Posts Tagged ‘Women’

Boris Johnson – A Racist Candidate for a Racist Party

June 21, 2019

A few days ago, Ian Blackford, an SNP MP caused an uproar in parliament by having the temerity to call Johnson what he is, and say what a very large number of the British public are thinking and saying: that Johnson is a racist. He cited a poem Johnson had published in the Spectator when he was its editor, about how a giant wall should be built around Scotland and the gates closed to turn it into a giant ghetto, who inhabitants should be exterminated. He mentioned again Johnson’s infamous comments about Black Africans, describing African children as ‘grinning pickanninies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, as well as his infamous Torygraph article attacking the burka. He described those women, who chose to wear it as looking like letterboxes or bin bags. This caused a storm of outrage from the Tories, who accused Blackford of unparliamentary conduct and Blackford did get a caution from Bercow as a result. But as Mike showed today on an article in his blog, very many ordinary Brits on Twitter agree with Blackford. Johnson is a racist, and indeed, so is his party. This was also made very clear by a post about Johnson and his noxious racism on Zelo Street. Johnson had been asked about his derogatory comments about Muslims. He responded by saying that he was mistaken, and apologised, but he felt that people wanted someone who talked straight about these issues to be their Prime Minister. This drew massive applause from the Tories. The article pointed out that the article wasn’t mistaken, it was racist, and by applauding him and supporting his leadership bid, the Tories were showing that they supported and shared his racism.

Now there are stresses created by multiculturalism and the problems of adapting to an increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse society. One the one hand, there are fears that alienated Muslims and other minorities may create parallel societies away from mainstream institutions and values. On the other, many Whites do feel marginalised by the growth of non-White communities, with the ‘White flight’ from the multiracial urban centres to the suburbs or rural communities. A few months ago there was a documentary about the last Whites in the East End of London, which discussed how the number of Whites in this part of the capital was declining as they moved away and the older generation died off. Several of the people interviewed on the programme were Black and Asian, who lamented how the White members of their shared community were dwindling. One Muslim gent lamented that his son or children would not see any more White people in this area.

But the Tories don’t try to solve these problems constructively. They don’t try to bring people of different colours, ethnicities and religions together. They just try to exploit White, and particularly White English racism and resentment for their electoral advantage. 

The animus towards Scotland is a case in point. The poem’s recommendation that the Scots people should all be imprisoned behind a gigantic wall actually seems to me to be highly unoriginal. Apart from the fact that the emperor Hadrian did it with his wall, it was done again more recently in the horror flick World War Z. In this Hollywood blockbuster, the world is suffering from a zombie apocalypse. The whole of Scotland, or as near as makes no difference, gets infected, and so they’re sealed off from the rest of Britain behind a wall and an enormous part of gates. I did wonder what the great Scots philosopher and political scientist, Rab C. Nesbit, would have said about it all. Probably ‘What in the name of God! Govan’s no that bad!’

I don’t think the poem was by any means isolated. From what I can remember, it was probably part of a campaign against Scotland, the SNP and New Labour, and with the latter, specifically Gordon Brown. I can remember the Heil publishing a series of articles in which he more than suggested that Scotland was now far more privileged than England. Devolution meant that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish now had their parliaments and assemblies, but the English didn’t. And while the English couldn’t vote on Scots issues, thanks to devolution, the Scots were voting on English matters. Moreover, New Labour’s leadership was dominated by Scots – Tony Blair, Derry Irvine and Gordon Brown. The attacks on the Scots were a very cynical ploy by the Tories to overturn Labour’s majority. Labour held the majority of British constituencies, but this depended on their seats in Scotland. If those were removed, then the Tories would hold the majority of seats in England. I’ve heard that during New Labour’s term in office, the Tories were on the verge of breaking up and that there were suggestions that the party should be dissolved and rebranded instead as the ‘English Nationalists’. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do remember reading articles in the Heil about the fate of the Tory party if Britain and Scotland went their separate ways. This seems to be the background to that nasty little piece of anti-Scots bigotry in the Speccie.

And the Spectator tried the same with Blacks.

They had to be more careful about this, as they couldn’t get away with it to the same extent as their sneers about the Scots. The Scots are largely White Europeans, rather than a race, nor a persecuted minority in the same way as Blacks and other people of colour have been, and so it’s permissible to make jokes about them or abuse them in ways that would be viewed as racist if done to other groups. But the Spectator tried the same tactics. Way back c. 2004 it ran an article, ‘Blackened Whites’, argued that Whites were unfairly accused for racism. This started out by saying that despite all the rhetoric of multiculturalism and pluralism, there was one group that wasn’t welcome in the streets of central London: White men. London certainly is a very ethnically diverse city, and the last time I looked at the stats over a third of its population were Black or Asian. But that doesn’t mean that Whites aren’t welcome in central London, or other areas where there’s a large Black or Asian population. It looks to me that the article was attempting to play up the resentment some White men feel about affirmative action programmes aimed at ethnic minorities and women. And in this the Tories were – and still are – copying the Republicans, who were deliberately targeting ‘angry White men’.

And this is apart from the Speccie’s contributor, Taki, the Greek playboy, who regularly made racist and anti-Semitic comments in his column. Most recently he caused offence once again when he published a piece praising the Greek Golden Dawn, a bunch of Nazis, who beat up immigrants and left-wingers. One of their leaders was charged with the murder of a left-wing activist.

There is also the deeply ingrained racism of the Tory papers the Scum, Depress and Heil. Or the scandal of institutional Islamophobia in the Tory ranks, as well as the long tradition of racism within the Tory party. Some of us can still remember the scandal caused by the Union of Conservative Students and their racist antics, including the demand that the Tory party should adopt racial nationalism – the ideology of the Nazi fringe, like the National Front and BNP – as their official policy in the 1980s. Zelo Street has also published a series of articles about the findings of one individual on Twitter or Facebook, who revealed the viciously racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic posts by supporters of Boris Johnson and Rees-Mogge on social media.

Despite David Cameron’s efforts to modernise the party and clean up its image, the Tories are still very much a racist party, and so its no surprise that a sizable number of them are supporting Boris Johnson’s bid to lead it.

As for how we should deal with them, I remember the episode of Rab C. Nesbit in which Burnie, the younger of his two sons, decides he’s a Nazi. This ends with Nesbit grabbing Burnie’s ear to administer a suitable walloping while singing ‘Gettest thou to buggery, thou horrid little shite’. I don’t support cruelty to children, and we can’t do it to Johnson. Unfortunately.

But we can all recognise his racism and that of his vile party, and take our votes and our hopes for a better Britain elsewhere.

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Corbyn Is Quite Right to Demand Evidence against Trump’s and Tories’ Warmongering Accusations against Iran

June 16, 2019

A further two oil tankers have been destroyed by mysterious explosions in the Persian Gulf in addition to those that were blown up a week or so ago. As I write  nobody has come forward to claim responsibility. But Trump and the Tories already know who’s responsible: Iran. According to Mike’s account of this, the evidence for this is that the Iranians removed a mine that had attached itself to a tanker. Oh yes, and the United Arab Emirates claimed that the explosions were the work of a ‘sophisticated state actor’. And that’s it. Now it seems contrary to commonsense to me that the Iranians would be responsible for the bombings, if they had helped get rid of an explosive device. But as the saying goes, ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. Against this monumental lack of evidence, Corbyn has been one of the few voices of sanity against Trump and the Tories screaming that the Iranians must be responsible. He’s asked for more evidence and for Britain to ease tensions, rather than join the military escalation after Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran. So the usual right-wing loudmouths, hypocrites and warmongers, like former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, have immediately denounced him as siding with the Iranians. According to them, he’s some kind of traitor working for them against us, because he appeared several times on Iran’s Press TV.

Well, as Mike pointed out in his article about this, Corbyn did appear on Press TV. But as various people on Twitter have pointed out, he stopped going on it and taking their money in opposition to its ‘anti-West bias’. And far from turning a blind eye or worse to Iran’s atrocious record on human rights, he called 51 early day motions against the Iranian government on this issue. He is the seventh in the number of MPs, who have made the most condemnations of Iranian human rights abuses, ahead of 648 other members of the House. See the tweets reproduced in Mike’s piece by Tory Fibs. And the peeps on Twitter have also supported Corbyn’s call for more evidence by pointing out how their previous accusations of responsibility for attacks by various countries have also been false. Jewish Voice for Labour reminded people about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which the Americans claimed that the Viet Cong had attacked an American warship as a pretext for entering the Vietnam War. The truth was that they hadn’t. It was an outright lie. Chuka Umunna’s Flip-Flops pertinently tweeted

The people slagging off Jeremy Corbyn for this tweet are the same people who cheered for the Iraq War when Tony Blair, George W Bush and John Bolton insisted Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Don’t be fooled again.

A war with Iran will make the war with Iraq look like a pillow fight.

And Nadeem Ahmad tweeted

Jeremy Corbyn was right about Iraq, Libya, Syria, Palestine and he is right about Iran.

Britain needs Corbyn to be our Prime Minister. #Iran

They’re absolutely right. As Greg Palast pointed out in his book, Armed Madhouse, the Gulf War and the invasions of Iraq have had precious little to do with protecting democracy or advancing human rights. Saddam Hussein had zero weapons of mass destruction. It was purely about advancing western multinational corporate interests. The Neocons wanted to seize Iraq’s state industries and remove its tariff barriers, in order to create the kind of low tax, free trade economy based on absolute private industry they want for America. And the Americans and Saudis both wanted to seize Iraq’s oil reserves. The Neocons also wanted him gone because he supported the Palestinians against the Israelis.

The result of this has been absolute chaos and carnage. Before Hussein’s overthrow, Iraq was one of the most prosperous and secular states with the highest standard of living in the Middle East. Christians and other religious minorities were tolerated and had a higher degree of equality than in other Arab states. Healthcare and education were free, and women were also free to pursue careers outside the home. After the invasion, Iranian industry was comprehensively devastated as the state enterprises were privatised and sold to the multinationals and the Americans and Saudis seized the oil industry. They had it written into the country’s constitution that the oil industry could not be renationalised. The removal of the tariff barriers meant that the country’s domestic industry was deluged by cheap foreign products dumped on their markets. Their businesses could not compete, and there was a wave of bankruptcies. Unemployment shot up to over 60 per cent.

The secular state collapsed, so that women once again found it difficult and dangerous to pursue a career. Healthcare has been privatised. And there was civil war between Sunni and Shi’a to the point where Peace Walls of the type used to separate Loyalist and Republican communities in Northern Ireland had to be put up for the first time in Baghdad. The American army and mercenary companies ran amok. The mercenaries ran prostitution rings and shot Iraqi civilians for sport. The American army collaborated with Shi’a death squads in killing Sunnis. The invasion created the conditions for the rise of Daesh and their creation of an extreme theocracy. They destroyed precious archaeological and cultural monuments and treasures, including historic mosques and churches. This is apart from the destruction caused by the American forces, including Babylon when they occupied it. In Mosul Daesh filmed themselves destroying the pre-Islamic artifacts in the museum. They also went on a reign of terror killing Sufis, Shi’a and oppressing Christians and Yezidis, as well as executing gays and ordinary Muslims, who wanted to live in peace with those of different faiths. The Yezidi women were seized and sold as sex slaves. At least a quarter of a million people were killed as a result of the allied invasion, and seven million displaced.

And this is all set to repeat again in Iran. Only it may very well be worse, as Chuka Umunna’s Flip-Flips has pointed out.

Iran is a mosaic of different peoples. The majority religion is Twelver Shi’a, and 51 per cent of the population speak Farsi, the country’s official language. But there are also Kurds, Baluchis and Arabs, as well as other ethnic groups speaking languages relating to Turkish. Three per cent of the population are Christian Armenians, and there are also Zoroastrians, who practise the ancient monotheist religion of the Persian Empire, and Jews. There are also Baha’is, a religion founded in the 19th century, but which is regarded as a heresy by many Muslims and viciously persecuted by the regime. There is also an Anglican church in Tehran, whose clergy and congregation are indigenous Iranians.

Now I have absolutely no illusions about the Iranian regime. It is a theocracy, which limits women’s roles and rights. There is massive corruption, and trade unions, strikes and political opposition are all banned. The oil workers in the Arab-speaking part of the country are kept in conditions described as those of concentration camps, and kept docile by drugs supplied and distributed by the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards.

But the country does have a democratic component. Four seats in the country’s parliament, the majlis, are reserved for the non-Muslim minorities, and women possess some rights. Below the Supreme Leader, the religious head of state, is an elected president. Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran was the most industrialised and advanced economy in the region, and I have no doubt that it is still one of the leading nations in the region today. And there is growing popular discontent against the theocrats and their corruption.

And the American Neocons would dearly loved to invade the country. Some of this doubtless comes from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah, who was the West’s ally in the Middle East. The Shah had gradually become an absolute monarch after the overthrow of the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, in the 1950 in a CIA and British backed coup. He was overthrown because he dared to nationalise Anglo-Persian Oil, which later became BP. I don’t doubt that the Americans,  Saudis and general western oil interests want to seize the Iranian oil industry, just like they wanted Iraq’s. I also don’t doubt that they’d like to get their mitts on the 51 per cent of the Persian economy controlled by the state and the bonyads, the Islamic charitable foundations. They and the Israelis also wanted to topple the Iranian state because they are vehemently hostile to Israel and support the Palestinians.

And you can’t trust anything the Israelis says about Iran either.

A few years ago, Netanyahu was jumping up and down in front of the UN and anybody else, telling them that the Iranians were close to creating nuclear weapons to be used against them. It was all a lie, as even the head of one of Israel’s spy agencies, the Shin Bet, and several of their generals said. And despite the propaganda, Iran actually treats its Jewish citizens quite well.

And the American Neocons very definitely want to invade Iran. 

In the 1990s the Neocons drew up a list of seven nations they wanted to overthrow, including Libya, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, and Iran. It’s a plan that’s been carried out by successive American leaders, including Barack Obama and the ‘Queen of Chaos’ herself, Hillary ‘Killary’ Clinton.

If the West invades, the result will be exactly the same as the invasion of Iraq. There will be massive economic dislocation, the state and bonyad sector will be privatised and seized by multinationals. The oil industry, once again, will be looted and seized by the Americans and Saudis. The economy will collapse and there will be massive unemployment. And the country will also descend into a massive civil war between the various ethnic groups. The Kurds in the north have been fighting a war of independence in the north since before the Islamic Revolution. And some of the nomadic, Turkic-speaking peoples have also fought similar wars after their ancestral lands were seized for Farsi colonization. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, will die or be forced out of their homes. Jews, Christians and other religious minorities will also be persecuted in the religious backlash.

And the country’s immense archaeological and cultural heritage will be placed in danger.

Iran is an ancient country with a history going back almost to the origins of civilisation itself. This was shown in the 1950s with the excavation of Hasanlu, a settlement that dated back to the 9th century BC.

The ancient settlement of Hasanlu.

For centuries the Persian Empire was one of the superpowers of the ancient Near East, conquering the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires and challenging Egypt. The conquests of the Persian emperor, Cyrus, including Babylonia and Jerusalem, are recorded in the Cyrus Cylinder. This is in the British Museum, but was loaned to the Iranians a few years ago.

The Cyrus Cylinder

Among other monuments are a series of reliefs celebrating the exploits of the ancient Persian emperors at Behistun. These include a depiction of Darius receiving foreign dignitaries.

Iranian Relief showing the Emperor Darius

Other reliefs show the symbols of Zoroastrianism, the country’s ancient, indigenous religion, and its god, Ahura Mazda.

Persia continued to be a major centre of culture, art, science and literature after the Islamic conquests. Great literary works include the Shah-Nama of Firdawsi, his epic of the country’s mythic history, the poetry of Sa’adi and the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khaiyam. But Khaiyam was also a leading mathematicians and scientist. Persian artists also excelled in the miniature and book illustration, as the illustration below shows. It’s of the Prophet Mohammed attended by angels. Islamic law forbids the depiction of the Prophet, so Persian artists showed him with his face veiled.

Iran also has some of the most spectacular and holiest mosques in Shi’a Islam, which include similar depictions of Mohammed and Ali, the First Imam. Iranian art was also major influence on the Moghul art of India, and for centuries Farsi was also the language of diplomacy in parts of India.

It’s possible to go on and on about Iran’s rich culture and heritage, which is threatened by Trump’s and the Tories accusations, accusations which seem to be leading up to a pretext for war.

The Iranian state is perfectly capable of terrorism. In the 1990s they bombed a cafe used by Kurdish nationalists in Berlin. And more recently they attacked a British warship, and captured its crew before releasing them.

But there is no evidence they’re behind these attacks. It looks like the Americans and the British Neocon right in the Tories are trying to foment a war fever against Iran. But every opportunity should be taken to prevent a war, which will lead to further, massive carnage and bloodshed in the Middle East, the destruction of the Iranian economy and industry, and what democratic freedoms the Iranian people do possess. As well as the destruction of priceless archaeological monuments and treasures of art, literature and architecture, which will not only impoverish Iran, but also human culture globally.

Against these horrors, Corbyn is quite right to demand further evidence.

For further information, see:

Voxpoliticalonline.com/2019/06/15/hypocrites-challenge-corbyns-call-for-evidence-in-tanker-controversy/

All the illustrations with the exception of the Cyrus cylinder come from Royal Persia: Tales and Art of Iran, Carella Alden (New York: Parents Magazine Press 1972).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Examining Jeanette Winterson’s Ideas on AI and Literature

June 4, 2019

Last Saturday’s I for 1-2 June 2019 carried an interview in its ‘Culture’ section with the literary novelist, Jeanette Winterson, about her latest work, Frankissstein. This is another take on Frankenstein, with one strand of the book set in the contemporary world and exploring AI, the downloading of the human mind into computers and literature. Winterson’s the second literary novelist, following Ian McEwan, to turn to the world of robotics for their subject matter. I’ve critiqued both of them, based on reviews in the papers, because this comes across to me very much of another instance of ‘literary’ novelists appropriating Science Fiction subjects and issues, while disdaining and ignoring the genre itself.

Winterson’s interview with Max Liu was also very interesting in other respects, and worth reading. While I am not remotely inclined to read her book, and have real objections to some of her statements on philosophical grounds, I also found that there was much that she said, which I agreed with. Particularly about the exploitation of British communities under Brexit.

The Interview

The article, on page 49, was prefaced with the statement Jeanette Winterson talks to Max Liu about AI and why the novel could die if it doesn’t reinvent itself’. It ran

Jeanette Winterson would like to upload her brain to a computer. “It were possibl, I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to find out what it’s like to live without a body,” she says when we meet to discuss Frankissstein, her new novel about artificial intelligence. “I had a very religious upbringing, so to me, the idea that the body is just a house is normal.”

The 59-year-old wrote about her Pentecostal childhood in her semi-autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). For the past couple of years, she has been reading about AI and robotics at the same time as thinking about Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic, Frankenstein. In her latest novel, the young Shelley appears as a character.

“I started writing about Mary in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century then worked my way to the present,” says Winterson. “There was no point setting a novel about AI in the future, because I wanted readers to realise the future is here. We don’t know how far big money has gone in developing AI, but I suspect it’s much further than we think.”

Winterson believes “we’re living in an ahistorical world where people don’t know how we got here”, the pace of change since the Industrial Revolution leaving us bewildered. “By its nature, reading slows us down,” she says,”so I’m pushing against the acceleration of modern life, creating imaginative space for readers to inhabit. Anybody who can imagine something is in control.”

Her new novel’s present-day characters include Ry, a transgender doctor, and Winterson says: “One of my godchildren identifies as transgender and I’ve been reading a lot about that because I thought I needed to understand. The idea of identity being provisional fed into this novel. Much Western thought rests upon the idea that there is a core self that we can know and perfect, but probably there isn’t.

Ray falls in love with Ron, who is trying to make his fortune by designing sex dolls. Ron plans to exploit post-Brexit tax breaks by opening a factory in Wales. “I hate to see how my class has been manipulated by people who have no thought and no care for them,” says Winterson. “I’m ashamed of my country for turning its back on a European project and choosing nationalism.”

Were she to live for another 100 years, Winterson says she would retrain as a scientist. Does this mean she doesn’t see a future for the novel?

“The novel is only on its way out if it doesn’t change,” she says. “In the 80s, it was too middle-class and too male. Then Angela Carter came along and was so fresh, but she had a terrible time initially. The example of English literature’s conservatism that kills me is when Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac won the Booker in 1984 and Carter’s Nights at the Circus wasn’t even shortlisted. It was the year before I published Oranges and I just thought: “This is so dull.”

In Frankissstein, one character says the urge to write comes from vanity, but Mary counters that it’s about hope. Which is it from Winterson? “My writing is a message in a bottle. I won’t be here long enough to get my brain uploaded, so I’m chucking this message overboard in the hope it will move the conversation on.”

Moravec, Transhumanism and Max Headroom

It would be interesting to find out what Winterson had been reading as her research for her book. My guess it would almost certainly include Hans Moravec and the downloaders and transhumanists. They aim to upload their minds into machines. A little while ago they held a party at which they avowed their intention to meet each other on the other side of the Galaxy in a million years’ time. Which is some ambition. I think Moravec himself believes that by this middle of this century the technology should have been perfected that will allow a human brain to be read in such minute detail that its functions can be reproduced on computer. This was the premise behind the Max Headroom pilot, 20 Minutes into the Future. In this tale, broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s, Headroom, a computer-generated TV personality, is created when his human original, an investigative journalist in a dystopian future London, knocks himself unconscious going through a crash barrier to escape the villains. The journo’s body is retrieved, and used by a teenage computer whizzkid, Brice, who seems to spend his whole life in the bath, to create Headroom as an experiment. The character takes his name from the last thing his original sees before he goes through the barrier: a sign saying ‘Max Headroom’.

Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect

I also wonder if she read any of the SF literature about downloading and cyberspace, including one of the first novels to tackle the subject, John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect, published in 1970. This is about Bob Shairp, a man reduced to date and stored on computer tape. I haven’t read it, but according to Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree,

it is a deeply satirical book, homing in on the US Army, evangelism, newspapers and the like for its target, with an overall sense of fun reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Sheckley. (p. 307).

Future Shock and the Global Rate of Change

Winterson’s comment that it was useless to set the book in the future, as the future is already here, is very similar to the remarks I heard about two decades ago by William Gibson, one of the founders of the Cyberpunk SF genre. Speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of literature, Gibson said that the future was already here, it was just wasn’t spread out the same everywhere, so there were parts of the world, such as the developing countries, where it wasn’t present to the same extent as the more advanced West. As for her comments about living in an ahistorical age, where people don’t know how we got here, and the pace of change is accelerating, this sounds very close to Alvin Toffler and his idea of future shock, where societal change is now so advanced and rapid that it is profoundly disorienting. But it is possible to exaggerate the speed of such changes. I can remember reading an article a few years ago, that argued that the impact of modern technology is vastly overestimated. The internet, for example, it was claimed, isn’t half as revolutionary as it is made out as it is only a development of earlier technologies, like the telegram. It’s a contentious claim, but in many ways the most rapid technological, social and economic changes were in the century following Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1937. That was when Britain was transformed from an agricultural, almost feudal country into a modern, industrial society. Britain’s empire expanded massively, communications improved allowed the rapid movement of information, goods and people across the globe. It was the period when new transport technologies like the railway, the automobile, the electric tram, dirigible balloons, aeroplanes and the rocket were created, along with inventions like the X-Ray, electric light, the telegram, telephone, radio and the first experiments in television, and, of course, sound recording and the cinema. Contemporary technological advances can be seen as refinements or improvements on these, rather than completely new inventions.

Transgender People and the Question of Core Personality

I also have objections to her comments about whether or not there is a core, human personality. I’ve no doubt that one argument against it is that many people would be very different if they had had a different upbringing. If they’d been born into a different class, or allowed to study a particular subject at school or university, or if they’d decided to pursue a different career. And, obviously, if they’d been born a different gender. But twin studies suggest that people do have some aspects of their character determined by their biology rather than their upbringing. And I don’t think she makes her argument by pointing to transpeople. As I understand it, many transpeople believe very strongly that they have a core personality or nature. It’s just that this is at opposition to their biological gender. Hence their desire to change. It isn’t simply that they simply decide at some point that they want to change their sex, which would be the case if it was simply the case that they had no core personality. But perhaps Winterson’s godchild is different.

Computers and the Existence of Self 

I’m also suspicious of the idea, as it sounds rather close to the ideas of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmoore that consciousness is an illusion and that the brain is simply a meat machine for running memes, discrete units of culture like genes are discrete units of biological information. On the other hand, when she says that existing as a disembodied entity on a computer doesn’t seem strange to her because of her religious background, she’s in agreement with Paul Davies. In his book, God and the New Physics, he stated that he’s prepared to accept that life can exist outside the body because of the way computers could be used to simulate human personalities. I can remember reading that the wife of one of the leading downloaders was a Methodist minister. He commented about this apparent contradiction between their two disciplines by saying that they were both trying to do the same thing, but by different methods.

The Manipulation of the Working Class

I do agree wholeheartedly, however, with Winterson’s comments about how her class is being manipulated by people, who give them no thought and no care for them. The idea that the creation of tax breaks for businesses after Brexit would allow an amoral entrepreneur to build a factor for sex robots in Wales is all too credible. Just as I agree with her about Britain turning it’s back on the EU, though I also have strong criticisms of the European Union. But Brexit has been and is being used by the Tory extreme right and its related movements, like UKIP and Farage’s noxious Brexit people, to manipulate the working class and exploit them. If you look at what Boris Johnson and Farage want, the privatisation of the NHS to American private healthcare firms is very much on the table.

Conservatism, Sexism, Literature and Literary Snobbishness

She was also right about the conservatism and sexism of the literary world in the 1980s. Private Eye’s literary column attacked Hotel du Lac for its snobbishness at the time. And the Orange Prize for literature was set up because it was felt that women were being unfairly excluded from the main literary prizes. However, the remarkable success of women writers in winning the mainstream awards has also, in the view of Private Eye a few years ago, also called into question the reason for Orange Prize. Why have a separate prize for women when that year the lists were dominated by female writers? And as for Angela Carter, I wonder if some of the problems she had didn’t just come from her writing feminist magic realist tales and fairy stories, but also because the genre SF/Fantasy crowd liked her. Flicking through an old SF anthology I found in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a piece by her about literary theory along with pieces by other, firmly genre figures. A few years ago Terry Pratchett commented that the organisers of the Cheltenham Festival looked at him as if he was going to talk to his fans about motorcycle maintenance, and he was certainly subject to appalling snobbery by the literary critics when he started out. I think it’s therefore quite possible that Carter was disdained by those who considered themselves the guardians of serious literature because she was too genre. But I also wonder if Winterson herself, despite her deep love of Carter’s work, doesn’t also have the same attitude that sees genre fiction as somehow not proper literature, as she, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and the others write.

I have to say that I don’t see the death of novel being anywhere near imminent. Not from looking along the shelves at Waterstone’s, and particularly not in the genre fiction, crime, horror, and SF. But it says something about the apparent lack of inspiration in literary fiction that it is turning to SF for its subjects. Winterson said some fascinating things in her interview, but to me, genre SF still did AI, robots and downloading first and better than the mainstream novelists now writing about it.

 

Jeanette Winterson’s Cyberfeminist New Tale of Frankenstein, AI and Sex Robots

May 26, 2019

A week or so ago I put up several articles criticising Ian McEwan’s latest book as another example of mainstream, literary writers’ appropriation of Science Fictional subjects. As I said in these articles, what annoys me about this is the higher respect given to these works, even though genre authors have frequently tackled the subjects much better. Private Eye in its piece describing how the literary set were turning to robots and AI said that after McEwan’s book would come one by Jeanette Winterson. This is Frankissstein: A Love Story, which was reviewed in Friday’s issue of the I, for 24th May 2019 by Lucy Scholes, on page 44 of the paper.

I realise that it’s dangerous to comment on a book you’ve never read, and that reviews can be notoriously inaccurate guides to what a book or other work is actually like. I can remember the Oxford poet, Tom Paulin on the Late Review about two decades or more ago really attacking the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, as a piece of Nazi cinema in precisely so many words. He had a point in that some groups had felt that the film was somehow racist and discriminatory, particularly in the portrayal of Jar Jar Binks. Binks, it was held, was a caricature of Blacks, Hispanics or gays. But many others didn’t find anything racist or homophobic in the movie, and Paulin’s attack was itself a grotesque misrepresentation of the movie itself.

But Scholes’ brief description of the book and its themes raise issues that deserve comment and criticism.

The Plot

The book is split between two periods. The first is that night in 1816 in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva when Byron, his lover, Claire Clairmont, the Shelleys and their doctor, John Polidori, all met to write a ghost story, the evening which saw the birth of Mary Shelley’s tale of the monstrous creation of artificial, human life, Frankenstein. The second is a contemporary tale about a romance between a young transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who meets and falls in love with the charismatic Victor Stein at a cryonics facility in the Arizona desert. Stein is a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence, who, according to the review, ‘envisions a bodyless utopia in which race, faith gender and sexuality no longer exist.’

Caught up in this tale is Ron Lord, a millionaire, who has made his fortune from advance sex robots, and his partner, the evangelical Claire, who has designed a version for Christians, and an investigating journalist, Polly D. Ron Lord’s empire of sex robots its misogynistic. His deluxe model offers three orifices and interesting conversation, in which they tell the user he’s very clever and asks him if he knows anything about Real Madrid. Looking at their names, it seems very clear to me that they’re supposed to be the modern counterparts of Byron’s party 200 years ago. But it’s a moot point how accurate this portrayal is about what they would be like if they lived now. As for Claire’s invention of the ‘Christian Companion’, this seems to be a gibe by Winterson at Christian hypocrisy. Winterson’s a lesbian, who had a miserable childhood growing up in an extreme Christian sect. This formed the basis for his book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was adapted as a TV drama by the Beeb. This seems to have established the 9.00 Sunday night slot as the venue for intense dramas about gay women. It was followed a few years later by Fingersmith, a lesbian drama set in the Victorian underworld. And now there’s Gentleman Jack, now playing on BBC 1, based on a real Victorian aristocratic lady, who married her gay lover. I’m very much aware that many Christians do hate gays, and that in response many gay men and women have turned away from Christianity and religion. But this isn’t necessarily the case. I know one woman, who was brought up by her mother and her lesbian partner, who grew up perfectly well adjusted. She was deeply religious herself, and went on to marry a vicar. She also loves her mother, and respects her for the excellent way she feels her mother brought her up.

Cyberspace as Disembodied Platonic Realm

Some of the ideas in Winterson’s book also seems strangely dated. Like the idea of AI as offering a utopia in which people are disembodied entities without race, gender, sexuality or religion. This sounds like it’s based on the views of some of the cyberfeminists back in the 1990s. They hailed the internet as forum in which women would be free to participate as individuals without gender. Now there is a real issue here with misogyny on the internet. There are some sites and forums which are very hostile to women, so much so that a few years ago there were comments that there no women on the internet, as those who were seemed few and far between. But the solution to that problem is to create a culture in which women are free to participate and interact without their gender being issue, rather than forced to disguise or deny it.

It’s also vulnerable to the opposite criticism from feminist academics like Margaret Wertheimer. In her The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Wertheimer criticised cyberspace for being too masculine. It was a disembodied, Platonic realm of mind like the heaven of religious belief. Women weren’t interested in such ideal states, and so were put off it. This idea was influential. One of the museums and art galleries held an exhibition of Virtual worlds created by artists experimenting with the medium. One of the women artists, whose work was featured, included as part of her world the sound of the viewer breathing as they entered her artificial reality. She had done so, she told New Scientist, because the absence of any kind of physical interaction in these Virtual worlds was the product of male scientists and engineers, who made the passage through them like that of a disembodied being. As a woman, she wanted to rectify this through the inclusion of details that made it appear that the viewer was physically there.

It’s over 20 years since these arguments were made, and much has changed since then. There are now very many women on the internet, with female sites like Mum’s Net and the feminist Jezebel. And some of the online games and worlds, like Second Life, do allow their users to interact as physical entities as the games’ characters or citizens.

Robot-Human Romance and Sex

As for her view of sex robots, it’s true that the creation of an artificial woman purely as a sex slave is misogynist. At the moment such machines aren’t really much more than sophisticate sex dolls, and some of those, who use them do seem to be very misogynist. One of the denizens of the Manosphere, the Happy Humble Hermit, who really does despise women and feminism, apparently has a link on his web page to a firm making them. But despite dire warning that these machines are a threat to women’s status and real, genuine, loving or respectful sexual relationship, the existing sex robots aren’t popular. A Spanish brothel which specialised in them has had to get rid of them because of lack of custom. Women don’t have to fear being replaced by compliant, subservient female robots, as in Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives, just yet.

But science fiction also shows that there is an interest, at least among some people, for genuine romantic relationships between robots, and humans and robots. One of the Star Wars spin-off books published in the 1980s was Hardware Honeymoon, whose cover showed C-3PIO holding hands with a female robot. The robot seems to have become the subject of some women’s fantasies. One of the independent comics from California was Wet Satin, whose female creator based her stories on women’s sexual fantasies. One of these was about a robot, which looked remarkably similar to the Star Wars robot. Rather less luridly, Tanith Lee wrote a book in the 1980s about a woman having a romance with a robot in The Silver Metal Lover. You could go on. There is a desire for sex with robots, but this seems in most cases to be within the framework of a romantic relationship with a genuinely sentient being, not a mechanical sex slave.

Stein’s Disembodied Utopia Horrific

As for Stein’s idea of a post-human utopia of disembodied minds, this is profoundly unattractive, as Scholes herself says in her review, saying ‘As with all brave new worlds, though, the reality is rarely perfect’. It seems to be based on the Transhumanists hope that in the near future technology will have advanced so far that that humans will be able to download their minds into computers, so that they can exist as pure disembodied entities in cyberspace, or move into robot bodies, like the hero at the end of the South African SF film, Chappie. But Winterson’s, or Stein’s cybernetic dream of posthuman, post-flesh utopia is horrifically sterile. Part of what makes diversity and multiculturalism such powerful ideologies is that people are naturally drawn, fascinated with and treasure difference. It’s why western tourists travel around the world, to Asia, Africa and South America, to enjoy the experience of different cultures and meeting people of different races and religions. There is friction and hostility between different peoples, all too often exploding into horrific violence. But the reduction of humanity to disembodied minds doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t genuinely promote tolerance, equality and the feeling of common humanity so much as negates the problem by destroying the physical and spiritual differences that form the basis of human identity. It’s certainly not an idea that’s popular in SF. In just about all the Science Fiction I’ve read, people retain their gender and other aspects of their identity even after they cross over into cyberspace. When they appear, either in cyberspace itself, or conjured up in computer displays for characters in the real world, they appear as they did in life, complete with their gender and race. And I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of people would find that far more preferable to the strange disembodied existence Stein offers in Winterson’s book.

LGBTQ and Transgender Issues With Winterson’s/ Stein’s Utopia

Which also raises the question about its handling of LGBTQ issues. The inclusion of a transgender character seems to be a deliberate attempt to make the book very relevant to contemporary issues, now that transgender rights have overtaken gays as the issue of the moment. Some transgender people seem to look forward to a future without physical gender. I can remember reading an interview with the first, or one of the first, people to undergo the operation, April Ashley, in an interview in one of the Daily Mail’s Sunday supplements years ago. She looked forward to a time when humanity would have moved beyond gender, and pregnancy would become a matter of simply taking a pill. But I think such people are a very small minority. Back in the 1990s there was a demand from gay Science Fiction fans for Star Trek to tackle homosexuality and include gay characters or stories. This was several years before the new, revived Dr. Who did so, and so would have been extremely controversial. Star Trek – The Next Generation tried to make an effort in that direction with a story in which Lieutenant Riker formed a relationship with a member of an alien species, the J’Nai, who had evolved past gender. However, from time to time there were throwbacks, who were persecuted. They would be hunted down and then treated so that they were proper neuter members of their society. The alien with whom Riker has fallen in love is one such throwback, a female. She is caught by the authorities. Riker tries to free her, but it is too late. She is now neuter, and so has no interest in any sexual or romantic relationship with him. The story’s a metaphorical attempt to deal with the underlying issues around homosexuality, gender identity and forbidden sexuality, but was bitterly criticised by gay SF fans because it didn’t tackle the issue of homosexuality overtly. The Federation was, remember, an organisation in which humanity had moved beyond racial and cultural prejudice and sexism, and gay Trekkers and their supporters felt that the prejudice against homosexuality would also have no place in such a future. But they were also highly critical about how the story presented gays. They felt that it showed them unfairly as wanting to abolish gender. And Winterson’s book does seem to do the same with its depiction of a romance between the transgender character, Ry Shelley, and Stein, with his dream of an asexual disembodied world.

Conclusion

I may well be doing Winterson’s book a great disservice, but it does seem peculiarly dated for a book which is trying so desperately to be acutely relevant. And I do feel that readers would probably get a better idea of the issues about cyberspace and AI by going elsewhere. I think there’s probably a better fictional treatment of these subjects waiting to be written. And as for human-robot romance and sex, this has also been very extensively explored in genre SF. And some of this almost certainly represents what people really want from such relationships than simple sex robots.

As for the book’s inclusion of Mary Shelley, Byron, Claire Clairmont and Polidori, Brian Aldiss also did it, or something like it, in his 1970’s SF story Frankenstein Unbound. This was filmed by B-movie maven Roger Corman. It’s not supposed to be a good film, but even so, it seems far more to my taste than Winterson’s book.

 

 

 

Rees-Mogg’s Book Savaged by Critics

May 21, 2019

Here’s an interesting piece from yesterday’s I for 20th May 2019. It seems that Jacob Rees-Mogg fancies himself as a literary gentleman, and has written a book about a number of eminent Victorians. And it’s been torn apart by the critics.

The article by Dean Kirby, ‘Rees-Mogg’s ‘silly’ book torn apart by critics’, on page 5 of the paper, reads

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book has been panned by critics as “staggeringly silly”. 

The work by the Conservative MP, The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain, tells the story of 12 figures from the era. 

But, writing in the Sunday Times, historian Dominic Sandbrook described the book as “so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly bad”. And in a Times review, A.N. Wilson said it was “staggeringly silly”. 

Rees-Mogg clearly has literary as well as political ambitions, and it looks very much like he’s using the one to boost the other. Boris desperately wants to be the leader of the Tories, and published a biography of Churchill a year or so ago. Presumably this was partly to show how he was a true Tory intellectual – if such a creature can be said to exist – and was somehow the great man’s spiritual and ideological are. Rees-Mogg is also angling for the Tory leadership, and he’s done the same, though in his case it’s a selection of the 12 great figures from the Victorian period that he feels have created modern Britain.

I’m not remotely surprised he’s chosen the Victorians, and even less surprised by the rubbishing its received from Sandbrook and Wilson. The Victorian period was an age when modern Britain began to take shape. It was a period of massive social, economic, political and technological change, as Britain moved from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one. New scientific ideas emerged, were debated and taken up, there was rapid technological innovation with the creation of the railways and the spread of mechanised factories. Overseas, the British Empire expanded massively to take in Australia, New Zealand, the Canadian West, parts of Africa and Asia. It’s a fascinating period, and Tories and Libertarians love to hark back to it because they credit Britain’s movement to global dominance to the old Conservative principles of free trade and private property, as well as Christian benevolence. It is a fascinating period, and certainly Christian philanthropy did play a very great part in the campaigns against the slave trade and other movements for social reform, such as the Factory Acts.

But it was also a period marked by grinding poverty, misery and social upheaval. Trade unions expanded as workers united to fight for better pay and conditions in the work place, Liberal ideology changed to keep up with the movement in practical politics towards state regulation and interference, and socialism emerged and spread to challenge the dominance of capitalism and try to create a better society for working people. The Victorian period also saw the emergence of feminism following the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman in the late 18th century. And the massive unrest in Ireland caused by the exploitation of the Roman Catholic Irish peasantry by absentee landlords, and the hostile reaction by some elements of the British establishment during the Potato Famine, has created a legacy of bitterness and violence that continues to this day. I doubt that Rees-Mogg or any of the other Tories are very enthusiastic about tackling or describing these aspects of Victorian history.

I’m also not surprised that the book’s been savagely criticised. Rees-Mogg supposedly read history at Oxford, but nobody quite knows what period he studied. And his ignorance of some extremely notorious events is woeful. Like when he claimed that the concentration camps we used against the Afrikaners during the Boer War were somehow benevolent institutions. In fact, they were absolutely horrific, causing tens of thousands of deaths from starvation and disease among women and children, who were incarcerated there. And which, again, have left as lasting legacy of bitterness right up to today.

I think any book on the Victorian period written by Rees-Mogg would be highly simplified, ridiculous caricature of the events and issues of the period. Like Boris’ book on Churchill, I doubt that it’s a serious attempt to deal objectively with all aspects of its subject, including the more malign or disturbing events and views, rather than an attempt to present the Tory view. An exercise in Tory historical propaganda, as it were.

What’s also interesting is that it’s been the right-wing press – the Times and Sunday Times – that’s savaged it. This seems to me to show that Rees-Mogg’s ‘magnificent octopus’, to quote Blackadder’s Baldrick, was too much of a travesty even for other Tories, and that there is a sizable body of the Tory party that doesn’t want him to be leader. Or at least, not Rupert Murdoch. And as the Tory party and the Blairites have shown themselves desperate to do whatever Murdoch says, this means there’s going to be strong opposition to a bid from Mogg to become Prime Minister.

Tommy Robinson Exploiting the Misery of the White Working Class

May 20, 2019

Last Monday, 13th May 2019, the great man at the Zelo Street blog put up an article explaining how Tommy Robinson was avoiding the more prosperous areas of northwest England to concentrate instead on the poorest, and those areas with the highest levels of depression. The virulent anti-Islam campaigner, late of the EDL, Pegida UK and the BNP, was avoiding towns like Crewe, Chester, Southport, Lancaster, Northwich, Winsford, Runcorn, St Helens, Ellesmere Port, Chorley, Wilmslow, Ashton-under-Lyne, and places like them. Instead, he was concentrating on towns like Brinnington, Birkenhead, Blackpool, Rochdale, Burnley, and Barrow-in-Furness.

Brinnington has the highest levels of clinical depression in the north and midlands. According to the Groaniad, it accounted for 23.6 per cent of all cases seen by GPs in the town. Four other areas with the highest levels of depression are in or near Birkenhead – Bidston Hill, Tranmere, Woodchurch and Birkenhead Central. Another two are in Fleetwood, near Blackpool. Robinson is due to visit that fair town, as well as Carlisle, which has another area with a very high incidence of depression. Three more areas are Rochdale, whose Heywood area Robinson was due to visit on Saturday. Robinson cancelled a visit to Blackburn, but turned up in Burnley, which has two of England’s most deprived towns near it. He also planned on visiting Barrow-in-Furness, which has an acute heroin problem.

Zelo Street concluded

And by pure coincidence, Stephen Lennon is favouring the area with a visit this week. All the while, The Great Man is waving his begging bowl, telling those amongst whom he comes that he needs their help. That they live on the margins of society, and he lives in the lap of luxury, does not seem to occur to those willing to cheer him on.
Living high on the hog while preying on misery. Welcome to the Tommy Tour.
See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2019/05/tommy-robinson-campaign-trades-on-misery.html

It’s not just that Robinson is exploiting the poverty and poor mental health afflicting the people of those towns, he’s also trying use their misery to distract them from the real economic and political causes of their problems. These areas have suffered from the decline of traditional industries, resulting in high unemployment rates. Which would also account for the massive rise in depression due to the lack of self-esteem, hopelessness and sheer despair. These are areas that have not been helped by the neoliberalism embraced and enthusiastically promoted by the Tories, the Lib Dems and Blairite Labour. Thatcher made it very clear that she did not believe in providing any help to failing industries or direct state interference in the economy. Failing companies were to be allowed to fail, on the grounds that state aid was inefficient and would prevent the operation of the market forces that would see new industries take off to provide work and prosperity.

This hasn’t happened. These areas are still poor and depressed. And it was situation made worse in the 1990s when the Tories decided to destroy whatever remained of the British mining industry. This was touted, again, as saving the country from supporting a failing and uneconomic industry, but the real reason was to destroy the NUM, which had overthrown Heath’s government in the 1970s.

But Conservative ideology prevents any discussion of the failings of private industry or the precious market forces, which the supporters of the free market are constantly telling us must be obeyed at all costs, and will ultimately bring back jobs and wealth. And so scapegoats must be found to explain why the free market isn’t working as it should, or to direct popular anger away the businessmen, think tanks and politicians pushing these policies. And so Fascists like Robinson accuse racial or religious minorities or outside groups of causing these problems. The Nazis made Jews synonymous with capitalism, and so claimed they had created a socialist Germany when they persecuted and murdered them. Capitalism, however, was retained and encouraged, although private industry was subject to a complex system of state planning. George Orwell described it as ‘the socialism of fools’. And right-wing populist politicians across the world, from Trump in America to the EDL, UKIP and the Brexit party in Britain are doing it today. Aided by mainstream Conservatives.

The right-wing press, and particularly the Heil and Speccie, have been telling their working class readers that their poor and underprivileged, not because of Tory policies that have decimated manufacturing industry and are destroying the NHS and welfare state for the profit of big business. No, it’s because high-spending Labour authorities and liberal ‘political correctness’ are deliberately diverting funding to undeserving groups, like Blacks, other ethnic minorities, gays and in the case of Tommy Robinson and his supporters, Scary Muslims.

The right have been doing this since Bacon’s Rebellion in 17th century. This was a revolt in Virginia where the slaves were joined by White indentured servants. The rebellion was put down, but to ensure that Blacks and poor Whites never united again to challenge the social hierarchy, laws were passed that separated Blacks from Whites, and gave Whites a higher social status. But crucially, these laws did not improve conditions for the indentured White servants. Materially, they gained nothing from these laws. Nevertheless, they had the psychological effect intended. From then on, White indentured servants didn’t make common cause with the slaves against their exploitation, or at least, not so much, because Blacks were now their social inferiors.

And it’s the same here. Robinson fully supports neoliberalism. Indeed, in his attack on a female academic at Liverpool John Moores University, he defended it against left-wing academics such as herself. He and his supporters offer precious little that will make the lives of ordinary working people better. The only thing they offer is more division and hatred.

There are issues with Islam, such as the continuing malign influence of the preachers of hate and the dangers of self-radicalisation for the young and disaffected through the internet. And authorities have targeted ethnic minorities for a greater proportion of aid because these groups are, or have been, more deprived, or have specific needs that can only be addressed through projects directed to them. Like the rape helpline for women from ethnic minorities, which Robinson so grossly misrepresented as deliberately excluding Whites and legitimising the assault of White women. It wasn’t the case, and his vile tweets about it resulted in the phone line having to be shut down because of the abusive calls they were receiving, thus depriving extremely vulnerable women of the help they needed.

Fortunately, Robinson’s tour of the northwest isn’t going as smoothly as he planned. A string of towns have made it clear that he is not welcome, there have been large counterprotests. And to cap it all, the internet platform, Stripe, that makes it possible for people to donate their hard earned cash to him, has thrown him off. Which makes it a bit more difficult for him to scrounge off the poor and misinformed.

Robinson poses as a member of the working class, defending them from the politically correct Left and militant Islam. He isn’t. He’s a very rich man, thanks to the money he’s been given by his followers. And he offers nothing to the working class except more neglect and poverty, but with racial hatred and suspicion added. He’s a disgrace.

This Thursday, those who really want to see working people’s lives improved should ignore him, and his lies about Europe and Muslims, and vote for somebody else instead.

What A Surprise! Anti-NHS Thinktank Funded by Tobacco and Fast Food Industries

May 18, 2019

One of the fascinating articles Mike put up yesterday was about an article in the British Medical Journal that reported that Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing think tank that funds the Tories and which demands the privatisation of the NHS, is funded by all the industries that actively damage people’s health: tobacco, gambling, alcohol, sugar and fast food. One of the major donors to this secretive think tank is British-American Tobacco. The report noted that the IEA had attacked campaigns against smoking, drinking and the obesity academic, and raised concerns that a future leader of the Tories would side with these industries against the interests of the British people.

Well, as Bill Hicks used to say ironically, ‘Colour me surprised!’

I don’t wish to sneer at the doctors and medical professionals behind this article, and am absolutely fully behind its publication. But I’m not remotely surprised. It’s almost to be expected that a think tank that demands absolute privatisation and deregulation in the interests of complete free trade, should be funded by those industries, which have the most to lose from government regulation. And in the case of the Tories, that has always included tobacco, alcohol and gambling. Way back in the early ’90s under John Major, when Brits were just beginning to get into the habit of binge drinking and the government was considering allowing pubs and nightclubs all day licences, there were concerns about the damaging effects of alcohol. People were demanding greater regulation of the drinks industry. But this was being blocked by the Tories, because so many Tory MPs has links to these companies. This was so marked that Private Eye actually published the names of these MPs, and the positions they held in various drinks companies.

As for gambling, the Labour government after the War tried to crack down on this, but it was the Tories under MacMillan, who legalised the betting shops. Later on, Tony Blair, taking his ideas from them, had plans to expand the British gambling industry further with the opening of ‘super-casinos’, one of which was to be in Blackpool, I believe. But fortunately that never got off the ground. Unfortunately, there has been a massive rise in gambling addiction, despite all the warnings on the the adverts for online casinos.

The Tories have also had a long relationship too with the tobacco industry, resisting calls for bans on tobacco advertising. Private Eye also reported how, after Major lost the election to Blair, former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke then got a job with British-American Tobacco. As did, I believe, Saint Maggie of Grantham herself. BAT was employing him to open up markets in the former Soviet central Asian republics. The Eye duly satirised him as ‘BATman’, driving around in a car shaped like a giant cigarette, shoving ciggies into people’s, mostly children’s, mouths.

The Institute of Economic Affairs is a particularly nasty outfit that’s been around since the mid-70s. For a long time, I think it was the only think tank of its type pushing extreme free market ideas. A couple of years ago I found a tranche of their booklets in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham. One was on how the state couldn’t manage industry. This looked at four examples of state industrial projects, which it claimed were incompetently run and a waste of money. One was the Anglo-French supersonic airliner, Concorde. The booklet had a point, as many of the industries they pointed to, like British Leyland, were failing badly. Concorde when it started out was a massive white elephant. It was hugely expensive and for some time there were no orders for it. But now it is celebrate as a major aerospace achievement. While the British aircraft industry has decline, the French used the opportunities and expertise they developed on the project to expand their own aerospace industry.

Looking at the booklet, it struck me how selective these examples were. Just four, out of the many other nationalised industries that existed at the time. And I doubt the pamphlet has worn well with age. Ha Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism and John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics have very effectively demolished their shoddy and shopworn free market capitalism, and shown how, rather than encouraging industry and prosperity, it has effectively ruined them. Read these books, and you’ll see just why we need Corbyn, whatever the champions of free market capitalism scream to the contrary.

Oh yes, and ladies, particularly, be warned. This is an anti-feminist organisation. Mike mentions in his article that it has a spokeswoman, Kate Andrews, who turns up regularly on Question Time to push for the privatisation of the NHS. Or rather, its reform, as they don’t want to alarm the populace by being too open about what they want to do. Despite this feminine face, this is an organisation that has very traditional views about gender roles. One of the pamphlets I found had the jaunty title Liberating Women – From Feminism. The booklet was written by women, and I know that some women would prefer to be able to stay home and raise their children rather than go to work. And that’s fine if it’s their choice. But this outfit would like to stop women having a choice. Rather than enabling women, who choose to stay home, to do so, they would actively like to discourage women from pursuing careers.

The IEA really is a grubby organisation, and the sooner it’s discredited everywhere, the better. Like the Tories.

Transgender Activists Making Death Threats Against their Opponents

May 15, 2019

Private Eye on Threats and Abuse Sent to SNP Joanna Cherry

This fortnight’s Private Eye for 17th – 30th May 2019 has an article in its ‘HP Sauce’ column, ‘Social Niceties’, on page 11 about the SNP MP Joanna Cherry’s questioning of Twitter UK’s head of public policy, Katy Minshall in parliament two weeks ago. Cherry, a Queen’s Council, stated that the wanted to concentrate on what Twitter is doing to protect women. The result of this has been that Cherry herself, according to the article, now needs police protection.

The examples of threatening and abusive content posted on Twitter given by the article seem to be by militant transgender activists against their opponents. The Eye reports that during the debate, Cherry showed Minshall a video clip posted by the Gamer Sonic Fox, ‘This is what I do to TERFS’, which shows a woman having her neck repeatedly cut open. TERFS is an acronym for feminists, who exclude transwomen from their definition of womanhood: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists.

The Eye states that New Statesman journo Helen Lewis also protested against the clip. She was sent a video showing a man flaying a woman alive, with the comment “SHUT THE FUCK UP”. Lewis complained to Twitter, which initially claimed the tweet didn’t break their rules against behaviour, before finally changing its mind after Cherry said that she herself was going to challenge Minshall about it.

Cherry was herself then sent a violent image with the message “SHUT THE FUCK UP TERF”. She was then abused as a transphobe, which she responded to by posting to her proud record of championing LGBTQ rights for over 30 years. Cherry said ‘I am saddened by abusive nature of the current Twitter debate. As I have repeatedly stated publicly I deplore any abuse directed towards trans people.’

Lily Madigan, a 21 year old transgender activist and Labour Students’ national women’s officer, then attacked Cherry, saying “You can tell a lot about someone by how they respond to being called transphobic. This isn’t even an apology.’ Apparently Madigan has a record of abusing feminists on twitter.

Cherry received further violent and abusive tweets and messages after she raised her concerns about such messages being sent to women. One of those she received included a picture of a gun and the words “DO IT”, along with details of her regular constituency surgery. As a result, when she held her constituency surgery last last Friday, she had to be accompanied by two police protection officers.

Private Eye has published several articles about the abusive behaviour of transgender activists ranting against their feminist opponents as TERFs. After they argued that such rants by one activist were misogynist, they printed a later article reporting that the person had tried to rebut the criticism by claiming that most TERFS were men. Which is obviously unlikely, as it’s doubtful many men are radical feminists.

Speaker Cancels Conference Appearance due to Death Threats

I was talking to a friend of mine this weekend, who told me of another case where a speaker had to pull out of a conference, one that was incidentally completely unconnected to gender issues, because of death threats from transgender activists. It therefore appears that these death threats are not isolated incidences but symptomatic of a deeply militant, viciously intolerant attitude among some transgender activists.

I confess I don’t really understand all the points of the debate, but I believe it isn’t just a case of cisgender prejudice against transpeople. I believe that LGBTQ people should not be persecuted, and that transpeople should, generally, enjoy all the legal rights of the sex to which they have transitioned, and be regarded as members of such gender. But I think there are also genuine issues that need to be discussed. For example, the argument that some transwomen had an unfair advantage over cis-women, stemming from the time when they were biologically male, and so have higher testosterone levels, seems entirely reasonable. As is concerns that some children, who may be unhappy with their biological gender, are in danger because of a desire to see the child transition while that may not be appropriate. One of the women making this argument has done so from her own experience. When she was a child, she insisted that she was a boy and demanded that she be called Jack instead of her birth name. However, when she hit puberty, she left all that behind. I am not saying that this is true in each and every case, only that it may be in some case, and that the woman is right to express her fears.

These are very controversial issues in which tempers run high for reasons that are absolutely obvious. But it needs very careful thought and debate. It will not be solved through threats and intimidation, and I have absolute contempt for anyone who makes them, whatever their position on this issue is.

 

 

Time Travel Tale of Scientists Warning of Ecological Collapse: Gregory Benford’s ‘Timescape’

May 10, 2019

Gregory Benford, Timescape (London: Victor Gollancz 1980).

Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, has asked me to do a review of Gregory Benford’s time machine book, Timescape. I read it a few years ago, having bought the 1996 edition, over a decade and a half after it was first published. It is just a bit dated now in its prediction of life in 1998, but still well-worth reading if you’re into physics and hard SF.

Benford, the ‘Galactic Centre’ Novels and Timescape

Gregory Benford is an American astronomer and hard SF writer. He’s probably best known for his ‘Galactic Centre’ series of novels. Set thousands of years in the future, this is about the last remnants of humanity battling for survival against a ruthless and almost overwhelmingly superior machine civilisation, the Mechs, at the centre of the Galaxy. Hard SF is the type of science fiction that tries as far as possible to keep to established scientific rules. Such as, for example, the inviolability of the rule of Relativity, so that there are no Faster Than Light drives taking humans to the stars in a matter of hours, days or months rather than years. But that doesn’t mean ruling out other scientific advances, like time travel. Several of the ‘Galactic Centre’ novels are set in an artificial environment within the Black Hole at the centre of our Galaxy, where careful engineering by alien creatures formed of pure magnetism have merged two Black Holes to form an artificial environment of warped space time, within which humans and organic aliens are able to seek sanctuary from the Mechs. The curvature of spacetime and stress cracks within it in this environment allow the inhabitants to travel backwards and forwards in time. One of the novels features the adventures of a modern human family, who are forced to flee forward in time as the Mechs invade, almost to the end of time itself.

Brief Synopsis

Timescape doesn’t go that far, and is very firmly set in the recent past, and near future according to the time it was written. It’s the tale of two scientists and their friends, Gordon Bernstein and his fellows at CalTech in 1963, and Gregory Markham, an American scientist and his friend Markham, at Cambridge Uni in 1998. Bernstein is a young graduate student, who detects strange signals from an experiment he and his fellows are running, signals that he gradually begins to realize cannot be explained as just random noise or the product of background radiation. In 1998 Markham and Renfrew are working on ways to generate tachyons, faster than light subatomic particles that will travel back in time through bombarding iridium with high energy particles. They hope that by creating such particles, they may be able to use them to send a warning to the past.

The Earth in this very near future is dying. The ecology is collapsing through a deadly bacteriological bloom that destroys vegetable and animal life. The result is global famine, poverty and social unrest, with food rationing and bands of hostile, violent beggars moving across England. Markham and Renfrew hope they can send a message to the past detailing how the disease can be fought and eradicated in order to save civilisation by preventing the catastrophe occurring in the first place.

Time Travelling Subatomic Particles from Space

The idea of using subatomic particles and quantum physics to contact the past is highly speculative, of course, but not unreasonable. Some interpretations of quantum physics suggest that information is able to move backwards through time, so that events in the future are able to determine the results of certain experiments, for example. There was also speculation in the 1990s that some subatomic particles reaching Earth from despite might be tachyons in origin. I can’t quite remember whether these were a type of neutrino or meson, but the theory was that they were produced by high energy events in space, such as supernovas. This produced tachyons, which traveled backwards in time until they decayed to become neutrinos or mesons or whatever, which were then able to be detected by scientists.

The Connecticutt College Professor’s Time Machine

Also in the 1990s came a plan by a Black professor at Connecticutt Community college to build a real, working time machine. This wouldn’t be able to transport people, just other subatomic particles back into the past. The idea was to create an Einstein-Rosen Condensate of iridium ions. An Einstein-Rosen Condensate is a strange state of matter where a plasma – an ionised gas is supercooled so that its component particles behave as a single particle. This plasma was to be whirled around in a chamber mimicking the spin of stars. Stars are so massive that as they spin, they pull the fabric of space time itself around after them. The effect has been observed around the Sun, providing confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It has been suggested that this effect could be used in the case of extremely massive objects, like Black Holes, to travel back in time. You simply enter the region of space being dragged around by the Black Hole, and then travel in the opposite direction to the local movement of spacetime. This should make you go back in time, it is suggested, and so you should be able to leave that area of space some time in the past, before you entered it. The professors plan worked along similar lines. Electrons would be shot into the chamber in the opposite direction to the circulation of the condensate. This should allow them to travel back into the past. If the scientists running the experiment found a larger number of electrons in the condensate than normal or otherwise explained, before they had started shooting them into it, then it would mean that the electrons had traveled there from the future. Time travel, or at least that possibility of communication between past and future, would be possible.

This obviously got very many people very excited. H.G. Wells’ grandson, who directed the ’90s version of his grand-dad’s classic, The Time Machine, appeared in a documentary telling us that the age of time travel was almost upon us. The experiment was due to be run aboard one of the space shuttles, but I think it must have been cancelled when one exploded, thus grounding the fleet and finally endings its use.

Time and the Weird World of Quantum Physics

Benford warns in his acknowledgements that

Many scientific elements in this novel are true. Others are speculative, and thus may well prove false. My aim has been to illuminate some outstanding philosophical difficulties in physics. If the reader emerges with the conviction that time represents are fundamental riddle in modern physics, this book will have served its purpose.

Which must be one of the rare occasions when a scientist writes a book to show how mysterious and incomprehensible a scientific phenomenon is, rather than how it can be grasped and understood. This famously applies to quantum physics. As one prominent scientist said of this subject, you don’t understand it, you just get used it.

Science and Society in the ’60s and ’90s

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of physics in the book, though none of its so hard that only physics graduates, let alone the late Stephen Hawking, would be the only people that understand it. And the book does an excellent job of showing what it must have been like doing physics at an advanced level in the early 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. Gordon Bernstein, the hero of the early years, is a New York Jew, whose girlfriend, Marjorie, is a Conservative gentile. As his investigations proceed, he first believes that the signals are messages from space before coming to understand they’re from the future instead. He faces scepticism and opposition from his colleagues and academic supervisors, and risks being failed and his academic career and research terminated. as he goes on and his theories become public, he suffers from the attentions of the press and a procession of cranks, who traipse through his office door offering their own weird theories. I think this is a common experience to many astronomers and cosmologists. I can remember reading a comment by one such scientist that hardly a week went by without him receiving in the mail letters from people explaining their ‘theory of the universe’. At the same time, Bernstein’s relationship with his girlfriend also comes under pressure. His family don’t approve, and would like him to marry a nice Jewish girl instead. There are also political disagreements. Penny and her friends fully support the Vietnam War, views that aren’t shared by the liberal Bernstein. But in a twist, it’s Penny who understands that the waiters at their favourite restaurant are gay, is comfortable with that fact.

Back in Blighty in 1998, Markham’s and Renfrew’s backgrounds are solidly middle class. This is still a world where women were expected to stay home and cook, and the aristocracy still wields power and influence. A society in which entitled public school boys shout their food and alcohol choices in the local pub in Latin. It’s a world in which Markham is an outsider, and resents the privilege and condescension of the upper class Brits among which he moves.

Timescape and ’70s Fears of the End of Civilisation

Like much near-future SF, the book’s now dated. 1998 is now twenty years ago, and fortunately civilisation has not collapsed. Not yet. The book was partly a product of the sense of crisis in the 1970s, when many people really did fear the end of civilisation through industrial and social unrest and ecological collapse. It was predicted that overpopulation would result in mass famine, while the resources would run out and the Earth itself become uninhabitable through massive pollution. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened. Not yet. But there is still a real danger of global civilisation collapsing through irreversible ecological damage from climate change and pollution, and algal blooms are poisoning the water in some parts of the world. Despite it’s age, the book thus remains acutely relevant.

Social Change and the Rise of Domestic Computers

In other respects, the book as a prediction of the future hasn’t worn quite as well. The advance of feminism in the 1980s and ’90s meant that traditional gender roles were breaking down as women sought careers outside the home. By 1998 there was the expectation that both partners in a relationship would be working, and the old domestic arrangement in which women looked after children and the home and were supported by their husbands was seen as anachronistic. At the same time, he also doesn’t predict the advances in information technology that has produced the home and personal computers or mobile phones. There is, however, a machine called the Sek, which is a type of answerphone and database, if I recall correctly.

Conclusion

These differences between the book’s expectation of what the ’90s would be like and the reality actually don’t make much difference to the enjoyment of the story. Science Fiction tends not to be very good at predicting the future. If it was, then humanoid robots with a comparable level of intelligence and genuine consciousness, like Star Wars’ C3PO, would be in every home and we would already have colonies on the Moon, Mars and Earth orbit. We don’t have any of that. But we do have personal computers, the internet and mobile phones, as well as a variety of industrial machines, which weren’t predicted. Many SF novels still remain worth reading even though their predictions of the future, or the contemporary present in which they were set, are dated. These include such classics as those of H.G. Wells’, Jules Verne, John Wyndham and so on. What matters in the story and the writer’s ability to create a convincing, fascinating world, which Timescape does.

While some of its details are inaccurate, this is still a readable, gripping story with a solid base in plausible science, and whose warning about environmental decline is, horrendously, just as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1980.

 

Radio 4 Programme Today on the Decline of Women in Computing

April 28, 2019

According to this week’s Radio Times, There’s a problem on Radio 4 today at 1.30 pm, ‘A Job for the Boys’ examining the decline of the number of women working in computing. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

Women once made up 80 per cent of the computer industry, but now the figure is less than 20 per cent. Mary Ann Sieghart explores the reasons for this phenomenon and reveals it’s hidden and disturbing consequences. (p. 121).

Yesterday’s ‘Saturday Live’ programme at 9.00 am carried a piece on Dame Stephanie Shirley, a female tech pioneer who set up Britain’s first all-female software company in 1962. That programme’s been broadcast, but it may still be available on BBC iplayer.