The Other Pronouns

Gender-neutral pronouns are not the whole issue with pronouns, or this would be on transwaffle. A bit of context is helpful here, so the point of this post is to talk about other pronouns, personal and otherwise, which is just interesting anyway but also enlightening from the perspective of the distinctions we’re used to making and not making.

Okay, so to start with modern Southeastern English English, which is more or less my dialect, the personal pronouns are:

SingularPlural
1stI, me, my, mine, myselfwe, us, our, ours, ourselves
2ndYou, your, yours, yourselfYou, your, yours, yourselves
3rdShe, her, her, hers, herself;
It, its, itself;
He, him, his, himself
They, them, their, theirs, themselves

As can be seen immediately, the biggest oddity of present day English in most prestige dialects is that it fails to distinguish between singular and plural in the second person pronoun, which is very unusual. It also appears to lack polite forms, also known as the T-V distinction, from the French tu and vous.   I say “appears” because historically the lost pronoun is in fact “thou”, which is the singular and familiar form, which dropped out of common use during the seventeenth century. It’s somewhat confused by the fact that the King James version of the Bible uses “thees and thous” as the phrase has it because it follows the use of the pronouns in Latin and Greek, which didn’t have the T-V distinction. This leads to the oddity that God is referred to throughout using a familiar pronoun rather than a reverent one, which makes sense in the New Testament but not in the Old.

Here’s a table for the pronouns around the time of the KJV translation:

SingularPlural
1stI, me, my, mineWe, us, our, ours
2ndThou, thee, thy, thineYe, you, your, yours
3rdShe, her, hers; it, it, his; he, him, hisThey, them, their, theirs

One immediate difference is the lack of the “-self” reflexive pronouns. Instead, the objective forms “me” and the like are used in their place. I’ve also been a bit cheeky and written the “his” form for the neuter third person singular. This occurs sporadically in the KJV to refer, for example to the Sun’s rays, but doesn’t treat the Sun as masculine but as an inanimate object, since at the time so-called “natural” gender was almost universal in our language.

The earliest recorded stage of the English language which survived varies because the dialects of Old English were less in contact with each other and hadn’t yet merged from the several languages spoken on the Continent, but by the time of Alfred the Great, the Wessex dialect had become dominant. This is not, however, the direct ancestor of our language, which emerged from the speech of the East Midlands. There was also some variation in spelling within the dialect and at the time, English was primarily a spoken language with only a few literate people. Moreover, it was grammatically more complex, so this table covers only the nominative (subject) forms of the personal pronouns as they were sometimes written in the Wessex dialect:

SingularDualPlural
1sticwitwe
2ndþugitge
3rdheo, hit, hehiehie

The most striking difference is the presence of the dual number, a special form to refer to pairs of people or items, as well as the singular and the plural. The genitive and objective pronouns in the third person neuter and masculine also merge into “his” and “him”. This is because of the tendency in Indo-European languages generally to have similar forms in the neuter and masculine, which arises from the fact that the genders used to be feminine (adjectival nouns) and neuter/masculine (agent nouns), which later incidentally became associated with human females because they “were” things (e.g. judged by appearance) and human males because they “did” things (e.g. they were blacksmiths).

It’s also significant that the forms of both the feminine singular and common plural third person pronouns are unlike today’s, and there are stories behind those too. Today’s “they” is from the Danes, and is a rare example of an apparently successful pronoun being adopted from a foreign language. This only happens very seldom because the pronouns are such a key part of the vocabulary of a language that they are among the first words a child learns and are used more frequently than other words. The presence of “they” in English has been used to argue that in fact English is a Scandinavian language which has combined with Anglo-Saxon rather than the other way round, although what exactly this means is another question.

Another interesting thing about third person pronouns in English is that the singular ones are the origin of generic “he”, which is somewhat surprising and I’ve mentioned before. The West Saxon “heo” merged with “he” when the “eo” diphthong died out and was replaced with long “e”, which gave us a single word for “she” and “he”. Historically, therefore, texts using generic “he” are actually non-sexist in this respect, but to claim that they are literally non-sexist is to commit the etymological fallacy, that the history of a word determines its current meaning. This is irrelevant because when we acquire language, we don’t generally do so while having a history lesson about every word we learn. The origin of the word “she” seems to be from the feminine word for “that”, which was “seo” in West Saxon.

It’s also notable that we actually got along fine with a third person pronoun which referred both to singular and plural entities for centuries, although not in the nominative. “Him” is the plural of both the third person singular neuter and masculine and the third person plural in Old English, although ambiguity could’ve been sorted out in other ways, It should also be noted that at this early stage in the development of what appears to be our language, gender was grammatical and therefore there were more distinctions between items due to the pronouns used to refer to them than there are today. For example, “seo sunne” – the Sun – was feminine but “se mona” – Cynthia, i.e. the bright thing in the night sky with a rabbit on it – was masculine, and “se wifman” – woman – was masculine but “þæt cild” neuter (which it still is and is probably because it originally meant “womb”). Consequently there was a lot less ambiguity in situations where contemporary English would refer to two items as it. For instance, referring to a solar eclipse as opposed to a lunar one, we might say “it is in front of it” but that could be interpreted as either celestial body being in front, but in Old English that would be something like (in Modern English) “he is before her”, whose meaning would be a lot clearer. Hence it has little to do with sex or gender as we understand it today and everything to do with avoiding ambiguity, and this is generally true of pronouns.

Another largely ignored source of potential confusion in, as far as I know, all Indo-European languages is the lack of a distinction between inclusive and exclusive “we”. Many languages have different words for “we” according to when the person being spoken to is included or excluded. Tok Pisin (New Guinea’s English-like language) does this, and also has a dual number, meaning that it has no fewer than four versions of “we”. It’s done quite straightforwardly with the words “yumi” and “yumitupela” – “you and me” and “you and me two fellows”, the second being dual. The trouble with speaking a language without inclusive and exclusive “we” is that once you realise that distinction does exist in other languages it becomes maddeningly confusing to realise it doesn’t in your own. Proto-Indo-European, however, is thought to have had both, and it’s somewhat sad that it disappeared.

Another distinction regarding gender which is usually absent in English and which we seem to get by without very easily is with “I” and “you”. The peculiarly located Indo-European Tocharian languages, spoken in Chinese Turkestan and now extinct, did make this distinction in the first person – there are feminine and masculine versions of their word for “I”. I personally also make this distinction although it’s invisible to most people because I never refer to myself in the masculine and nobody else does this. I use a lower-case “i” for masculine “I” and a capital for feminine “I”. It’s far more common to have a distinction in the second person, and in a sense this can occur in formal English when we say something like “Is madam having the plaice?” or something (I assume restaurants where the waiters do this are not vegan). But in Arabic, there is always such a distinction. It might be tempting to build up some kind of social theory here about Arab societies being sexist, but in fact this is unlikely to work because the cultures where no distinctions are made for gender in third person pronouns actually tend to be more sexist than ones where they do, so it’s more just a quirk of various Semitic languages that they do this.

I’ve concentrated so far on the personal pronouns, but there are also the demonstrative ones “this/these” and “that/those”. English has a fairly simple system making two distinctions, near and far. Many other languages make three distinctions: “this by me”, “that by you” and “that over yonder”. Some South American and Papuan languages make many more distinctions than those. Also, a language as familiar to the West as Latin fails to make a distinction between the third person pronouns and the demonstrative ones, meaning that it has “hic” for this, “iste” for “that by you” and “id” for “that over there” but all of these words also mean “she/it/he”. There is also less ambiguity in these.

Scandinavian languages also make a distinction, found elsewhere too, between reflexive pronouns referring to the same item earlier in the clause and ones which refer to other items. So for example, on my FB it can say

X samlar in pengar till ett välgörande ändamål i samband med sin födelsedag.

But it’s also possible to say:

X samlar in pengar till ett välgörande ändamål i samband med hennes födelsedag.

In English the translation for both these sentences is “X collects money for charity for her birthday”, meaning either “her own”, in the first case or for some other female person in the second. This distinction doesn’t exist in English in spite of the fact that we used to have the word “sin” and still have reflexive pronouns.

Then there are the WH-question words, which in English double as relative pronouns. These are “what”, “who”, “whose”, “whom”, “why”, “where”, “when”, “which”, “how”, “whence” and “whither”, plus a number of others which append a preposition to the word “where”, and they parallel a series of words beginning with “th” or “h”. The first five of these were originally different forms of the same word used in different cases. “Why” is particularly interesting because it’s the instrumental case of “what” and used to have a parallel “þy”, which still exists as “the” in phrases such as “the more the merrier”, which if you think about it doesn’t use “the” in the usual way. The odd thing about “why” is that it wasn’t replaced by “wherefore” but replaced it, even though “þy” was replaced by “therefore”. Many languages distinguish between such words used as question words and those used as relative pronouns, and in fact we used to use the word “þe”, which is not the same as “þe” which became “the”, for all cases of this including “whose” and the like. “Whom” is an interesting one because it was once used for inanimate objects which were the recipient of actions, which would have been referred to as “what” in the nominative and accusative, and the current use of “whose” for inanimate objects is similar, and is similarly disappearing because people feel like they’re referring to a person when they do it. The loss of the “what”/”whom” distinction marked the final demise of a morphological dative case in English.

To sum up then, and I’ve only really scratched the surface here, there’s scope for many more pronouns than we in fact have, although many distinctions have never been made in English. We currently have seven personal pronouns, each of which has various forms. We could also have a reflexive pronoun of the “sitt” type found in Swedish and other Scandinavian languages. We could also have three rather than two numbers, inclusive and exclusive versions of “we”, polite and familiar versions of the second person pronouns, a three-way distinction for the third person and three genders. This would give us, in my estimation, fifty-six personal pronouns, and personally I think it’s a great pity we only have seven, but that’s just me I expect.

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Is Capitalism Too Good For Us?

“Communism is all very well in theory but it just doesn’t work in practice” is a very common phrase, the idea being that there is something called human nature which is inherently selfish and will stop it from working.  And copious apparent examples can be given, such as the situations in China and the Soviet Union and the 1978 Winter of Discontent/Discotheque, and I make that connection for a reason I might go into later, to which the left wing rejoinder is that they were not real examples of socialism or communism in the first place, and so on.  Although I think there is an argument to be had here, I want to start off on a slightly different and less well-explored tack – is the same true of capitalism?  Is capitalism a system which only works in theory?

Kropotkin once said that we were not good enough to make capitalism work.  I almost started this post with that phrase but Sarada said it would put people off, so it occurs here instead.  Of course you could just read what he says about it because much of it is similar to what I say, but I have something more than that, because I’ve been self-employed and am Christian.  Before I get to why those are relevant, I’ll briefly cover his argument with contemporary examples.

Capitalism, or at least a market economic system, is often portrayed as the kind of economic system which evolves organically out of a situation where people have wants and needs on the one hand which they can’t satisfy and also have the ability to offer goods and services on the other.  For instance, the South East of peninsular Great Britain had a lot more flint for making stone tools than the rest of it, but the glaciers and tundra to the North, as obtained during the Ice Ages, had lots of furry animals who can be killed and their pelts used for making tents and clothing.  Therefore it makes sense to exchange flint tools which can be used to kill the animals for furs which can be used for clothing and shelter, but different tribes have different facilities at their disposal.  This stops working if the people don’t have complementary needs, so an exchange medium develops known as money.  Even where the government dominates, illegal markets develop, and in places where, for example, recreational substances are criminalised, markets evolve, which are however often not very free and involve  very large profit margins and poor quality control, to the extent that the people with most to lose from the decriminalisation of the drugs involved are the dealers.  It’s also questionable to project this back into the Palaeolithic, as it may partake of the idea of trying to create a mythos to support one’s current world view.  Marx’s idea of primitive communism is the same kind of thing in the opposite direction.

As I have gone on about ad infinitum nauseamque on homeedandherbs, our children were home educated.  This came about rather surprisingly from a position where I thought it should be illegal to do so less than two years previously.  I initially thought it was a bad thing because it gave families too much power over their children, and an authoritarian or neglectful parenting style would blight those children’s adult lives.  The reason I switched was that the government was making such an incredibly bad job of “educating” the children that parents could hardly be expected to do worse.  Basically, with the exception of the introduction of continuous assessment with GCSEs, every single educational policy introduced between 1979 and 2010 constituted in itself a good argument for home education.  Note, incidentally, that this stretches over both the Conservative terms and the alleged Labour government under Blair and Brown.

A similar situation exists with my attitude towards EU membership.  I was primarily against Britain being in the EU from about the time I was able to have informed political opinions right up until a couple of days before the Brexit vote, the reason being that the EU seems to be a poorly accountable body which enables environmentally unfriendly trade over a wide area and seems to facilitate the operations of global capitalism.  The reason I changed my mind was the murder of Jo Cox.  It seems that we would not be able to institute a socialist government properly in this country if we were tied into arrangements with a trading capitalist block like the European Union.  The problem was, though, that there seemed to be remarkably intolerant forces pushing the agenda of Britain getting out of the EU, and Cox’s murder indicates to me that it was substantially driven by hatred.  By that, by no means do I think that more than a tiny minority actually did have bigotry-based agenda, but that their influence and actions were way out of proportion to their numbers.  Nor does it follow that being out of the EU commits us to a neoliberal programme, and in this sense it really is about sovereignty, but what feels to me like realism strongly suggests that that’s where we’d be going.

In both of these cases, home ed and EU membership, what I’ve done can be interpreted in two ways.  One is that I’ve taken up a position more associated with the Right than the Left.  In the former case I’ve placed enough faith in families as a whole to trust that they will parent their own in a responsible manner which will end up contributing to the common good.  In the latter, I’ve opted for a somewhat pro-capitalist position of preferring to stay in the club which encourages trade over thousands of kilometres and prefers the big producers over the small, which is not specifically pro-capitalist because in theory, and there are those words again, capitalism involves a free market with plenty of entrepreneurship where competition will tend to prefer good quality providers of goods and services.  But that’s an idealised view of capitalism.  The other thing I’ve done here is to opt for the “least worst” position, in a manner similar to Churchill’s:

Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

(This is incidentally a misattribution, hence the bold text.  He did say it but he was quoting from an apparently unknown source).

Opting for the least worst position could be seen as a form of conservatism.  I see that political position to be partly about not letting the best be the enemy of the good.  Whereas one may wish to go for an idealistic plan, this may in fact turn out to be unachievable and cause more problems than it solves.  However, it doesn’t seem to lead me in a conservative direction, and those who believe that something don’t need fixing ‘cos it ain’t broke may just be the people who aren’t in a position to appreciate how broken something really is because they’re not trapped in the shattered wreckage.

We seem to be in a situation where the greedy and selfish have all the advantages, which benefits no-one in the end including themselves, except on a very superficial level.  The idea seems to be that you have to work with this because people are not perfectable, so their baser impulses need to be harnessed for the collective good.  It isn’t clear how this could work.  On the other hand, it could be that what we perceive to be “baser” impulses are in fact not base at all but perfectly okay.  This could go into Nietzschean territory at this point, and if not that into Ayn Rand’s “greed is good” philosophy of Objectivism.  But there’s another element to this as well.

Organised religion in the West has tended to posit the idea of original sin, expressed in the Calvinist phrase of “total depravity”.  That is, human beings are innately sinful, this often being interpreted as inherently selfish, as most sins portrayed in the Bible seem to be.  There are other possible views, and other Abrahamic religions have other perspectives.  Islam, for example, believes in original virtue and Judaism seems to place far less emphasis on the Garden Of Eden narrative and lacks the reiteration found in the Pauline Epistles.  Whatever the validity of the source, conservatism often seems to include the idea that we are irredeemably selfish, and combined with a certain strand of organised religion this can be seen as attempting to elicit divine help with this issue, or perhaps being resigned to the imperfection of all people and institutions, including both corporations and government.  Moreover, if it’s also combined with the idea that the current order is about to come to an end, attempting to improve things of one’s own accord could be seen as pointless and trying to elicit divine help with this would be futile as that’s not supposed to be part of God’s plan for us.

I am not that kind of Christian.  Furthermore, an atheist would probably look askance at such a view, although they might themselves still believe that humanity is essentially selfish and greedy.  But there is a sense in which right wing views work quite well with a particular kind of Christianity.  Another view is that Christ was preaching communism.  I don’t agree with that either.  I think there’s a range of political views compatible with Christianity, and that at no point did Christ advocate that those who gave alms to the poor should first hand it over to the government to do so.  Conversely, a democratic government could be seen as being set up by people to manage that kind of redistribution, depending on how well one expects that to operate and how prone to corruption it might be.  The balance of possible views of the situation means that it’s perfectly feasible to be either left or right wing, or for that matter centrist, and also Christian, and as Christians we shouldn’t judge other Christians based on their political perspectives.

In a right wing environment, there would of course be poor people, and without a state to support them they would rely on charity or generosity.  For this to operate properly there would need to be some system of moral education, unless we can rely on an essential goodness.  Some people would look for organised religion to provide that education.  The question therefore arises of whether a capitalist society can actually operate properly in the absence of religion.  It may be that a non-religious capitalist society will be dysfunctional for that reason.  On the other hand, humanist approaches to ethics are also possible, or alternatively, maybe we are instinctively generous.  A secular society, i.e. one which gives equal weight to all religious and non-religious views within certain moral parameters, might therefore be able to function and still be capitalist, but in order to do so there would have to be either some way to instill a strong sense of altruism in most of its members or for humans to be essentially good and able to trace the likely consequences of their actions positively.  It’s also unclear how psychopaths could be kept in check in such a system, and an effective way of achieving that doesn’t seem to be available in the society we in fact live in.

Now you might think that having said all that, I’m advocating for communism.  Regardless of what my opinions are in that respect, that doesn’t follow.  Simply because I believe we aren’t, for whatever reason, “good enough” for capitalism doesn’t mean I’m optimistic about communism or socialism.  It may simply be that neither system can be made to work.  If that’s so, though, there is no particular reason to prefer capitalism.  I would also argue that we don’t really live under a free market system and that it’s quite likely that such a system can’t persist without government intervention.

There’s a fairly well-known experiment involving an ant colony with various equally good food sources placed around it in a circle with the colony at the centre.  Whereas the ants initially find the sources at random and take food from them equally, there is always a drift towards a few sources being preferred even though there is no rational way to choose between them, and after a while the ants always end up going to a single food source and ignore the rest.  I think this happens within capitalism with competitors.  That is, there’s a drift towards monopolies, and we are not economically rational actors.  We are fickle and persuaded by advertisers and spurious reasoning, meaning that the monopoly which eventually comes to dominate a particular industry may well not be of better quality from the start, and once it’s become a monopoly the lack of competition removes the motivation to maintain any quality its products might previously have had.  This means that there’s a sense in which unregulated capitalism is destined to be both inefficient at providing for our needs and ends up putting us into the same situation as would have existed if all the major industries were controlled by the government in any case.  

As I’ve mentioned, however, I have been self-employed, and therefore in a very limited sense I’m a businesswoman.  What I’ve found in connection with that is that the professional body whose stated intention is to maintain high ethical standards does nothing of the sort and that the government, and beyond that the EU, isn’t on our side either.  There is a sense in which a professional body is a trade union.  They often seem to serve their own needs, to be out of touch with the needs of most of their members and to further the interests of their wealthiest members at the expense of the newer and poorer members.  It’s not possible to participate in the democratic process if you can’t afford to get to conferences, for example, which incidentally means that affordable public transport is helpful to democracy.  This means that in some kind of “ideal world”, the industry I’m in would work better if it’s self-regulating in the sense that the members themselves have the freedom to do as their values dictate.  This would of course require enough knowledge to be competent and not put people in danger.  In other words, it requires some kind of value system involving personal honour and integrity, and the question then arises of whether there was ever really a time when that kind of character was present in the world, or whether that’s a myth.  The alternative is to burden the innocent because of the possible guilt of others.

Given that situation, the fact that it’s possible for people to act in ignorance to endanger or provide poor quality service to customers combined with the possibility that acting with a high degree of integrity has never really been very widespread means that maybe in fact we do need some kind of governing system and that industries can’t regulate themselves.  At the same time, governments may act in relative ignorance to regulate them, meaning that we have a problem, particularly if policy is not based on good quality evidence.  If we really can’t be expected to practice business with high ethical standards, or if those who cut corners are more likely to succeed in business due to the strong possibility that customers are not rational economic agents, we then have a problem with capitalism as it stands.  This basically amounts to the same thing as I said before:  we are not good enough for capitalism and we need regulation.

Oddly though, this is kind of a conservative form of socialism.  The best possible capitalist system would involve equal, properly competing businesses combined with rational customers and businesspeople running their business with a high degree of moral integrity.  Oddly, this would be a kind of utopia, because in fact people don’t operate like that.  That may of course be a counsel of despair and a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If it isn’t, it may mean it’s at least equally valid for us to say “well, capitalism works very well in theory but it can’t really work in practice, because people are too selfish and imperfect”.  Two can play at that game.  The problem, of course being that if neither system works, and combination of the two doesn’t work either, we’re all doomed.

Disorganised Religion

The subject of angels has come up again, along with my difficulties with the idea.  As a Christian I’m supposed to believe in angels as supernatural beings, and I’ve gone into this in considerable depth on here before, but don’t worry, I have a new angle.  Before I get to that though, I want to give a brief recap of my thinking about angels and why it’s a problem for me.

Abrahamic religions generally include a belief in angels as powerful supernatural beings inferior to God who take part in human affairs.  Given that Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Baha’i are all monotheistic faiths, this is potentially difficult to reconcile with faith in God alone.  Moreover, as far as I know Judaism and Protestantism are not at all keen on there even being intermediaries between humanity and the Lord – bear that word in mind by the way because I’ll be coming back to it.  Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, has saints as separate individuals who intercede on our behalf.  This is historically sometimes because there have been pagan deities in which belief was very strong which were adapted into saints.  It’s been alleged that religion cycles between venerating a single being and several, although I can’t say I’ve seen any evidence for that.

The really strange thing about the Christian doctrines of angels is the idea of choirs.  This is the notion that there is God and then nine ranks of angels:  Seraphim, cherubim (nothing to do with winged babies incidentally – those are putti), thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and angels.  These are organised into three “spheres” of three in that order from inner to outer and top to bottom.  This whole system is based on a line in one of the Pauline epistles, namely Colossians 1:16:

ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς [bκαὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ τὰ ἀόρατα, εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἀρχαὶ εἴτε ἐξουσίαι· τὰ πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν ἔκτισται·

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

For some reason I don’t understand, and I’ve really tried, this quote has been taken by Dark Age or mediaeval scholars and used as a reason to justify the choirs of angels.  I think the idea behind it is probably that there is a corresponding order in the human world and the celestial world, rather like the idea that everything on the land has to have its counterpart in the sea, such as the sea cow and the monkfish.  It feels very claustrophobic to me though.  If the mediaeval, i.e. feudal, social order is not only a historical relict of the mundane but also an eternal and ideal celestial system, there’s no escape from the crushing, suffocating hierarchy among human beings, and what’s worse, the advent of democracy and human rights is in fact a sinful anomaly.  And that’s fascism, actual bona fide  fascism, as a perfect and divinely ordained system,  To which the only sensible response is, argh.

Fascism, particularly in Roman Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, frequently allies itself with the Church.  Franco’s Spain, for example, had the Church as an investigative body in its local parishes, insisted on Christian names and declared all civil marriages null and void, among probably many other things.  This is, to some extent, organised religion.

Because I’m ultimately anarchist, although it’s mixed up with libertarian socialism, you might think I’m not keen on the idea of organised religion and in fact this is true to some extent.  This is also a big reason why I have difficulties with the concept of angels.  One of the good things about the Reformation is that it removed intermediaries between God and human beings.  The general idea of the Roman Catholic church, so far as I can tell, is that clerics are kind of divinely-appointed experts on God and you also have to go through various other figures in order to get to God.  God has receptionists, as it were, such as saints.  The Protestant view of saints is more egalitarian.  It sees us all as saints, i.e. saved people, and there is no second tier of holier-than-thou people in a Protestant church, or at least there shouldn’t be.  A similar concept, found among Quakers and others, is the “priesthood of all believers”.  That is, everyone is a priest, and this is practiced by the Society of Friends by not having a hierarchy and allowing anyone to say what they are moved to say.  You’ll have to run this past Sarada though, because I’m not officially a Quaker though I have a lot of sympathy with them.

There’s also “unchurching”, which is similar to “unschooling”.  Since I have an entire blog devoted to the subject of unschooling, there’s no need to go into too much detail here, but just as children, being human, can usually be expected to learn autonomously, there is this thing called the Church Invisible, which is simply the group of all of God’s people and not necessarily anything to do with the human institution known as the Church.  Strictly speaking it’s even possible that nobody at all who is in the church is actually a member of the Church Invisible at all, although the chances are there would be some overlap.  But we can never know.  All that we can know about is our own relationship with the Divine.  God knows who’s in the Church.  As individuals, the only thing I can ever know personally about Church membership is whether or not I’m a member.  However, it could also be said that by the fruits shall ye know them.  In other words, if it walks like a Donald and quacks like a Donald, it probably isn’t a church member, i.e. a Christian, although we mustn’t judge others and we can never really know because we haven’t walked a mile in his webbed feet.

It’s also true that God uses people, other animals and even inanimate objects.  This is morally complex, because according to Immanuel Kant’s “kingdom of ends” statement of the Categorical Imperative, people (and by my extension any other living or otherwise conscious being) should never be treated as a means, only an end.  In other words, don’t use people.  So when God is using people, is that because God has a special dispensation to use them?  Nonetheless I would want God to use me and I have faith in God’s wisdom and perfection so I can be confident that God will never use me for evil ends.  What I can’t be sure about, of course, is whether God is using me or I’ve managed to convince myself that what I want to do anyway is God’s will, or, more subtly, whether God is using me or the institution of the Church or some other person or organisation is doing so for its own ends, and this is probably the central problem with organised religion – purity of motive is hard to discern.  Leaving that massive problem aside though, when God uses someone, God is effectively using them as a messenger or a servant, witting or unwitting, and as such, that person is in a sense an angel.  They may not even know that they are.  In fact they probably don’t usually know it’s happening.  For instance, when I was seven I saw “I HATE YOU” graffittied on a fence in a farm near my home, and convinced myself that God hated me.  I went home worried about this and confronted my mother about it.  At the time she was playing a tape with “Your God Reigns” on it, and I heard it as “Your God Hates”, which confirmed my belief that God hated me.  Her reply was that God was incapable of hate, which raised further problems in my mind because that meant that God was not all powerful.  My ultimate decision about this incident, years later, was that although God is capable of hate, God never exercises the option to hate people, although obviously God hates sin.  Interpreting this as a message from God, who are the messengers?  Well, my mother for a start, although I expect she saw herself to be communicating a message from God consciously to me.  Likewise the singers on the tape communicated the message to my addled brain that God hated me.  In their case, they were trying to communicate the opposite message to the one I heard.  Finally, the chances are that some teen glam rocker wannabe had scratched “I HATE YOU” into that fence, either in a fit of nihilism or as part of a dare or argument with their friends or acquaintances, not knowing that she was doing God’s work and communicating that message to me which ultimately led to a realisation about the nature of God’s omnipotence.  She probably hadn’t been to church since the late 1960s.  All of these people are messengers of God.  They are all angels, and in the case of the KISS fan she was not only unconscious of what she was doing but was in fact trying to do the opposite.

All of this could be completely wrong of course, and just a process going on in my head, but God might even so  arrange equally bizarre juxtapositions of events to bring us to Her or otherwise help or rescue us.  So is this what an angel is?  I think they’re more than that.

Because I’m Christian, I basically have to believe in Satan, and in fact I find it easy to do so for the following reason.  Patriarchy and its demon child global capitalism persist in the face of all reason, many human wishes and the like.  RastafarIanism has its own patriarchal issues, but all of this is adequately described by its wonderfully apt term Babylon.  It’s a system which not only organises itself hideously well but also seems to be rather too perfect and rather too protected from snags.  Obviously it’s partly protected by Babylon in the sense of the police, although of course as a Christian I must also recognise that even a police officer defending an illegal foxhunt against hunt sabs is a child of God, made in Her image and worthy of love.  But it also seems organised.  Since I don’t believe in conspiracy theories at all on the human plane, there is a missing explanation for this, and for this reason I believe there’s a conscious and outrageously powerful evil mind behind capitalism and the patriarchy.  That mind is of course Satan.  I’m definitely not like the stereotypical liberal Christian in this respect, who is often understood to reject the idea that the Devil exists.  He obviously does, because we’re not living in paradise.  To me, without the existence of the Devil I would have to do two things.  I would have to believe in a human conspiracy and I would have to blame people for things, and that would make it harder to love everyone.  I would also say that the subjective experience of depression as, as Churchill put it, a “black dog”, which corresponds pretty closely to how I see it, i.e. a force outside my identity pushing me down and keeping me in despair, does seem easy to personify.  I also realise that if a casual reader takes my statement about concluding that God hated me from a bit of graffiti I read in 1974 and combines it with my apparent equation between depression and demon possession, they would probably be justified in concluding that I’m psychotic.  I don’t have a problem with that because of the phenomenon of the wisdom of madness and clearly meaning can be found, sometimes very negative and destructive but meaning nonetheless, in delusions and hallucinations.  Nor am I denying that the social circumstances leading to depression, such as abusive relationships, poverty, disrupted sleep, and the brain chemistry and cognitive features of depression, such as inefficient or insufficient serotonin production or overgeneralising the negative and guilt complexes, are not equally important.  But notice that it’s possible to assert that the social circumstances, brain chemistry and cognitive psychological features of depression are compatible with each other and also with the idea that it can sometimes be usefully seen as a form of possession by demons.  Not a problem, bizarre though it may sound to a twenty-first century Westerner.  Moreover, the social circumstances contributing to depression are also organised by the Devil.

And the problem is that the Devil is an angel according to the Bible, so if I believe in one angel, why can’t I believe in others?  In this case I’m not talking about angels in a mundane sense but real proper spiritual beings called angels.  I don’t know what to do with this thought though, because it sounds insane.  But there is a third possible category of beings who can be seen as angels, and it’s a very broad one.

I’ve already explained that I think humans can be angels without knowing they are in the sense of being messengers.  The problem with being a human angel is that sin tends to get in the way.  However, the Bible tells us that Christ died “once for all on the cross”.  In other words, Christ came for all human beings just once (leaving aside the Second Coming), meaning that He never came separately for, for example, Australian Aborigines, Incas or the people who lived before the Mount Toba eruption, and also never came for any extraterrestrial intelligences who might exist.  Therefore we can conclude either that there are no aliens or that any aliens who do exist are sinless and constantly do God’s work.  Such beings live, from our perspective, in Heaven, i.e. the whole Universe aside from Earth, and this makes them rather similar to the conventional idea of angels.  Furthermore, there’s a whole other category of sinless beings:  other animals.  Christ didn’t die for dogs, jellyfish or orang utan, so we can conclude that it wasn’t necessary and that they are also sinless.  If that’s so, they too can be angels.  Hence if a dog saves your life, that dog may be doing God’s work and so in  a sense is an angel.

That’s about it for today.  I am aware that my words are going to sound mad to a lot of people, but remember this if you’re worried.  Lack of insight implies a poor prognosis.  I have insight.  I know I’m mad, so I may be fine.

Images Of God

One of the most insisted-upon precepts of the Abrahamic faiths is that we’re not supposed to have images of God because that may lead us to worship a created thing or person rather than the Creator.  In the Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah (The Cow, second surah of the Qur’an) verse 217 reads:

يَسۡـئَلُوۡنَكَ عَنِ الشَّهۡرِ الۡحَـرَامِ قِتَالٍ فِيۡهِ​ؕ قُلۡ قِتَالٌ فِيۡهِ كَبِيۡرٌ ​ؕ وَصَدٌّ عَنۡ سَبِيۡلِ اللّٰهِ وَ کُفۡرٌ ۢ بِهٖ وَالۡمَسۡجِدِ الۡحَـرَامِ وَاِخۡرَاجُ اَهۡلِهٖ مِنۡهُ اَكۡبَرُ عِنۡدَ اللّٰهِ ​​ۚ وَالۡفِتۡنَةُ اَکۡبَرُ مِنَ الۡقَتۡلِ​ؕ وَلَا يَزَالُوۡنَ يُقَاتِلُوۡنَكُمۡ حَتّٰى يَرُدُّوۡكُمۡ عَنۡ دِيۡـنِکُمۡ اِنِ اسۡتَطَاعُوۡا ​ؕ وَمَنۡ يَّرۡتَدِدۡ مِنۡكُمۡ عَنۡ دِيۡـنِهٖ فَيَمُتۡ وَهُوَ کَافِرٌ فَاُولٰٓـئِكَ حَبِطَتۡ اَعۡمَالُهُمۡ فِى الدُّنۡيَا وَالۡاٰخِرَةِ ​​ۚ وَاُولٰٓـئِكَ اَصۡحٰبُ النَّارِ​​ۚ هُمۡ فِيۡهَا خٰلِدُوۡن

They will question thee concerning the holy
month, and fighting in it. Say: ´Fighting in it
is a heinous thing, but to bar from God´s
way, and disbelief in Him, and the Holy
Mosque, and to expel its people from it —
that is more heinous in God´s sight; and
persecution is more heinous than slaying.´
They will not cease to fight with you, till they
turn you from your religion, if they are able;
and whosoever of you turns from his religion,
and dies disbelieving — their works have
failed in this world and the next; those are the
inhabitants of the Fire; therein they shall
dwell forever.

The highlighted phrase is often “translated” as “idolatry is worse than carnage”.  How it got from the Arabic to these two apparently very different English interpretations may serve to illustrate why it’s said that the Qur’an can never really be translated, and certainly early English “translations” of the book are deliberately unsympathetic to the text, because the aim is often not to present a faithful translation but to denigrate the book and the whole of Islam.  The word “qur’an” means something like “recite”, as it’s meant to be read aloud, so maybe I should’ve linked to that instead.  However, this in any case demonstrates the problem with taking something away from an original version – you end up representing it in your own way and it ceases to be, as it were, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, although some people would argue that it’s not the truth anyway.

The fact remains that we are not supposed to worship graven images of any kind, and certainly not God’s.  Some people would take this further, and in fact this is done in Islamic theology where God is described as being unlike any created thing, which is reminiscent of the Dao (道), since as the Dao De Jing has it, “The Dao that can be expressed is not the eternal Dao”, and “painfully giving it a name, I call it great”.  This is taken still further by the Sea Of Faith movement, which views adherence to Scripture itself as a form of idolatry, meaning that Christians must reject the Bible.  I wouldn’t go that far of course, and in fact although interpretations of the Bible have done a colossal amount of damage, to reject it completely and still call yourself Christian seems a bit pointless.

It does make sense to me, though, not to attach what I might think about God to my image of God, which is one reason why I try not to use pronouns to refer to God, or rather, in a sense, to use “God” as a pronoun, because she/it/he/they doesn’t cover the situation.  God is genderless because gender is a created thing, whoever may have created it.  Along these lines, it might seem equally absurd to call God “Father”, but I don’t see it that way, although God is equally our Mother, which is why God is referred to as “the many-breasted one” in the Bible (though again not in translation).  Gender, though, is not for this blog.

Many people find it very hard to call God Father because of their own relationships with their fathers, and others find it absurd because they see God as the Creator and sustainer of the Cosmos, i.e. the mother who gave birth to the Universe and suckles it.  I don’t actually find it that hard, although this is not because of my relationship with my earthly father.  It’s more that I was used to calling God Father and my other father daddy or dad so early on that I’ve never seen the two as similar in an emotional way.  Also, during an early atheist phase, when I found it necessary to invent God to deal with separation anxiety, I imagined her as a translucent lilac manta ray-like spitiy who enveloped and protected me in her wings and called her Mother Nature.  I imagine, in fact, that it’s our developmental psychological history which leads us to invent God in order to deal with separation from our parents, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the psychogenetic fallacy means that that in no way invalidates the existence of God, merely provides an explanation for our belief in God.  

It was therefore interesting that when I posted this image on my FB wall:

…which is problematic of course, but let’s not go there right now, it led to argument.  This is a very common image of Jesus, at least in Roman Catholic and Reformed churches, and is said to be based on Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, which is also where the halo is said to be from.  There are other images of Jesus, such as this one:

This is supposed to be closer to how Jesus actually looked although I personally have a problem with the idea of short hair because I see Jesus as having dreadlocks and it seems unlikely that haircuts were a luxury whereof He availed himself.  It’s also dissimilar to the haircut recommended in the Torah.  That said, the complexion is probably close.  Another problem with this image, to my mind, is the expression, which to my mind is probably closer to the first image, and in fact the expression is probably more important than the countenance.  It’s not clear though even whether the expression is “right”.

We probably all have our own image of Jesus, even if we don’t regard Him as a historical figure.  In fact, if we don’t we probably have more freedom to imagine Him as we want although I expect that those who don’t may have a more mainstream picture than those who do.  What the conversation on FB said to me is that we don’t benefit from an image, because it leads to disagreement and division between Christians, something which FB also does without any help at all.  But as soon as we start disagreeing on images of Jesus, we’re divided.

Moreover, it was found in the nineteenth century that if people tried to discover the “Historical Jesus”, they tended to find that they made Him in their image, that is, they tended to produce a biography of a person whose values were the same as theirs.  Hence a liberal would end up describing a liberal Jesus and a conservative a conservative Jesus.  This suggests that the nature of the gospel texts, or at least our response to them in a culture which has been substantially shaped by them, or more broadly by the whole of the canonical Bible, is such that we find it hard to read them dispassionately, and this would apply as much to anti-theist atheists as evangelical Biblically literalist Protestants.  Nonetheless, it’s sometimes important to step out of one’s comfort zone and even make life hard on oneself by admitting that because one is merely human, one can be wrong about things, and as such it doesn’t follow that one should reject the bits one happens to find inconvenient in the Bible.

The issue of the historical Jesus is particularly emphasised by certain anti-theist metaphysically naturalistic scientifically realist atheists (often known simply as “atheists”) who claim that he never existed.  Any Christian who believes in something like substitutionary atonement – the idea that Christ had to die instead of us for our sins – needs there to be a historical Jesus, but there are other possibilities, even for a Christian.  Another view of Christ is that He’s a good moral exemplar, that is, a role model, and that doesn’t actually require Him ever to have existed.  I personally do believe that Jesus is a real historical character, and someone who believes in substitutionary atonement can also accept “moral influence”, as the above view is known.  On the whole among academics who specialise in the field, by which I mean ancient history rather than theologians, and also secular academics, the belief has long been that the balance of probabilities is that Jesus did exist, although what he was beyond a religious teacher in first century Judaea is another matter.  The general consensus is that he was baptised by John The Baptist, tried under Pontius Pilate and was crucified.  There is, however, a strong tendency for people to have axes to grind on either side.

Rather than go into what I personally believe, because obviously I would have agenda in this area, I would prefer to note that Leicester Secular Society’s Hall has a bust of Jesus along with four others:  Socrates, Voltaire, Robert Owen and Thomas Paine.  There’s an article on Jesus as a secular hero on their site here.  The basic idea is that the spirit of Christianity, i.e. red letter Christianity, could be salvaged from its supernatural elements and still be valid.  Evangelicals would probably say that in order to follow the “teachings of Jesus” as they would see it, it’s necessary to commit to Christ because ordinary human beings (i.e. everyone except Jesus) could never manage to live up to them without help, and therefore that you can’t really divorce the idea of following a Christian lifestyle from devotion to the unique God/Man.  Red letter Christianity, incidentally, is just following what Jesus said rather than paying attention to the whole Bible, and it may be that there’s a lot of validity in that because it’s been said that Paul turned the religion of Jesus into the religion about Him.  However, I personally believe in an open canon – the content of the Bible is not the only divinely inspired work and the revelation continues to this day and beyond.  Progressive revelation is not a particularly heretical view within Christianity.  Just as an aside, I also have serious doubts Socrates really existed.  Whereas there may have been a person called Σωκρᾰ́της, I think all of what Plato attributes to him is merely his own material surfing on the earlier figure’s ethos.  Socrates was ugly, philosophical, lived in Athens and died by drinking hemlock.  This is about as much as is known about Jesus.

Then of course there’s God the Father.  For our sins, probably, we in the West have ended up with a high god, who long again became the only deity, to whom the male gender is attributed.  The image we have of Him is of an old man with long white hair and a beard, as depicted wonderfully accurately in ‘Preacher’:

Will be removed on request

This image of God is based on Zeus, the Greek high god and womaniser with the thunderbolts, throne and stuff.  Although it’s hard to escape this view of god or to ignore the apparent influence on the idea of Christ as the son of God, since he was known to conceive children with mortals, this is not God.  This is nothing like God in fact, because God is not male, God the Father has no human form.

Having said that, it’s important sometimes to break one’s preconceptions and, simply as an exercise, to try to imagine a very different image of God, always bearing in mind that being an image it’s not to be worshipped, and also to acknowledge that the message is a communication between God and the human being, since God will use whatever medium is necessary to communicate.  Consequently, I have deliberately attempted to use the image of God used in the comedy film ‘Dogma’ to subvert the obstinate image of God shown above which is a legacy from the patriarchal culture of Ancient Greece, thus:

Will be removed on request

I am of course one hundred percent aware that this image of God, namely Alanis Morissette of ironic song fame (she’s the one on the left), is just as false as the one from ‘Preacher’, although with less of a pedigree.  But it is even so helpful to think of God, the many-breasted one who gathers her children under her as a mother hen gathers her chicks, as not just female but a woman, and a woman, moreover, who cannot be sexually objectified, because She has all the power and will use it lovingly and benevolently.  Since Jesus tells us to see God in everyone, if we see God as male, whereas it may still be extremely useful, for example, to see God in a homeless man (which is after all what Jesus was) or a male leader of a country, and I have to admit it’s a lot easier for me to see God in the bearded shaggy rough sleeper outside Sainsbury’s here in Loughborough than in Donald Trump, although Christ nonetheless commands that I also do the latter, if we have a male image of God, we may find it harder to see Her in women that we meet, for example, in the rough sleeper outside the cinema, who experiences period poverty, or Theresa May.  It also means that Mary’s conception of Christ is the result of lesbian sex as much as heterosexual.  There is a problem, however, with me seeing God as female, apart from the fact that She isn’t, which is that since I’m female myself there’s the danger of arrogance, and I need to be humble before God.  Nevertheless I think it’s healthy for me to see God in women, though not to the detriment of men.

To conclude, then, although we’re on shaky ground when we try to project an image onto God and it tends to be divisive, it can be a useful exercise to do so, provided we can easily peel it off once we’re done, and one of the dangers of having an image of God is that it may be too comfortable for us, suit us rather too well and be a source of division with other theists.  Finally, in a sense the logical conclusion of all this may even be theological non-cognitivism, also known as ignosticism, which I’ve gone into elsewhere on this blog but which is roughly the position that religious language is meaningless, a position which can be held by religious and non-religious people alike.  But that’s a very involved issue which I won’t go into here.

My No Shop Day

Every year there’s a Buy Nothing Day, during which people, well, buy nothing.  This is an annual day of protest against consumerism which started in September 1992 in Canada.  In 1993, it was moved to the day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday, the North American day of frenzied buying for the holiday season, as it’s known over there.  As such, it has a slight flavour of an American import but in this case it’s largely a positive one.  However, because Buy Nothing Day moves around with Thanksgiving, I had it fixed in my mind as being on 28th November.  Consequently when it came round this year on 23rd November, it took me by surprise, and since I have an elderly diabetic parent to take care of I couldn’t just drop everything to comply.  Nevertheless, I am enthusiastic about what I’ve called “No Shop Day” (because I also got the name wrong) and I’m going to talk about that now and I’m going to call it that because what I’m actually doing, or not doing, isn’t the same because it’s on a different day, and that is significant as you’ll see.

No Shop Day is in a sense a continuation of the idea of the Sabbath, so it’s been observed every week in some places since the Bronze Age.  It isn’t a new idea.  The ideas behind the Sabbath are a little broader than simply not working or engaging in economic transactions, because it’s also a day of rest and a day for religious observance.  People have different views on the Sabbath, with some treating it as a chance to be thankful to God and others believing that “το σαββατον δια τον ανθρωπον εγενετο ουχ ο ανθρωπος δια το σαββατον” – “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath”, as Christ once said.  Whatever else it does, one thing a day without economic activity, or with the minimum economic activity, does is to allow the environment to rest and recuperate, and this recuperation may extend beyond the obvious, particularly when everyone does it at once.  In that sense it’s unfortunate that I’m doing this today rather than last week.  If you’re not buying or selling stuff, that would traditionally have meant you were less likely to be taking a trip to your workplace or into town to go shopping, meaning that fewer squirrels, cats and pigeons would be killed or injured.  On the other hand, that also means less carrion for magpies, crows, flies and other animals.  It means less air pollution, extends the life of fossil fuels, reduces wear and tear on vehicles and roads and many other things.  On the other hand, it may simply defer all these things, and to some extent I’ve done this.  Yesterday I did a bigger shop than usual because I knew I wasn’t going to be buying much today, and I’m not sure that’s really in the spirit of it.  Nonetheless it probably means fewer impulse purchases.

A few years ago, there was an article in the Guardian decrying Buy Nothing Day because for many people most days are perforce buy nothing days since they have little or no money, and with current governmental policies that’s increasingly so in this country.  However, I note that the person who wrote that article was being paid to do so, and whereas I don’t want to presume, I suspect that this means she was a full-time journalist for a national newspaper living in London, meaning that her own income was in fact quite high.  In fact, most of the people I know who observe it have very little money and the disapproval and suggestion that it’s only pursued by middle class people who are out of touch is, ironically, possibly an opinion which is itself bourgeois and poorly-informed by experience.  It isn’t a guilt-trip by people with loads of money by any means.

One thing which does bother me a little about it is its apparent non-Keynesianism.  Keynesianism is more or less the belief that the best economies are those whose money moves around them quickly.  It clearly is a problem that money is sitting at the top of the economy right now and seems to be funnelled up by this allegedly trickle-down system we’re supposed to be living in.  This is clearly not about Greenness, but it nevertheless appeals to me quite a bit.  A day without shopping is a day where a lot of your money stays where it is, and isn’t going to end up in tills, bank accounts or wage packets.  Whereas Keynesianism appeared to break down in the 1970s, Milton Friedman’s approach which replaced it is clearly highly undesirable, and isn’t the same direction as the motives behind the day.  One problem with Keynes is that he saw paid work per se as a good thing.  For instance, he once said that if money were to be put in bottles and thrown down a mine shaft and people were then employed to bring it back out again, that would be good for the economy.  In Green terms that clearly makes little sense because that work is then converting energy to no purpose – it’s divorced from truly productive or useful work where energy use and the consequent increase in entropy is perhaps justifiable.  This is of course a major reason for having a no shop day.

I did in fact end up buying one item today, namely a newspaper, because my father has one every day except Sunday.  I’m doing what he wants there and I was pessimistic about persuading him to do without today.  Likewise, our son has been waiting a long time for a delivery needing import duty paid on it, which I could’ve done today but didn’t on principle.  If I had done that, he would’ve been thankful and happy about it.  Not all purchases are selfish or materialistic.  Likewise, the actual reason for not doing Buy Nothing Day this year is that it would’ve meant starving an elderly Type II diabetic, so I do have some sympathy for the idea that there are good reasons for not doing it.

On several occasions today I found myself almost forgetting what I wasn’t doing.  I have a bad habit of buying new clothes, mainly underwear, when I run out of clean clothes rather than doing the washing.  In my defence this increases the length of my clothes rotation, meaning that my knickers end up lasting longer.  I considered doing this today.  Ultimately many of my clothes will end up doing some degree of environmental damage.  Since my socialisation and probably also my dyspraxia means I’m not good at darning, sewing or knitting, my version of “make do and mend” is to stick holes in my knickers together with sanitary towels, which are of course disposable, but it does at least mean that I don’t end up throwing as much underwear out.  It also means more sanitary towels get bought and discarded than otherwise though.

Rather horrifyingly, the online retailer ASOS estimates that the average garment they sell is only worn thrice.  Landfill is also full of clothing with tags still on them – they’ve never been worn.  There’s even a trend among young people to buy an outfit for a single social occasion which will never be worn again.  Moreover, the phenomenon of fast fashion is pretty disturbing.  Although it means that the actual clothing itself is made fairly locally, in my case in the same county because I live in Leicestershire and Leicester’s clothing manufacture industry is very active, the manufacture of the textiles themselves is not local and much cheap clothing, claimed to be loss leaders by the retailers, is a polyester lycra mix.  Polyester is wont to shed tiny fibres which are utterly non-biodegradable, find their way into the food chain and ultimately into our own internal environments if we are not veggie.  Like many other fibres, it’s made from petroleum, takes twice as much energy to produce than cotton.  Every time a polyester garment is washed it sheds up to nineteen hundred fibres, so merely wearing and laundering one is bad news.  It’s also basically plastic and can’t be dyed using biological dyes.  It’s produced in countries with lax environmental and labour laws.  And guess what I’m wearing right now. 

Cruddy image quality too 😦

This is a guilt trip for me.  Having said that, it is both recycled and recyclable.  I’ve singled out polyester here but there are plenty of other dodgy fibres.  In fact the problem is finding ones which aren’t.

Moving away from the specifics to something more positive, I have found myself with a sense of time to contemplate today which isn’t as true of other days.  It’s also led me to use my resources less wastefully – I used up the vegan cheese in the fridge for lunch.

On the whole then, my No Shop Day is working out well.

In closing, I just want to mention one more thing.  This blog post was produced using the new WordPress editor and I’m not impressed.  It’s quite difficult to do even the most basic things and if I can work out how to turn it off I will.  Anyway, this is the reason for the ragged lines all the way through this:  I can’t find out how to justify text.  Maybe there’s a learning curve though.

Land Use And Food

I mainly blog for two reasons:  to avoid posting walls of text on social media and to get intrusive thoughts out of my head.  Unfortunately the first of these is frustrated when sites have rules about blog spam, which I don’t get because the alternative is five thousand word long status updates and comments, which apparently people prefer, and the second is affected by “it’ll never get better if you pick it” and it usually ends up making things worse.  Anyway, I’ve been blogging incessantly on transwaffle recently, but today I’ve finally managed to get into a situation which makes it more appropriate to post here.

Transwaffle is mainly for posting about gender issues.  One recent matter which has arisen there is the relationship between veganism and feminism.  Just briefly, it’s sometimes claimed that veganism is the most feminist thing you can do because female animals are disproportionately affected by exploitation since livestock farming involves dairy and egg production and the rape of females, but I would take issue with that for two reasons.  Since men can’t be feminist, it suggests they can’t be vegan either, and that’s clearly not true, and it ignores the fact that a surplus of male animals results which are slaughtered en masse for economic reasons.  The other connection between veganism considered as a diet, which it isn’t, is that Haraway’s Cyborg Theory erases the divisions between human and technology and human and nature, thereby opening up the possibility that we need not be enslaved by our apparently human-basic anatomy and physiology, and in fact rarely are, so that just as reproduction or other aspects of stereotypical gender roles can be overcome technologically since we are “naturally unnatural”, so can possible obstacles to a plant-based diet.  We can, for example, make vitamin B12 from non-animal sources in a factory and then take it as a supplement, so the obstacles to such a diet are technological, which being part of our nature as tool-using cultural societies, mean it is in a sense natural to be vegan even if no culture in human history has ever been vegan, and incidentally it’s also a moral imperative.

In the ensuing conversation, it emerged that some people thought it was impractical for us to live off plants alone, which is difficult for life-long vegans with life-long vegan children to believe.  Having said that, it could theoretically be true that three generations of life-long plant-based nutrition would be impossible because something would prevent fertility in the third generation, such as the “programming” which takes place in the womb upon the embryonic oocytes of a female fetus.  One of my patients was a two metre high woman with no genetic history of giantism whose grandmother had almost starved to death in a Jewish ghetto in Poland, which incidentally makes me wonder about Holocaust deniers because they presumably come into contact with such people and yet are able to fool themselves into pretending it didn’t happen.  Whereas that’s not clinching proof that diet has an influence on one’s grandchildren, other more rigorous evidence strongly suggests that it does, and for this reason it can’t be uncontrovertibly asserted that veganism is sustainable in that sense – it might make your grandchildren sterile, for example.  But if one is also anti-natalist, which I’m not, this needn’t be regarded as problematic.  Perhaps it would be better if we just lived long and died out.

Anyway, the main purpose of this entry is to present you with a table of areas.

Back in 1981, the People’s Almanac, producers of the famous Books of Lists, which I always think of as the ancestors of the kind of stuff you see online nowadays, brought out ‘The Book Of Predictions’.  It’s interesting in various ways, and of course it’s always amusing to see what these get wrong, which this unsurprisingly really did most of the time, but one of the most frightening things about it is that the few really accurate predictors in the book up to today from 1981 go on to predict really depressing and dire futures now only a few years away.  But the book doesn’t confine itself to predictions.  It includes, for example, annotated maps of the consequences of detonating a 50 megaton nuclear bomb in downtown Chicago.  Cheery reading, though very familiar to anyone who lived through the Cold War.  There’s also a passage written by the Galactic Association, who published my novel, giving a slight personal connection between myself and the book since that passage is set in the same universe.

Let’s just get this out of the way:  The Book Of Predictions is (c) 1981 by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Irving Wallace.  If any of the material I’m about to adapt breaches their copyright, I will be entirely willing to remove this blog entry on request.

The relevant passage is entitled “All the food needed to feed the world ( 4 ½ billion people) could be produced from:”, followed by a list.  I’m going to adjust this list to match the present human population of the planet and convert acres to square kilometres.  I will go into issues regarding that once I’ve got through it.  So here goes.

There are currently 7 600 million people on Earth.  This is almost seventy percent more than in 1981, meaning incidentally that population growth has slowed because back then it was doubling every twenty-eight years, although the seven thousand million mark was passed almost exactly as predicted back then.

A square kilometre is 247.105 acres.  Consequently the figures in square kilometres are:

  • Current agricultural land use:  26 million.  This is probably an underestimate compared to today because of factors such as soil erosion.  Other factors, unfortunately, such as war, are probably about the same.  There’s also supermarket food waste to be taken into consideration, which I believe to be greater today than it was back then.
  • 22.4 million if present post-harvest loss is reduced 70%.
  • 12.76 million by feeding all the world’s cereal crops to people instead of livestock and distributing these efficiently.  This is an important one from the viewpoint of a plant-based diet.  It more than halves the land use, and notably doesn’t take silage or grazing into consideration.  Therefore the argument that meat and dairy production is a way of turning inedible plants into food edible to humans is invalidated if this figure is correct, or rather, it’s true but not particularly important.
  • 11.2 million using Chinese production techniques.  I’m not exactly sure what this means, but it may refer to the practice of raising fish and rice on the same land, like the chinampas system.  This whole list, by the way, is essentially before permaculture became widely known.
  • 2.93 million using North American production techniques and a vegetarian diet.  This is not ideal because of the environmental damage done by farming of this kind, and it’s not clear whether this refers to a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet or a plant-based (so-called “vegan”) diet.  It is, however, a notably big jump, and it’s been claimed that dairy is one of the most efficient foods to produce, compared to meat.
  • This is a sobering one.  Using 1981 population figures, the southern half of the Sudan if it were drained, relevant infrastructure developed and the nomadic cattle rangers of the area were to change their lifestyle to sedentary cattle farmers.  In reality, as we all know there was a famine in South Sudan last year due to war and drought.  Although I don’t know, I wonder if there’s a connection between the drought and global climate change.  There have also been periodic famines in South Sudan since the 1980s, although it’s not clear to me if this entry is a reference to that.  It could also be argued, from a non-vegan point of view, that the nomadic pastoralists of the Sudan should have been allowed to continue their lifestyle even if it was inefficient.  Nomadic pastoralism, however, is associated with difficulty in accessing healthcare and, for better or worse, low vaccination rates among both humans and bovids, and in other ways (and I’m going to be vague here) is the worst of both worlds compared to settled agriculture and hunter-gatherer lifestyles.  From a vegan viewpoint, and here the needs of people with traditional lifestyles are not taken into consideration, they shouldn’t be farming or otherwise exploiting cattle anyway.
  • One million square kilometres of greenhouses using North American production techniques and three crops a year.
  • Between 800 000 and 1.7 million using biodynamic farming.  This is an odd one.  Biodynamic agriculture relies quite heavily on bovids, which is incidentally why I don’t use herbs grown using biodynamic techniques.  However, it doesn’t follow that the bovids need to be particularly exploited since they don’t need to be eaten or used for dairy, although their bodies do need to be buried on the land and if the death rate is low, i.e. they aren’t slaughtered but allowed to die of old age or other causes not caused directly by human violence against them, it isn’t clear to me that it would be as efficient as this.  Therefore this is probably not as good as it sounds unless you’re non-veggie.  It does, however, make the point that in theory there could be the traditional farm animals roaming free and unexploited on land used to grow food crops for humans, meaning that even if manure is still being used that doesn’t by any means imply that the animals concerned are being raped or murdered.  Nonetheless there is also such a thing as veganic agriculture.  I suspect that if this list had been written a decade later, this entry would have referred to permaculture instead.
  • 103 000 using hydroponics.  Hydroponics is a mixed issue.  In a sense it’s closer to organic farming than mainstream arable farming, but the balance of minerals can be less than ideal and therefore the nutritional value of the crops can be wanting.  In order to avoid the use of animal products, chemical fertilisers would probably be used extensively and there are issues of balance here.  Many fertilisers don’t contain a good range of elements.  However, this can be alleviated if instead we used:
  • 93 thousand square kilometres of tanks growing algae in sea water, or simply using areas of the sea to grow algae, because sea salt contains all the necessary trace elements for life.  Given that algae will grow in the epipelagic zone of the ocean, which extends to about 200 metres, the actual area can be reduced further by increasing the volume and there’s the additional advantage that sewage systems constantly remove phosphate from the land which is not returned fast enough and therefore most conventional land agriculture is in any case a bit dodgy.  The figure given here in the list itself is only 0.35% of the agricultural land use in 1981.

This list shows a number of things other than its age.  Apart from anything else, it demonstrates pretty clearly that a plant-based diet for the whole human population is entirely feasible, although of course this would considerably impact on the lifestyles of indigenous people.  Also, tellingly, it illustrates particularly clearly that although we may consider human population growth to be problematic, in this sense at least it isn’t and the planet could in fact probably support something like three hundred times its current population.  This wouldn’t be desirable at all of course, but it does show that certain arguments about population control may be misguided, although I have a lot of respect for anti-natalism and voluntary human extinction while not agreeing entirely with it.

That’s the purpose of this blog post satisfied then.  Bye for now!

 

 

Expanding Spheres

Believe it or not, this is not about ‘Replicas’ even though it may seem to be at first.  It isn’t even about science fiction, although it does illustrate the value of the genre.  Bear with me.  I’ll get to the likes of Trump and sexism in the end, so it’s worth it.

Transwaffle is getting an annoying large amount of attention.  It isn’t that it’s getting a huge number of page impressions compared to, say, Sarada’s blog , (that’s her offering today by the way, this being the link to the blog itself) so much as that it’s getting more attention than this blog when it shouldn’t.

As I mentioned on the other blog, there is currently an issue with MumsNet which I am also concerned extends way beyond it into general opinion forming on feminism more widely.  Please permit me this digression, as I am going somewhere.  The sections on feminism are in fact dominated by the trans issue.  It doesn’t even particularly matter whether the discussion is primarily gender-critical or dominated by pro-trans stuff, or even balanced between the two.  The problem is that the discussion has pushed every other women’s issue out of the conversation, and whereas it may be important, it really isn’t that important.  The attention paid to transwaffle is similar.  There are other things going on, such as climate change, Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, FGM, anti-abortionists in the US, and I feel uncomfortable that my blog is feeding the fixation people seem to have on this issue.  Consequently it’s quite annoying that the small number of views on there is bigger than the small number of views on here.

The act of blogging has brought to mind the word “blogosphere”.  This is presumably a biosphere-like concept, where the point is not so much the geometrical or topological shape of the “sphere” so much as the hyperlinks joining it all together or perhaps the gravitational or magnetic-style force it brings to bear on opinion and knowledge, or perhaps more accurately belief.  It doesn’t seem to be literally spherical so much as a sphere of influence.  But then the question arises:  what actually is spherical in this respect?  In fact, what is even round?  What is even a filled-in geometrical shape?

France is famously a hexagon.  Anything outside that hexagon is not considered properly French, so for instance the Basques, Bretons, Catalonians and Flemings are not French because they are not part of the hexagon.  It’s this hexagonal hypothesis which has partly contributed to my aversion of the French language, in which I am more fluent than I wish to be, because on visiting Dunkirk on a school French exchange many of the families tried to stop us speaking French and used to say things like “Can you speak English please?” in an annoyed tone of voice when we spoke it.  That resentment arose from the French state’s insistence on supporting only French French as the official language of the hexagon.  Nonetheless, the idea of a hexagon does appeal to me, partly because it’s like the carefully surveyed lines of political territories in North America and Australia and brings to mind their attempt at rationally organising a nation, with the exception of West Virginia.

I’m not sure it’s possible to have headcanon for one’s own work, but if it is, part of my headcanon for Earth in ‘Replicas’ is that the former nations of the British Isles, Low Countries and France are all divided up into provinces, the planet having now unified politically under one government, separated using straight lines.  Hence there are the provinces of Highland and Lowland in Great Britain, separated by the Tees-Exe Line, then Lowland extends into the former Benelux countries, being separated from an almost perfectly hexagonal province covering most of early 21st century France.

This is going somewhere, honestly.  I have to keep my views down you see.

Although a political entity may claim a territory on the surface of the roughly spherical object we call Earth as a polygon or less clearly defined enclosed “plane”, it doesn’t follow that anyone in that territory has been to all of it, or in fact any of it.  It’s not like you dab a country with your foot when you enter it and it becomes “it” all over.  What actually happens is you make a foray into the territory along a wiggly line, in a vehicle or on foot, or perhaps flying over it, and maybe you can claim to have seen that bit of the country to the horizon of where you’ve been, but you can only literally claim to have seen all of a country if it’s quite small, like the Vatican, Andorra, San Marino or Liechtenstein.  Consequently, although people loosely say they have “seen” Italy or France, unless they’ve orbited over them they usually haven’t seen all of them.  A map of their actual viewing area would be a thin, straggly affair probably only ranging over a small part of the territory, and it would essentially have a non-integral Hausdorff dimension different than the countries’ Hausdorff dimension.  Those territories with well-surveyed imposed borders consisting largely of apparently straight lines would, though, have Hausdorff dimensions close to two on a map, although in reality all countries are three dimensional and tend to follow the curvature of the planet they’re on, at least on Earth.  Strictly speaking they’re all wedges extending to the centre of the planet, where there’s an amazing international border between every single country in the world.

Topologically, rather than taking the view to the horizon into consideration it makes more sense to think of one’s path through a country to consist of a wiggly line, probably overlapping with itself, and as such it could be said that our experience of a country is in fact a lot closer to a blogosphere than a sphere, in that it is in reality a tangle of lines representing our relationships with each other and various locations in the territory.  It isn’t usually any more filled in than the blogosphere.  The blogosphere itself is in fact only fairly trivially geometrical, although considered as a geographical network of servers linked to each other, it probably is somewhat spherical, although with large voids in it and staying near the surface of the planet.  Topologically, however, the blogosphere is a network, presumably most easily depicted in a space with a particular number of dimensions, which may not be three.  In order to minimise the tangle, one might have to increase the number of dimensions.  This is in fact true of most human mind maps or cerebral neural networks, which are allegedly best depicted as eleven-dimensional graphs.  For all I know, the blogosphere is the same.  It could be that graphs reflecting human activity generally require eleven dimensions.

I’ve previously mentioned the enormous political significance Iain M Banks gave to the fact that space travel is in three dimensions and has very remote nodes. The remoteness entails a high degree of self-sufficiency and the three dimensions make it harder for a political entity to surround or dominate than a topologically two-dimensional space such as the land surface of a planet.  Banks goes on to argue that a culture with the degrees of freedom in three-dimensional space is necessarily a post-scarcity society, unless it’s unsustainable.  I find his argument compelling. probably because I want to believe a society based on abundance is inevitable and part of the nature of reality, although it may also be part of that nature that nobody ever gets there because the species destroy themselves first.

Much of the way I think about these things has long been dominated by the Galactic Association universe, which in a sense deserves a capital U because it stretches hundreds of light years into space from the Solar System although it is of course fiction.  Although it is fiction, it does provide an opportunity to think about the expansion of humans into three-dimensional space and our interaction with other possible extraterrestrial intelligences in a fairly methodical way.  It’s a model.

This link shows a map of GAILE-explored space as of 2376, the “now” of the GAIL universe.  There’s some difficulty in representing this space in two dimensions, but it’s possible to work out where everything shown is using this flat surface from the data on it, and even to work out whereabouts in our sky the home worlds of the other technological species are.  Another notable thing about that map is, unsurprisingly, the irregular nature of the contours depicting the limits of human-explored space.  Although it stretches about ninety light years from Earth, giving a theoretical volume of around three million cubic light years, thoroughly explored human space does not occupy a sphere but is more like a three-dimensional version of West Virginia in that it’s irregular.  Nonetheless, as the volume of explored space expands, the frontier of that space also increases in area, and a doubling, for example, of its radius is an eightfold increase in volume.

Topologically, GAILE space is still a graph whose nodes represent visited star systems and whose edges (i.e. lines) are space lanes and exploratory routes.  It isn’t literally three-dimensional and it doesn’t fill its space.  Nonetheless it should probably be assumed that since we can even now detect fairly small planets in nearby star systems on occasion, GAILE does know about other planets than simply the ones humans or even automatic probes have visited.  Nonetheless it still seems possible that there are uncharted regions within human space and therefore unknown phenomena, perhaps even including hostile aliens who are, though, apparently confined to their own star systems.  This is possible but unlikely.

There is already a fairly well-established Galactic Association timeline.  Averaging these three hundred and forty years of history, a new planet is settled every 42.5 years, although due to First Contact there is a gap of seventy years between the third and fourth settlements while humanity came to adjust to the knowledge that we were not alone in the Universe.  Moreover, at the beginning of the period only sublight travel was possible and even after the development of warp drive there was a period during which starships had to spend a long time accelerating and jerking (the first derivative of acceleration) to a velocity at which hyperspace jumps became possible, limited by primitive gravity control.  By 2376 a starship is able to accelerate at sixteen gees without harming its passengers or crew, making interstellar travel much less time-consuming.  Hence there are technological advances which accelerate human settlement of other star systems, and presumably also discovery although these are not specifically mentioned.  The whole of human-settled space occupies an approximate sphere eighty light years in radius at the approximate plane of the Galactic equator, and the width of the Arm is about five thousand light years at this distance according to the text.  There are also six intelligent technological species known to humankind including humans themselves.

A number of facts can be gleaned from this:

  • There are ten habitable planets in a volume one hundred and sixty light years in diameter centred on the Solar System.  Two are known to be inhabited by native intelligent species – Earth and Remus – so this puts them out of bounds for colonisation by other species.  This is an average of one habitable planet per two million cubic light years, meaning that the average distance between them should be about thirty.
  • There are a total of six technology-using intelligent species known to humanity.  One of them is extremely advanced and has probably spread through a much larger volume of the Galaxy than the others, meaning that its apparent homeworld is in all probability a settled planet rather than the one they originated from.  It’s also further away than the other homeworlds, at a distance of 1340 light years, and seems to have a serial number rather than a name.  Ignoring this planet, the most distant homeworld so far known to humans is 764 light years from Earth.  Therefore, assuming the sphere with a radius of 764 light years centred on the Solar System is a representative sample of the distribution of intelligent life forms in the Galaxy and that they are all known to humans, this means that this volume of getting on for two thousand million cubic light years contains one intelligent species homeworld per three hundred million cubic light years and an average separation of three hundred and forty light years between their points of origin.

The interval between settlements of planets should therefore shorten as human space expands.  There ought to be something like ten thousand planets habitable by humans in Galactic Association space, not necessarily known to the species living within it.  However, since GAIL involves cooperation and resource-sharing, the fact that we are not alone helps us find other planets for the other species and makes it possible for them to inform us of planets suitable for humans.  Left to ourselves, though, assuming that another three hundred and forty years would lead to a doubling of the radius of explored space from Earth, there could be expected to be seventy additional planets in that sphere we could live on, and therefore a settlement on average of about one every five years, although less frequently at the beginning and more at the end.  Given that other species will be helping, that rate will in fact increase even assuming no technological progress during this period, which won’t be the case because some of that shared information will cover technological advances and scientific discoveries made by those species, and so on.  New species will also be encountered.

Hence the Galactic Association timeline down past the twenty-fourth century becomes increasingly crowded and eventful.

Now consider MumsNet and other such online sites again.  If the spread of opinion and information is anything like this, it will be exponential rather than linear, and the mere fact that there are a few people on MumsNet who are gender critical doesn’t mean those opinions will stay on Mumsnet.  They may in fact do something like double every few months.  There are other opinions of course, but the problem with this fixation on trans issues is that sooner or later, whether or not this is valid, it’s in danger of dominating feminism and turning it into something fairly useless.  While that’s happening, other people, for instance those in the manosphere, will be able to take advantage of this preoccupation to push back the advances in women’s rights, and this is likely to happen regardless of the views held on the trans issue.  The problem is that the preoccupation is proselytised.

And that’s feminism, ignoring other ideas, such as neoliberalism, racism and the like. These also spread in a similar way, and ideas within them spread similarly.  The likely result, if we’re not careful, and we may already be there, is a random assortment of popular ideas not based on evidence.  And while we have to deal with the likes of climate change and other environmental catastrophe, we can’t afford for this to happen.