About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

20 people I admire (IX): Hadley Freeman

Who? American journalist with her home base in the United Kingdom.

Why? Though I get the impression she’s gotten a little out of the spotlight and has veered off into a number of side projects in the past two years (plus, she had a kid), there was always something about her dry, on-point delivery (if you can say that about written words?) and constant realisation of the futility of some of the topics she covered that made it a joy even reading reports about star-studded red carpet events.

What resonates with me?
Freeman and I are of the same generation and thus share many seminal pop culture experiences, although she is American and I am not. Beyond that, she gave me hope on days I was angry with the bullshit hurled around at every level, from the lowest common denominator in celebrity gossip land to the upper echelons of politics. No matter how depressing a topic was, Freeman would always broach it with the right mixture of seriousness and irony. It was a style I envied, in a positive way.

Best bit? I can’t remember. Bad. Sorry Hadley. Come back to The Guardian!

Next up:
David Mitchell, British novelist (not the comedian)

Friday, June 24, 2016

Dealing with progressive failure

Whenever a democratic process - a free vote, a referendum, what have you - produces an outcome that is ostensibly stupid, or, even worse, can trace its stupidity back to people taking action against their better interests, some progressives resist to scratch the itch of calling people dumb by laying the blame for the bad outcome at the feet of a system, a culture or some nebulous social trend. It happened when the US gave George W. Bush a second term, it happened when Berlusconi kept getting reelected in Italy and it's now happening with the Brexit.

In this piece, David Hopkins is one of the many to argue that our culture has dumbed down in the past decades and that there is a climate of anti-intellectualism. It has nothing to do with the Brexit as such but it was posted in a Twitter conversation about it between two people in my feed who can broadly be described as progressive intellectuals.

Hopkins' piece is not entirely serious but it is certainly not tongue-in-cheek. His complaint is also not new at all. Ancient Greek teacher and master of rhetorics Isocrates complained in the 4th century BCE that people venerated athletes more than wise men and that voters mistrusted honest politicians while praising people who were clearly sycophantic pretenders. Anti-intellectualism has been a force throughout the whole of Western Civilization, and possibly other civilizations, too, but I know too little about them to make that judgement.

However, two interesting questions remain.
1. Why does anti-intellectualism exist in the first place?
2. What motivates people to vote against their best interests?

"This is all we have"

In 2013, I wrote a piece for De Wereld Morgen (Tomorrow's World) - it's in Dutch, sorry - that cited research that seems to indicate that people on the bottom rungs of the social order cling a lot harder to the principles of the hegemony they are part of, even if these very principles cause them grief and pain.

This is not a repackaging of the folk wisdom that jocks hate nerds because they're secretly jealous of their intellect (although in some cases I suppose that could be true). The humuliation intellectuals often face in their formative years stem more from the idea that many of these young men and women have trouble adjusting to the hegemonic ideas of what makes for accepted behaviour, style and interests in society. I'll explain more down below.

I've also argued before in this essay - also in Dutch, sorry, but please consider learning Dutch, ok? - that the four main pillars of our social order are patriarchy, plutocracy, imperialism and superstition. Superstition has become more diffuse over the past few years (though it is scarily alive in a fanatical belief in the free market), but imperialism is still embodied by nationalism and racism, the idea that being rich is also being better is still alive and well (e.g. Donald Trump) and patriarchy may be under fire, but is still very much a thing.

Now, people in the lowest social strata turning to the imperialist pillar of the hegemony to feel better ("at least we're white!") and simultaneously cooling their anger on cultural minorities is well-documented. The fear of losing whiteness, Englishness or whatever other central idea about the self to a more mixed sense of culture is terrifying to people who have almost nothing else to feel confident about, because they sure aren't rich and aren't very much in tune with the current fads of holiness, whether it's holistic healing or free market orthodoxy.

Anti-intellectualism is, according to me, tied to toxic masculinity. And in that, I'm at least prepared to cede some ground to Hopkins's central argument: as more and more women are entering positions of power and more women than men earn university degrees, educational pursuits become devalued in the eyes of traditional masculinity. Sure, there are exceptions. The hard sciences, economics and applied sciences often get a pass and it's not a coincidence that a lot of political conservatives specifically rail against literature or philosophy education. It's also not a coincidence that these are fields still massively populated by men (science) or tied to the prevailing orthodoxy of the free market (economics).

So, because the socially maladjusted kid who prefers reading about Baudelaire or spends afternoons pouring over complex strategy games breaks the limited confines of the "man box" (the narrow idea of acceptable masculinity), his peers single him out for humiliation and gender policing. "We may not be rich, savvy or even white, but at least we're not pansies". It is also not a coincidence that anti-intellectualism is the second point of Umberto Eco's 1995 essay on Ur-Fascism, where Fascism is the hegemony on steroids, borne out of an intense frustration with the hegemony but unable to see past it.

Hatred trumps lucidity

So why do people vote against their best interests? Why did the socially less well-off of former English industrial areas vote for leaving the European Union despite the fact that they'll be struggling even harder under an unchecked neo-Thatcherite government?

A blogger who names herself Prester Jane has built on the theories of Authoritarianism from the Canadian psycholigist Bob Altemeyer and has coined the term "narrativism". I wrote about her, too - yeah, it's in Dutch again, seriously, go learn Dutch. One of the underlying ideas is that reactionary movements tap into really deep-rooted cultural sentiments that trump rational thought (pun unintended).

Hatred is an ugly human emotion, but an emotion all the same, triggered by elevated feelings of fear, being threatened and revulsion. A visceral hatred for the Other, whether they subvert the basic ideas of patriarchy, plutocracy, imperialism or superstition, is often enough to disregard other, more clear-headed arguments. If we consider Trump in the United States, that's very clear to see: he ripped off the band-aid of pretend holiness and liberty rhetoric to tap straight into the raw nerve of hatred in his constituency. They don't care he's thrice-married or used to donate to Democrats. Their emotional connection to his brazen racism, misogyny and get-rich-quick mentality is more important to feed their scarred self-confidence.

So, yeah, put very simply, some people vote against their best interests because they hate others more than they love themselves.

As a final note, a typical process of progressive handwringing must include musings about how progressive elites don't speak the language of the people or owe it to themselves that working class audiences have soured on them. I do not think this is because their ideology lost currency, but more because populist and reactionary politicians quite correctly perceive the majority of these progressives as complicit with the system that holds people down. If that is puzzling, that's human nature. There are feminists who admire rich and powerful women and turn a blind eye to their privilege as profiteers from an unequal economic system, just like there are militant atheists who have no qualms with misogyny.

The silver lining is that new movements are arising and will keep cropping up that actually can direct popular anger at the true enemies. Syriza ultimately was defeated in Europe, but its rise was hope-inspiring. So was the rise of people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, Podemos in Spain or the PVDA-PTB in Belgium. It's not too late to use the downtrodden's very real frustration to unmask their real opponents, but it will take effort and it will take confronting a few uncomfortable truths. Yes, some people are stupid and hateful. But they don't have to be that way forever.

Friday, March 18, 2016

20 people I admire (VIII): Zack Parsons

Who? Internet comedy writer who started out as one of the main writers at SomethingAwful, then moved into writing novels.

Why? Parsons is likely one of the least well-known people on my list. Nonetheless, a decade ago his writing opened me up to the fact that you can find a comedy angle to nearly everything there is, especially the sometimes depressing world of early-aughts Internet. Parsons came from a place of essentially understanding the tragedy of pathetic MySpace pages, low-cost pornography or the shallow universe that C-list celebrities inhabit. In addition, he’s a smart and versatile writer who has an eerie knack for adopting and then doubling down on his imitation of the minds of people he mocks.

What resonates with me? Parsons can kick down without being totally mean about it. In one joke, he can both recognize that poor American whites are victims of a perverse political lie and simultaneously eviscerate their horrible racism. It takes skill to do that. Also, Parsons remains the creator of one of my favourite lines of comedy ever written: “There are two kinds of people in this world: people who hate or fear circus clowns, and people who are circus clowns.”

Best bit? Reportedly his novel ‘Liminal States’ is pretty good and very eerie, but out of the work I know him best for, I would say his soul-crushing reviews under the label ‘Horrors of Porn’ manage to capture his spirited vein of black comedy best.

Next up: Hadley Freeman, American journalist.

Friday, March 11, 2016

20 people I admire (VII): Margaret Atwood

Who? Canadian novelist.

Why? Atwood has it all. At once she is thoroughly of the now, what with her penchant for irreverently mixing genres, being a great feminist icon and a staunch humanist, and also somewhat of a chronicler of imagination. She damn well ought to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize of literature sooner rather than later.

What resonates with me? Her wry sense of humour and the subtle shadings of morality she makes her characters inhabit. Atwood is one of those writers who can get under the skin of her characters but doesn’t do sentimentality. She is grounded in multiple worlds at once, and manages to concoct a fusion of all these influences all her own. A model to look up to.

Best bit? Most people would probably say ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, and sure, it is a modern classic that feels eerily prescient of the way fundamentalist regimes made the lives of women a living hell in Afghanistan under the Taliban, or the way reactionary American politicians speak about women and sexual minorities in ways they wouldn’t have dared when the book came out. For me however, her best novel is ‘The Robber Bride’, a novel that manages to capture all of Atwood’s superb skills in one.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The "free speech" pushback

In the past year, I've seen numerous pieces appear on a common topic: how identity politics is supposedly erasing free speech. The tone of these articles is ostensibly "progressive but concerned". Basically, these articles' concerns boil down to how the demand for inclusivity and safe spaces is harming public debate and censoring free speech. Never mind that if you run a cursory Google search about the incidents mentioned in these articles, the authors blow them wildly out of proportion, there's something weird about casting a bunch of protesters as a minority powerful enough to get people sacked and change university curricula.

This isn't to say that activists never go overboard. I, too, have seen people with only rudimentary understanding of progressive politics froth at the mouth over what is an inconvenience at worst. I, too, have rolled my eyes at the insistent demand of radicals to fire such and such when the facts are still coming out. But here's the thing: caving in to these fringe elements betrays a lack of understanding on the part of the (supposed) offenders, too. It rerouts the debate back to empty signifying of political correctness and avoiding any sort of meaningful debate.

Let's discuss a few examples. Yale University became a hotbed of tension around Halloween after administrators didn't want to censor students in how they'd dress up, responding to concerns about cultural appropriation or offensive costumes. Some students demanded these types of costumes be banned. I would personally disagree with a ban, but Yale could at least have cautioned students and asked them to consider other people when dressing up. For instance, it wouldn't be illegal for me to dress up as a child molester at a party where survivors of sexual abuse are present, but it would probably not be a move in good taste. Adult people should have freedom of choice, but that doesn't mean that consideration for others should be tossed out of the window.

Another example is the resignation of scientist Tim Hunt after some comments about women in laboratory settings that were most likely jokes in poor taste, and not indicative of any sort of deep-rooted hatred of women. Instead of defending himself, listening to what others had to say about it or entering a debate, he just quit. He could have said: "My joke was bad and I recognise why it has offended some people, no matter how unintended it was." There. Is that so hard? I don't understand why some people caught in the crossfire of controversy feel the need to capitulate to the most radical and emotional demands first.

A third recent example is the demands of trans activists that Germaine Greer be denied speaking slots at feminist events because of her notoriously transphobic views. Once again, I do not think that if an event is not specifically or tangentially about trans matters, that Greer should be outright denied the opportunity to speak. But I do believe that free speech advocates are doing a stupid when they argue people with wrong and regressive ideas should be offered a stage at an event that seeks to engender meaningful discussion. Nobody in their right mind would argue for a KKK representative to speak at an antiracist rally, or for the Westboro Baptist Church to be allotted a speaking slot at a gay event. Or, to take it one step further, why would you invite a creationist to an evolutionary biology conference?

What sort of "debate" are these free speech advocates hoping for, really? Are they really interested in listening to concerns about how university professors probably shouldn't be endorsing sexist, racist or otherwise discriminatory practises and worldviews? Or do they merely want to brush off others' concerns as misguided and shallow? I don't think it's a coincidence that all authors of pieces arguing for the continuation of bad form and bad habit are white, cisgendered and heterosexual. At the same time, these authors are keen to downplay the factor of social context and cast "privilege checking" as a weapon to silence them. It's not a weapon. It's truth. It is well possible for a white person to say something meaningful about racial oppression of non-white groups, but their position is always one of historical power. It's easy for the non-oppressed to say that content matters more than who is bringing that content because it's a consideration they usually don't have to make.

Isolating concerned groups to their most extreme elements and casting it as a mere clash of emotions undermines the broader issues. In a vacuum, of course it doesn't matter if a white person dresses up in blackface or if a man makes an ironically sexist remark. But we don't live in a vacuum, and ignorance is no longer an excuse to do or say stupid things. Insisting that people should be able to do and say as they please or that "their side" ought to be heard as well, is simply a retreat into privilege, highlighting form over function and not contributing in any meaningful debate to an ongoing process of emancipation.

"Free speech" is one of the most misunderstood civil rights in the Western world. At its core, it does mean that you're allowed to say whatever is on your mind. But it doesn't mean that what you say is true or that the words you say don't have impact on others (indeed, why say them at all if they don't?). People with weak arguments will all too often resort to claiming critics are "censoring" and "silencing" them when they're merely being proven wrong. Free speech doesn't mean your opinion matters or is valid - a bitter truth to swallow for a lot of people.

In closing, here's another consideration. The authors of think pieces concerned about the sound and fury that sometimes comes with identity politics often explicitly see themselves as progressive people. Allies who indeed recognise that racism is bad, sexual violence is evil and that we still have ways to go to create an egalitarian society. So I'm not going to say these people have a hidden conservative agenda. But, as in the controversy around Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands and Belgium, it's not that every proponent of Zwarte Piet is racist - every racist is a proponent of Zwarte Piet. Similarly, not everyone who defended Tim Hunt was a sexist, but sexists and misogynists of all stripes unified behind Hunt. There does a come a time when the "free speech" advocates need to ask themselves what kind of friends they truly have.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Space invaders

For about three years now, I've part of a discussion group on Facebook about (mostly) feminism. I'm the only man in its moderation team, for what it's worth. For some time now, I've been fascinated with a peculiar phenomenon: men who I'll call space invaders. Men who enter the group, demanding to be listened to while obviously rather ignorant about feminist theory and practice. I'm not talking here about misogynists, undercover MRAs or people with other garden variety reactionary agendas. The specific subset of men I'm referring to would probably say they are proponents of gender equality, progressives to a degree, and not wholly uneducated.

The thing with reactionaries, trolls and MRAs is that they expect or may even thrive on conflicts. The 'space invader' doesn't even expect to be disagreed with. Of course, it's hardly a new thing that self-proclaimed progressives are sometimes absurdly blind to their own privilege and ignorance. Merely saying "I'm one of the good guys" doesn't magically make you a Good Person (tm). But the thing that fascinates me is that some of these guys simply can't let it go. Time and again, the discussion group has seen men come in who put their shallow ideas on full display*, get criticised for it, leave in a huff (or get kicked out if they make too much trouble), then come back, refusing to let it go and give it a rest.

I'm not a psychologist but I wonder about what goes on in these minds. It's easy to point to the fact that many men are simply so accustomed to be deferred to, that the simple fact a mostly female audience doesn't and combats them with facts (and facts of life) somehow triggers a firestorm in their heads. It's probably part of all of this, but my personal take is that their refusal to let it go comes from a place of wanting their egos to be reassured. That yes, they are one of the "good men", that indeed, feminists will go out of their way to personally tell him that all this talk of harassment, exclusion and rape doesn't concern him, and so on.

It's not an exclusively male thing. I've seen female activists sometimes descend down the same rabbit hole, where their activism seems to be something they hold onto to define themselves as a person or to gain some form of self-worth. But, in the majority of cases, it's dudes. Dudes with demands. That their ideas be taken seriously, although their understanding of feminism is shallow. That feminists be nice to them or that they'll risk losing their precious support. Or that feminism better focus on issues they think are more deserving of attention.

In a similar vein, this is agnostic or Christian people upset at the notion of Muslim holidays getting attention, or guys who open fake accounts on dating sites for lesbians. It's about spaces that weren't designed for them that they want to make about them, too. The thought of getting excluded from these spaces seems unbearable to them.

The earliest example I can think of of this type of behaviour is the Greek myth about Pentheus, who is curious about the women-only rituals of the Maenads (an all-female cult devoted to the god Dionysus). He goes to spy on their rituals, gets caught and is gruesomely dismembered and partially eaten. I believe this story and its modern-day variants tie into the recent hashtag of #masculinitysofragile. Indeed, masculinity so fragile it can't deal with the thought of not being particularly wanted in some space. The desire to be validated by or to seek domination in areas where they think they ought to belong.

Of course, all of this could be read as rich in irony from a man who helps moderate a feminist space. After all, I too talk and discuss in this space and even help enforce its rules and etiquette. But I never did it for validation (nor for the nookie, as some sleazelords have suggested). I'm on this journey to better understand things, to learn things. And I've certainly been called out on badly supported viewpoints or hackneyed statements. Again - ironically - I had the confidence in my intellectual achievements built up enough that I can stand the dent in my ego when I'm proven wrong. These other men, these space invaders, have never had that confidence. It's all bluster.

It's all rather sad, in a way. Self-proclaimed progressives who don't agree with the ideas of toxic masculinity are potential allies to gender equality movements indeed. But at the same time, their failure to realise how it has shaped and informed their biases, too, makes them one of feminism's most annoying detractors.

* Usually incredibly ham-fisted but fully earnest notions such as "did feminists ever consider X?", "we should all work towards a better world", "#notallmen", etc.

Monday, August 17, 2015

20 people I admire (VI): Geir Jensen

Who? Better known as Biosphere, an electronic music producer from Norway.

Why? In the deep world of ambient, Biosphere is almost an entity sui generis. Many reviewers note that the avid mountaineer and loner manages to import an Arctic, hardy sensibility into his music and it’s hard not to agree with that. His music often speaks in lingering, almost naturalistic tones of slow moving glacier ice, clear mountain streams or thin atmospheric currents. In addition, Biosphere keeps reinventing himself in his search for vast, desolate spaces: from the super-minimal sounds of outer space in ‘Autour de la lune’ to the sterile, high-tech world of nuclear technology in ‘N-Plants’, Biosphere finds the odd emotion in the absence of human business.

What resonates with me? As a busybody myself, Biosphere quenches my shadow’s thirst for being alone, undistracted and aware of being part of something far greater than myself. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every now and then, Biosphere incorporated subtle Buddhist references in his music. In 2014, I had the honor of actually visiting Jensen's home town of Tromsø.

Best bit? It’s hard to top an album like ‘Substrata’, seen by some as one of the best ambient albums ever made. I still remember listening to the track ‘Antennaria’ for the very first time and feeling a chill descend over me, a chill that resonated with the unadulterated and quiet majesty of remote nature.

Next up: Margaret Atwood, celebrated Canadian writer.