Gor And The Gorean Subculture

As you know if you’ve been reading my stuff regularly, I recently read Grayson Perry’s autobiography. He’s very frank about the sexual element in his image, and completely owns that. He specifically says that he is sexually aroused by the feeling of being humiliated by, as he sees it, dressing as a woman. Of course, to me that has no meaning as such because I go much more by Eddie Izzard’s idea that they’re not women’s clothes, they’re mine. That means that the person who owns them is gendered correctly for them. However, in spite of recent moves on my part to merge my blogs, I won’t be talking about that today, but something far, far less wholesome.

There are certain people who express their sexuality publicly, and depending on what it is and how they do it, it can be positive or negative. It’s also important not to kink-shame. The idea of kink-criticality is intuitively completely unacceptable to me, which isn’t the same as saying it’s okay to act it out publicly for all to witness. That said, I don’t see that Grayson Perry has any reason not to do so. Although he could be seen as co-opting other people’s disgust or other feelings for his own sexual gratification without consent, the fact is there is a whole load of stuff out there which people have no control over on either side. And I do say people, because I don’t think it’s gendered. That said, there is something very stereotypically masculine about John Norman’s writing, more specifically his ‘Gor’ series, which he began in 1966 CE. The date, I think, is significant, but let’s introduce the guy first, eh?

John Norman is the pen name of the philosopher John Frederick Lange Jr, born 1931 and therefore now around ninety and still writing. His doctoral dissertation was a defence of naturalistic ethics, which he summed up in an interview as:

 “if one cannot make sense of morality within some sort of satisfying, natural context, then one is likely to end up with no morality, which is less than societally reassuring, or is likely to end up with a competitive plethora of moralities in which ninety-nine percent of the world’s population is convinced that the other ninety-nine percent is unclean, stupid, uninformed, vicious, depraved, in need of coercive correction, and such. That too, seems less than reassuring.”

– Interview with Simon Of Tabor, Polygraff Magazine, October 2010.

Norman is far better-known by his pseudonym and fiction writing than his work as a philosopher, but as a philosopher myself I do find it interesting that he is one. My general impression is that he’s influenced by a certain reading of Nietzsche and is also a fan of Ayn Rand, who herself has a fair bit in common with that same reading. I’m not sure if the above quote is enlightening as regards his Gor series or his psychology, but I think it is.

‘Gor’ is Norman’s chief claim to fame. Beginning in 1966 with ‘Tarnsman Of Gor’, he has written a total of around three dozen novels in this series, beginning with ‘Tarnsman Of Gor’. I find it slightly amusing that this is an anagram of ‘Transman Of Gor’, although I very much doubt he would have much sympathy with that idea. As a philosophy of life, the general idea of Gor is that women are naturally slaves and men naturally masters of those slaves, and this might make for a forgivable diverting fantasy for some, but unfortunately, although ideas expressed in fiction shouldn’t be equated with the actual beliefs of the author, in this case they do unfortunately seem to be, which accords fairly well with him being an Objectivist, if that’s what he is.

Norman describes Gor as “a thousand degrees north of monothink, a thousand degrees east of orthodoxy, a thousand degrees west of ideological conformity, a continent far from the placid waters of predictable mediocrity, a different world, one real, one like no other, one beyond the familiar world’s horizon, one emergent from far, tumultuous, untamed seas, a world alert to deep currents, which listens to secret whispers, which wears stars in her hair. The maps of ideologically servile cartographers may choose not to show the Gorean world, but it is there, a wonderful, forbidden continent. Some of you know her, and have been there.”

I feel we are in “sheeple” territory. The Gorean saga reminds me of two more recent happenings: the publication of the ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ series and the emergence of the people referred to as incels. Incels, or the “involuntarily celibate” have unfortunately spiralled down from what began as a female-led support group for lonely people regardless of gender who found it difficult to get into sexual relationships into an extremist terror-oriented ideology concerned with things like enslaving women and the compulsory confiscation of pre-teen girls after death for necrophiles. It all went horribly, horribly wrong. ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ is of course abuse masquerading as BDSM. Although it’s the contemporary version of the same phenomenon, it has its differences. On the whole, so far as I can tell, ‘Fifty Shades’ is about a fairly small group of people misunderstanding the nature of S&M relationships. The Gorean subculture is different. It’s a lot older than ‘Fifty Shades’ and is a little more like incels in that in its most literalist form it translates into an anti-feminist ideology. This is not meant to criticise anyone who truly went into it freely from the start, and this is where it gets difficult to interpret.

I’m interested in studying this phenomenon in the same way as I might be interested in studying neo-Nazis, but this presents me with a quandary: how to find out anything accurate about it without reading some of it. I don’t want to give money to a right-wing extremist, nor do I want to be publicly associated with Goreanism, but I still think it’s an interesting psychological condition. Therefore I ended up buying an ebook of ‘Tarnsman Of Gor’, thereby contributing money to the man, so I’d better make this worthwhile. It’s difficult to comment on something merely by heresay. But then I was confronted with another problem. How could I be said to have given his thought a fair chance if I just read the first novel? Nonetheless I don’t plan to go any further because there are moral limits and diminishing returns to these things. Therefore I’m going to confine myself to the first book and what I hear about and from the subculture.

The basic setting is entertaining and promising. Technologically advanced aliens have been kidnapping humans from Earth throughout history and depositing them on a Counter-Earth on the other side of the Sun. Once there, they control them by ensuring they don’t develop certain advanced forms of technology while furnishing them with others. They’re very much in the background although they do intervene to keep them in their technologically primitive state, about Bronze Age, and appear to be spying on them. Norman is on record as saying he regards Gor as a utopia and how humanity should be for real. I find it interesting that he uses the Counter-Earth scenario rather than putting it on a planet in another solar system, during a vanished age (like Conan The Barbarian) or an alternate history, because there can only be one Counter-Earth, and I think by doing this he’s saying that for us things can only be the way they are here or the way they are there. It also reminds me of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ politically because it’s an extremely reactionary view of essential human behaviour on a large scale. Both settings, though, have to engineer this in a quite contrived manner although I do have a lot more respect for Herbert’s writing. ‘Dune’ has the Butlerian Jihad to ensure artificial intelligence doesn’t interfere with his depiction, and also focusses on the “Great Man” Paul Atreides, who is like the Anti-Seldon to compare it with the Foundation Trilogy (and it is a trilogy lalalalalaiamnotlistening). Gor is much more contrived than even this, because it requires constant intervention to undercut human ingenuity and inventions but allows technology which supports the society in a way real Bronze Age societies couldn’t, such as eternal youth serums and reliable birth control. All of this is to support Norman’s sexual fantasising, and that in itself would be okay were it not for its content and the fact that he seems to have mistaken his personal tastes for something which can be applied to the whole human race. Either that or he needs to believe that for the sake of his sexual arousal, which in fact is similar to my mind to the idea of transvestic fetishism: men seem to need to believe there are separate categories of masculine and feminine clothing in order for it to turn them on, at least in the heat of the moment.

It’s a difficult read to be honest, but it’s also insidious. I feel like the initial setup is interesting but as a stage to explore something very different, and I don’t have anything in mind, than what he actually chose to do with it. It would’ve been fruitful to imagine a world on the other side of the Sun peopled by humans who had been abducted by aliens and left to their own devices, just to look at how things might have been otherwise, and there’s a polemic element to asserting the fictional existence of a single other world, bringing with it the connotations of it being the sole alternative to this one. Norman’s series is doing this, of course, but there’s more to life than this, and the idea that this is a utopia depends on a psychological theory which would probably make incels and fans of ‘Fifty Shades’ very happy, or at least one that they’d fervently nod along to.

The planet has a peasant economy and is broken up into small city states with disputed or unclaimed land between them. There is a caste system, but it isn’t completely closed, and members of the élite can decline into the lower ranks and the peasants can occasionally enter the higher castes. Although the powerful know the truth, such as the planet being round(ish), the peasants are told that it’s flat and generally have false information instilled in order to encourage them to adopt common sense prejudices and not to explore or enquire too much. Rulers are selected from the higher caste since it’s instilled in the peasants that the state would be ruined if it was ruled by one of their own. Dictators are taken from the military in wartime, and it’s part of their code that they surrender this position when war is at an end. I don’t know whether this is in fact shown to happen in any of the stories but it sounds exceedingly ripe for exploitation, with military dictators engineering constant war to stay in power for example. The warrior code, however, is very important. It occurs to me that what I’m describing is perhaps rather unlike a Randian social order because of the strong dictatorships.

This, though, is only the background to Norman’s more personal theory of gender, or probably sex, relationships. This involves slavery and mastership (is that a word?). Although there are free aristocratic, or rather high caste, women and male slaves, the emphasis is on enslaved women and men with power over them. If this stayed between the covers of a book series, it would’ve been okay, except that the chances are some people would’ve taken it too seriously and tried to apply it to their world. But they didn’t. It’s “out there”, so to speak. The source of unhappiness in the world is seen to be that women have false consciousness that they want to have control over their own lives, a station which is appropriate only to men, and that men have adopted an inappropriate slave mentality. Norman specifically advocates for rape as a good thing.

And yes, there is a Gorean subculture, alive and well in 2021 CE. This is where it gets complicated. It reminds me of “Christian Discipline”, which is found in the marriages of certain conservative Christians where the husband is considered the head of the household, practices financial abuse and domestic violence against the wife for what they see as disobedience. Many people suspect there is a sadistic element to this. The Gorean subculture is based on the books but has branched out, for instance into the virtual online community Second Life, but also as a 24/7 lifestyle for certain people. As an outsider to this particular variety of sexual culture, I find it very difficult to know what to say due to the lack of reliably accurate information. However, just as there is a #fiftyshadesisabuse hashtag, at least some of this seems to be along the same lines. It’s older, but has been encouraged by the growth of online access and interaction. This is not unique of course. There seems to be some kind of sex cult based on the 1994 Worlds Online MMO, i.e. what I think of as a Multi-User Dungeon, which seems to persist in the 2020s for this purpose, and I’m sure it’s not the only example. There is of course a difference between what people do online and what they do face to face or in physical reality, although the two are much closer to blending together than they used to be. How much time do I spend online? I don’t know, because for example I watch TV programmes through BBC iPlayer and streaming services rather than sitting in front of a CRT plugged into an aerial, which would nowadays just give me static anyway, and many people walk around with smartphones wherever they go nowadays, so the kind of activity which goes on in Second Life or other MUDs (or whatever they call them now) is also the kind of activity which goes on in everyday life. Online life just is everyday life today. Consequently some diffusion into meatspace is to be expected, probably depending on the character and psychology of people involved. That said, most people do distinguish between sexual fantasy and reality, although there may be side-effects from how good they are at suspending their disbelief. This is “read too much science fiction” territory too, since the Gor series is in a very loose sense SF.

Gor is sometimes said to have been plagiarised from ‘John Carter Of Mars’. Not having read that, I don’t know, but it is clearly the case that it fits into something like the Sword And Sorcery, or Sword And Planet, genre. These are also known as “Planetary Romance”, and in fact I think I’ll go with that. Some people would describe planetary romance as science fiction, but to me science fiction is fiction whose plot depends non-trivially upon the setting and planetary romance doesn’t do that. The nature of the alien world is not relevant to the plot, so there’s a degree of pointlessness and redundancy there. Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series is probably an example of that, and I consequently found them quite disappointing and only read a few chapters of one of them. Sword And Planet is a little different, and pre-dates the genreification, if that’s a word, of science fiction. One significant element of these is that melée weapons are important to the plot. For a start, the very fact that weapons are central and their use is depicted uncritically is problematic. It’s also one of the major things wrong with the idea of a light sabre and everything that follows from that. But my disdain for this particular genre could be partly snobbishness, and also rather silly considering that for many people who appreciate mainstream literature, science fiction is also in the outer darkness. There could also be an element of acting things out in one’s head because they shouldn’t be done in reality, which could be positive. I don’t know what to make of my fairly obsessive insistence on hardness in science fiction.

However, of course one of the issues with Gor in particular is that people do in fact apply it to their actual day-to-day lives, which to my mind kind of puts it in the same arena as religion or more widely shared cultural practices. It’s very difficult to work out the truth about the Gorean subculture for several reasons. One is that mass media, and here I include the likes of online sources such as Buzzfeed (I don’t actually know if they’ve covered it but they come to mind as an example of online media) will tend to sensationalise it. Another is that people within the culture will also tend to sensationalise it for their own titillation, so either self-reporting or media coverage has that filter to deal with too. Also, women who talk about it publicly may well be both atypical and in a small minority within the subculture, as to do so seems a little aberrant for their usual practices. They may also be saying what men want them to say. I’m acutely aware, as I write this, that nobody is “out” to me about being in the subculture and I am merely reporting from unreliable sources. For all I know, I could know people in this community but I don’t know how widespread it is or how much it’s likely to overlap with the circles I move in, or why it would or wouldn’t.

All that said, I can certainly present how it appears to manifest itself in the real world. The Gorean subculture centres on a superficially BDSM-like master-slave relationship with women in the slave position and men as masters. I say “BDSM-like” because I get the impression that even compared to 24/7 mainstream BDSM lifestyle, so to speak, there’s an issue of lack of informed consent on the women’s part, and also the absence of safe words, so there’s no easy escape from the situation. A slave woman is referred to as a “kajira”, plural “kajiræ” as in Latin grammar. They are supposed to wear simple garments consisting of belted sheets with a neck hole to symbolise their permanent availability for genital intercourse, although I think this probably doesn’t happen most of the time because it isn’t practical. They also wear neck collars or chains marked with the name of their owners, and may be tattooed or even branded with this symbol on the outer left thigh:

This marks her as equivalent to livestock or a pet, the property of her owner. Slaves have no names and don’t use the pronoun “I”, instead referring to themselves as “the slave” and their master as “master”. This actually also happens in the Malay/Indonesian language, where “saya” is the polite first person pronoun and is derived from the word for “slave”, so it has precedent in the real world. Slaves kneel before their masters with their legs spread and palms up on the thighs. Although there is gender rôle reversal with kajiri and mistresses, I get the impression, and that’s the best I can do, that it’s rare.

All this is very difficult to think about. Some regard it more as a sex cult like NXIVM, with which it shares the branding of a woman by a man, and others note that some of its customs have been adopted by the mainstream BDSM community. John Norman also wrote an S&M sex manual, which I would suppose has been used profitably by BDSM people, and I imagine Gorean roleplay takes place among some people. However, for others it goes way beyond that and there is an entire political and anthropological philosophy based on it. In the novels, Norman expressed the expectation, perhaps in a fictional setting, that the nature of terrestrial human society was such that it would collapse within a few centuries because of its democracy, sexual egalitarianism and reliance on technology of a particular kind. He seems to believe that history took a wrong turn after the Bronze Age. That is, his books express that opinion and although that shouldn’t be confused with the intent or beliefs of the author, he does seem to lack a mental boundary between his personal fantasies and reality, to the extent that his personal sexual preferences are imposed as a factual general code of conduct and view of human nature. I think sometimes people need to feel that things are real in order to achieve sexual satisfaction. They need to believe in their own fantasies so vividly that they push away any possibility of an alternate view.

One person who seems to have done this, and I’m aware of the distorting influence of his own behaviour, the media and the internet, is a bloke living in the North of England who had a Channel 4 documentary made about him. I’m not going to be more specific, but I’m sure he’d be easy to Google. He claimed to be a member of a Gorean splinter group, took an Australian slave and planned to “initiate” her through an apparently consensual series of sexual encounters with men neither of them knew, which they would have paid him for. That seems to make him a pimp. Moreover, it really wasn’t clear that this was consensual. On the other hand, the couple, if that’s the right word, got a lot of stick from their town for him leading her around on a leash in public, and that’s a complicated issue because it seems like it wouldn’t be to do with the possibility of exploitation or lack of consent on her part so much as simply picking on people because they’re perceived as different. The Pink Man of Fleet might have similar problems. Anyway, the “High Council” he claimed to exist in London seemed to be imaginary, but at the same time he seemed to believe that it was real. This seems to reflect a similar kind of confusion between fantasy and reality as Norman’s own.

Adherents to the subculture would certainly claim in public, when they’re permitted to, that their own lives are enriched by enslaving or being enslaved, and further perhaps that this taps into an aspect of human nature which has tended to be ignored in recent centuries, perhaps at our own peril. Again, this seems to be the projection of personal preference onto the wider human race. It presents everyone else with a bit of a quandary. Some women presumably do get a lot out of this lifestyle, and it’s not okay to kink-shame. Some of them, I’m guessing, are attracted by the idea but put off by the reality, by which time it may be too late. But it would be presuming too much to see this as something only men ever get anything out of.

Paraphilias don’t seem to be simply due to conditioning, which in this case would translate to the internalisation of women’s oppression. Sometimes they seem to be the manifestation of archetypes, and this is where the problem arises, because saying it’s an archetype is perilously close to saying it’s part of the natural order of things. However, there’s a parallel here with monkey hate. It does seem quite likely to me that the reason monkey hate exists is evolutionary, that there was a time when our simian ancestors had to compete with other species of monkey and that resurfaces today in the form of cruelty to macaques and the like in occasional people. However, that’s still undesirable and anti-vegan. It’s also possible that some kajiræ are not just internalising patriarchy but manifesting something primal, but that as such is not desirable for wider society. Then again, it doesn’t seem acceptable to deny a woman the pleasure she might get from being a kajira, and the projection they need to make to make it more alluring would also seem justifiable. However, that doesn’t mean that this is in fact the way the world is for humanity, and there needs to be a way out for the unwilling. I haven’t got any answers here I’m afraid.

Esperantotago – Esperanto Day

Today is Esperanto Day, the anniversary of Zamenhof’s 1887 CE publication of ‘La Unua Libro’, the “first book”, setting out the principles of the Esperanto language. Now I’ve mentioned Esperanto rather a lot on here so I won’t be going into it in the same way as I have before, except to note that it has external history, and to a limited extent internal history too, in common with other international Jewish languages. And I use that phrase “Jewish languages” positively, as the invention of Esperanto represents the internationalism, altruism and desire for peace which is such a central part of Jewish faith and culture.

It’s been said many times that Esperanto has a Western Indo-European bias, that it’s sexist and that it’s poorly designed. One of the problems with it is that it ignores sandhi. Sandhi is the way pronunciation changes due to sounds next to each other, either inside a word (internal sandhi) or between them (external sandhi). Sandhi is originally a concept made up by Sanskrit-using linguists in South Asia, and the well-known ‘Teach Yourself Sanskrit’ book I bought back when I was twelve or so out of fascination with the apparent exoticism and complexity of the language has a fold-out table listing all of the combinations which change the sound. Esperanto is at the opposite end of the spectrum regarding grammatical complexity in many ways, making it easier to learn, but it has led to ignorance of sandhi, which makes it either difficult to pronounce or easy to pronounce but harder to understand the spoken language. For instance, the word “kvankam” – “although” – would probably be pronounced “kfangkam” by people whose first language has those sandhi rules, such as devoicing a fricative after a voiceless stop and making a nasal velar before a velar consonant, /kfaŋkam/, but the rules in other languages may be different and it could be pronounced “gvantam” for example, or a vowel could be inserted between K and V if someone isn’t used to pronouncing consonants together. Zamenhof doesn’t seem to have been aware of this issue. However, the probable consequence of this would be that people speak it with slightly different accents.

Another significant issue with Esperanto for many is that it uses no fewer than six participles. Compare this with English, which uses two – present active and past passive. I suspect that this is the result of Zamenhof being fluent in the highly inflected Polish, which divides them into adverbial and adjectival, perfective and imperfective and active and passive, which to my naïve non-Slavic speaking brain seems to multiply up to eight, that is, two by two by two categories. This is not the kind of thing you generally see in KENTUM languages such as German, Italian or Welsh. However, Zamenhof did not incorporate the perfective/imperfective aspects common to Slavic, where the imperfective sets the scene and the perfective is more like a past continuous tense, though neither are actually tenses, presumably because he knew how confusing they would be to many Western Europeans.

Zamenhof’s focus was substantially on Europe at the time. Current affairs in the region would certainly seem to concentrate the mind on the potential for achieving peace among what might be looked at as our various warring tribes whose languages differ and that this incomprehension and struggle to communicate probably would make things worse. Douglas Adams, of course, had a go at this with the Babel Fish, whose use causes terrible wars because people actually understand what aliens are saying about them. This is along the lines of Monty in ‘Withnail & I’ listening to Withnail and Marwood:

 “Perhaps it is just that the eavesdropper should leave as his trade dictates, in secrecy and in the dead of night. I do sincerely hope that you will find the happiness that has sadly always been denied me. Yours faithfully, Montague H. Withnail.”

If people are speaking secure in the belief that they will not be overheard and understood by others they don’t wish to include, there’s an argument that if they are understood, it won’t make those who understand them happy. Speaking Esperanto, ironically, is a good way of ensuring that nobody will understand what you’re saying because you can pretty much guarantee that no-one else will have learnt it, so perhaps it does actually work quite well as a way of avoiding conflict.

Rather surprisingly, the Western bias of Esperanto doesn’t seem to be perceived as a problem by native speakers of non-Indo-European languages. For instance, it’s relatively popular in the Far East. This brings up the question of evaluation of different cultural practices by outsiders. A few years ago, there was controversy online about a White American woman who wore a Chinese-style dress to a prom, as some Chinese people saw this as cultural appropriation, but others saw it as complimentary, as she had adopted part of their own culture which she admired. On my YT video about Carvaka, I’m accused of cultural appropriation for mentioning Carvaka and Samkhya, both distinctively South Asian ontologies, but I don’t see how intellectual discourse can operate if such things can’t be discussed openly. That said, it does seem inappropriate to me for a White person to have dreadlocks induced in a hair salon even though dreadlocks are part of White Western European culture and arguably sanctioned by the Tanakh. Likewise, I sometimes wonder if the idea of cultural appropriation is itself Western, and cultural imperialism conversely could be as well to some extent. I feel uncomfortable saying this, and in fact the truth is probably more nuanced, but it’s at least interesting that Westerners often seem more concerned about the idea of Esperanto’s Western bias than other groups of people are. This is not entirely true, however. Baha’i prophets in the Middle East have praised the idea of Esperanto while saying that it would still be better for a constructed international auxiliary language to have less of a KENTUM, and in fact there is a fruitful source in Arabic for such a language, since it has had such a strong influence on languages such as Indonesian, Urdu, Spanish, Swahili, Farsi and Turkish. Attempts have in fact been made to construct such a language, known as Dunia, from the Arabic word for “world”. Ironically, such a language would probably be more comprehensible to first-language Hebrew speakers than the Jewish invention of Esperanto. I actually had a go at a constructed language based on Arabic which I called Dunijaluga, without being aware that it was tried, possibly later on, by someone else, and I mention it in ‘Replicas’.

I used to think of Esperanto as a Romance language. Certainly the majority of its roots are from Romance, and it has a kind of Italian sound to it although without the double consonants and with only five vowels rather than seven. However, a quarter of its root vocabulary is Greek, which actually works quite well due to the tendency for international terms in technical vocabulary to be taken from that language along with Latin. The quality of Esperanto in design terms is kind of intermediate. Some aspects are well thought through, others are linguistically naïve and there are biasses which can be perceived more easily from today than when it was first invented, and it’s been suggested that this intermediate nature is an important element in its failure to be adopted more widely. J R R Tolkien also famously invented a culture to go around his constructed languages, and Klingon also has this advantage. Esperanto, however, isn’t entirely lacking in this respect although most of that culture is firmly in the inter-war years and was subject to persecution by the Nazis. It had a hard task being adopted in such an extremely nationalistic Europe.

The language is said to be learnt on average four times faster than other languages, although this is of course somewhat spurious because the languages already known by the learner would strongly influence that. A first-language Greek or Italian speaker would probably pick it up very quickly, but if your mother tongue was Malay or Mandarin Chinese, I would expect you to take far longer.

There are a number of associations with Esperanto which developed from its invention into the 1930s. These included two global currencies, the speso and the stelo, the Baha’i faith, pacifism, vegetarianism and the philosophy of Homaranismo. None of these are inevitable, and it’s possible that these associations reduced its appeal by making it seem less neutral, although many of these things are in a way manifestations of neutrality.

The Speso is a thousandth of a spesmilo, a currency invented in 1907 by René de Saussure which was actually accepted by some banks before the First World War. The spesmilo is the practical unit. It used the gold standard and its value is fixed at 733 milligrammes of pure gold, which at the time was around two shillings sterling, or four dozen US cents. The speso itself was deliberately made very small to avoid the use of fractional denominations like the ha’penny and farthing. It has its own symbol: ₷, which can be seen on the right of the shield on the above coin. Today the face value of a spesmilo is just under £31 or €36.14. The adoption of the speso in any form was prevented by the onset of the First World War.

In 1946, a second attempt was made with the stelo, whose price was fixed at one standard loaf of bread. This is quite difficult to comprehend today due to the diversity of consumer products nowadays, but this seems to be roughly a pound if by “standard” one means unsliced white loaf bought from a supermarket. The motivation for the issuing of the stelo was similar to that of Esperanto: to demonstrate that separate currencies caused international conflict and economic pressure. As can be seen in the flag above, the pentagram is a symbol of Esperanto. The International Esperanto League also used coupons valued in steloj for its internal activity until the 1980s. The one stelo coin on the left here was bronze, the five stelo on the right was brass and there was also a cupronickel 10 stelo coin. In 1965 a twenty-five stelo silver coin was introduced. In 1974, the connection with the price of bread was ended and it was instead pegged to the Dutch guilder at a value of two steloj to one guilder. This changed again in 1977 to a percentage of the average monthly purchases of a family, in order to avoid inflation, which was a major issue at the time. Incidentally it’s always struck me as very strange that this is not how exchange rates are defined, and I assumed for a long time that it was.

Another major connection exists between Esperanto and Baha’i. Baha’i is a religion founded in the nineteenth Christian century now based in Israel which teaches the unity of all people and the equal value of all faiths. It comes across today as being kind of nineteenth century liberal, a little like Jehovah’s Witnesses but more open. For instance, Baha’i teaches that women and men are like the two wings of a bird, without which she couldn’t fly, but this is not the same as sexual egalitarianism as most might understand it today. More problematic is its firm commitment to homophobia. The Universal House of Justice, which is their governing body, does not allow female members even though it says gender equality is fundamental to the unity of the human race. Abdu’l-Baha also bans women from military service as he saw the killing of other human beings as incompatible with the station of motherhood. For me, the surprising aspect of this is that Baha’i is not universally pacifist. Regarding homosexuality, Baha’i officially sees it as an aspect of the innate human inclination towards evil, believes sexual orientation can and should be changed and excludes practicing homosexuals from full membership of the faith on the grounds that they are not living in accordance with its principles, in a similar way to how they would exclude people who drink alcohol. Another issue is that it doesn’t impose vegetarianism on principle, although of course this isn’t unusual. What this probably illustrates is the kind of approach which the Old Left had from the century following 1850 CE or so, where it continued to be just as sexist and homophobic, and in some cases even racist, as we now expect the Hard Right to be.

Lidia Zamenhof, Ludwik’s youngest child, was born in 1904, and died in Treblinka Concentration Camp in 1942. She took over the rôle her father and mother had before of spreading Esperanto, and the secularisation of the family led her to become increasingly isolated from both the Jewish community and of course Gentiles. She lost her belief in God in 1925. Soon after, however, she became Baha’i and mixed the two. She didn’t feel like she’d given up her Jewishness either as she saw that as ethnicity and heritage. She met Shoghi Effendi, the then leader of the faith, and said in one of her talks:

“The international language is part of the Divine Plan which is given effect in the era of Bahá’u’lláh. And the creation and spread of Esperanto are proofs of the creative power of Bahá’u’lláh’s words.”

In November 1939, Lidia was arrested by the Nazis on the grounds of travelling to the United States to spread anti-Nazi propaganda and she was sent to live in the Ghetto on Ogrodowa Street. Shoghi Effendi and others attempted to get her out of Poland but failed, and in June 1942 she was sent to Treblinka and murdered.

It’s important to bear in mind that although Baha’i has major conservative and intolerant elements, Baha’is are also persecuted, and have been persecuted since the start. Lidia’s optimism about the divine plan seemed to have been refuted by the Holocaust, and even today they are oppressed in Iran, where they are the largest religious minority. There have been government land-grabs, they are seen as a political group, and the stated aim of the government is “To gain control over the misguided movement of the perverse Baha’i sect”, according to a leaked document. The homes of Baha’is have been destroyed and many of them have had to flee the country. Baha’i cemetaries are steamrollered as well. To take another example, like many other non-Christian religions, Baha’is haven’t been permitted to have religious assemblies in Romania since 2007.

The oldest continuously active vegetarian organisation in the world is the Tutmonda Esperantista Vegetarana Asocio, founded in 1908 and articles about vegetarianism were being published in Esperanto before the language was a decade old. Lev Tolstoj was honorary president of the TEVA. Their website is here.

I’ve tried to be brief here, but I would like to finish by outlining what seemed to be a common Esperantist vision of the world. Everyone would speak Esperanto as a second language, there would be no more nation states but a single world government, world peace would prevail, most people would be vegetarian and there would be a universal currency proof against inflation. All faiths would be recognised as one. Modern Esperantists are likely to add more to this, but it should also be recognised that Esperanto peaked at a time when women were seen as slaves to biology and therefore restricted in ways men weren’t, and homosexuality was at best understood to be a mental illness. However, the thing about all of these movements taken together is that they are all in a sense moderate. Esperanto is an international language, but not an ideal one and still quite Westernised. Baha’i is somewhat more liberal than most conservative religion but maintains sexism and homophobia. Vegetarianism is not veganism. The international currencies were actual currencies rather than LETS or post-scarcity working for the common good having superceded money. Nonetheless, taken together, even the inter-war consensus of these movements combined is better than what we have had at any point since the War in the world on the whole. Maybe we shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good.

Plastic Pollution And Hope

Plastic pollution is infamous. We all know about the North Pacific Garbage Patch, marine wildlife eating plastic and starving for lack of real food and not to use plastic straws, although that last issue is ableist. It also needs to be put in context, and the context is not good.

First, plastic straws. Some people need these because they are unable to lift cups or sterilise reusable straws and can injure themselves or choke on straws which are soft but of biological material such as pasta or bamboo. The degree of pollution from plastic straws is also something like 0.013% (I didn’t look that up so I may be wrong, but it’s tiny) of total ocean pollution from plastic. In fact, the majority of plastic pollution in the ocean is from fishing nets, floats and the like, which is not surprising because the function of fishing equipment is to catch fish, and it’s therefore doing its job after being discarded. The Garbage Patches, and there are several, for instance in the Atlantic, are also not visible to the casual observer in those areas because most of the plastic is too small to see, even microscopic, and it’s also quite diffusely spread. This isn’t to say that there aren’t huge quantities of plastic waste from decades ago washing up on beaches all over the planet or that they don’t do terrible harm to wildlife and ourselves, but the nature of the patches is somewhat different from what people expect. They’ve also been increasing tenfold every year since the end of the Second World War.

We in the West are often able to push all the stuff that used to confront us directly in the streets of our cities and towns out of sight in distant parts of the world. We do that with slave labour to some extent, although conditions are not good for many people here either, and also with our waste. We seem to fondly imagine that our plastic is recycled when in fact an awful lot of it is shipped to remote countries where it’s just dumped and incinerated, so it isn’t our own children who are born with congenital issues to the same extent or our own older people who are dying of occupational cancers so much, or our own rivers which are full of plastic waste.

English: Top 15 most toxic places to live
16 October 2009

MNN galleries
By, Chief on Oct.16,2009 @11:23pm

This is the Citarum River in Java, often called the world’s most polluted river. Although the water beyond the barrier is clear, there are plenty of stretches of this watercourse which are typically as crowded with plastic waste as seen in the foreground. As well as the visible stuff, the water is high in several toxic metals including lead, mercury and arsenic, and also organic compounds leached from the plastic and from other industrial sources such as phthalates, sulphites and polychlorinated biphenyls.

A theme is emerging here. Although the easily visible portion of the plastic pollution looks shocking and sensationalises the problem to the sighted human observer, these are in a sense only the tip of the iceberg. Clearly the fact that turtles eat party balloons and starve, terrestrial animals get trapped in waste and suffocate and so forth are very serious problems, something else is going on at a microscopic scale which is more insidious and pervasive. In both these rather spectacular incidences of plastic pollution, a major issue is not the visible but the invisible, in two different ways. There are microplastics and there are isolated compounds from those plastics and other sources. It’s also notable that even these huge piles of waste are invisible to us in the richer parts of the world because we’re treating the Third World as a carpet under which we can sweep the stuff we’d prefer not to see, but even here there is microscopic and chemical waste interfering with the local ecosystems, including ourselves. It really makes more sense to see the separated molecules of plastic pollutants as one end of a scale, passing through microplastics and ending with massive boulders of polystyrene being washed up on beaches. But there is also a power law involved. The largest fragments of plastic have relatively small surface areas and there are relatively fewer of them. As their size decreases, their number and influence increase disproportionately, partly because smaller objects have larger surface areas.

And at this point I want to mention hormone disruptors. Certain compounds in the environment interact with hormone receptors, and at this point I should probably go into how hormones work. Hormones are signalling molecules which act at a distance within the body. They’re generated and released by organs, often specialising in producing those compounds but sometimes being produced by other organs such as the stomach, kidney or heart. When they reach their target cells, they either pass through the cell membrane and reach the surface of the nucleus or contact specialised molecules on the surfaces of the cells and cause them to send a second message into the cell. This leads to genes being expressed which weren’t before or being inhibited when they were previously expressed, ending in the cells doing various things differently than before. For instance, adrenalin speeds up the heart rate and causes blood vessels to relax in some places and constrict in others, redirecting blood flow to the organs needed for a flight-or-fright response, thyroxin accelerates metabolism and insulin increases the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream. Some hormones are primarily developmental in their function, such as growth hormone, two sex hormones found in the embryo which conversely discourage and encourage typical female or male tissues and structures in the reproductive system, and of course the well-known sex hormones oestrogens, androgens and progesterone, among others. In order to have a hormonal action, a compound need not closely resemble any hormone secreted in the body, and of course whereas I’ve been thinking of human physiology as I’ve been writing this, most or all multicellular organisms have their own hormones. For instance, insects have hormones which cause them to shed their exoskeletons and plants have hormones which cause them to grow faster or develop roots. I’m not sure if sponges have hormones, but fungi have so it seems likely that they would, in some form. Anyway, the takeaway from this is that a substance needn’t be similar to a hormone to have hormonal action.

Apart from hormones produced by the bodies of organisms themselves, there are two major environmental sources of hormones. Plants are one of these. For example, there used to be a species of plant which produced thyroxin directly but it went extinct in 1976, and there is an Afrikan plant which produces vitamin D (which is a hormone chemically similar to oestrogen and other steroids). In particular, for some reason I don’t understand, although there are plenty of artificially synthesised chemicals which are hormonally active, they all seem to be oestrogenic. These are collectively referred to as xenoestrogens, and are present, for example, in toiletries and cosmetics, and are both ingested and absorbed by the surfaces of animals’ bodies, including humans but also others. It’s possible that there are other anthropogenic hormones in the environment but I haven’t come across any, and I’m not sure if this is due to publicity, bias in research or that these compounds simply don’t exist. In any case, xenoestrogens include several pollutants in, for example, the Citarum River, such as polychlorinated biphenyls and phthalates, and these are of course well-known. DDT and dioxin are also oestrogenic but since they’re quite toxic anyway this is probably less relevant.

This is where we get to Alex Jones’s famous “gay frogs”. There is an issue with this sound bite which I’d like to deal with first. Amphibians usually have external fertilisation. They release their gametes into water where they unite with each other and become spawn and then tadpoles. During the mating season, male frogs usually hormonally develop an urge to hug any object which is roughly the diameter of another frog, including reeds and other items. They tend to hug other frogs, including female ones, because of this urge. However, they can’t really be “gay” because their reproductive process doesn’t work that way. Therefore Alex Jones is wrong. Nonetheless, these chemicals do alter the sexual development of many species, for example including whelks, who tend to become the same sex and don’t reproduce asexually (I can’t remember which sex), so then they just don’t reproduce.

Compounds which occur at the bottom of the food pyramid and are not metabolised or digested will often be absorbed directly by organisms on the next level, and this means they are higher in carnivores than in herbivores, and higher in those than in plants, which is a reason for eating only plants, although I also eat fungi, and they’re in a different and somewhat confusing position in the chain. This means that the oestrogenic action of compounds is likely to be stronger in carnist humans than other species, although it’s also likely to be high in, for example, whales and predatory sharks. I’m not going to cover the influence of xenoestrogens across the board because there are so many of them, but I do want to look at PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and phthalates, because they’re particularly common.

PCBs are related to PBBs – polybrominated biphenyls – which are used as flame retardants in a wide range of items with which we come into daily contact. Both classes of compounds are oestrogenic and accelerate female puberty. Like many other compounds which dissolve easily in fats and oils but not water, the body tends to modify them to make them more water-soluble and therefore easier to excrete in sweat and urine. Perhaps for this reason, they tend to cause chloracne in large quantities – they’re being passed out through the skin, which they irritate. Dioxins also do this. However, PCBs cause liver damage like many other toxins and tend to accumulate in adipose tissue: they’ve been found concentrated in whale blubber for example. In a way it’s sad that we know that because I can’t imagine that info was gathered non-violently, although I suppose it might have been a biopsy. PCBs are, unsurprisingly, also carcinogenic in many species, including us, and they also impair cognitive development in humans. Their industrial function is as coolants and in dye-line paper. Monsanto was of course the main producer.

Phthalates are plasticisers: they increase the flexibility, longevity and transparency of plastics. They’re used in coatings, including enteric coatings for medication, floor and wall coverings, electric cables and wiring, among other things. They’re not acutely toxic. However, research has rather surprisingly shown that xenoestrogens are more hormonally active in smaller doses than larger ones, which brings allergies to mind although I’ve no idea if that’s connected. It does also correspond to the general theme of smaller things having more influence than larger ones. Because they’re designed to be durable, phthalates take a long time to break down and so are persistent in the environment. Once again they’re oestrogenic and also anti-androgenic, and found in fast food, fats and oils. However, there is an interesting caveat to all this.

Phthalates have stimulated evolution. An organism known as Ideonella sakaiensis has been found living in the sediment of a Japanese PET bottle recycling plant in 2016. It can break down phthalate as a way of fuelling its respiration, and is new to science. I would suggest this is an example of evolution, and it makes me wonder about what else might evolve at some time in the near future to deal with many plastics. There are plans to grow this bacterium as a way of biodegrading PET. There is also a Japanese fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, able to break down polyurethane, as can the mould Aspergillus tubingensis, and the moth caterpillar Galleria mellonella can digest polythene. This last one normally eats beeswax, so it’s a small step to being able to digest polythene which is chemically rather similar to waxes. In fact polythene is basically a special form of paraffin wax.

The philosopher Heather Davis (I may be playing it fast and loose with the word here but she is an academic, and seems to be into cultural theory) explores the impact of plastic on the future with a particular focus on queer theory and the Anthropocene. She notes that certain plastics have a feminising influence on karyotypically male fetuses and that they make physical reproduction less likely in individuals. Since she links her thought to Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, I consider her approach quite fruitful. I don’t want to rip her ideas off so I’ll just link to her Vimeo lecture on ‘The Queer Futurity Of Plastic.’

These things allow some kind of hope. The idea of plastic pollution in the environment preventing reproduction and choking animals sounds pretty apocalyptic, but in fact it may be the human proclivity for stories which want there to be a neatly tied-up end to our own or the planet’s story. In reality, things might not be so neat, but that very fact means that evolution might find a way to overcome the existence of plastic in the environment and even benefit from it. I find Davis’s attitude a little flippant, but even so I think she’s onto something, and it’s excellent to wring hope out of such an apparently despair-inducing prospect as life choking, being poisoned and starved because of plastic.