that one or two of the things on the list don’t bother me so much any more.

On a parallel subject, does W.B. Yeats seem to anyone else like an amazing spokespoet for Internet Nice Guys?  I first learned of him through The Chieftains’ styling of “Never Give All The Heart”:

Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

“Never Give All The Heart”, W.B. Yeats

I was still in a long-term relationship at the time, and while I didn’t quiiiite buy into the message here, I did feel like Yeats (which I did not know how to correctly pronounce) was definitely onto something and it sure did seem like she just didn’t care sometimes and what was with her criticising my heartfelt romantic gestures just because they were also sometimes possessive and selfish?  Ha ha!  Past-Me could have benefited from being abducted to a re-education camp and taught about empathy and what it feels like to be smacked with a cod, is what I’m saying.  And being self-righteously passionate and unappreciated is what Nice-Guying is all about.  Which is not to say that Yeats himself deserves to be condemned for this alone – I don’t know much about him aside from the pessimism and the political involvement and the Nobel Prize – but I bet individual reactions to a poem like this can tell you a lot about a person.

My mother has never been a fan of Margaret Atwood, and as a child I tended to assume that my parents knew what they were talking about (retrololz) but upon investigating her for myself, I’ve found I rather like her style, even as it gives me poetic whiplash by leaping from classic elemental imagery to mundane technical phrases about the importance of chlorophyll.

More and more frequently the edges
of me dissolve and I become
a wish to assimilate the world, including
you, if possible through the skin
like a cool plant’s tricks with oxygen
and live by a harmless green burning.

I would not consume
you or ever
finish, you would still be there
surrounding me, complete
as the air.

Unfortunately I don’t have leaves.
Instead I have eyes
and teeth and other non-green
things which rule out osmosis.

So be careful, I mean it,
I give you fair warning:

This kind of hunger draws
everything into its own
space; nor can we
talk it all over, have a calm
rational discussion.

There is no reason for this, only
a starved dog’s logic about bones.

“More and More”, Margaret Atwood

It’s past midnight now, so it is my birthday, though the exact time would be, I believe 3:54 AM.  Twenty-six has been something of a recovery year – after a couple years of things getting progressively more awesome, I hit a hell of a rough patch and it’s taken a while to feel like I had my legs under me again.  (That’s only partly metaphorical, what with the foot injury that announced the onset of the The Suck.)  What I need to do now is build a new environment inside my head: I react strongly to my surroundings and follow patterns based on them, which means I either feel permanently inspired (the first fall after I moved to Ottawa was like this) or stuck in a meaningless rut (swathes of 2011 were like this).  I want that ‘harmless green burning’ back, assimilation without consumption, because if I can’t find that kind of equilibrium, I know I’m going to fall back to starved irrationality, desperately grasping at things I think I need and never actually getting any of the things that I want.

However, it is now May, and the primary thing I think I want is an Extreme Cake Recipe, ideally involving fire.  Not candles; those are the easy way out.  I mean FIRE.  None of this ‘harmless green burning’ unless there’s a lot of copper salts involved, and even then the ‘harmless’ part should be a matter of debate and concern.

So at least I have one goal to start with.

Interlude: A good were is hard to find

Aaaaaaaagh so tired of people.  I have serious posts underway about empathy, racism, and unusual music, but I really am in no mood to talk about grim matters, so for starters – let’s talk about gender in language That always cheers me up.

I’ve gone on in the past about how ‘man’ used to be neutral, ‘wif’ indicated female, and ‘vir’ indicated male.  And what continues to bug me is that while ‘man’ became male-specific, language did not shift to maintain common use of a neutral term, so that now we end up with a modern English whose euphony still likes to be able to refer to all people with a single syllable but whose supposedly-neutral term is blatantly gender-referential.  Let’s be very clear: this is not a woman-only issue (oh look I just realised what the next short post will be about).  This is a legitimately egalitarian thing – treating ‘man’ as generic both exoticises/marginalises women and it generifies men, contributing to the idea that men are not special, not important, et cetera.

So, if the formerly-neutral term is now male-specific, I think it’s time we dust off the formerly-male term and declare it the new neutral.  In its older form, this would be ‘vir’, but the direct modern descendant is ‘were’*.  Plural weres.  Fireweres, fisherweres, congressweres, policeweres, salesweres.  Imagine a stereotypical surfer dude thoughtfully addressing a stranger whose gender identity is not clear to him: “Were, that was a sick wave you just rode, were!  Weeerrrreee that was awesome.  Waves like that separate the weres from the kids, were.”  Imagine Aragorn rallying the army in front of the gates to Mordor: “By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Weres of the West!”

Eventually it stops sounding ridiculous, like most words.  (I think I once said ‘blogosphere’ with a straight face: a shame I may never overcome.)

Since we’re already redefining the word (just as has happened to ‘man’, I remind you) its parameters can be whatever we want.  It doesn’t have to be age-specific (though it was in the surfer example); it doesn’t even have to be  species-specific.  ‘Were’ could refer to any sapient life.  That dinner conversation in Star Trek VI could have been made a lot less awkward if they could have smoothly referred to ‘were rights’ instead of talking about ‘human rights’ to a bunch of Klingons.

The only people I could imagine complaining about this might be particular fans of therianthropic fantasy, but they should probably already know that the ‘were’ part of ‘werewolf’ is referring to being part-human, not animal transformation.  Linguistic rigour is important in your hobbies.  But possibly there are other flaws I’m overlooking, which people are invited to detail in the comments.

I’m just sayin’, y’know, we have the option, were.

[Edit] *I think ‘were’ is probably the best spelling to use, but alternatives could include ‘wer’ for simplicity or ‘wair’ if that made it more phonetically sensible.

Teaspooning on Women’s Day

(Content: rampant sexism, discussion of rape, violence, and related statistics.  Fun content: a bajillion links and mild video game pastiche.)

It was a week ago and I still giggle about it sometimes.  It’s taken me a week to finish this post because I desperately did not want to go back and reread the whole nightmare to make sure I covered all the points.

Last Thursday was International Women’s Day, and I celebrated by getting into a fight on the internet with a colossal jackwagon.  It was one of those situations where you either have to laugh or throw up forever and then sing the song that ends the Earth, so instead I am electing to write about it here.  Everyone should have their Derailing For Dummies bingo cards ready because we are getting All Of The Bonus Points today.

Allow me to set the stage for our carnival of horrors: a friend posted a link to an article about how dudes can avoid being a skeeze when approaching women, and why it is that women might not always be super-trusting and happy to have a random dude introduce themselves on the bus or something.  (Spoiler: it is because some dudes are rapists and women are socialised to believe that if they get assaulted it will be their fault, or at the very least that everyone else will tell them that it’s their fault.)

There were a few people involved in the conversation, aside from the person who linked the article – one who was clearly not able to approach the issue in a serious way, one who was reasonably smart but still fell for some of the usual justifications for telling women to hush up.  Both of these guys also submitted the common response of “But I’m not a rapist, so why is this article being mean to me?!”  Protip: if it is an article about rapists who are men, and you are a man who is not a rapist, then it is not an article about you.  It’s great!  You’re not under attack and therefore don’t have to defend yourself!  But I try not to be excessively harsh with these people, because they respond well to intelligent arguments and they legitimately think they are doing the right thing for gender equality.  They’re wrong, and need to learn more, but they are not consciously trying to oppress anyone.

I cannot say the same about the last individual, who just made me want to turn to my friend and channel Joseph from Scott Pilgrim: “Your friends are douchebags*.  Seriously, get new ones.”  This guy (where necessary to specify I will refer to him as Derailer) began his list of grievances by stating that a ‘true feminist’ would want to destroy the backwards notion that all men are ‘rapists until proven otherwise’.  If you didn’t open the article back there, you may wish to do so now to help follow the arc of horrors.  Because the article in question literally begins by stating that the author is sure her male readers are all wonderful and respectful people who would never rape anyone.  As if that weren’t gratuitous enough, our Derailer simply decides to ignore it.  This was the rhetorical equivalent of the bar coming down in front of you before the roller coaster gets moving.

I pointed out that the article was not saying that all men are potential criminals or assaulters, but that a woman can’t be expected to know instantly whether she’s being approached by a potential assaulter and that some caution is (or at least should be) understandable.  But I kind of suspected this wasn’t going to be over that fast.

Next we had his assertion that ‘assigning wariness to one sex’ is wrong, because if a stranger approaches him in a dark alley, he will still be nervous.  (But That Happens To Me Too!  20 points.)  Because obviously the characteristics of this scenario are exactly the same regardless of your gender and obviously what the author was saying is that men are never victims of violent crime.  (Derailing for Dummies is far too general to include something as specific as What About Men but I’ll give a 10 point combo bonus for Anything You Can Do.)  When the friend who linked this tried to provide some of her own experience being approached by aggressive men, Derailer demanded to know if she would feel safe being approaced by an aggressive woman.  (I’m going to go ahead and award 15 points for You’re Arguing With Opinions Not Fact for gloatfully dismissing someone else’s actual own experiences rather than looking at whether they line up with the data.  After all, it’s not like the vast majority of violent crimes are perpetrated by men or something.)

For an interlude (combo breaker!), someone came in to complain about how articles like these just served to dismiss assault on men and make nice guys more nervous about approaching women.  He wasonly joking, but also relatively easy to shut down by pointing out the vast gulf of incomparability between ‘worried cute girl will turn me down’ and ‘worried stranger on the train will get off at my stop, follow me until I am alone, and attack’.  He still protested that the article went to far and made it seem like even if you were a philanthropist you were doomed, causing me to wonder if he actually believed there’s no such thing as an apparently good man who still thinks that sexual consent is optional.  But let us move along, because I went and said the article was trying to give a female perspective on a situation.

Derailer sprang into action by announcing that ‘the female perspective on rape doesn’t matter’ because, again, this only increases the gender division, because PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE and it’s not like all men are criminals or all victims are women and honestly I have a hard time figuring out what kind of point he thought he was making here.  Gender is a socialised thing – Derailer had obviously embraced that much – because if it weren’t, there would have to be some biological reason why the vast majority of violent crimes, including rape, are committed by men, and I refuse to entertain the idea that I am biologically inclined towards evil.  So, given that the vast majority of rapists are men (about 99%) and the vast majority of victims of rape are women (about 91%), just mayyyyyyybe there’s something gender-related in socialisation going on here?  Just maybe there’s something about the way our society treats men and treats women that makes it easier for men to be rapists and women to be targeted?  Is this a startling idea to anyone?

We are wrapping up now, because the last part was just Derailer reiterating his super-enlightened position of totally ignoring gender and basically saying that there’s no way a woman could have something valuable to say about being targeted for rape unless she was actually a victim.  (I tried supplying him with statistics as well, but I knew he would have Immunity To Fact; I just thought the effort was important.)  I endeavoured once more to point out the social differences, to suggest that women who are not victims might still have noticed the huge track record of women who accuse someone of rape to get an enormous public backlash against them and their character, flooded with additional threats of violence, and just maybe women know they’re living in a hostile environment and have tried to adapt in response, but Derailer was resolute in his insistence that this was just a bias against men, and accused me of being sexist** for implying that such a backlash could never occur against a man.  (I invited him to find an example of this happening; he mysteriously did not take me up on the offer.)

But then we get to my favourite part, the Secret Bonus Ending that made it so very rewarding to have beaten my head against this particular wall for a few hours, because then he called me a bleeding heart.

Achievement Unlocked: “We’ve Got A Bleeder!”  50 points!

I love it.  ‘Bleeding heart’, really?  At that point you’ve basically decided to be a Saturday morning cartoon villain without the sweet mustache.  When the best insult you can come up with is “Oh yeah?  Well, you care about people other than yourself!” then possibly it is time to reconsider which side of the argument you have elected to support!  Note to everyone everywhere ever: ‘bleeding heart’ is a terrible insult that really only serves to highlight what a hilariously awful person you are.  It’s like a wardrobe malfunction, but instead of a harmless nipple, your clothes slipped and everyone saw the gaping void where your soul should be.

Anyway.  Though I may not have made much progress with that particular jackwagon, I was able to make these arguments because I listened to smart people until I realised how and why they were right.  In particular, I listen to a lot of women.

Women I know through the internet: Kit Whitfield, mmy, Izzy, Ana Mardoll, Ginny, whose blog I just realised lately I should really have been keeping up with, and so many more whose names I wish I could remember.  Women I know in real life: Erica with a C, Erika with a K, both of the Saras without an H, Ally with a Cat.  These are women actively enriching my life and it is a godsdamn travesty that so much of our culture is designed to make life harder for them, to limit their freedom and their safety and their rights.

And notably my mother, who gave me a huge advantage by helping me start out life by demonstrating on a regular and ongoing basis that women are in fact fully people – and like any other person, when you try to keep them down, they will barrel on through and achieve what they want, and if that means using the trampled bodies of sexists as an on-ramp, so be it.  My mom is kind of awesome that way.

It’s been a week since International Women’s Day, but for some reason not every issue disproportionately affecting women seems to have been resolved.  We should get on that.

*I waffle continuously over what I think of this particular insult.  On the one hand, it appeals to the inherent sexism of ‘eww, lady stuff is gross’.  On the other hand, douches are legitimately a potentially-harmful contraption shoved onto women by a misogynist culture and they should be spoken of with contempt.  There seems little hope of reaching universal agreement.

**So here’s a distinction: if a man is discriminated against on the basis of his gender, that’s a gender bias, and the same if a woman is discriminated against on the basis of her gender.  But only in one of these cases will the discrimination have the weight of the vast majority of social, cultural, and in some cases legal institutions supporting and amplifying it.  For this reason, some people suggest that ‘sexism’ should only be used to describe discrimination against women, i.e., the type of discrimination that’s really, really popular.  I like precise terminology, so I tend to agree with this.  But at the same time, whenever someone says ‘reverse sexism’ or ‘reverse racism’ I can’t help feeling like they’re complaining that someone is breaking the rules, because while it’s obviously not good for women to be discriminated against, discriminating against a man is just cheating.

***This footnote doesn’t actually attach to anything; it’s just a place for me to note that the other potential title for this post was ‘Reverse Double-Pump Fastbreak Sexism’.  Instead I went with a reference to the Shakesville teaspoon terminology, which is used in awesome posts like this one.

Heresies of Mammon

(Contents: atheism, religious discrimination, ideological zealotry and oppression.  Other contents: economic theories of negotiation, CEO:worker income discrepancies and unemployment rates.  Fun contents: Latin phrases and Irreponsible Use of Emphatic Capitalisation.)

The statistician George Box once wrote: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.  I know very little else about him, but hot-and-sour pan-fried archaeopteryx knickers, that may be the most aware, insightful, and universally applicable observation I’ve ever heard.

There was a hell of a firestorm at one of my favourite sites a little while back (I’m not linking to it because I’d hate to restart anything over there; the mods have put up with more than enough) about trying to convert people into or out of religious beliefs.  It was in many ways a really painful discussion, but it did cause me to think much more about why I, as an entirely unapologetic atheist, am really quite comfortable with other people being religious ceteris paribus*.  I have chronic Someone Is Wrong On The Internet syndrome; seeing people say things that are definitely not true always tweaks me to want/wish/NEED to correct them even if I’m not otherwise taking part in the discussion.  So why do I not react that way to religions, which I do believe are all quite inaccurate as descriptions of reality?

Ultimately, it comes down to my view of humanity as a whole, which could be summarised as ‘we believe what we want to believe’ but would be better expanded to ‘we are drawn to those beliefs that resonate with us and driven from those that repulse us’.  And further: we are drawn to those beliefs that will further allow us to support the beliefs we already have.  People want to be consistent – talk to anyone who’s ever worked in professional survey design and they will tell you that one of the reasons that the order of questions matters is that people will answer the last questions in a way that ensures they stay in line with their answers to the first questions, even if they might otherwise answer in a very different way.  Asking questions in the right order is practically hypnotism.  We all know this.  Consistency is important.

Set that aside for a moment while I talk about economics.  (zing)

I didn’t realise it at first, but apparently I studied in one of the most left-wing economics departments that can be found in Canadian universities (and just being in Canada also means that I’m an honorary socialist from the perspective of most US institutions).  This was a good thing for me, but it certainly complicates things when I run into the greater majority of people who also studied economics and yet appear to operate in an entirely different universe from me.  Now, when my co-worker remarks that we need to keep taxes low on the rich or they’ll stop creating jobs, I mentally facepalm, and depending on the circumstances I might start discussing the relationship (or lack thereof) between personal earnings of executives, corporate earnings, workers’ wages, and employment rates.  (Meet me down in the footnotes!**)  Either way, I know that my co-worker has almost no ability to influence our government’s fiscal and financial policy, and zero ability to influence that of any other government.  So does it do me or anyone else any good to hound them about how wrong their economic ideas are?  This is serious stuff; policies based on these ideologies can and do transform whole countries and the prosperity of millions of people.  But most days it really just does not matter what my co-worker thinks about economics, and in the meantime we have several dozen experts to interview for a research project on rural climate change adaptation.

Being the type of person that I am, beliefs don’t bother me that much except to the extent that they inform actions.  Actions are a big deal.  Someone who says that we should really give supply-side economics another chance has amusingly obsolete views; a politician who actually tries to implement supply-side economic policies must be stopped.  By the same token, a person who believes in any number of deities (to take one popular aspect of religion) does not bother me and I will think them at worst to have misinterpreted some aspect of the world, whereas someone who tries to establish laws purely on the basis of religious justifications, again, must be stopped.

But coming back now to consistency: I use the phrase ‘religious justifications’ intentionally.  And I do so because I can’t help noticing some serious discrepancies between the wisdom some folks claim to have received and the practices that they base on it.  It’s not hard to find in economics – exampli gratia, some libertarians love to talk about social welfare and contractual obligations, stating that if we want to, say, cut down on pollution from a factory, then everyone who is affected by that pollution should pool their resources and form a contract with the factory in which they will pay X amount if the factory also cuts its pollution by Y amount, and then supply/demand curves can determine the most appropriate values of X and Y to maximise social wellbeing through revealed preferences.  Therefore bringing in government regulations just gets in the way and reduces efficiency.  A lot of these arguments, in economics, trace back to a paper by Ronald Coase, in which he describes the efficiency of this kind of bargaining under the assumption that there are no transaction costs – that is, it costs no one any time or effort to do this negotiating.  Now in reality people have got things to do, but more to the point, I have read that paper, and Coase himself says the same near the end: by the way, real people don’t have nearly the time to do this and there are way too many factories and stuff out there for anyone to form contracts with all of them, which is why we need government to handle the big stuff.  But don’t count on finding internet libertarians who quote that bit.  That would get in the way of their ideology.  Except that their ideology is supposedly based on these papers.

Or, in the case of religion, you’ve got (more free examples!) Christians or Muslims or Jews or whoever saying that women absolutely must be subject to men, it says so right here in the Bible, for serious, and you’ve got Christians or Muslims or Jews or whoever saying that, no, not agreeing so much with that idea.  And maybe someone would argue that the first group is obviously just Better At Religion than the latter group, but then that raises the question of what’s up with all those other parts of their scripture that they’re not pushing everywhere every day.  I don’t know nearly so much about Jewish or Islamic scriptures, but I hear Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about people who held onto their wealth while others were hungry or naked or in distress.  I hear he wasn’t wild about violence or hating people because they were different.  And yet there seem to be an impressive number of people self-labelled as Christians who say that their wealth is morally deserved and those dudes who like to make out with other dudes should be threatened with violence because they are to blame for all evil.***

It’s almost as if they’re quoting the parts of their scriptures that support the things they already want to do, and ignoring the ones that don’t.  It’s almost as if their primary interest in religion is in justifying their predetermined personal preferences – it’s not that I fear things that are different, you see, it’s that God hates things that aren’t like me.  Totally different!

This is everywhere and it really shouldn’t surprise anyone if we keep finding it in other aspects of human behaviour.  Where does religion come from?  No clue.  Is it objectively good for anything?  Not sure.  Is it an actual source of evil?  No.  How could I possibly believe that?  I’m an atheist.  I don’t believe in any external sources of evil.  Evil is in us by process of elimination.  It is a necessary consequence of my atheism that I believe all religions were wholly invented by regular people.  They’ve survived because they were useful to people, and sometimes what they’ve been useful for is letting people pass the buck.

So when I hear people talk about getting everyone to be atheist, specifically with the corollary that this will somehow remove evils from the world, I’m pretty freakin’ skeptical about the plausibility of their goals.  If someone who demonstrably does evil things goes to jail and declares afterwards that they converted to religion and are a whole new person, we tend not to buy it.  Why in the world would we imagine that someone religious who became atheistwouldcompletely revamp their morality?

Sure, there are direct testimonies from people who are/were religious and struggled with teachings that they simultaneously believed had divine backup and yet conflicted with their own good morals.  Those folks deserve help and support, and maybe they would be better off as atheists.  But the idea that somehow the bigots who throw rote quotes out in defence of their bigotry would actually become good people if only they were atheist is just not plausible to me.  They’ll find some other argument – junk psychology or evolutionary determinism or any kind of pseudoscience they want – that will let them keep doing what they want to do, which is, very simply, to be allowed to hurt others and aggrandise themselves.

The problem with religious jackwagons is not that they’re religious.  It’s that they’re jackwagons.  If they weren’t religious, they would be some other kind of jackwagon.  Is jackwagonry impossible to change?  Certainly not.  But trying to cure it by going for the religion is not in line with empirical evidence.  There are too many of my fellow atheists who are reprehensible for me to believe that religious beliefs are a meaningful contributor to just being a really awful person.  We as atheists should be smarter than that.

There are, absolutely and without question, many, many places and situations in the world where religion is used as an excuse to hurt people.  It’s used to divide, to exclude, to deny vital things to those who need them.  And yes, large parts of religion are functionally immune to evidence, but if you think that makes it somehow unique – I’m an economist and I have a Laffer Curve to sell you.

Why don’t I mind if other people are religious?  Because religion doesn’t have to be oppressive, exclusive, or socially favoured.  Those things can and should be fought – religious privileges, sectarian legislation, coercive proselytisation.  And if we can agree on taking those out, then no, I don’t much care what kind of metaphysics you believe in and I don’t have time to waste trying to ‘correct’ everyone in the world on every issue.

*’All else equal’; used in statistics to describe changing a single variable in an expression without changing anything else.  Of course, it’s impossible to just flip some ‘theist/atheist’ switch in someone’s head and keep every other outlook and conviction static.  There are too many implications and consequences.  But I don’t know the Latin for ‘all else equal as far as that is possible which might be more or less depending on certain factors’.  I bet in German that’s all one word.

**Let’s check with our pals at the Institute for Policy Studies concerning income ratios of CEOs to workers – in 2010, among the S&P 500, CEOs received an average of $10,762,304 (up almost 28% from 2009) and workers received an average of $33,121 (up all of 3.3% from 2009), for a total ratio of 325:1, so that’s a pretty impressive ungrokkably huge discrepancy.  How are they doing in Japan?  Well, according to the Nikkei business daily as reported by the Wall Street Journal, in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, their CEOs made approximately 4.8 times as much as their average worker, down from 5.8 the year before.  Four-point-eight.  If you compare Japanese unemployment rates and US unemployment rates you’ll notice that they follow a very similar pattern, with the meaningful difference that Japan has way lower unemployment.  Both countries’ unemployment rates peaked in 2009, with Japan at 5.6% (highest ever) and the US at 10% (highest since 1983).  To get the best visual comparison, set both graphs to the same time period, say 1960-2012.  Now, I am a responsible econometrician and I’m not saying that reducing this income discrepancy will automatically fix everything.  I’m just saying that correlations sometimes exist for a reason and that if people seriously want to mitigate economic implosions maybe they should look more closely at what folks are doing in countries that consider 5% unemployment to be absurdly high.

***Fun pastime for trying to understand the homobigoted perspective: step 1: find at least one video involving same-sex intimacy as suit your comfort level – even just a clip of Mitchell and Cameron (Modern Family) kissing will do fine.  Step 2: find a similar number of videos from movies depicting catastrophic disasters – things like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow are ideal.  Step 3: watch all of the videos in alternating order – one from the first group, followed by one of the terrible repercussions depicted in the second group.  For bonus subtext, follow a lesbian kiss with the bit from Return of the King when Sauron’s giant mighty tower fractures and explodes.  Step 4: realise with growing horror that some people may actually believe that this is a legitimate concern.  Step 5: realise with even more horror that there are definitely people with serious sociopolitical power who want you to believe this is a legitimate concern because it will keep you distracted while they steal everything you own, and sometimes they are succeeding.

Gender performance and the rise of the umbralocks

(Content: gender identity, performance, roles, and policing.  Given my lack of expertise, this is a pretty basic post, but hopefully has the virtue of being so broad that people can share basically any gender-issue thoughts they like if they want to comment.  I am enthusiastic about this eventuality!)

First, a thing that I thought explained much when I learned it: the word ‘man’ was not originally male.  If we go waaay back to Latin, there was the generic ‘homo’ for humans and ‘vir’ for men, and then they started just using ‘homo’ for men as well.  If we go back to Old English, ‘man’ was still generic, and ‘vir’ had become ‘wer’, for men, complementary to ‘wif’ for women.  (Chaucer’s story about the Wife of Bath is a pun; in Middle English the senses were still shifting and so she’s ‘the wife (woman) who comes from Bath’, but she remarries, which is exaggerated as if she was ‘wife to everyone is Bath’.)

Over time, in English, ‘wif’ became wife, ‘wer’ only shows up in werewolf, and ‘man’ became male – but supposedly also generic (mankind), though frankly that’s as generic as saying that hypothetical individuals should be called ‘he’ but somehow this isn’t gender-biased.  (My philosophy of language prof best phrased a view I shared: “If you can have a version of ‘he’ that is magically not-necessarily-male, then I can have a version of ‘they’ that is magically not-necessarily-plural, and it will still be better than ‘he’.”  In years since, it has occurred to me that this is also more inclusive of people who are multiple.)  This saddens me, because English could really do with more generic words for humanity.  They tend to be kind of clunky – ‘people’ is bland, ‘humanity’ is formal or melodramatic, and ‘folk’ is very context-sensitive.  At least, so it is to me.  This being my blog, my personal eccentricities are oft presented as fact.  Dissent is welcome!

We can see the same sort of male-is-norm/female-is-exception thing happening all over the place in English.  Lots of actors, some of whom are also actresses.  So many kinds of priesthoods, some of which include priestesses.  And I may never get tired of the intricacies of categorisation of noble titles between genders.  On the one hand, referring to a mixed-gender group as ‘men’ is obviously daft; on the other hand, I kind of feel like ‘actress’ should be phased out into archaicness in favour of actors all ’round*.  The same for any other profession which inexplicably has a word to point out when someone is Having A Profession While Female but none for males.  But I can imagine counterarguments – how much is equality and how much is erasure?  Isn’t it justified for a woman to be proud of the label of ‘actress’, given the additional struggles that women have always faced to achieve anything like equality in theatre, going all the way back to the days when even the women were played by men?  The reason we have two different words is that these things were historically very much not equal, and there’s that whole know-your-history-or-be-doomed-to-repeat-eleventh-grade**.

And in a way that reflects a broader issue within gender itself.  Gender is a social thing and biological/physical sex is correlated but not causal and certainly not universally considered to determine gender, and the lines blur all over the place for all sorts of reasons, but referring to my culture in my time, we very clearly have concepts of what is masculine and what is feminine and I don’t know why.  For realsies, this confuses me.  Exampli gratia, since we are already on about acting: there is endless talk, when it comes to female action heroes, of characters who are ‘strong’ and ‘feminine’ at the same time – a concept which I have tried to understand and even in the best cases it always seems to come down to words like ‘vulnerable’ or ’empathetic’.  And quite simply I say: hell to that, because if the privilege of having real human emotions and doubts is the domain of women, then dudes are getting a seriously raw deal here.  I’m very wary of confidence, not because it’s an inherently bad thing, but because the people I have met who display the most confidence have often been epic jackwagons who desperately needed a dose of perspective and some time thinking stuff over.

I was not a particularly socially-aware child (I was raised by scientists and have little natural aptitude for connecting with people) but some things have not changed at all as I learned more about them.  It was a long time before I learned anything about multiple genders, and I always thought of them as purely descriptive – my body is male, therefore I am male.  There’s really never been any question on the matter.  I do often create female video game characters, mostly because I think they get better customisation options (my first paladin in Warcraft was a lady because all the human men look like pro wrestlers), and this doesn’t really create any cognitive dissonance for me, but I know someone else who has mentioned that if she ever has a dream or daydream or is put in any kind of abstract situation in which she is ‘male’, her brain immediately rejects the concept and tries to get her back to being female.  This is a gender-sense that I don’t think I can properly grasp – my thoughts when someone suggests a magical gender-swap scenario are generally of the type ‘This is going to play merry hell with my dating compatibility’.

So Judith Butler wrote about ‘performing gender’, although generally when I see people talking about it these days it’s not in the terms on that page: it’s simply taking actions with the express purpose of highlighting your gender.  A way of walking, talking, thinking, presenting.  And if gender were purely descriptive, then that wouldn’t have much purpose, because there wouldn’t be anything to say about your gender except whether it did or didn’t match your body.  We do have, socially and culturally, these ideas of how to be male or how to be female, and they can be downplayed or emphasised (if they’re not largely immutable).  And again, I could see how that would work if gender wasn’t assigned, because people could just pick the template they preferred and go from there, but that’s not going to work because gender isn’t that simple, it’s this messy intersection of prescription and proscription and WTF why are we even using this concept now?  (Rhetorical question.)  Because now we’ve got things like body-p0licing fights over the appropriate female BMI (“Real women have curves”***, which I’m sure will be vitally important knowledge when we’re invaded by Cubodroid sleeper agents) or the appropriate level of emotion males should express (“Real men are willing to cry”, because obviously being raised in an environment that suppresses displays of vulnerability means that your right to be recognised as male has been revoked by your more enlightened dude-peers).

Every female is a real female, every male is a real male, everyone else is a real whatever they are, whether they choose to practice and perform behaviours that have been traditionally associated with their gender or not.  So what exactly is the future of the gender concept?  If we were all sitting around an enormous table, plotting what gender should be for in the utopia of the 31st century, what would it be for?  Because I can’t see what its vital purpose is.  It mostly seems to be about restrictions and telling people they’re Doing It Wrong, and it is up to individual readers how sexually to take that last bit.  But I know better than to make the mistake of a first-year social engineer as illustrated in xkcd, and I realise that for whatever reason, some people are very much attached to gender.  I don’t know everything (but don’t let that get around) and maybe there is something enormously good about being able to categorise people along lines that are kind of biological and kind of social and kind of sexual but not always all of those things and also there’s lots of fighting about it.

I’m just not sure I can consciously grasp it.  My body is male, I am male; I don’t need it to get more complex than that.  The idea that it’s a good plan to also have behaviours to perform male is as bizarre to me as the idea that we should, I don’t know, perform hair colour.  Hair also has (cliché) associated behaviours and attributes – fiery redheads and all that – but somehow it’s a non-issue.  No one’s freaking out because someone wants to present as blond instead of brunet.  No one’s throwing a panic because a black-haired woman wants to use the ginger restroom.****  There’s one obvious reason for this (hair colour has much less to do with sex and so people are capable of rational thought in its regard) but beyond that, what is there?  What is gender uniquely good for that makes all this mess worthwhile?

Mind you, I’d be very suspicious of anyone showing up saying that they thought ditching gender was a great plan, because that’s not the way society is built right now – there’s no more efficient way to hide sexism than to insist that we’re post-gender and no one cares about that silly stuff any more.

A last thought, vaguely connected to all the above – I read things people have said about gender in fiction, and whether a particular author ‘gets’ the opposite gender, or whether a dude is just writing ‘men with breasts’ or a variant on that phraseology.  This is important to me, as an aspiring writer, and really confusing, because all else equal, I don’t know if I know what they’re talking about.  I’ve heard women say they liked reading a female character and recognising ‘female thoughts’, and immediately I want to know how they know what constitutes a ‘female thought’.  (There was an entirely different and more obvious scenario where people said this and I had no problem – women were talking about a manuscript from a male author in which a female character experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and immediately started scheming as to how she would best profit from this, either via blackmail or formal complaint.  That’s not so much a failure to think like a woman as it is failure to think like a person, and the inability of some men to think of women as people is well-documented.)  Most Many people are only ever one gender.  Maybe everyone?  Obviously not everyone; there are some who are neither and some who alternate and I can’t quite figure out how but I bet there are some who are both.  But if a particular thought pattern is unique to one gender, I’m not how that would be tested, aside from a global survey.  I can’t think of a thought process I could read in a character that would make me say “Oh, so honestly and accurately male!”  Is this a phenomenon restricted to women living in a culture that treats male as normal, such that they are saturated with male thoughts and can pick out the ones that they never have and the ones that they have but never see written?

So these are a sample of my many and confused thoughts on the subject of gender.  I have undoubtedly displayed startling ignorance in at least one area.  I am excited by the possibility that, if you have read this far and are even now fuming at my foolishness on any of the above subjects, you will let me know in the comments, allowing me to increase my knowledge and grow closer to omniscience.  Or maybe you’ve had similar experiences, or know of good examples to illustrate something I’ve talked about!  Or maybe you’re just as baffled as me about the whole thing!  All of these are delightful prospects!

Seriously, I think we should be trying to get ‘umbralock’ into the vernacular.  Anyone have an in with Merriam-Webster?

*There is a basic rule of courtesy: call people what they want to be called.  One-on-one, that trumps most things.  In broad references, it gets trickier.

**Eleventh grade really was the only year of high school that we had ‘history’.  Grade ten was geography, and all previous years were ‘social studies’.  I don’t know if I ever fully grasped what the scope of ‘social studies’ was supposed to be.  It sure as hell did not teach me how to socialise like a normal person, which would in retrospect probably have been vastly more useful than whatever they did teach.

***I only recently discovered that I had already heard Adele’s music without knowing it, and am now doing so intentionally and frequently.  And it is tiring as all @#$% that basically every youtube page of her songs has a fight about whether she is Fat or Curvy or whether she is Too Fat or whether she is still Beautiful and honestly people why does anyone care you probably have a Shuffle with no screen anyway HOW IS THIS YOUR PRIMARY CONCERN and I’m not even a woman.  (Since drafting this post, I’ve heard that Adele is now planning to take a multi-year break from music.  I apologise, Adele fans; apparently my power to interrupt the production of media by liking it remains strong.)

****Okay, so there’s blond(e), brunet(te), redhead/ginger, but no noun for black-haired people?  We have to use a hyphenated phrase?  What is this oversight, English?  From now on, people with black hair are umbralocks.  Pass it on.

Gonna need more rope

So I read the whole Hunger Games trilogy over the course of a week.  Last month I read all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim in about 24 hours.  It’s kind of funny to try to compare the experiences.  Both are well-known stories, popular enough to be moviefied, to which I am a late arrival and am really only getting around to reading now because I prefer to read a book before seeing the movie (a lesson I learned from a harrowing date involving the film of The Golden Compass).

The result of reading Scott Pilgrim that fast, breaking only to walk around for an hour or two through an absolutely frigid night and see some Christmas lights in an unfamiliar neighbourhood where I felt like I was in a movie that might yet turn out to be either a touching drama or a slasher, was to emerge feeling hopeful, wrenched, and renewed.  To have been dragged through a wringer, had all the impurities of me extracted and shoved in my face for examination, and then see justice done and to rejoice in enlightenment.  (Yes, this from a comic book about video-game-style kung fu hipsters.  Silence, unbeliever.)

The result of reading The Hunger Games trilogy that fast, even spaced out over eight days with regular tasks like work and laundry and Bad Movie Night with therapeutic alcohol, is to feel that there can never again be joy in the world because it will be taken.  Because there are simply too many evil people waiting, and good people don’t get what they deserve, and to be happy is to give more power to evil people to make you dance as they choose.  Everything will be taken.  There is no safety.  The only peace is in unconditional surrender.

Basically, if you can stomach it, Hunger Games is amazing.  The first book is more or less predictable, but has a few legitimately clever moments and certainly didn’t let me down on evocation.  When it wants to get sad, it gets freaking brutal.  Unlike the common trilogy model (think Star Wars) the first book is not a potential end point for the series; it’s extremely clear that there is a huge story left to tell.  The second book is an impressive continuation, and even the rehashed aspects feel rather fresh.  The third book is a substantial shift in style and does to hope and optimism what itchy rhinoceri do to wicker furniture.  It’s not pleasant, is what I’m saying.

Now it is SPOILERS TIME because I’m going to talk about the thing that made me love the heroine and the thing that haunted me most after the end of the story.  The second one is a bigger spoiler than the first.  Our hero* has lots of classic heroing qualities – determination, self-sufficiency, combat skills, deep adoration for her sweet little sister – and has been accused of Mary Suedom more than a few times, I’m sure.  My conclusion that she’s not, in fact, such a Sue is based on her lack of idealism (she doesn’t try to save everyone; as soon as she’s in the Games she fully intends to kill as needed, and does) and her tendency to screw up in ways that have serious consequences, such as permanent crippling injuries to herself and those she cares about.  But that would only make her fun to watch, not necessarily a character I adore.**

The key moment for me was when Katniss was surrounded by her prep team, as they waxed and painted and styled her up for the audience, and she’s thinking about how awful and shallow they are, chattering about parties and luxuries and gossip when she’s going to be facing mortal peril soon.  And then, for a moment, she pauses and wonders what it’s like to grow up in the decadent Capitol and be taught your whole life only to care about gossip and not those scruffy District children who fight in the arena – she asks herself how sure she is that she would be any different.  It’s not enough to exonerate them, but it is enough for compassion.  In that moment, she gets how privilege works: what it means to not have to think about how hard it is for people who aren’t you.  They aren’t right, and she isn’t wrong, but she doesn’t think of herself as better than them, either.  From that moment on, I was sure I could trust her – and, although she still made the occasional terrible decision, I was more or less right that I could, because Katniss’ most devastating skill isn’t with a bow.  It’s getting into other people’s heads: animals, fops, soldiers, politicians.

So I did adore the heroine, but that isn’t why Mockingjay seared me.  The first book feels like it makes the best of a terrible situation, and the second is about beginning to defy the system, but the third is haunting, and it all comes back to Finnick Odair and the desperate need for everything to make sense.  Finnick was introduced as a shallow seducer, which is not an archetype that charms me, but I was amused by the idea of him joining the party at the Quell (plus you gotta take the only guy who trained in resurrection spells***).  He became steadily more sympathetic with his true love back home and his grim secrets about the president forcing the victors into prostitution, and steadily more likeable as the only source of humour and coping mechanisms.  Finnick may well have been my favourite character.  I really should have known that he was going to die.

But it happened with impossible speed, and it was, in the narrative, disorientingly sudden.  One of the few stylistic issues I had with the books was the tendency to end every chapter with a Wham Line – as soon as I saw a half-blank page coming, I knew that I was about to be Shocked by a Plot Twist, possibly with a dramatic dun dun dunnnnn.  This is true for possibly every other death of an important character in the series (I’m trying to think of an exception).  Finnick, though: the lizard mutts have just been decapitating folks, the heroes scramble to escape up a ladder, Katniss looks around, rattles off who she sees – Finnick isn’t there.  He was left behind and we didn’t even see it, and then his head is being pulled back to a bite, and then they’re all incinerated.  And then they keep running.  No last quip, no final stand, no glorious sacrifice, he was just at her side one moment and being murdered the next.


That’s what I was left with when the book was done, when another dozen atrocities and injustices had been done and the dust had settled and I was replaying it all in my head.  Was it worth it?  His death wasn’t, obviously; it was bad luck, a meaningless casualty.  Why was he there?  Because they chose to keep pushing on toward their target even when they were expected to pull back from the mission.  Was that worth it?  What did it gain them?  Did they gain any important intelligence?  (No, the last important intel they recovered was the use of decoys to disarm the defensive pod traps; that happened before they decided to push on.)  Did they get to some vital place where no one else could reach?  (No, they reached the Capitol building at the same time as the rest of the army.)  Did they save anyone who would have been lost?  (On the contrary, they got more noncombatants killed.)  Why was any of it worth it?  Why did they have to keep pushing on instead of turning back when the mission first went bad?  Why did they have to keep going why were they in that sewer WHY DID FINNICK DIE?!

I don’t think a book has ever done that to me before.  It may be the most honest and realistic depiction of a wartime casualty ever.  Sometimes people make dangerous gambles and all they do is lose and it happens so fast they don’t even have time to think about it.  It was their choice (Finnick included), it was their mistake, and it was their fault.  Ish.  Well, the mutts weren’t their fault.  The pods weren’t their fault.  The war wasn’t their fault.  The entire horrendous mess wasn’t their fault.  But they still could have made a different decision – one that wasn’t based on a hunger to kill the enemy leader – and things might have turned out differently.

Finnick was a fisher: handy with a trident, knew his way around nets.  When he could do nothing but wait, and his mind was full of thoughts that threatened to rend him because he knew that something big was happening that would either end in his absolute joy or his utter despair, he tied knots.  Lots of knots.  So many knots that his thoughts would be too busy thinking about the next hundred knots to think about anything else until at least news would come and he would know his fate.

What do you do when there is no news left, because everything is already over?  What do you do when what you’re waiting for is someone to explain why it all had to be that way – why the losses meant something, and were a price knowingly paid?  You can wait a long time for that.  Lotta knots to tie.

*I’m just going to refer to her as the hero, on the basis that hero really doesn’t need to be a gendered term.  Heck, it’s even been used as a female name.  I’m always torn on things like that, where there is a feminine variant of a title but it seems superfluous, and especially if it’s ‘male term + suffix’.  More on this when I get around to the big gender post, which will totally happen eventually.

**I wrote the rest of this post and never found a good place to insert my thoughts on the Obligatory Love Triangle, so this seems as good a spot as any.  My thoughts: there isn’t a love triangle.  Aside from Gale being a borderline nonentity for most of the story, Katniss only once actually thinks to herself that she might actually want him, and it’s not a romantic longing – it’s a terrified flight from reality to a mental place before the Games, when her life made sense.  Gale isn’t a romantic rival.  Gale is Nega-Katniss, with all of her devastating skills but none of her compassion.  They are each others’ alternate realities.  The whole time they were friends, she tuned out his rage – there was always zero chance of them ever being happy and whole together.

***The Hunger Games occur in the same region of the multiverse as most media, such as Doctor Who, where CPR is not actually a form of first aid.  It is actually the only known and replicable form of magic, wherein one pounds a beckoning rhythm upon the chest of the corpse and then breathes into their lungs to attract spirits from the netherworld and beseech them to raise the dead.

In the centre of the First World

Pedantry and history time!

‘Third World’ is a curious phrase.  I was originally told that they had been numbered in the order of Western discovery – the First World (Europe), the New World (the Americas) and the Third World (everywhere else).  This is of course historically inaccurate for all sorts of reasons, but I was very young and had not yet learned that otherwise-reliable people still sometimes make stuff up when they don’t know the answer.

When used over the last few decades, it has of course been the go-to phrase for poor, low-tech countries full of dark-skinned people in desperate need of our rich western charity and aid.  (To quote Joey Comeau, “I’m so generous and Caucasian!”)  This term has fallen out of favour among those who really work with such issues – we have phrases like ‘less-developed country’, or ‘underdeveloped country’ (if you want to be a bit subversive and imply that they have been kept down by outside forces), and Global South if you just want to talk about those vast portions of the world that we Up Norph tend to ignore.

The actual etymology of ‘Third World’ goes back to the Cold War.  The First World was the capitalist democratic West standing for truth, justice, and Superman; the Second World was the USSR and allies standing for total equality, varying degrees of dictatorship, and murdering a hell of a lot of your own people to stay in power.  The Third World was unaligned with either of the other two; they didn’t have the infrastructure to be a serious independent player on the world stage.  The Third World was the battleground where capitalists and communists vied for supremacy and allegiance.  The Third World was where the Cold War happened.

It’s still pretty common verbiage to talk about a country ‘becoming’ Third World, by which the person generally means that there will be total economic collapse and we’ll all be eating raw crickets* next week unless we implement their personal political ideology immediately.  ‘First World’ still means the best economic status, thus that new and much-needed dismissal, ‘First World problems’, the hip way of telling someone to stop complaining that their iPhone/iPad/Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a slow connection today.  We seem to have ditched ‘Second World’ entirely.

So, since this is mostly just pedantry, I will try tying it all together into something a little more ideological: Canada could suffer a substantial economic regression, leaving us desperately sucking the last maple syrup directly out of moose necks**, and we would still be ‘First World’ as long as we were still allies of the other capitalist countries like the US and western Europe.  ‘First World’ doesn’t mean ‘rich’.  And, equally importantly, ‘rich’ does not have to mean ‘First World’.  Similarly, a Third World country that refuses western support/conditions/ideology is not necessarily doomed to poverty, especially since some of our big capitalist proselytisers like the IMF have such a horrendous track record***.

Additionally, it bothers me a little to hear ‘we’re going to become a Third World country’, because I feel like it’s based in some way on the conviction that there are and must be both First (rich) and Third (poor) Worlds, and it is right and just that we be on top.  Anything else would be topsy-turvy madness.  I don’t agree.  I think we can work out a world where everyone has enough, and I think part of that solution is going to come from people who have ideas that couldn’t appear in my culture.  If foreign aid/investment is really such a great thing, if First World answers solve Third World problems, then maybe some Third World answers could help with First World problems.

*Are crickets better when cooked?  Is there cricket sashimi?  I want to know, but I don’t want to find out.

**Where did you think it came from?

***In the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Malaysia was the only country that repelled all IMF interference help.  They recovered faster than any other country and have maintained a record as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia.

Running like a business

Preamble: I was on a forum for an online game which has just had some substantial upcoming changes announced.  Someone who disapproved said that the changes were just to make it easier for the developers to maintain and adjust things regularly in the future, which is harder under the current system, and protested: “But isn’t that your job?”

And I thought: no, it isn’t their job.  They’re a private company.  Their job is whatever they say it is.  We’re their customers, not their employers.  Employers get to decide that employees’ jobs are, and if both employers and employees choose well, customers keep them afloat.  These are three completely distinct roles.

And suddenly I found myself thinking about government, and the thought occurred to me: when someone says they want to ‘run government like a business’ – well, I’m an economist, and there are all sorts of fiscal and financial reasons why that’s a suboptimal move, but it’s also an interesting psychological stance.  US government has its famed ‘by the people, of the people, for the people’ credo; Canadian government is more or less expected to be the same thing but we lack a lot of that founding mythology that our southern neighbours specialise in.  (Canadians in court have been known to try to plead the Fifth Amendment.  Le sigh.)  The point is, government is supposed to be something we do for ourselves and with each other.

Businesses aren’t like that – businesses have employers, employees, and customers.  If a government is run like a business, who fits into those roles?  Presumably civilians are the customers, receiving government support and keeping or not keeping the current government afloat; civil servants are the employees doing the work on the ground; elected officials are the employers?  But a customer doesn’t get to choose employers.  Shareholders do, in publicly-traded companies, but shareholders are a much smaller set than customers.

A customer takes what they can get, does what they can with it, and goes to a different store next time if they’re completely dissatisfied, but the idea of trying to bring down the regional manager rarely comes up.  A shareholder, on the other hand, is powerful.  It’s part of our zeitgeist now, that executives care so much about pleasing shareholders that they’ll do ridiculous things with serious long-term consequences (firing vast swathes of their workers) for the momentary boost of shareholder approval.  Every share is equally valued, but some individuals have more shares than others.

Writing all of this out, I think most elected officials would be terrified if government were actually more run like a business, because in that model, you can’t afford to have the approval of only half your shareholders.  That’s the sort of thing that leads to total ruinous collapse of the business*.  What we have right now is each party (both in Canada and the US) treating their ideological base as shareholders and every other base as customers – as long as they serve the immediate desires of those few, everyone else can just chew on it**.  It’s even more exacerbated in Canada, of course, since we have minority governments (governments led by the party that got the most votes, but still received less than half of the total votes – we had a series of those).

So to recap the convoluted metaphor: our gover’biz has employers (elected officials), employees (civil servants),  major and minor shareholders (the party base that shares their ideology) and customers (the rest of the population).  I distinguish between major and minor shareholders in order to distinguish between voters who clearly benefit from the successes of a party (e.g., corporations getting tax cuts from neoliberals) and those who may think they benefit but are actually still kind of marginalised and downtrodden (e.g., religious folks who support the most superficially religious party even though it is economically devastating even to themselves).

I’m not sure where this ends up.  In reality, it’s a lot easier to switch stores than it is to switch governments or move countries.  In reality, it’s possible to be a shareholder in more than one company – even in competing companies.  What I do know is that every time I’ve heard someone say they want to run a government like a business, I’ve been 100% sure that they wanted everyone listening to think of themselves as customers, because when customers aren’t shareholders, that just leaves even more shares for those who already have them.

*Mind you, depending on your country and your economic situation, you might feel that we’re heading into ever-greater depths of total ruinous collapse, so maybe the metaphor works better than I thought.

**Obama may be the exception here, as he seems to frequently ignore his shareholders in his attempts to draw in customers to become shareholders.  The problem being that his customers hate him and everything he will ever do.  He still needs to be elected next time, but mostly because every other option is absolutely devastatingly awful, not because he personally is just that awesome.  (Campaign slogan: “Not as much of a disappointment as I could have been.”)

Someone who isn’t important


I have, thus far, written three Doctor Who posts and refrained from actually posting them, because they just weren’t interesting enough to expect other people to invest their time in.  Two of them were even written since someone, somewhere, specifically expressed interest in my thoughts on matters Whovian.  The thing about writing about Doctor Who is trying to navigate the exclusive border between geekery indulgence (can I just assume readers know what a Silurian is?) and unnecessary tour-guidance (if I spend a thousand words recapping the three-season plot arc of River Song, that’s a lot to slog through before I say much that’s new).

At Tiger Beatdown, Lindsay Miller has expressed her incandescent hatred for the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond, and elsewhere TB founder Sady Doyle has made related points on the worship of Rory.  I still like Doctor Who, I’m still deeply looking forward to the Christmas special and the next season, and I’m even still 90% sure the Eleventh Doctor is my favourite yet (there’s 10% left for Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth, of course).  I think both of the posts I just linked to draw some questionable conclusions and are on occasion factually wrong – but that doesn’t make either one wrong about everything, and they both helped me understand the occasional discomfort I did have throughout Eleven’s first season.  (His second and most recent season was an unqualified gong show, but I can’t be sure I’d have noticed that on its own either.)

So I want to talk about Doctor Who and sexism and Watsonian narrative concepts, but I’m still stuck back on the ‘Do I explain what a Silurian is or do I assume everyone already knows about Fixed Points and the Timey Wimey Ball?’  I don’t know if I want to commit to either one of those, so I’m not sure I can talk about Doctor who qua Doctor Who.  I need a more general topic.

Let’s start with love.

For the first several seasons of the… let’s go for the pun and call it the regenerated Doctor Who TV series, the show was run by one Russell T Davies, a man with many excellent executive virtues – love of the source material, an openness of mind, and a freewheeling joy about creating big ideas.  He also had a love of melodrama, which I appreciate as its own style – “Do I save the life of this one person I love and let the entire rest of the world get nuked?” is an absurd question, yet I don’t care – but went completely over the top in most season finales, and was generally at his best when not allowed a particularly impressive effects budget.  Of course he had to leave at the end of 2009; the only conceivable story left for him to write would be the entire universe getting into an atomic fistfight with Yog-Sothoth.

In a discussion of Doctor Who, and in particular Davies’ penchant for having the Doctor save everyone and everything and be totally awesome and adored all day every day, someone (I forget who; feel free to speak up) suggested that Davies himself was in love with the Doctor, an adoration that simultaneously compelled him to present the Doctor as an ever-more-wonderful person while making him completely unable to grasp why anyone might reasonably object to some of the Doctor’s actions.  The first two Companions also fell madly in love with the Doctor, although I believe somewhere in Jacob Clifton’s magnificent musings on the series he observes that Rose loved the Doctor as a man and Martha loved him as a god.  I’m atheist, so I can’t be sure, but I think I know what that feels like, and one of the things about putting that kind of love on someone is that it really twists things up when they insist on going and being all fallible and human.  So in a way it helps that the Doctor isn’t human and is only as fallible as the writer chooses to make him – no risk of feeling betrayed or not understanding why the love would say or think or do such a thing.

But there’s something else important about the first new seasons of Doctor Who: for all that the creators may have loved the Doctor, they loved the Companions so much more.  People who felt ordinary, never good enough, people who would always lash themselves with their own inadequacies, would take the Doctor’s hand and learn a different way to see the world, to see all of time and space, and in the end the light of it would be pouring off them like a regeneration, because that’s what the Doctor does: he makes people better.  Anyone, everyone.  For all that I will get into my many issues with the newest seasons, they did phrase it very well last Christmas, when a near-random bystander is said not to be important: “Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. Nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.”

The whole show, the whole story from the most distant reaches to the heart of the timeship, ran on love.  The Doctor loved his Companions, the Companions loved the Doctor, the writers loved both.  And when you love someone as themselves, as a person, then I think you’ve got to love to see them grow and become more than they were, more of themselves.  Rose grew to shoulder impossible burdens as readily and capably as the Doctor himself.  Martha laughed in the face of an immortal tyrant and the end of the universe.  Donna – oh, there is so much to say about Donna, but the important bit for this post goes thusly: Donna was unambitious and refused to be dismissed for it.  She wanted to get married to a successful man and not worry about doing anything else with her life.  And the thing about Donna is that she would not be told that she was lesser for it, she would not accept any idea that she didn’t matter just because she didn’t want to be the hero.  She was, in the end – she saved all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will, and then when she was reduced from that, when her hero persona was killed and only the original mediocre Donna remained, she was still important.*  She was still loved, and it ached to see that she had been robbed of her growth.  I think it hurt more than if she had really died, which is why I have no patience for people who complain about what happened to her.  It was supposed to hurt.

The first four seasons were about the ascension of the Companions more than anything.  In each finale, the Doctor might be important, but it was the Companion who would save the day, who would, for a moment, achieve something that would eclipse even his own fantastic abilities.  Rose ended the Time War and healed the Void; Martha defeated a Time Lord’s empire; Donna saved everyone, everywhere.  And then, in the fifth season, Amy… um… was a living MacGuffin, a different kind of sonic screwdriver with an inherent feature that saved the Doctor**.

So now we finally get around to the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond, with Steven Moffatt in charge of the show.  And I do love Eleven, because he’s embraced that redeeming aspect of the Doctor, the bit that makes him a hero instead of an executioner – first he tries to make you better.  Every time the Doctor regenerates, he becomes someone new.  Well, the Doylist view is that there’s a new actor and perhaps new writers and they’re going to have their own take on the character.  The Watsonian version, explaining everything in-universe, is that the random mutations of regeneration and the Doctor’s reactions to his own past change who he is.  The Ninth Doctor had just killed every other Timelord*** in existence and X-minus-one Daleks****; he had to learn that he could save all of the people some of the time.  The Tenth Doctor took that too far and had to learn that he couldn’t save all of the people all of the time.  Eleven drew back, respected the limits of his domain, and embraced the idea of encouraging and enlightening everyone.  Unfortunately, due to random mutations, he’s also sexist as frak.

I feel like I don’t need to make a case for this to anyone who’s seen the sixth season, but for the quick version, rewatch it and take note of any time he characterises River’s absurd behaviour as “Sigh, women“, consider his explicit view of Amy Pond as a child (regardless of age) and Amy Williams as an adult, and please, if you can, find some way of making their exchange during his wedding to River (“What am I doing?”  “As you’re told.”) not cause me to want to cry blood.  Because sweet and sour pan-fried cyborg zombie raptor Jebus, the Eleventh Doctor does not see River Song as a real person.  He might love the idea of her, the wandering action hero who saves the day with him and sometimes knows things he doesn’t, but he keeps her like a magnificent pet – she’s even got her own cage.  He never asks her opinion: not on whether she wants to marry him, not on whether she wants to go to prison for the rest of her (unknowably long) life to help him keep a low profile.  These are important questions!  These are things to be discussed with someone you love!

We are meant to be awed by River, we are meant to empathise with Amy, but the writers do not love them as people.  We’re not meant to cheer for their growth or their dreams, and they are never the hero of the story.  They are defined by their relationships to men – child!Amy dreams of the Raggedy Doctor while adult!Amy has a human husband; River was made to kill the Doctor and will live every moment of her life for him and will one day die for him.  River snarks about how she was sure to fall for him, but it aches for me to look at her and realise that she could quite literally never marry anyone else.  River was made to worship him: she’s not Rose, enraptured by the broken and caring man inside the mighty god; she’s Martha, given the thing that she most wants – though Martha was sharp enough to realise she shouldn’t have it.

I feel bad for River Song, because no matter how happy she is, her life has never been and apparently will never be her own.  And I want to feed the Doctor his own cool bowtie, because he doesn’t seem to care.  She’s not the hero, she’s not a person – she’s not really a Companion.  More of an accessory.  (I’d turn that into some kind of wordplay, like ‘accessory to violence’, but I’m too despondent at this point.)

I have a hope that we didn’t really see the end of River’s story way back in the Library.  The screwdriver save was always iffy, but particularly now that we’ve seen the Doctor dodge his own appointed death through a truly awful ‘twist’, I’d love a retcon.  Let the future Doctor and the real River have connived together to fool his younger self into believing she was dead, and duplicate of some sort have taken that mission.  Or let someone go back and bring River out of the machine and into her body again, freshly synthesised, one last regeneration.  Either way – let her go, let her out into the stars on her own.  Let her be a person instead of a myth.  You have to do that, when you love someone.

*Which is not to say that I don’t have a personal canon in which the defictionalised Noble Corporation (founded on lottery winnings) is a vast philanthropic globe-spanning engine restoring the world and pushing the frontiers of space exploration technology.  If you look really closely in Waters of Mars, you can see ‘Noble’ trademarks on half the technology in that Martian colony.  (Not really; don’t burn your eyes searching every pixel for it.)

**It occurs to me only as I write this that, while the previous Companions saved the universe or some portion/multiple thereof, Amy was relegated to saving the Doctor after he had already saved the universe.  This is, of course, the assigned role of the Smart Girl archetype to keep her from outshining the actual hero, as was described and discussed in glorious length at Ana Mardoll’s blog.

***Gotta say, it bothers me that the default name for the species is ‘Time Lord’ when it’s also explicit that the women are called Time Ladies.  If they were all Time Lords regardless of gender, that’d be improved (and there is historical precedent for female Lords) though probably still imperfect.  Unfortunately, if you say ‘Gallifreyan’, even fewer people know what you’re talking about.

****Where X is defined as ‘however many Daleks we thought there were last week’.  Y’know, originally I worried that this post wouldn’t have enough signature footnotes.  That didn’t take long.