About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (a bad wordplay on Orwell's "double plus good" and old machismo - I'm the realest after all) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear' or 'Unripe language'), the umbrella of several 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. Why is this in English why everything else in Dutch? Because I want to gun for a much wider audience here. Also, my literary English isn't good enough, otherwise I would always write in English.

Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Connecting the dots

The gruesome gang rape, the resulting death of the victim, and the outrage it sparked in India as well as internationally, has probably baffled many people. As with brutal war crimes (that often involve graphic rape in no small part), acts like that seem almost incomprehensible from a common sense point of view. Why would people ever brutalise another human being like that? How is it possible that an entire group of adult people can participate in something so despicable and senselessly destructive that most people would not hesitate to put the perpetrators of these acts to death?

A lot of explanations have been offered for crimes like that. A sort of group think that becomes increasingly locked up in a bubble of its own and then produces terrible excesses is one explanation that is often offered. But I find that it also acquits people who were not directly involved with such crimes all too easily.

Gang rapists aren't born as hardened misogynists who don't see women (or in some cases, certain types of men) as human beings. The same is true for genocidal war criminals. Some among them might have been sociopaths all along, but the majority probably isn't. They're not born into their bubble of hate and frustration, but they do start off with basic assumptions about women or minorities that society openly condones or at least tolerates.

Women in India are second-class citizens at best. A staggering number of girl infants is murdered every year because having sons supposedly brings more honour to the family, and a dowry for a girl can break the back of a family already under financial stress. It's one of the most brutal points of intersection between sexism and capitalism, by the way. A lot of poor men grow up with the realization that they'll never be able to find a wife, yet they watch television and consume media that portray women in varying degrees as objects with no other purpose than to please men, and see women struggling for independence outpacing them in terms of power, success and money.

That poisonous cocktail really isn't that specific for India. It's the same story for misogynists in the rural United States, poor youths of North African origin in the streets of Brussels or Paris, or whatever group of men that is constantly told their genitals make them superior and entitled, yet are never able to cash in on that entitlement. There has even been a convincing case for the fact that it's that sort of rage that played a part in the mass shootings of the past decade, nearly always committed by white men in their '20s.

Until we recognise and see that as a society, we are still providing too much fertile ground for the most terrible excesses to start growing, and that these people do not start out as extremists or can be dismissed as completely alien, these things will continue to happen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The age of the hyper-parasitic

Intellectuals complaining about not getting enough public recognition compared to what they see as vapid celebrities is hardly a new phenomenon. In the 4th century BCE, for example, the Greek orator Isocrates was already bemoaning the fact that meatheaded athletes were celebrated as heroes for simply being able to run very fast, at the expense of serious attention and recognition for intellectuals (I will assume that he meant himself here).

It is also a favourite pastime of intellectuals to complain about society somehow getting dumber or how the world will soon be ending because young people apparently like music that they don't. Even if that would all be true, it's unfair to blame kids solely for their own shortcomings.

But wait, there's more
Still, there are a couple of things that got me thinking lately. Perhaps my memory doesn't stretch far enough, or maybe phenomena like this indeed have been around forever in some form, but consider the following:

See, the fact here is not so much that what these people do is bad, it's that they take something bad, make it somehow worse, keep being shitty, and get rewarded for it. Frankly, I do find that incredibly depressing.

It's one thing to complain about this, but another to examine why this happens. I don't believe that the public, at large, actually demands to be insulted by talentless hacks or seeing people with questionable attitudes rewarded. What I do believe is that this "eh, I suppose it will do fine" attitude is symptomatic of a much larger problem: we're stuck.

Moving towards not moving

Research has, in fact, pointed out that pop music is less diverse than it was 30 years ago, and keeps getting less diverse. The famed Overton window has, in most developed countries, either not moved or has moved strongly towards the right, hardly an indication of progression. This correlates with the fact that since the 1970s, there have been no new political movements of note (stuff like the Tea Party isn't ideologically new). Technological innovation has become seriously hampered by patent wars. Oil companies and media companies have become bloated empires, but in much fewer numbers. The list goes on and on.

I think there are two key reasons for this:
  • The disproportionate influence that the disproportionally wealthy wield to protect their interests and/or increase their stake at all costs
  • The people who are in that group remain healthy and in control of the levers of pwoer for much longer than they would have a century ago

So what does that have to do with our political and cultural standstill, which has engendered a climate of hyper-parasitism? It's that true creation, true innovation and actual deep thought not just take effort (and thus more financial risk to do and support), but that they also present a challenge to the famed 1%'s interest.

'50 Shades of Grey', for all its purported S&M-angles, is still role-confirming crap that riffs of of what is essentially one long wet Mormon dream. Keeping Chris Brown around is apparently also easier than questioning an industry's twisted attitude towards women, not to mention the attitude of the owners of said industry.

An economy of parasites

There is an interesting analogy with the economy at large. Western economies have long moved largely from an agricultural to an industrial model, and after World War II, increasingly towards a service-based economy. Opaque stock markets don't just trade shares, but also include things like futures, derivatives, and allow anonymous institutions to nefariously speculate on the prices of foodstuff. This is parasitic to the max: this kind of money that makes money in a bubble of abstracts is harmful. There's a case to be made that in this way, speculants not just caused the ongoing debt crisis, but also the Arab Spring revolution.

What to do?

Unlike Noam Chomsky, I don't believe that the stagnant, parasitic attitude of the elites - and the proliferation of white-noise hacks that results from it - that hurts us all is completely deliberate. A lot of these people were born into privilege and wealth and have likely never critically examined their positions. In most cases, we won't change their minds, and unless we start getting hungry and deprived of our basic needs, a revolution's not going to happen.

What we can do, however, is the following:
  • Remain critical and observant, even of critical observation
  • Keep in mind the larger context: the world is a vastly more complex system than your immediate area and sphere of thought
  • Refuse to buy into a system that pushes inferior, unnecessary shit
  • Be active in making things better with the talents and skills you have, don't waste that
  • Remain social - too many self-styled activists are content to complain on the internet but don't actually do anything
  • Don't vote for politicians who are corporate stooges, although often you'll have to choose the lesser of two evils
  • Don't regard moral compromise as a cardinal sin, sometimes it's more important to get something done than to remain ideologically pure and watch things go to shit
  • Stand up, get up
It doesn't have to be much that you do, and it doesn't have to be immediate. Just don't expect things to change for the better if you never raise your voice.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Picking your battles

There are a few Facebook friends that I have unsubscribed from. In most cases, the reasons are political. These people cannot shut up about it. The majority of them are conservative, one of them is actually a fellow progressive.

I'm aware that some people use 'pick your battles' as an excuse to remain stuck in the quicksand of slacktivism or use it only to pay some lip service to whatever cause they claim to support. But there is a truth to it. If you're going to rush into every single battle, rectify every single falsehood or take up all causes, you'll achieve nothing. You might even alienate people that support you.

But how can you accurately gauge what battle is worth fighting? There's no clear-cut flowchart I can offer on that one, sorry. But here's a few contextual elements that help me to decide if I'm going to say something, and how I'll say it:

  • The better I know the person who said something offensive or misinformed, the more likely I am to challenge their opinion, e.g. if a close friend would claim Zwarte Piet isn't racist.
  • The more distant I know someone is from my own convictions, the more inflammatory their opinion has to be to actually make me respond, e.g. a liberal moaning about taxes won't really get me to respond.
  • The more people are present and listening, the more likely it is that I'll say something. The tone will depend on what kind of audience it is.

Also, I do try to argue from a position of good faith, which I think can help any type of debate or discussion you're having. So:

  • Unless I get indications of the contrary, I'll assume my opponent is also arguing in good faith
  • I won't descend into personal attacks and hyperbole
  • I don't want to let others move the goalposts of the debate
  • I try to understand where the others are coming from, even if I think their opinion is horrible
  • I won't debate anyone who thinks the possibility that they're wrong doesn't exist

Lastly, the whole 'battle' thing isn't even really about winning. I know that back when I held a host of uninformed or stupid opinions (I probably still hold some), arguing with me until I admitted defeat wasn't really going to help a lot. It was a combination of a steady trickle of personal experience, reading and discussing that slowly turned my views. I'm already pleased if I can at least plant a seed of doubt.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

About speaking up

All changes in society come from people who decide to stand up and say "well, this is not okay". Paradoxically, even the most bitter reactionairies begin that way. But when standing up for a progressive cause (i.e. towards a more inclusive, more egalitarian and less prejudiced society), you go against the established hierarchy. That can be kind of scary.

Recently I submitted something to the Tumblr 'Men Against Assholes & Misogyny' started by the comedian Jen Kirkman, who had grown tired of all the internet sexism and the people who didn't speak out against it. Submitting something seemed like a no-brainer. It's just the internet, the safest space of all if you've got something to say, right?

Actually, as I was writing, I considered that it might be read by those same vile sexists that throw out casual rape threats and exclusively judge women by their appearance. I wasn't sure if I was prepared to, at best, roll my eyes at the number of people that would suggest I was gay, would surely be able to beat my ass in a fist fight or thought I was making a clever ploy to reel in all of the internet's sweet pussy. I also started worrying a bit about portraying myself as too much of a feminist - you know, a misguided progressive can harm their own cause much more than a malicious reactionary ever would. To paraphrase Nietzsche: "the most insiduous way to undermine a cause is to defend it with the wrong arguments."

I got over these thoughts, of course, but it was then that it occurred to me that speaking up in real life must be very hard for a lot of people, too. As I wrote in my short piece, I'm getting better at it. It's still not easy to be in between a rock and a hard place. You don't want to always be That Guy who goes off on a social justice tangent in every setting. But you also don't want to get idiots get away with harmful opinions.