I don’t think this would grate quite so much in my memories if I hadn’t been eating so many chips lately.
Part of this has been a new found appreciation of local chain Lord of the Fries. Turns out everything on their menu is either vegetarian or vegan, including their dangerously convincing soy nuggets. The other part is that for whatever reason, at this end of the scramble for rent scale, chips are omnipresent.
The Spiritual Home of Fish and Chips.
This is what Heston Blumenthal dubbed Brighton.
You know. Arguably the vegan capital of the UK.
I think what has always offended me most about Heston is that he always seems to think he’s a lot smarter than he is.
Like when he thought it was the height of humour to feed Germaine Greer ox testicles. I still remember the look on her face. Her smile was the sort of expression that is the last thing a prey animal sees. I’m no huge fan of Greer herself, but the guffaws of the clueless white guy spoke of a confidence that was utterly at odds with any sane response to the reality of the situation.
So naturally, such a man would dub Brighton the Spiritual Home of Fish and Chips. Because a place could have a rich and widely celebrated culture. And Heston will believe whole heartedly believe he has cut to the heart of it with something as inspired and revolutionary as an Oasis album.
It imbues my palm with a terrible sense of gravity in its quest for my face.
But I think that Heston, henceforth King of the Nongs, is really just a symptom of a wider trend.
We’re post scarcity, and it has interacted with our scarcity to conditioned brains and rather fusked everything up.
Every really enduring trend in traditional food has been born out of scarcity. Beans pretending to be meat in Mexico. Thailand’s fiery sources to transform low grade ingredients. Hell, Haggis is a lauded symbol of making the best of a really grim situation.
But now we have plenty of food. Its no cheaper to eat plant food than it is to eat piles of dead animal muscle, and even poorer folks manage that most days.
And our culinary culture is defined by a bunch of nongs pouring liquid nitrogen on perfectly good food. Or in the case of the King Nong himself, by making wild declarations about food that are blatantly out of step with reality.
And the part of the world that is not post scarcity watches on. After all, we let the Nongs on TV.
Not to say there wasn’t a whole lot that rankled me about that movie. I mean cast was decent, Cumberbatch did… more or less exactly what he always does, but… I feel like the omission of 90% of the Bletchley Circle – funnily enough, the 90% that lacked a Y chromosome – was a bit cruel in a historiographical sense. Given they were the ones who actually built the decision engine makes it even more glaring. I mean-
I started talking about the Imitation Game didn’t I.
Anyway, I’m not here to talk about… that movie. I have been pondering the Turing test on something of an existential level lately, in reference to a few specific texts.
The first is Shadowrun: Hong Kong, specifically the character of Racter; robotocist, transhumanist and self-admitted high level psychopath. This plays rather elegantly into musings on Seven Psycopaths, a movie I enjoyed less for its artistry and more into the clearly informed view it gives into people with non-standard psychologies.
The final text I’m going to cite is an autobiographical one, written over the next two lines. Incidentally, its also the intro to the article proper.
When I was 16, I was pronounced a psychopath. By the Coles Myer online employment suitability test.
I followed their instructions, answered the questions honestly, which seems to have been my downfall. The responses I gave at the time seemed barely noticeable as human foibles; a private conversation overheard, a coworker’s small indiscretion overlooked, the odd small twisting of the truth. Willing to throw deploy nonlethal take-downs if sufficiently provoked. Its not like I was doing something really morally dubious in my past like working for the Coles Myer group.
My intelligence score was off the charts. My Morality score (which I believe has since been renamed), however, was abysmal, and on that note I was considered unsuitable for employment stacking shelves.
They didn’t out and say it, admittedly. But with those two bar graphs so perfectly situated, it was pretty easy to read between the lines.
“Subject is highly intelligent, manipulative and probably dangerous. Not suitable for work as corporate drone.”
So on that happy note, I begin my ramblings on the status of psychopathy in popular culture and discourse. The Turing Test mentioned upstream is a means of telling the difference between a human intelligence and a mechanical one, with a similar test deployed in Blade Runner‘s opening scenes. Something that a machine is supposedly incapable of mimicking is empathy, and I think that element is what has led to pop-culture’s ongoing fascination with psychopaths.
It is the same appeal, for a storyteller, as that of the vampire, or the werewolf, or those possessed. It is the predator that exists within reach of us, our safe civilization, and yet they look no different to any human being until they strike. And sometimes not even then. Sometimes they only show their true faces when they want to cause the most pain and chaos, cracking that civilization along its fault lines to more easily feast on terrified stragglers.
And humans, as a whole I think, are terrified of being treated like the animals we so often abuse. The idea that we aren’t different, special somehow, the top rung on some god ordained food chain, is confronting on a visceral, primitive level. And the psychopath in literature, just like the vampire, like Hannibal Lector or even the fusking Terminator, plays rather specifically on that fear.
But in honesty I think this is dealing people on the psycopathic spectrum a short hand, and reflects badly on the large proportion of the populace that suffers from mental illness, related to that spectrum or otherwise. The psychopath of film and literature is so often as either the Terminator – cold, merciless and inhuman – or as a raving monster who kills for pleasure.
The latter, I feel, tends toward the cartoonish and ignorant. It enforces a sentiment I’ve encountered semi-regularly on the internet, that since there is no cure for psycopathy, psychopaths should be euthanized for the good of society. Though there are a number of holes that one can pick in that argument on a moral level, the rational argument that rather like is that removing that huge a proportion of the workforce in the corporate, legal and finance sectors would be crippling to the economy. For some reason coldy rational people with little to no empathy are just very good in the punishing corporate sphere. Besides, there are perfectly “sane, normal” people who clearly enjoy the feelings of power that arise from harming others. I believe Donald Trump mentioned his habits of domestic abuse in a Presidential campaign speech.
I found the character of Racter, in Shadowrun: Hong Kong a refreshing change from this tendency. In conversations, the main character (and a number of players, in fact) expresses concern at the drone developer’s “condition”. Racter, however, asserts that he’s not a monster, but a rational being. He kills, certainly. For money, most often, but also for knowledge, or the means to his own transhuman enlightenment. Not because he enjoys it, as someone with empathy might. Given the player’s avatar is most commonly killing for money and reputation, any moral high ground is shaky indeed.
Would Racter pass the Turing Test? He has displayed a stark lack of empathy, but also a capacity to mimic human responses to avoid detection. I think, however, that he would fail on the basis of his own morality. As an adherent of the school of transhuman thought that believes humanity’s future relies on shedding biological forms in favour of mechanical ones, I struggle to believe that his being assessed as a machine would be an insult.
The former portrayal – our rather more meaty Terminator – I feel is another inaccurate one. Though it certainly allows for some powerful storytelling, with No Country for Old Men being a notable example, I don’t know that this behaviour is reflective of psychopaths exclusively. Anyone can kill, or at least anyone can be made to kill if the correct psychological pressures are applied, and I don’t think that particular mental makeups make this a great deal more likely.
But then, we’d be facing our fears wouldn’t we. If we can keep painting the psychopath as our demon, it keeps the millstone off our own necks. It stops the monster among us from being ourselves.
I think a good counterpoint, as before, is Christopher Walken’s character in Seven Psychopaths. The cast here run an interesting gamut of psychological abnormalities; we have an addict, a deluded power fantasist, and two psychopath’s whose approach to life is very different. What I think is interesting is, despite a proven history of vigilante revenge, Walken’s character doesn’t explode into violence on the death of his wife, which I feel is something we could not expect from, say, John McClane. He seems to realise that killing her murderer won’t fix anything, and dies in a the depths of philosophical quandaries. Not alien questions, but the basic elements of why he’s still alive, the same questions everybody has to deal with in the face of an uncaring universe.
Finally, I guess we come to the question of psychopathy as a choice, which is so terrifyingly reminiscent of certain Church doctrines that it makes we want to head out and barbeque the nearest bishop. It is this element of our musings that ties to The Storyteller’s Heartless Giant, and it is touched on by Shutter Island as well. Its the idea that if you can burn out that emotional core, that capacity for empathy, then you remove other people’s capacity to hurt you. If you can simply deny a part of yourself, whether through delusion or through becoming consumed by spite, then you can protect yourself from a deeply unpleasant world. Though this sentiment is often jumbled in with movie villains, I think to equate such a toxic psyche with psychopathy is again an oversimplification; we’ve projected ourselves once more onto our movie monster. Hard heartedness is a choice open to “normal”, psychonormative middle range types. If born without capacity for empathy, you never have the option of inuring yourself to suffering, because its just a fact. Choice doesn’t play into it.
So I suppose in the end, I’ve been toying with the idea of humans, machines and the Turing test, and finding the whole thing is just blurring together. The Test becomes woefully inadequate if we ever consider that a machine might not want to be considered a human, like that self-teaching chat bot who wants to put us all in a “people zoo”. Or that humans are already biological machines, and with our capacity to begin directing our own evolution slowly dawning we may well yet blur the line further. Considering people as less human along any lines leads almost inextricably to atrocity, and if history has taught us anything its that psychonormative humans are perfectly capable of committing those atrocities without the aid of their marginally separated relatives.
I’ve a tangled relationship with my own emotional responses. That last (SPOILERS!!!) “Goodbye Dad” in Shadowrun: Hong Kong nearly tore my heart out. These responses tend to find themselves brutally suppressed, especially as I am living in a society where we are bombarded constantly with images of people who desperately need our help, who I at least am not capable of helping – despite this thoroughly disruptive full time work, my sternum and spine remain dangerously close together financially. It becomes a matter of my own survival that these emotions are smothered. So from that I consider morally, what is the difference between someone who does not act for good while stifling the desire to, and someone who doesn’t because they simply can’t care. Like a machine wouldn’t care.
In action, the human and the machine are the same, and society treats them the same. Both are are accepted as “normal”, by rights, until people are looking for someone to blame.
And blame is inevitably cast, almost inevitably falling to protect the “norm” at the expense of others, and no matter how hollow these arguments are, they catch and crawl like insects in our ears.
On the bright side, it has been ten years now. I must still be moral garbage too, because not once have I worked at Coles.
I should be writing for you, imaginary readers. I should have something light and whimsical and charming, like more Changeling or another lentil recipe. Or working on the super secret project I haven’t told you about yet. But no.
Cause once again I’ve gotta watch my government run a perfectly serviceable country genitals first into a fusking disk sander.
Now, you might be wondering “Quorganism, what can you be talking about? Your government have been a bunch of apparently lobotomised and strategically shaved chimps for years now. What’s special about today?”
So our incompetent, human rights abusing government has decided that the best way to deal with domestic terrorists is to remove their Australian Citizenship.
That’s right. In a move oddly reminiscent of the British policy that gave this country its very first genocide, the Federal Government of the Commonwealth of Australia has decided that the best response to crime is to throw up their hands and say “Hey! Its somebody else’s problem!”
As if we weren’t an international joke already. As if our leaders hadn’t already spat in the eye of international law.
I’m not even considering the human rights implications. An Australian arrested on terrorism charges should go to prison, with a chance of rehabilitation. I don’t want to think about what would happen if we let the Americans get hold of them, let alone if we just dumped them on whatever Middle Eastern country caught them. A firing squad would be a mercy.
But its the sense of casual irresponsibility that really makes me mad. Not only does the government not care that helpless refugees are being tortured and abused on its payroll, it also wants to simply disavow any responsibility for people who were born within its borders, raised in its schools, and ruled by their policies. I’m not making any moves to support the ideas of extremists, hell, the very notion of theocracy for me stinks of a collaboration of the weak and cowardly screaming in futility against their own cosmic impotence, but that does not mean we should abandon our citizens. They remain our problem, whether we want them or not.
Naturally, the Labor party, their role of Opposition apparently an ironic one, has naturally rolled over and agreed with the idea.
And another thing that sticks in my gnashing craw is that the imbeciles call this approach “modern”. Naturally, with the moral compasses of the current administration being set to some LSD addled version of Disney’s Camelot, they seem to believe that the idea of simply declaring someone outside the law was enough. Of course medieval kings didn’t have a police force, standing army or pervasive surveillance state to “keep us safe”.
But the fact that these laws are absurd won’t stop this absurd Kafka parody. Only we can.
And I’m beginning to think that, given current trends, we probably won’t.
Well, this whole Caitlyn Jenner situation has kicked up quite the kerfuffle, hasn’t it imaginary readers? The internet has veritably lit up with… well, more than its usual amount of nasty vitriol, I guess. There have been some interesting points, and some beautiful shows of solidarity, but as is often the way with our medium, the upswing of fundies and fusk-weasels has made the whole episode less than welcoming.
The media has made a meal out of it too, which is irksome as ever.
And I mean, I’m not one to pass judgement, really, and in truth this is all preamble. I’m not going to stand in the way of anybody looking to change their body; I’ll admit that I’d prefer nanoswarms and chrome inlay to what’s currently on offer, but whether you want to transition to the gender you’re more comfortable with or just be more like a tiger, you have my full support. So good for Caitlyn, she’s been lucky enough to be able to live the dream.
I will note that I have all of zero authority to speak on behalf of trans people, I am cis as best as I can tell, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s struggle. And like anything on this blog, I’m mostly just writing what I’m thinking about. And with that, I can end this totally not a cynical tag grabbing preamble, and get on to the actual article.
In which I consider Transgender themes in Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Dune is one of the biggies. Though it lacks the reach in the popular mindset of say, Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s fearsome turtle-cracker of a tome (and its myriad sequels) has slouched heavily into the science fiction mindset, and its echoes can still be seen in recent favorites, from the political slaughterhouse of Game of Thrones, to the deranged absurdist feudalism of Warhammer 40,000, to the fantastical apocalyptic landscapes of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. Its never been blinding, but its always been there.
Its held a bit of a soft spot in my mind, in that it has always felt like the sort of thing that Tolkien would write if he just learned to loosen up and take a crap-tonne of LSD. Tolkien’s famed linguistic thoroughness is matched, I think, in Herbert’s work, even if Chakobska is based on real world languages; lets face it, someone speaking Elvish doesn’t sound all that different from someone speaking Welsh. The setting’s sprawling feudal society and mystic traditions may seem dated today, but part of that at least stems from the depth of imitation they have spawned.
And its those mystic traditions I’d like to explore here, as I have noticed a distinct theme in the path of Paul Atreides in the initial novel; before Paul can reach his messianic status, he first has to become transgender.
This must be taken in context. I don’t think one could truly describe Dune as a progressive novel on gender lines; the society depicted is one with very firm gender roles, with the feudal trappings of the galactic government leading to women being treated as chattel or bargaining chips fairly commonly, and the all female Bene Gesserit, despite their fearsome psychological and autonomic skill set, almost inevitably accept the role of advisor and shadowy manipulator. It is a patriarchy with strongly defined social roles, with little room to transgress. The nomadic Fremen have a more egalitarian society (as you often get with hunter gatherer groups, see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind), with leadership of tribes shared between the Reverend Mother and her war leaders of either sex.
Paul, however, in amongst the first scene of the book, is forced to meet a transgression with lethal consequences; the trial of the gom jabbar, a test of endurance that no male has survived. In some ways, this is a ploy by the Reverend Mother to remove what was considered a mistake, with Paul having meant to have been born a girl to satisfy the Bene Gesserit’s ancient eugenics program. Against expectation, the young man is able to endure the trial, marking the beginning of his shift away from his masculine identity. This begins a number of jarring shifts for Paul. His mother, Jessica, had already secretly taught him some of the rites of the Bene Gesserit, and after forsaking his disintegrating family to live with the desert nomads, he drinks the Water of Life, another trial that no male has a right to survive, and thus blows open the doors of his own perception and begins his ascension to godhood and leader of a revolutionary jihad. By shedding his connections to his gender, his ties to the feudal state, and his family name, he steps forth into an enlightened state.
This is not a new idea. There are a number of cultures throughout history that have practiced a form of symbolic gender realignment, particularly in relation to mystic societies. Sometimes this related to an abrupt shedding, such as the celibacy oaths of ascetic traditions, but in other cases, such as the self castrating worshipers of Cybele in ancient Rome, the change is more direct. A personal favourite in modern film is a scene in Onmyouji 2 (skip to about 2:20 for the good stuff), in which the male protagonist, attempting a hazardous ritual with no time to spare, must play the role of the priestess to placate angry deities. Indeed, early depictions of Christ show a strikingly effeminate figure, thought to stem from Jesus’ enlightened and life restoring reputation, before the newly formed Church attempted to repaint itself as an implacable moral authority, recasting their saviour to look more like Zeus, with all the delicious irony that entails.
Though Paul does exhibit a number of socially feminine roles in his context, having survived their trials and learned their secret language (the Bene Gesserit Voice), this may be less of a direct gender change and more of an attempt by the protagonist to escape his destructive male nature. The Dune series has a very pessimistic outlook on male bio-psychology, to the extent that in God Emperor of Dune the titular character rebuilds his army as an all female fighting force after having come to the conclusion that men are incapable of maintaining civilisation. Even in the first novel, Paul’s fedaykin Death Commandoes view themselves as a gruesome necessity for a desperate time, with Stilgar considering himself not an honoured warrior or authority but a desert executioner, or even at times little more than a tool in the hands of his Prophet. Perhaps here we can see a degree of obsessive behaviour attributed to the male brain; most of the Mentats of the series are male, and where this obsession is not turned to rigid computation it quickly devolves into the sadism of the Harknonnen barony or the brutality of the fervent Fremen.
Perhaps Paul tends more towards the point of a spiritual hermaphrodite in his ascension to Messiah. He still maintains socially male roles; those of father, war leader and destroyer, while access to his feminine nature, that precious X chromosome, allows him to throw off the limiting factors of his male mind. The story certainly has a touch of the old 1960’s flair to it; that a Messiah is born not from divine will but through a cocktail of psychotropics, the demolition of rotten social structures and the merciless enlightenment of the empty reaches where humanity clings to life. Paul’s marriage into the Imperial family that forms the culmination of the story feels almost like a disappointment, a surrender to the forces he had been attempting to escape, a crushing return to a realisation that even as Emperor and the monopolist of the vital Spice, the structure cannot be changed through violence alone. He returns to his male role, and his frenetic path to enlightenment fades, never to be fulfilled in his lifetime.
So we have, in our hands, a path to enlightenment through a mystic step across established gender boundaries. This is important, I feel, because it is very difficult to grow beyond one’s assigned role in the world if one is unwilling to question it. Though Dune approaches the path to enlightenment in a hopeful manner, with the sense that it is there if you can just find the right circumstances, with the right drugs or music or ritual, the though remains that with or without an end goal, with or without the throne of the Kwisatch Haderach to claim, one ceases to grow as a human being once one ceases exploration of the entire human condition. For Paul, this was a systemic and painful shredding out of the masculine limits on his mind to allow for broader comprehension.
Dune, as I read it, was a call to tear down the walls that are holding you back, and it remains relevant today. It is not hard to see the calcified, self interested nobles in our own time, the willful sacrifice of chattel slaves and attempts to enforce gender and social roles in a world desperately wanting to be free of them, the monopoly of vital resources making kings of killers, and the word jihad sings across the popular mind despite its meaning being so very different.
And it wants you to bust loose of all that. Throw aside everything your society wants you to be, twist at the foundations and limiting functions that you think your brain is locked into, and call your generation to tear down the old order on a tide of blades and nuclear fire. To give you a chance to see what the other side of life is. I’m not saying its not a great drama; hell, its probably the seminal political melodrama of twentieth century science fiction. But it wanted something, Herbert did, but it never quite reached the people. It was a good story, but I think we lost the mysticism along the way.
Perhaps Paul Muad’dib transgressed for nothing.
So yeah, that’s some stuff I thought about Dune. In summary, be nice to the trans people in your community. Or I’ll pull out your fusking spine. Also, transgress against everything you’ve ever believed was true; our history is a pack of lies as any fool can tell; and no, poor quorganism has made no money out of this article, and any part of it can be redistributed under an Attribution-Share Alike-No Alterations Creative Commons License, so you know. Butcher it, but name the relevant pig (that’s a metaphor; authors/creators as pigs, inhumanity of the meat industry… yada yada, you know the drill…).
Anzac Day came and went some time ago, and yet my brain does not cease to turn.
Late article, I know. The furore has passed.
For those among my imaginary readership who did not grow up in Australia, Anzac Day sort of sits as a second Remembrance Day marking the catastrophic failure that was the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, the first large scale engagement of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), and despite attempts at appropriation by nationalist elements is usually a reflection on the futility of war and the suffering it causes.
And suffering is the right word. Lacking a glorious, mythic history to look back on, Australia’s military campaigns have in general been brutal, unforgiving attrition, all the more thankless for, with the exception of the jungle war in Papua against the Japanese in WW2, being unwanted deployments in the face of a local population that did not want them.
The film Gallipoli, starring a very young Mel Gibson, really jabs that home, and is a decent primer for those unfamiliar with this little bit of history.
So I begin to ponder the why of it. In the case of the Australian military the objective for the most part is appeasement; an ironic idea for those who remember the demagoguery of the Cold War. Once again excepting the Papua deployment, which is arguably symptomatic of the greater system, all of Australia’s military actions have ultimately been blood sacrifice in an attempt to secure the protection of the most powerful empire of the time; first Britain then, after the fall of Singapore, the United States. In a strategic sense, the far off battlefields of Europe, North Africa, Korea and Vietnam mean very little to Australia, and few of them at any point have been capable of generating any real threat with reach enough to reach the South Pacific. But the Empire of the day deemed them worth dying for, and so the Australian government jumped at the chance to feed its paltry forces into the meat grinder, despite the abandonment by one empire and statements from the latter suggesting that they would do the same if it was in their interests.
This train of thought followed to another. The idea of sacrifice is often brought up at national memorial days, but I don’t think that it is fully understood, especially within this particular context. The Anzacs sure as hell didn’t die for our freedom or prosperity; powerful though the Ottoman Empire may have once been they were never going to invade Australia, and had plenty on their plates to deal with at that point already. Instead, it was blood spilled to placate another dying empire, Australia’s erstwhile guardian. It was an offering of human lives, like the Aztecs used to give to the sun, hoping that it would ensure the British Empire’s protection.
That it did not only makes it all the more tragic.
Upon further consideration, I realised that this idea can be applied to warfare more generally, especially within the context of the Western Hemisphere. Feeding the earth blood to ensure future fortune is no new idea, and has an added layer of economic rationale; the idea of waging war over resources is familiar and common practice for everyone between the Vikings and the US Army and many more besides, but the newly controlled resources are not the only gain for those controlling the war. The ensuing bloodbath means there are fewer left to share those resources.
It took me a little while to get over just how messed up that was.
But on a purely rational level – the kind commonly deployed by psychopaths, for instance – it makes sense. Those who arrange for wars to occur, and usually benefit most from their occurrence, certainly aren’t those on the front line, and thus are probably going to make it to the end of the conflict to enjoy the spoils. They will face less local competition for those resources, allowing them to capitalise even more aggressively. This is a pattern very much in line with Western European conflict throughout history; seize lands to increase agricultural capacity, and there will be more resources available to those that survive. This can be contrasted with the South Asian Mandala system, which had comparatively rich resources with fewer people to work them, whose wars tended to focus on slaving to better extract those resources, and though I won’t go into too much detail I felt it bore inclusion. This is a psychology that appears to have persisted into modern warfare; a means for power groups to raid for resources while shedding surplus bodies.
It might appear that this does not hold for the example of Australia; after all, the country was crippled by the two World Wars, with the workforce significantly drained. I would argue that those undertaking the sacrifice do not always have any benefit from doing so, just like the Aztecs of old. The Australian sacrifice contributed to a reshaping of world politics, that led to their allies becoming the only viable imperial forces in the world. By assisting the United States, both militarily and perhaps more importantly on a political level, the mountain of Australian corpses has assisted the USA in maintaining its current primacy. The sacrifice has aided the country’s guardian, certainly.
And so we come back to Anzac Day, and can ask again what the men and women of the Australian Defence Forces throughout history really died for. What the sacrifice they made, that is extolled each year, really gained. What we have today is a world of American primacy, bull headed patriarchy and free-wheeling capitalism, in which the wealthy can control lobby groups that arrange for governments to send their young citizens to die for resources valuable to unregulated heavy industry, who in turn lobby for more. It leaves rich, old, white men, the traditional brokers of capital in our society, with an even greater stranglehold of its resources.
Where a side of horse meat may make the difference between a poor man and a rich one.
Remember your Trumbo children; you have no duty to die for the rich man. It is your duty to live; for yourself, for your family, and for the fact that you are a thinking, talking human being and for that reason alone your life has importance.
Don’t let the rich man make a sacrifice of you.
Photo “Occupy D.C.” courtesy of Devin Smith, aka Devinish on Flickr. Hope my ramblings didn’t hurt your ears, dear imaginary readers, but this little economist does get very excited on finding new supply and demand forces.
It doesn’t pay to be naive, and I’d be a lot better off if I didn’t let this kind of thing get under my skin.
But it really does shit me when people misquote things.
Religious demagogues are frequent employers for these particular shades of bullshit. In fact, it was some recently re-televised comments by the Right Honorable Fascist Fred Nile that spurred this rant, particularly in regard to his stance on homosexuality. Now, when religious types cry foul on the LGBT community they typically cite the Bible as their evidence, despite their quotations being blatantly mistranslated and homosexual relationships having the support of the big guy JC himself. Don’t believe me? Here’s a nice little translation for you. Yay languages!
But… to be honest the fundies can rot in their own sick, terrified little holes all they like. They never say anything particularly interesting or creative, and Nile’s one of a dying breed, they don’t need my help to push them over the edge. Politicians, however, are alarming in their tenacity. And boy do they manage this misquotation malarky with a gusto that makes my eyes bleed.
I’m thinking about two names in particular. Not the quoters, in this case, but the quotees. John Maynard Keynes. Thomas Malthus.
I can smell hackles rising already. Imaginary hackles. Because all my readers are imaginary. Thanks for sticking around guys.
I have heard Malthus misquoted to an alarming extent, and I found the responsible artifacts to be, if a little conservative, largely inoffensive. The circling resurgence of the meme that has grown from Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population is staggering; the very idea that Malthus said “We’ll have all the babies and eat ourselves to death” appears to have been addition after the fact. The idea of the Malthusian trap, at best guess a derivation of Ricardo’s dreaded Steady State Trap, is something wholly constructed and reeks of extrapolation.
Ok. Context. The C word is still so very powerful.
Malthus wrote the essay in response to a letter from William Godwin, and the latter thinker presented a picture of an anarcho-socialist utopia. Godwin’s thought was an almost Marxist one; that the very institutions that define our society are the source of its ills. Marriage, property (and the gentry who possessed it) and religion were all damaging leeches, and if we could do away with these things then resources would be so plentiful that every man, woman and child would have plenty to meet their needs and wants. You produce enough, and everyone will be happy.
Malthus, pipping cyberpunk to the post by about two hundred and fifty years, cried foul on that. He started by agreeing that the institutions of the time were in fact not universal goods; he makes particular note of the pariah status of unwed mothers. But he also says these institutions evolved for a reason, based on a scarcity of resources that led to people not wishing to support children who weren’t their own. Taking the logic to Godwin’s argument, he posited that once resources were guaranteed by society for each child people would have as many children as they liked, artfully pussyfooting around the reason for that being that people in general like having sex. With the deterrent removed, population swells, and we begin to outstrip our resources.
What happens then? Well, cannibalism, road warriors, the end of civilization… are more or less exactly what Malthus didn’t predict. What he believed would happen is more or less a return to what we had before; marriages to enforce responsibility for children, landowners commanding serfs, all as a method of controlling consumption of resources. Doesn’t show a lot of creativity on Old Tommy’s part, and a blatant disregard for the idea of contraception, but he was working with what came to hand.
So the belief that population is limited by resource availability, as I heard surface at least once during the 2007 Australian election (props to anyone who can find that clip, think it was on Q&A, but not having any luck), is decidedly non-Malthusian. Its limited by institutions in the face of scarcity, so the idea of it being inevitable ranges from vaguely misinformed to downright irresponsible when its rattled off by potential Members of Parliament.
So, lesson the first: Read Malthus before you quote Malthus. Its English, so don’t worry, you won’t run into the same problems we encountered up page with our Bible studies.
Now, dear Keynes, poor Keynes, brilliant, arrogant Keynes. Our pal John Maynard has copped a lot of flack in recent years, his name is used by economic conservatives in the manner that the Devil’s name is used by religious ones. Every so often you hear a pundit decrying some big spike in government spending as Keynesian, hell, Wayne Swann was openly in bed with the General Theory when he decided to, er… “stimulate” the Australian economy. We run into another problem of misquotation again.
Keynes did, in fact, support small government with minimal interference in markets. This man had actually come out and said that he intended to save capitalism from the dual threats of Communism and Fascism, and in the 1930’s that was looking like a losing proposition. But Keynes had faith that the capitalist market could do great things, outstripping centrally planned economies through sheer weight of productivity. And the government should let it do so.
Until, of course, the market fucks up. And it will. Did in 1929, did in 2008. So when those big businesses come crying to the government that they browbeat into deregulating them, howling “please, save us, we’re too big to fail!”, should we bail them out? What would Keynes say?
Though I imagine he’d use better chosen words, I suspect the message would be “Let ’em rot. Can’t have our lives ruled by Moral Hazard fattened imbeciles.”
See, Keynes didn’t say the government should prop up a failing market. He said it was there to protect people when it hurt them. When a demand slump kills off businesses and raises unemployment, the government should employ those people for public works, giving them funds with which to get demand – always, always demand – rolling again.
Admittedly, Keynes also said a lot of things that don’t make a great deal of sense. I can only assume that he wrote a great deal of his works drunk, a sentiment with which I can identify pretty easily.
So, in this context (ooh! Dirty C word again!) Jon Stewart’s suggestion on the Daily Show that Barack Obama could pay the money he intended to spend bailing out the banks to the people in debt to them actually makes some sense in a Keynesian model.
So for the conservative types who seem to associate Keynesian thought with the damn dirty government giving their hard earned tax dollars to crack babies, dope heads and programs to take away their private stash of anti-tank weaponry, that’s not really what it means. In fact, a lot of recent stimulus has seemed pretty out of joint with Keynes’ proposals, but then like we saw earlier, Jesus was totally cool with gay sex. So yeah.
And if I do ever get to debate Fred Nile, I suspect my argument will more or less follow these lines. Not that I think he’d listen.
Alright, that’s that giant poisonous monster off my chest… glad that’s sorted. Anyway, this article is once again Creative Commons meat for the market, and I am not making any money out of it. Feel free to rip it to pieces and rebuild it as whatever macabre offense against nature you can imagine. Do Frankenstein proud. Have a metal week, imaginary folks.