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, August 06, 2017

The key/lock-analogy is one of the dumbest pieces of sexist rhetoric ever

"A key that opens many locks is a master key, yet a lock that is opened by many keys is a shitty lock." This analogy or variations thereof are assumed by sexists and idiots alike to be an elegant way to defend why a double standard exists in (heteronormative) sexual practices. To be sure, it is elegant. It is also spectacularly stupid.

That's because it applies circular logic. It simply restates the double standard that female sexuality is somehow a room, presumably full of valuables or secrets, whose contents are finite and therefore more interesting the fewer keys that can open it. Conversely, the key is as the key does: no content, no hidden layers, nothing of note to be treasured or cherished, only in as far as it is capable of opening rooms. It's like the world's dullest dick joke made to restate the double standard.

There is no inherent value to sexuality other than what cultures construct it to be. The double standard causes grief to both men and women, subjects women to a myriad of hoops to jump through (though they can still be a "slut" even if they've had sex with just one guy if other people think the circumstances were wrong - so you can't win as a woman, really) and depresses men into becoming shallow idiots whose main source of pride is how much women they can bend to their will.

If anything, the key/lock analogy presents a piece of patriarchal yarn in its starkest and bleakest way, and shows us how stupid it really is.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Lonely as a rhinoceros

My virtual love affair with Laurie Penny just doesn't seem to stop. Every piece I read by her seems to drop another scent bomb into the daily bath of opinions I consume. Valentine's Day seemed like a good excuse for some other progressively-inclined friends to post her piece from last year, titled 'Maybe you should just be single'. And yes, why not?

No ifs and buts


It's almost darkly funny how on the Facebook friend's wall, the nay-sayers were all men, even if they agreed with parts of the article or came from a progressive, learned place, while Penny, for her part, describes exactly that happening whenever she opines on this sort of stuff.

So while I have hardly a word of criticism to offer and I'd like to say her mixed perspective of feminism and socialism on the issue of coupling, marriage and relationships makes a huge load of sense, I perhaps wanted to add a few points, coming from the place I'm coming from.

Failing at being a unicorn

I think that between ages 18 and 28, I spent a lot of time being the proverbial "horse with a horn", believing myself to be a unicorn. I don't say this as a guilt-wracked person looking to garner sympathy points. I truly wanted to be a good person to my partners, an understanding boyfriend who could fulfill the whole range of needs: emotional comfort, a sympathetic ear, bloody awesome sex and an overall sense of companionship as equals.

Needless to say, that didn't always go as well as planned and I certainly wouldn't say I'm a unicorn today. But then, who is? You can't be all the things, all the time. Also, someone's unicorn could be someone else's cockroach. There are awful men who are adored by their partners, and great men who are despised by their environments.

Learnings from the heart in a blender

My audience on this blog is mostly, so I imagine, men on the road to being a progressive and trying to get a grip on what that means in theory and practice. Women are very welcome to sniff around as well, of course. But (straight) guys, here's two few things I learned:
 
  • You can't be everything to someone. This pushes Penny to make a case for breaking the confines of the traditional non-monogamous relationship. That is fine. But there are lighter forms, too. Your partner is a fully realized human being and will always have needs that you cannot fulfill.
     
  • She can't be everything to you. Perhaps she doesn't give a shit about your taste in music or maybe she's not that good at bandaging your social wounds. Sort out for yourself what is important, but remind yourself that there are other people in your life that take care of different needs, as well.

Different animals

Other than that, since people tend to be a very heterogenous sort even when social power structures aren't involved, just like #notallmen are people who see a relationship as a reward or a mere asset to their life, there are also many women who definitely do not see things the way Penny does, or have arrived at her truths.

In my twenties, I lost count of the women who were looking for a surrogate father or gentle mentor figure and then turned out not to reciprocate any kind of emotional need. Or ostensibly progressive women who had no compunctions about taking advantage of my kindness and generosity. Mind, I'm not talking "oh I paid the restaurant bill" here, but driving them around, letting them smoke up my cigarettes and never getting even so much of an offer of kindness or thanks in return. Needless to say, these affairs never typically survived beyond a month or so.

As common as depression

And that's the thing: it's so depressingly common for men to be abusive, shitty and entitled, and it happens so much that female behaviour gets immediately interpreted in the most malign ways, that the truly bad they can do are swept under the rug. Yes, I realise some women resort to manipulation because assertiveness was heavily discouraged in them. And yes, patriarchy brainwashes women into expecting emotionally mute men who are just sort of there, mutely hanging around, mutely looking tough, mutely earning a salary.

Men who make honest attempts at being better people are necessarily no more wanted than men who don't. You'd think otherwise from the many pieces lamenting how awful men can be and how tough romantic existence can be for ambitious, smart women who don't fit the mold of the little housekeeper or the saucy "one of the boys" girl. But few women are holding out for the "unicorns" Penny describes, and I'm inclined to say a big majority isn't even interested in a person like that.

Ethics as a reward in itself

This isn't to say that "good" men are more entitled to getting what they want. What I am saying is that a lot of (o)pining on romance is ostensibly the public domain of women - men who get brought into the public eye generally talk more about sex, or about 'game', or to sanctimoniously get hoisted into the professorial chair, dispensing dispassionate relationship wisdom while apparently having no emotional lives of their own.

Trying to be a better person is a reward in itself, letting you understand others as well as yourself better, questioning society and questioning tradition, not for selfish gains, but because you're looking out for the betterment of all and irrational roadblocks to disappear. But men must also talk about their emotions. Engage with them and work through them. Feminists being nice enough to include us and admit that we have feelings, too, is not enough. We must do this job ourselves, and claim our joy, our hurt, our insecurities and all the soft bits that make us human, too.

Lonely as a rhinoceros

Yes, it is ironic that I'm writing this as a response to another piece - and by a woman, no less. But the fact of the matter is that these ideas have been swirling around my head for a long time. Let me extend Penny's unicorn metaphor into a Nietzsche metaphor. Friedrich Nietzsche - who was of course a famed misogynist, I might add - wrote that to be different was to choose a path in life that was "lonely like a rhinoceros's".

Luckily, I'm not lonely. I don't feel a dire need for a relationship and society isn't pressing that demand on me. But the playfield can be just as depressing for men, just in different ways. In my experience, many women still aren't looking around for an equal, and some among the more liberated types unfortunately seem to mistake liberation for adopting the shitty attitudes many men have been having about women for centuries. Liberation is not about perpetuating the patriarchal myth that men cannot be victims - why else would gross, objectifying language about men get an ostensible pass so often?

The things to do

So what is now ahead? On the one hand, I wholly subcribe to Penny's thesis that being single is preferrable to clinging to modes of life that hurt you or trap you in situations where you are unable to pursue the things that make you realize your greater human potential. Society no longer depends on couples or nuclear families to survive, what with so many other different modes of companionship at our disposal.

On the other hand, I wish this issue would not be confined to the "women's corner" as it so often is. We men must not only also be ready to have these kind of conversations and talk about intimacy, think about what it is we hope to find in relationships; and, politely turn the tables just a little. Some women are shitty human beings and deserve to be called out as such. This does not excuse misogyny or patriarchal attitudes in any way, but dialog should be a two-way street.

Lastly, we should subvert the world's capitalist order and install a federation of truly egalitarian republics I think we would do well to stop and think about what it is we seem to be chasing so often. To quote esteemed '90s intellectual rap paragon Maxi Jazz: "If you place a thing in the centre of your life that lacks the power to nourish, it will eventually poison you, and destroy everything that you are."

Friday, January 20, 2017

20 people I admire (XI): Dylan Moran

Who: Irish comedian and actor.

Why? Moran has an uncanny way of making observational, everyday comedy funny and original. In contrast to many other comedians, he doesn't rely very heavily on punchlines or politics, which is also a nice palate cleanser, but that doesn't mean his comedy can't be dark or serious. He just always sprinkles it with so much light-hearted perspective that it manages to be both incisive and light-footed.

What resonates with me? Moran was brought to my attention because I have a friend who was reminded of me when watching his character Bernard Black in the show 'Black Books', a chain-smoking, alcoholic and cheerfully misanthropic book shop owner with zero interest in keeping his business afloat. While I am none of these things, it's fair to admit that there is more Bernard Black in me than in most other people I know.

Best bit? There are many stand-out pieces, but I particularly enjoy his takedowns of the English as emotionally repressed people, with a "face where you can't tell whether they've just gotten married or just died."

Next up: Naomi Watts, Australian actress.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

It wasn't the working class

It seems to have become depressingly routine to describe the loss of Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump in the US Presidential election of 2016 as something inevitable, although it was anything but when the votes had not yet been cast. Trump's surprise win elicted a broad range of responses on the left, most of them sadly predictable.

If only if they'd chosen Bernie Sanders. If only we'd have spent more time connecting with the white working class. What if Joe Biden had run?

The truth of the matter is that while Trump carried a white majority, by far the biggest majority he carried was among the upper class, not the working class. And he lost the popular vote by almost three million votes.

Jacobin, a class-struggle stalwart with Marxist roots, panned a widely shared New Yorker cartoon that compared Donald Trump's election to a random passenger on a plane shouting he should be the pilot. The article claims it's emblematic of snooty liberal elitism that fails to factor in so many contextual issues that lead to this happening in the first place.

While the piece does a fair job at disassembling the cosiness of smug, vaguely left-of-centre liberalism, I think it's myopic in not metioning the tide of sheer hatred that carried much of Trump's campaign. Also, for its scoffing at liberal elites, I wonder how many blue-collar people actually read Jacobin.

The plane metaphor is too simplistic to put Trump in perspective, but so is Jacobin's expansion of it. His election is not a repudiation of liberal ideas - rather, he slunk through an incredibly narrow window of opportunity to almost fail into victory.

Democracy is in danger in all of the West, and establishment candidates are not the answer to the rising wave of racism and bigotry. Racism and bigotry that have been enabled by weak media institutions that favour ratings over actual reporting, and have been systematically gaslighted for years by reactionaries into giving them a platform for their fact-free bullshit.

One of the left's glaring errors, for just as many years, has been trying to reason their way into regressive people's hearts, or simply co-opting a softer version of their right-wing ideologies. Now, as Jeb Lund said, we can only hope that Trump and his ilk will fall apart so spectacularly that it shocks the system into provoking people who will work for actual change.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

20 people I admire (X): David Mitchell


(Okay, so when I started this series in 2015, I figured it would take me a year, but now we're early 2017 and I've just reached half of my list. Sorry for that!) 

Who: British novelist.

Why? Mitchell is a broadly ambitious writer who can get under the skin of his characters and portray them as actual human beings rather than props for a plot or an idea, which is always a hallmark of a great writer. He also doesn’t shy away from doing proper background research, and if you inhabit a world as big as the Anglosphere, it’s not evident to immerse yourself in the nuances of say, Japanese and Dutch culture. But Mitchell is keenly aware of these rich tapestries while never losing his very modern wit and sense of style.

What resonates with me? First off, the boldness with which he approaches fantasy elements within his novels that inhabit the same universe. Second, how his style and shift between genre tropes from different genres, and go from folksy to deadly serious to bleakly comical, all without making it seem effortless. Third, while his vision is often dark à la Margaret Atwood, his novels often make a stand for the value of humanity and being humane, no matter how hopeless it might seem in the face of such overwhelming evil.

Best bit? Particularly his closing speech at the end of ‘Cloud Atlas’, which constitutes a wild and sometimes confusing travel through several historical and future eras, but is tied together near the end with a strong sense of closure and a knock-out message as a palate cleanser for all that went before – or is to come – an exercise in ironic drama.

Next up: Dylan Moran, Irish comedian and actor

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.