UFO T&A

I must apologise for the title. This is what I was coincidentally presented with by the neural network which I fed my most popular blog titles, on the very day I completed my viewing of the 1969-70 Century 21 (Sylvia and Gerry Anderson) series ‘UFO’. An explanation is in order because something needs to be addressed first.

From the real twenty-first century, Century 21 Films often comes across as appallingly sexist, and this might be all the more surprising because of Sylvia Anderson’s heavy involvement in their production. ‘UFO’ is no exception. I presume things improved as time went by but I wonder if it’s a case of the best way to oppress a group is to get them to do it for themselves. Then again, the problem arises that we are creatures of our own time just as she was of hers, and there’s an issue of sensitivity versus awareness. We are, for all we know, being insensitive and bigoted in our own ways right now but we cannot for the lives of us see it. Therefore we should perhaps be rather more forgiving in the belief that in a few dozen years time, we may be judged in the same way. Looking back, it’s easy to see that women tolerated a lot which we are hopefully more aware is unacceptable, but the question arises of what their perspective was at the time.

The problem with the 1960s (CE) is that it falls between the easy availability of reliable contraception and the relative acceptance of second wave feminism. This means that “sexual liberation” in fact meant more open sexual objectification of women for quite some time, and this is present in popular culture across the board. Hence yes, it is in ‘UFO’, but it’s also in everything else and something we have to acknowledge in all such works. That said, its presence in ‘UFO’ has some saving graces. For instance, the Moonbase women rank above the male interceptor pilots because they have to give them commands, which I think reflects the situation in the RAF in that the pilots have to take commands from the ground staff. Moreover, women are seen as maintaining their own in situations where they have to contend with, for example, giving presentations wearing totally ridiculous costumes. They are also asked to make the tea rather a lot though. It’s all the more disappointing that there’s so much blatant sexism given that there’s a fairly hamfisted attempt to address racism in more than one episode.

Let’s also get this out of the way: the purple wigs worn by the women in Moonbase are completely ridiculous. However, they would’ve gone over the heads, so to speak, of most of the viewers since hardly anyone had a colour television back then. There are internal and external attempts to justify this, though the former is not explicit. It seems that Sylvia Anderson simply thought they looked good in the lighting conditions. It’s also been stated that they were part of the uniform, which is kind of the canonical representation and it seems that at the time, wigs were a lot more popular and this trend would be expected to continue. There’s probably a whole thesis to be written about wigs in ‘UFO’, because whereas those are the most obvious, Ed Bishop also wore a wig because his hair was being bleached into oblivion at the beginning of the production run due to an attempt to make it the same colour as his character in ‘Captain Scarlet’, and there are other examples of wigs.

Right. At this point SPOILERS FOLLOW for this and ‘Doppelgänger’, also known as ‘Journey To The Dark Side Of The Sun’, and I want to point out that in particular, if you haven’t watched ‘Doppelgänger’ it will be somewhat ruined by what I’m about to say. I know it’s just a minor film made in the late ’60s, but it’s surprisingly good. On the other hand, looking back from the 2020s it’s probably quite obscure and it’s not that easy to get hold of, as in, it doesn’t seem to be on any streaming services.

‘UFO’ starts off being mainly set in 1980 and the last produced episode is set in 1984. The only date mentioned in an episode is 16th April 1981. I may have remembered that wrongly because 14th April is Gerry Anderson’s birthday. It started to be made before the Apollo XI mission, but its depiction of the lunar surface is quite accurate compared to how it was expected to be before that era. For instance, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, made the year before, shows somewhat craggier vistas. I presume this is because the Surveyor landers had sent back images from ground level by then. The famous 1966 Lunar Orbiter 2 picture of Copernicus crater seems to look like what we associate with it now, i.e. rounded dusty hills, but maybe they expected more detailed pictures to show irregularities and sharper peaks. Incidentally, this is one argument against the Apollo landings being hoaxes – the surface looks very different than had been expected.

It’s clear that in 1969, the expectation was that astronautics would have continued to progress at the rate it had been from 1957 onwards. There were only a dozen years between Sputnik I and the Eagle landing, and projecting that forward it seemed reasonable to expect there to be a lunar base by 1980 if not before. However, even at the time although 1980 seemed quite far ahead, it also seemed very much like the near future to me, and I specifically noticed that it was the futuristic show which was set in the nearest time span to the present day at the time. It doesn’t seem entirely necessary to do this because in a way, there could have been a scenario where a secret set of missions had set up a base in the ’60s, as was imagined by various people, and it could’ve been a contemporary series. However, placing it in the near future does allow the idea that UFOs would become more prominent in the next few years and creates a sense of menace which is perhaps more convincing. It can be contrasted with the ‘X-Files’ in that way. It should also be remembered that the idea of humans not living there might well have seemed less convincing than us living there given the time period. At that point, a human Mars mission had been announced to launch in 1979, and I was fully expecting this to happen all the way through the ’70s. What actually happened, of course, was a serious budget cut to NASA once the landings had happened and a change of focus onto the development of the Space Shuttle. The early designs of the Shuttle actually look quite like the Sky 1 aircraft which appears in many episodes. I can also remember a schools career TV programme in all seriousness in the 1970s telling pupils that mining skills would still be useful in future because of mining projects on other planets. This was absolutely taken seriously at the time, and in a way the real oddity is that this didn’t happen rather than that it did, although I do recognise that Apollo was very much a propaganda stunt. It’s also possible to look at the development of space travel as stimulated by governmental awareness of a UFO threat, and therefore the end of the Space Race is just replaced by a separate provocation, which incidentally may have united East and West against a common enemy.

In a sense the actual title of the series is a misnomer, because the craft in question are no longer “Unidentified”. The first episode is actually called ‘Identified’. That said, the series maintains a mystery about the nature of the pilots. It’s never firmly established where they came from, there’s very little dialogue with them and it’s even suggested that their true form is that of “energy beings” rather than the mainly humanoid figures usually presented to the viewer. This seems to help with the mystique of the antagonists and allows one to project one’s own preconceptions onto them. It’s also very like the trope of not showing the monster in horror films, and allows the writing to play around with their protean conception. However, this sometimes leads to inconsistency. Before I go into that, I should set out the premise:

In 1970, UFOs started to attack and abduct people, leaving mutiliated bodies with missing organs. In response, a coalition of governments set up an above top secret organisation called SHADO: Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation. The truth was kept from the public as it was thought likely to cause panic. SHADO has three major facilities. One is in Southern England, hidden under a film studio, and the commander, Ed Straker, has a cover job as a film producer. A second centre is Moonbase, which monitors space for the arrival of UFOs and sends out Interceptor craft to destroy them before they reach Earth. A third line of defence is found in the form of a fleet of Skydiver submarines, which can launch aircraft to attack UFOs which have gotten through the space defences. There’s also a satellite called SID – Space Intruder Detector – which does what it says on the tin. Both the aliens and their craft can only survive for a short period in Earth’s atmosphere and they therefore tend to submerge themselves when they reach this planet. They also have spacesuits with liquid-filled helmets which allow them to breathe, and very advanced technology. They have caused massive environmental damage to their planet, which is not located reliably in the series, and have extended their lifespan at the cost of becoming sterile, and are harvesting human organs. The series centres on Ed Straker, the head of the organisation, and has a surprising focus in some of the episodes on what might be described as management and personal issues, particularly those affecting him personally. A second surprising aspect of the series is that there is more emphasis on underwater adventures than an apparent “space series” could be expected to have. However, the biggest surprise to me was the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, element of postmodernism, which I would absolutely not have expected from a 1969 SF series although it was sometimes attempted in ‘The Twilight Zone’ a decade earlier. Another unexpected aspect of the series is that it has similarities to ‘The Prisoner’ in later episodes due to crossover of staff.

From the in-universe perspective of the general public, it’s largely feasible to separate the more outlandish events from their everyday lives, with the exception of the occasional human who comes in contact with the aliens. Having said this, in 1974 an event took place in Turkey which destroyed a city and killed forty thousand people, but this was passed off as an earthquake. This generally leaves us with a much more plausible world outside of SHADO, with a few exceptions. One of these is that the medical profession completely accepts the existence of psychic powers in certain individuals, and in fact their attitude towards them is to encourage self-acceptance and they recognise that failure to do so can lead to psychosis and other mental health issues which can threaten the patient’s life. I don’t know if that reminds you of anything! The biggest issue is spacetime. UFOs are said to travel at many times the speed of light and something about the way they do this can lead to practically freezing things in time, which I think I can make sense of with a bit of technobabble and reference to another incident, though this may take it beyond authorial intention. Firstly, the dilation of time in relatively slow-moving objects, shown in the episode ‘Timelash’, apparently coincidentally given the same name as a Doctor Who serial, seems to be achieved in a manner similar to the sonic boom, with the compression of space or light in front of an object. Secondly, a space probe is sent back to the alien home world in ‘Close Up’ despite the absence of FTL in human technology, which suggests that objects in the space around a UFO also travel faster than light when the craft does. There is also an oddity regarding human potential, in that aliens can cause humans not to age for their own ends as in ‘The Long Sleep’ and also to become human bombs under their control by tapping some kind of internal energy source, as seen in ‘Psychobombs’. Hence this is not quite our world.

Another way in which it isn’t quite our world, or at least our timeline, is the result of the fact that it’s set in the ’80s, which is now several decades ago. If you want to play the game of successful and failed predictions with it, this is rather confusing, because there’s the aspect of which predictions came true by the 1980s, which are now realised and which failed, plus anachronisms. For instance, in ‘Survival’, a man uses paper maps of the lunar surface to find his way back to Moonbase, which today probably wouldn’t be shown in that situation even though it’s realistic and practical to do so compared to tablet-based maps or something similar, but also would in fact have been the likely solution to the situation if that really had happened in the early ’80s. To an extent, the sexism can also be placed in this category. Women at meetings are shown as taking notes rather than actively participating, they are often expected to make tea or coffee regardless of their rank, they’re leered at, and the show seems to encourage the male gaze. Although one would hope this was unacceptable today, the sad fact is that this was probably still going on in the ’80s, so whereas it’s quite a difficult watch, the chances are that if a period piece were to be made today which didn’t focus on social mores of that decade it would probably portray things as less sexist than they actually were and it’s probably more accurate to show things that way.

Although sexism is largely either not noticed or expected to continue, racism is highlighted on a few occasions, though not very elegantly. Straker, whose words are often to be taken as “word of God”, says that racism “burnt itself out five years ago” in an episode which seems to occur in 1984. This comes across as facile and is in fact questioned by a Black character, Lieutenant Mark Bradley, who mentions that not being in an ethnic minority himself, Straker is in no position to judge. Nonetheless, it makes it look as if racism was a short phase in human history which could be easily resolved within a decade or so, and it feels rather as if they just wanted to get it out of the way. The actor who played him, Harry Baird, was unhappy with the episode-by-episode contract he was employed under, unlike more central characters, and left the series, so it’s possible that external racism is a factor there. There is in fact quite a high cast turnover and this could be part of that, but there are reasons why this isn’t obvious which I’ll come to in a bit. There’s also Lieutenant Ayshea Johnson, whose ethnicity I’m not sure about, played by the singer Ayshea Brough.

A second unrelated bit of facility is that it’s mentioned that lunar mining has already exhausted resources and therefore that it doesn’t happen any more, an observation which seems to be contradicted by the presence of a Russian mining company there. I can’t pinpoint any more, but I get the impression that there’s a strong tendency to play down certain external issues in an unconvincing way just to prevent them interfering with the storylines, although the racism and mining ones are the only two I can think of off-hand.

The idea of craft and aliens deteriorating in Earth’s atmosphere is interesting and not entirely scientifically implausible, although I think it was probably done in order to avoid using too many actors and allowing models which were supposed to be underwater to be used, which had already been done a lot in ‘Stingray’ and ‘Thunderbirds’. This is in fact the case for extraterrestrial materials such as lunar regolith, because it has formed in the absence of oxygen or water and tends to react with them, and whereas there is no issue with water, it makes sense that life forms who evolved on a planet without oxygen would also have this issue, which could extend to the materials used in their technology. Even so, the aliens do seem to breathe oxygen. Perhaps the issue is that their life-extension medicine involves preventing the formation of free radicals and oxidation apart from respiration, which renders their substance more reactive to oxygen.

The oddest thing about the aliens is that they seem to be so close to being human that they can be made entirely out of human tissue and can accept donated human organs, possibly even without tissue-typing. For this reason, the suggestion that they are in fact energy beings works quite well, and perhaps that they are animating human, and in one case feline, bodies, but the problem then arises of how they got their original bodies and why having longer life spans and sterility is even an issue for them. I think this is just not well-thought through, and probably doesn’t bear close examination because that was never intended, but it can be difficult to ignore at times.

There is a major issue with episode order. Whereas the first episode works well as an introduction, continuity is inconsistent and the series was actually shown in various different orders according to the region, it being an ITV series. Rather than describing it in detail here, I refer you to this page. This variation in order gives different episodes a different feel. The idea that the aliens are non-corporeal is introduced quite late in the series in one viewing order but near the beginning in another when that could be a big revelation. Two episodes have somewhat similar plots and each could be considered a repetition of the other. Straker’s son is killed off in an episode which may influence his character development if other episodes are viewed later but if seen earlier it makes him seem callous already.

The postmodern elements are probably accidental. The fact that Straker is also a film producer makes it possible to foreground the fact that it’s a TV series, but also means that the equipment and settings can sometimes employ the real studio and props as what they actually are. It may reflect Gerry Anderson’s own wish-fulfilment that he was not in fact a film-maker but a secret agent protecting Earth from alien invaders. In a fairly early episode in most orders, a psychic sends the studio a screenplay depicting the situation as it really is in-universe, making it effectively a script for a previous episode, which constitutes a security breach. This aspect of the show becomes most evident in ‘Mindbender’, which to my mind is also the most ‘Prisoner’-like story, where the aliens force Straker to hallucinate that he’s merely an actor in a SF TV show and the other characters are referred to by the real actors’ names, except for Straker himself whose actor has the same first name. The same is incidentally true of Ayshea Johnson but she doesn’t seem to be mentioned by name. There are also incidents such as a character standing in front of back projection, which is also used to create realism in the show, and another where an extra resembling Straker is shot, which is initially shown as real but immediately revealed as fictitious. Although not too much should be made of all this, it adds an interesting dimension and is reminiscent of ‘Prisoner’, as I’ve said. The two shows also share many actors.

‘UFO’ is the Andersons’ first live-action TV series, but it follows directly on from their first live-action SF feature film ‘Doppelgänger’ and uses many of the same props, including some vehicles. It’s possible to spot these in both with a little concentration. This is the point at which I can’t talk about this connection without revealing a major spoiler for ‘Journey To The Dark Side Of The Sun’/’Doppelgänger’. The surviving astronaut discovers that the Counter-Earth is an exact mirror image of our own planet, including backwards writing and reverse handedness, and this also means that all the vehicles drive on the opposite sides of the road and have steering wheels on the reverse sides. Consequently, the cars which ‘UFO’ inherited from ‘Doppelgänger’ have reversed steering wheels for British vehicles, and it becmes a little difficult to work out if this is a genuine attempt to predict a future Britain where everyone drives on the right or a practical consequence of re-using props. It also allows one to presume that the action of the series isn’t occurring within cis lunar space at all but on or around the Counter-Earth, except of course that the text is still the same way round. Another thing I can’t tell about ‘Doppelgänger’ is whether the second half of the film is simply physically flipped or all the actors are attempting to reverse their handedness and there are reflected props. I suspect the former, but this then suggests that the vehicles were not manufactured as mirror-images, so it’s all a bit confusing, except that many of the Earth scenes are set in Portugal, where driving is on the right. Having said all that, it also appears that at the time some people expected Britain to adopt driving on the other side of the road during the 1970s. The difficulty of doing so is sometimes apparent in the film when a motorist is shown negotiating a junction, which would also be a real world practical problem were this to be done. The likelihood is that they genuinely expected Britain to switch to right hand traffic because the government considered the idea in the late ’60s but rejected it because of the extensive infrastructure changes which would have to be made in this country, as opposed to the more sparsely populated Sweden which had done it a couple of years previously. Without a Channel link of some kind, there was no contact between British and overseas traffic, unlike in other countries which have switched from one side to the other. Flashbacks in the series show driving on the left as recently as 1974, in Picadilly Circus, and some vehicles are still right hand drive.

Straker’s car, of which the above is a Dinky model because of rights issues with screenshots, is quite iconic of the series. It was built on a Ford chassis with a racing car manufacturer responsible for the fibreglass body, and was one of two models. To me it looks like a Citroën. It was portrayed as automatic in the series but was in fact manual transmission with a concealed gearbox, and fumes tended to leak into the interior. It only drove very slowly and shots of it moving fast were achieved by speeding up the film. It had gull wing doors which were operated manually out of shot, and I’ve looked for reflections in the windows but haven’t seen any stage hands. Ed Bishop was actually banned from driving before the series was produced, so most of the time if not all it’s driven by an extra. I’ve heard from one source that it’s supposed to use a gas turbine engine in-universe, which I presume is hydrogen-powered. There is a deleted scene of it being fuelled which would have revealed more. Straker’s colleague Colonel Paul Foster had a lilac version of the same vehicle. One of these, possibly Foster’s, was bought by Dave Lee Travis in 1975 and he later sold it to a porn studio. It still survives and has been renovated and brought back into service, but there are legal problems with driving it on public roads nowadays. Presumably it lacks functional gull-wing doors. In 1970, this probably looked like the wave of the future and there are advantages to them such as ease of stowing luggage and increased visibility for the driver, but they can leak at the hinge and have to be less dense than standard car doors, which can make them more vulnerable to damage during side-impacts.

Many cars are depicted as having car phones. Straker’s car phone is not hands-free and he uses it while driving, but some other phones use a speakerphone instead and therefore are. There are also car-sized ambulances, and whereas I’m aware these have existed for some time I don’t recall them from the twentieth century. Maybe I’m wrong. However, there are no paramedics, only ambulance drivers. It always seems strange that it took so long for society to get round to the concept of the paramedic.

Getting back to the ‘phones, a number of innovations are shown which are now realised. The trimphone is very widespread. There is only one depiction of a rotary dial ‘phone in the ’80s, and it’s in an old person’s dwelling in County Galway. Office ‘phones are often cordless. There are also greyscale videophones, which are however not noticeably delayed when communicating between Earth and Moonbase despite the distance. Videophones were about to come into service as the series was being made. There’s also videoconferencing.

On the subject of office equipment, there seems to be something like a desktop computer with a keyboard, which however seems to have no display or other output. I presume these are word processors and telexes. The keys are in a 14×4 squarely-oriented grid and resemble those of a calculator or the Pet 2001. Although one of these devices becomes important in a court case, it isn’t clear whether they’re standard. The props concerned can also be seen in the next TV21 SF TV series, ‘Space: 1999’. As for computers, these are largely the same as they were in 1969, with tape drives, punched paper tape and pinfeed paper. They are, however, also able to print monochrome photographs from tape and seem to have some kind of natural language processing.

In the area of pharmaceuticals, sleeping pills are very common, but I think this arises from their popularity during the ’60s. They are not at all problematised. There are also amnestics, routinely administered to people who become aware of SHADO’s operations and possibly also alien activity, and truth drugs, which are however dangerous.

Costume was Sylvia Anderson’s responsibility and there is clear gender division. Men’s business suit jackets are less open and have more buttons than morning suits, and can be burgundy in colour as well as other subdued hues. Concealed zips are also used, with O-ring zip pulls, as popularised by Mary Quant I think. These are also common on women’s clothes, probably more than men. There are questionable clothing choices in women’s uniforms, with beige jumpsuits on Earth and a complicated figure-hugging two layered silvery arrangement for women at Moonbase. In the first episode there’s a gratuitous clothing change into a miniskirt for a tea break! That said, I was impressed by a woman giving a presentation in that outfit and still being taken seriously by her colleagues. Calf-length boots are common, also pinafore dresses and a lime and pink low cut dress on one freelance journalist. There is also a much reused red leather lace up minidress, which is definitely aimed at heterosexual male viewers. Older men still wear morning suits. Interestingly, in a flashback to the early ’70s one character is shown in a poncho, which shows I think that even then they knew that would be a flash in the pan. Men wear eyeliner, although it isn’t clear whether this is a stage makeup thing or supposed to be a change in male grooming and presentation.

The model work is all, unsurprisingly, very good, which is what you’d expect from the Andersons. Although I was very young at the time, I didn’t perceive any kind of disjunction between live action, as it were, and the model-based scenes, and I suspect this would’ve been true even of adult viewers at the time. Figures in the model scenes are not puppets, and most of the time this is fine as they’re only seen very briefly, but on one occasion diver puppets are seen using propulsion units without moving their legs, which is an odd decision considering how easy it would’ve been to show that. The UFOs themselves look like lemon squeezers and their scale is unclear. Moonbase looks like a series of footballs connected by corridors. It launches Interceptors:

I used to own one of these. At the time, since I’d never seen the series in colour I assumed it to be accurate but in fact they were white in the programme and it was a marketing decision to make them green because it was thought that would appeal more to children. There’s a photo of me at my brother’s christening in 1973 holding it, and I used to get to sleep at night by imagining my bed was a UFO interceptor, which on reflection doesn’t sound very calming at all. They look very phallic to me now, and the toy would fire the missile, making it a potential projectile weapon which probably wouldn’t be allowed today. From an in-universe perspective, the missiles were deployed the wrong way round. The atmospheric planes could probably fire about twenty missiles but the space-based interceptors only had one missile each. This seems to have been a plot device to allow flying saucers to reach Earth’s atmosphere.

Another personal element for me is present in the episode ‘Confetti Check A-OK’, which is the only episode I could actually remember from the time although I clearly did watch at least re-runs. This is about the breakup of Straker’s marriage, which results from him spending too much time at work but not having security clearance to tell his wife what he’s doing. My mother could very much relate to Mary Straker, because she felt she was in the same position with my father, which is why I found it so memorable. His marriage ends when he slaps her and causes her to give birth, which is quite ambiguous because although it was usual to portray men hitting women when they were having “hysterics”, and goodness only knows how that could possibly work, Straker’s doing so actually precipitates the end of their marriage. Later on, in ‘A Question Of Priorities’, their son John is seriously injured by a car and Straker pulls strings to get a new antibiotic delivered from America in one of SHADO’s planes, but it gets diverted to Ireland to deal with an alien threat there and John dies. There’s a lot of this personal stuff. He also almost has a relationship with a journalist, who turns out to be fake and trying to get information out of him.

A few famous faces turn up from time to time. George Cole appears as a man being held to ransom by threats to his wife to reveal information about SHADO, and Christopher Timothy briefly appears in one episode. Tessa Wyatt, from ‘Robin’s Nest’, appears in the episode ‘The Long Sleep’ as a woman who has been in a coma for a decade. This was delayed because it dealt with recreational drugs.

Most Anderson productions only had one season because he and Lou Grade were attempting to repeat their success with the American market they’d had with ‘Fireball XL-5’. Although this never happened again, it meant they moved on very fast and it wasn’t about the series being cancelled so much as attempts to learn from and improve each time, which in general they do seem to have done. However, there was a perfunctory attempt to produce a second series of ‘UFO’ which an expanded Moonbase set in the ’90s, where it was even considered that Earth would be destroyed. This would be rethought and become ‘Space: 1999’, which had two series plus an intervening educational film using the similar props and actors called ‘Into Infinity’. However, as I say, ‘UFO’ only ran for one series of twenty-six episodes. It’s surprisingly grown up but it does reflect the values of the time. It’s worth a watch though.

A Forgotten Genocide

Nothing I’m about to say should be taken as an attempt to subtract from the seriousness of the Holocaust as far as its effect on the Jewish people is concerned. Also, when I say “forgotten genocide”, many people will think of a genocide they’re aware of which I myself have doubtless forgotten, and there’s always an issue with discussing marginalisation that some characteristic of identity leading to further marginalisation will be ignored. Consequently, before I start on this, I want to mention Rwanda, the Balkans, the Armenians and even the Jutes, and once again inject a mention that there are no Neanderthals around now, and perhaps wonder if that was the first genocide of all, although many of us do carry some of their genes. Did that set a precedent for what was to come?

All that said, today is Roma Holocaust Memorial Day. The date was chosen because over the night of 2nd-3rd August 1944, a total of 2 897 Roma, mainly the elderly, women and children, were murdered at Auschwitz. This, however, is a tiny fraction of the total number of victims, which amounts to somewhere between 220 000 and half a million. When numbers start to be rounded off like that we are in the realm of Stalin’s oft-quoted line  “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”. That initially exact number of 2 897 is able to bring home to us the fact that each of those people were of infinite worth. The larger and less precise figures bring to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the PoWs in the trains during the Second World War, that the German guards regarded the contents of the wagons as a liquid which responded to certain activities, except that one small part of that liquid had solidified because of the death of an individual in one of the cars. At no point do the soldiers allow the prisoners the dignity of being considered human beings. They’re either a nameless, anonymous mass of fluid or they’re corpses. And that’s a largely supposèdly Aryan group of people.

And this is where the lie of the Nazi propaganda reaches its starkest point, along with attitudes towards the Slavs. The Roma, also known as “gypsies” because they were thought to originate from Egypt, are if anything more “Aryan” than the so-called Nordic folk. They originate from today’s Punjab and traditionally speak an Indo-Aryan language, or set of languages – the situation is complicated and unusual. Aryanism was, well, unfortunately is, a racial theory which emerged in the nineteenth Christian century claiming that there was an Aryan race which was superior to all others and was destined to rule over them and the world. This was based on measurements of the nose and cranium and the ratio between the width and length of both. Dolichocephaly, i.e. long-headedness, was supposed to be the characteristic diagnostic of being Aryan, i.e. Northeastern European in origin. The first person to state this publicly was the French anthropologist Vacher de Lapouge, in his 1899 book  «L’Aryen: son Rôle Social». The other ethnicities he characterised as brachycephalic, that is, broad-headed, and he was a eugenicist and socialist, the latter being why he was expelled from the University of Montpellier. This combination, peculiar to today’s minds, was much more widespread at this time. However, there is a major issue with such characteristics being labelled as Aryan. Since genes were not accessible to technological examination at this time, scientists instead used linguistic characteristics to trace the origin of different groups. The history of Indo-European studies begins in the early nineteenth century, when White Western European male academics first noticed the similarities between characteristics of various languages, although it has an extensive prehistory. European visitors to India in the sixteenth century CE noticed similarities between Sanskrit and Italian, for example. This could have remained in some kind of academic “outer darkness”, but in 1767 the Jesuit missionary to India Gaston Laurent Cœurdoux demonstrated the similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German and Russian. Hence for over a century before the publication of de Lapouge’s book, it was entrenched academic opinion that Indian and European languages were closely related. The very name “Aryan” is from the Sanskrit word for “noble”, which is how the Vedic language users referred to themselves in Ancient India. Hence there is absolutely no excuse for the idea that either the Roma, who are ultimately North Indian in origin, nor the Slavs are anything other than Aryan, as the terminology and paradigm of the times had it. If anything, the Roma have a firmer claim to be Aryan than the Germans, if you really want to play that game.

It is just a game though, and in this case a deadly one. Sixty percent of the Roma have Y-chromosome haplogroup H-M82, which is Indian in origin and also found among Gheg Albanians, although its prevalence reduces the further west you go in Europe. This is of course because we are all mongrels. Depending on how much detail you look at the human genome in, there are peaks of variation which rapidly vanish the more you divide the human race up. Roma mitochondrial DNA likewise shows a North Indian origin. All of this was of course unavailable to the Nazis, but there was sufficient evidence at the time for any fair-minded anthropologist or philologist to assert confidently that the Roma are Aryan.

The German word for the Roma, Zigeuner is derived from the Greek αθιγγανοι, meaning “men who are untouchable”, and was linked to the idea of an underclass in Germany. It was also how they were treated in India. There’s a current campaign for the word to be retired, much like the N-word in English. The word also means “thief” in Slovak. But to focus on the Nazi period, the Roma refer to their Holocaust as Porajmos, although this word needs some explanation. There is much variation in Romani, one of whose distinctive features is its tendency to conform to the local languages spoken around it, so the word is not definitively that everywhere for all Roma. Other words are Pharrajimos and Samudaripen, meaning “fragmentation” and “mass killing” respectively. Their persecution began with an amendment to the law made in 1935 which began to be enacted by their transportation to internment camps on the edges of urban areas. The Nazis regarded only ten percent of Roma to be “racially pure”, but the situation was controversial among Nazis and a program of measurement and assessment was undertaken, after which it was unsurprisingly concluded that they were a threat to the purity of the “German people”.

The word “porajmos” is more likely to be known to outsiders than the Roma themselves. It is close to a word meaning “rape” in some dialects, which makes it offensive to some. Hence the word “pharrajimos”. The word “samudaripen” is apparently not well-formed as a Romani word, and was suggested by an outsider linguist. “Kali Trash” – the “Black Years” – are used by some Roma and another term is “Bersha Bibahtale”, meaning “Unhappy Years”.

There was of course already persecution of the people before the Nazi régime. The Weimar Republic banned them from entering public spaces such as swimming pools and parks and they were widely regarded as criminals and undesirables. Bavaria forbade them from entering the state in 1926, Prussia issued them with mandatory ID cards and Hessen enacted a law entitled “Law For The Fight Against The Gypsy Menace”. The idea of criminal biology was popular at the time. This was the hypothesis that criminal behaviour was genetically determined. Robert Ritter of the University of Tübingen formulated the rather convenient idea that the initially pure Aryan blood of the Roma had been sullied by inferior elements in its journey from India to Europe. Never mind that most or all of that land is also populated by Indo-European speakers, depending on the route. He had them interviewed under threat of imprisonment and internment in concentration camps unless they gave their relatives’ names and last known whereabouts. There were different policies in different parts of the Axis power block. For instance, some of the Axis powers just didn’t enforce the anti-Roma laws, but others simply had roaming death squads that shot Roma on sight. There was also a mix between the asocial and Roma groupings in that many of the latter were interred for being habitual criminals rather than because of their ethnicity, although because of the criminal biology perspective this was rather blurred from the Nazi perspective. In the Czech region, the Roma Holocaust was enthusiastically pursued by guards of local origin to the extent that today all the Roma living in the Czech republic originate from elsewhere. They were utterly exterminated. Some of the Roma were forced into the ghetto in Łódź, where they died in the typhus epidemic along with the Jews. With the intention of deporting them from the Reich, they were housed in camps which with the change in policy became long-term incarceration facilities, and not being designed as such had dreadful conditions. In other places they were gassed to death with carbon monoxide in killing vans along with the Jews. In 1944, the SS decided to murder all of the Roma inhabitants of Auschwitz, but the prisoners armed themselves with shovels and the SS withdrew. Although I’ve quoted a precise figure above for rhetorical purposes, it’s likely that more than four thousand of them were gassed in one day, 2nd August 1944, hence today’s memorial day. Most of them were elderly, women or children.

This genocide was not admitted to be racially motivated until 1979. Of course there is still anti-Semitism today, and much of that is very serious. However, there is also a general acknowledgement that anti-Semitism is evil and must be opposed in all circumstances. It cannot be overtly pursued in polite society. The same is not true of anti-Roma sentiment. The same stereotypes of the Roma people exist today as they did under the Third Reich, and there are also entirely open plans to encarcerate them in encampments. There is by no means the same concerted effort against Roma persecution as there is against Jewish persecution. Of course there is no oppression Olympics. However, the question does need to be asked as to how anti-Semitism has been placed completely beyond the pale while anti-Roma racism has not. The Roma need to be freed from the persecution the Jews have rightly been liberated from. It isn’t a case of there only being so much liberation to go round and nobody would be a loser in such a situation.

Monkey Hate

Major trigger warning for cruelty to members of other closely-related species and possible connections to human child sexual abuse.

I wanted to get that in first, before even the picture credit, but to give her her due, the above image is credited thus: Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

This is about something which currently manifests as an internet phenomenon but may have existed in human nature for longer than we’ve even been human. Before I get going, I’m going to become a bit “sciency”, but the bulk of this post isn’t about that. There is a point to this outline, relevant to the subject of this post.

Cladism is the classification of organisms into groups of genetically related populations with common ancestry. This has led to some confusing descriptions of animals in particular. For instance, there’s a sense in which all mammals, reptiles and amphibia are fish, because our common ancestor is a Eusthenopteron-like species of fish, so we form a clade with bony fish, and in which birds are reptiles because they’re dinosaurs and dinosaurs are descended from reptiles. Likewise, there is a sense in which all humans and other apes are monkeys, in particular Old World monkeys. It’s like matroshka dolls. There’s a large doll called “simians” containing two smaller dolls called platyrrhines and Catarrhines. The platyrrhines are native to South and Central American only. The catarrhines originated in Afro-Eurasia and include hominoids and cercopithecids. Hominids include gibbons and their relatives, and great apes including humans. Everything is inside the big doll called simians. In other words, we’re all monkeys. This doesn’t sound right because there’s a lot of insistence on distinguishing apes from other monkeys, for instance emphasising our larger bodies, less arboreal nature, lack of long external tails and dorsoventrally compressed trunks, but we are still monkeys, and there was a time when we were all competing on a level playing field, as it were. It’s enlightening to bear this in mind in what follows.

This is where it starts to get exceedingly distasteful.

There are a very large number of channels on YouTube dedicated to torture, accidental death and serious injury to various species of simian other than ourselves, and apparently also excluding other apes and New World monkeys. I’m having to do this by hearsay because if I seek out these channels or videos myself I will be rewarding them with views and advertising revenue and thereby boosting their profile. This, in fact, is in itself a major issue because it means that if one wishes to hear from a contrary viewpoint to one’s own, one risks boosting that for the general public without foreknowledge as to the nature of the content, which encourages one to stay in one’s own reality tunnel. Nonetheless I do have secondary sources for this and so far as I can tell it is uncontroversially extremely cruel.

It’s in the YouTube creator content guidelines that causing suffering or death to animals deliberately for purposes other than food preparation or hunting (because our society perversely considers that acceptable) is not admissible content and will lead to the channel uploading it to be closed and demonetised. Closure and demonetisation of channels by regular users happens very often for apparently minor infractions, in the latter case often without informing the user. These monkey hate channels are often old and still monetised. YouTube is also aware of them, since they receive numerous complaints about them, but they simply persist, in a similar manner to how they do with Elsagate videos. This is rather baffling, since the videos don’t seem to be submitted by any of the big players, so one would expect them to be held to the same standards. This, though, is not the focus of this post.

As far as online manifestations of monkey hate are concerned, this might be traceable to a site set up in 1996 CE called http://www.ifihаdаmоnkеу.соm (obviously not that but again, I’m trying to avoid page impressions – that’s kind of a phishing link). This was just a bad-taste humour website set up in response to PETA, and although I’m vegan I’m no fan of PETA because they are no friends of animals other than humans, have an anthropocentric view of animal liberation and aren’t above rather appallingly sexist campaigns, not to mention their startlingly crass approach to publicity. For whatever motives, the person who started the site was at first rewarded by various bad-taste jokes, which however rapidly got out of hand and were hard not to believe were actually serious. The search engine result brings up the description “the Best Source for Metaphorical Violence Against The Monkey You Don’t Even Have in the Whole Wide World!”, and I’m not sure whether that description has been there since the start or not, but it was there in 2001, which is as far back as the Wayback Machine goes with it. Even back then it was hard to tell whether or not to take the submissions as jokes or not, which is of course a common online problem. It’s also hard to discern the motivation for annoying PETA, since it could be similar to mine or it could just be carnism.

You needn’t be vegan not to be disturbed by these videos though. There’s a focus on adult monkey sadness and baby monkey suffering and death, all the victims seem to be Old World monkeys, and there’s a wider context of cruelty, as with fake animal rescue channels, where YouTubers endanger or injure dogs and cats in order to film themselves “rescuing” them.

I think at this point I owe it to Cambodia to post something more general, and I hope more positive, about the country because of what I’m about to say: a large number of monkey hate videos originate from that country. Some of the channels posting them from Cambodia also post dramatised videos about underage girls being raped, which suggests a possible link between child sexual abuse and monkey hate. However, the commenters on these videos are usually either bots or apparently White Anglophone males, whose profile pictures are unique to the channels. Hence there is a hypothesis that monkey hate is a proxy for child abuse and sadistic pædophilia. There’s a further hypothesis which I don’t accept that the videos use steganography, which I shall now explain.

Steganography is a method of hiding something in plain sight. One of the rookie mistakes in using ciphers is that they are not concealed and stand out as obvious codes. Guvf, sbe rknzcyr, vf na boivbhf pvcure. It makes a lot more sense to hide the message imperceptibly in something which looks routine and ordinary, such as a jpeg or online video. This is done by altering a small portion of the data slightly, resulting in a video which is indistinguishable from the original but contains encoded data. However, I don’t think this can be done on YouTube because I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. This was a few years ago now and things may have changed, but the videos are considerably altered by the time they’ve been uploaded, or at least they used to be, and I don’t think they could be relied upon to preserve the data. In fact I doubt they ever would. Therefore I’d reject this out of hand, and in any case it doesn’t make sense to submit videos which violate the terms of service to do this. It’d make more sense to submit innocuous videos with steganographic content, and for all I know it can be done now due to improvements in video quality. I might try it again soon on YT.

There could have been incidents of monkey hate before the internet became popular, but most people wouldn’t know about them and there wouldn’t usually have been much of an audience. As such, the phenomenon may have things in common with the Targeted Individual community, where people with a sensitive cognitive style and feelings of persecution find each other online and reinforce each other’s beliefs.

A number of hypotheses have been suggested regarding this. They include:

  • People who live in areas where monkeys are common regard them as pests and celebrate their suffering.
  • Germphobia.
  • Addiction.
  • Sadism.
  • Sublimated or encoded child sexual abuse.
  • Phobia.
  • Disgust.

The first hypothesis might explain how the videos appeared in the first place but doesn’t explain the fact that their audience largely consists of English-speaking White males. They also tend to use the kind of language employed by the American Right, such as calling people “snowflakes”. This suggests a further thought, which is that it’s sublimated or encoded racism.

Germphobia is similar to the first, and in this case one must be careful not to accuse people who are germphobic of being into this too. However, the species involved are not particularly unhygienic compared to others, such as bats for example, and although there is phobia of bats it doesn’t lend itself to sadistic videos of bats being tortured, although that might be difficult to achieve.

Regarding addiction, clearly the videos are likely to be addictive whatever the appeal is, because that’s a common happening on the internet, as with pornography for example.

Sadism is very likely to be involved in one way or another. It may also reflect a lack of legislation against cruelty of this kind in Cambodia and other countries from which these videos originate, or difficulty in enforcement if they do exist. Cultural relativism may also make the subject matter seem worse to Westerners than it does to people in Southeast Asia. Also, the chances are that the financial “reward” for getting views on such videos is a motivation for the people posting them, so they may themselves not be specifically sadist although they are likely to be sociopathic or psychopathic, and the former condition may have arisen due to their upbringing. The videos appear to divide into three categories: voyeuristic, home made and what I think of as “found footage”. Voyeuristic videos involve chance recordings of monkeys suffering from events not instigated deliberately by humans, such as predation or accidents. Home made is deliberate cruelty to captive animals, actually acquired for that purpose. This can involve attempts to instigate hostility between monkeys. Finally, found footage involves recordings made surreptitiously of humans being cruel to monkeys of other species, something which is obviously a lot easier nowadays than it used to be.

The question of encoded child sexual abuse is another matter, blending into sadism. It could be that the unacceptability of child abuse videos on the internet, not to mention the personal risk in viewing them, leads people to watch or make videos which don’t attract that kind of unwanted attention from the authorities. This is of course speciesist, and there could be popular support for clamping down on them to the same extent, but the situation may not be as black and white as it appears.

I’m going to deal with the last two together, as I think they may be the most significant. Monkey haters have been interviewed and for the ones who have come forward, these two seem to be the explanation. For some people, individuals of closely related species may occupy an uncanny valley between the utterly non-human such as cats on the one hand and humans on the other. This similarity seems to be interpreted by most people as cuteness, but for some it seems to evoke disgust and horror like the undead might do for many.

This is what was revealed, or at least reported, by monkey haters who have been interviewed. One of them recounts a visit to a zoo when he was eight. Up until that point, he’d considered monkeys to be cute and cuddly, but he found the actual experience of seeing them – he mentions mating in public as an example of what triggered him – disgusting and shocking, and this stayed with him into adulthood, eventually manifesting as monkey hate. Significantly, he not only has no urges to be cruel or watch cruelty to other animals, just monkeys. He admits he became obsessed and that it was an addiction, and he feels very guilty and disgusted with himself about it. He also specifically hates baby monkeys, the reason given being that they have tantrums, although this sounds like a rationalisation. His own theory is that it’s instinctive, and surfaces sporadically in some people, but used to be widespread, and also that it’s more common than it seems. It might, in his opinion, also be an outlet for people who have underlying violent tendencies towards humans.

I have to admit this makes a lot of sense. Back in the Miocene, our ancestors were one species of many apes, to the extent that palæontologists can’t identify who they were, but sometime between 24 million years ago in the Oligocene when the first monkeys came into existence from the tarsier-like omomyids and the emergence of Proconsul, the first known ape, 21 million years ago, we would have been monkeys surrounded by possibly competing other monkeys. Since Proconsul is close to the ancestor of all apes, not just us, this raises the question of whether other great apes, and also the various gibbons, also engage in cruelty to tailed monkeys in particular. The Gombe chimpanzee community in particular is known for its violence and this is sometimes manifested in the killing of tailed monkeys such as the red-tailed monkey, although they do eat them. Bonobos and orangutan would, at least prima facie, be considered less likely candidates but this is not scientific of course.

To most people living in European societies, the tailed monkeys are unfamiliar, unlike in the places where they’re likely to live. This unfamiliarity means there is no obvious “bridge” between them and the rest of nature, and this may lead to a sense of the uncanny to a greater extent than it would for humans who live alongside them. As such, the introduction of monkeys as a novelty may come across as an affront to their distinctive identity and might also constitute a threat if they are used to the idea of human dominion over the rest of the animal kingdom. I don’t think it can be mere coincidence that the main audience for these videos is White and English-speaking, and I wonder also if it’s a manifestation of xenophobia which extends to overt and active racism, hence the use of alt-right language. The people who live with wild monkeys from day to day might see them as an economic resource such as for food, tourists or these videos, but they don’t seem to bear them animosity. They’re just doing White people’s dirty work for them. On the other hand, I’m guessing here, but I would expect some of them to regard them as “tree rats”, as the term has it, similarly to how many people in cities see rock doves.

The interviewee thinks there are probably a few dozen hard core monkey haters, which makes it sound like a trivial matter, but there are also thousands upon thousands of casual monkey haters, who watch the videos for entertainment regularly without commenting or engaging. Some of them clearly do get sexual gratification from it, and interestingly despite their apparently homophobic attitudes are very zealous in their defence of their right to do so. There are also two kinds of target. Babies are one, and tend to mention the kind of characteristics often attributed to human babies, such as clinginess, dependence and spoiltness. The other target is the grief of the mothers who witness the death and injury of their children. The former is particularly reminiscent of child abuse and the latter, I think, gives a clue as to the possibility of it being to do with opposition to feelings of tenderness and love. Some fans go so far as to say they’d like to kill all humans who feel positively towards monkeys in any way, and a link is also made between monkey behaviour and neurodiversity as a “justification”.

I want to close by making two observations. Most of the videos are made in Cambodia in spite of the fact that non-human primates are found all across Asia and Afrika, and also in South America. Old World monkeys are more closely related to us than New World monkeys are. In fact, cladistically we are Old World monkeys. These would’ve been the monkeys, or similar ones, with whom we would’ve been in conflict in the Oligocene and Miocene, but this fails to explain why Cambodia specifically would be the source. Could it be that in that country in particular, the terrible trauma seen as inflicted by Pol Pot has brutalised the populace and led to this tendency? Or is it more a question of economic necessity: people in particularly severe hardship will seek any source at all to support their dependents and themselves? One thing this has brought home to me is how little I know of Cambodia, and I would like to explore this on here in the near future.

A Profusion Of Characters

The chromatic Benin-Edo Script

Yesterday‘s post was on the question of whether the English version of the Latin alphabet would look odd to someone who couldn’t read English. In other words, to see ourselves as others see us. Today’s is about scripts more widely, particularly those of West Afrika and South Asia, but elsewhere as well.

The geographic and population-related distribution of different scripts is very uneven. In terms of number of written languages, Latin is obviously the most widely-used script. I’m guessing that that’s also true in terms of population. Fifteen hundred million people speak the twelve most commonly spoken languages written in Latin script. This is, I’m guessing, followed by Chinese, which as well as being used on its own to write Chinese “dialects” (actually languages), also gets used to write Japanese in part and has historically used to write many other languages. After that is probably Arabic script, which is actually used in China too, followed by Cyrillic, at least in terms of number of languages, and then probably Devanagari, the script used to write Hindi. After that, Hebrew square script is used to write several languages, though Hebrew itself dominates there, and historically Greek has been used for Greek, Coptic and Gothic and is also ancestral to Latin and Cyrillic. After that, I’m not aware of scripts which are widely used. Hangul, the Korean script, is also used to write the Austronesian language Cia-Cia, and has also been used for Hokkien in Taiwan. That said, it seems that the majority of remaining scripts, of which there are many, are each associated with a single language.

There’s a lot of politics in script choice, and Arabic in particular, which works excellently for the Arabic language itself and also for other Semitic tongues and those which have borrowed lots of Semitic words, is often applied to languages for which it’s unsuitable. The distinctive feature of Semitic, and possibly other Afro-Asiatic, languages is that they have roots based on three consonants which are then modified grammatically by vowels, and sometimes by other consonants. Hence salaam – peace, islam – surrender, muslim – person who has surrendered, for example. The closely related Hebrew language does the same thing. There is an issue with how Arabic script is read, because studies have shown that readers take longer to read each letter than they do with Latin because the shapes are simple and often distinguished using dots above or below them. The official adoption of Arabic script is often a political statement.

In the former Soviet Union, Cyrillic was used in most places, the exceptions being the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Far East of the country and the Baltic and Caucasian states. There seems to have been a deliberate policy to introduce differences in the scripts for neighbouring Turkic-speaking nations in particular in order to prevent communication between them. One which particularly sticks in my mind actually used an ampersand for a particular vowel. Mongolian is also officially written in Cyrillic although it used a number of other scripts including the vertical traditional script and another non-cursive vertical script, and ‘Phags Pa, as is also used to write Tibetan. The fact that Cyrillic is used to write such diverse languages means that in theory it could be used for a huge range of tongues which have never been written in Cyrillic, and this brings me to one particular idée fixée of mine, that the Q-Celtic languages should be written using Cyrillic because like Russian and other Slavic languages they have palatised and non-palatised versions of many of their consonants, and it works better than what is done at the moment for any of them. Unfortunately, if you look at place names in Ireland, for example, written in Cyrillic, they just seem to be transliterations of the English versions of those words.

The Americas have their own systems of writing even though Latin scripts dominate, and they really fall into two categories historically. One is the pre-Columbian writing systems used by the Mayans and Aztecs, with an honourable mention for the quipu system of knotted threads used by the Inca. Runes have also been used by Nordic people in North America in the first Christian millennium. There may be others but I’m not aware of them. These are not used much today, although they are in some very limited situations such as on flags and in commercial logos. For instance, the Mexican flag includes a glyph from the Nahuatl script.

The other category constitutes scripts which were consciously invented to represent languages and include Cree syllabics, used for instance to write Inuktitut, Ojibwe and Cree, and the remarkable Cherokee syllabary invented by Sequoyah, an up until that point illiterate native American, which reminds me of clichéed old Western “WANTED” posters but is a valid script in itself. I assume it looks that way because of the kind of font which was popular at the time.

There appears to be a connection between the Cherokee syllabary and the Vai one, shown above. Vai is spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and these two countries have particular histories which may be relevant. Liberia was set up as the goal of the “Back To Africa” movement, where freed slaves went to Afrika to found a nation. Eleven percent of the population is descended from American slaves and the official language is English. It has an oddly American atmosphere to it, but when the ex-slaves colonised it there were tribes already there and were enslaved by the ex-slaves and not considered citizens of the country. Sierra Leone, next door, was also founded by former slaves, this time loyalists who fought on the British side in the American War of Independence and ended up in Nova Scotia and also some Black Londoners who were resettled. There was also Sengbe Pieh, who was the leader of the only successful slave rebellion on a ship which resulted in a court case in the US and their return to Afrika. Hence both of these countries have a peculiar relationship with the West and the US compared to other Afrikan nations. The Vai syllabary was in use by 1833, and prior to that a number of Cherokee had emigrated to Liberia, one of whom, Austin Curtis, had married into a Vai family and become a chief, so it’s possible that the inspiration is Cherokee. Vai was actually first used by Momolu Duwalu Bukele, but he claimed that he received it in a vision, and this is where things get a bit confusing.

There are many claims that different West Afrikan scripts, of which there are a couple of dozen, were received by divine revelation or a vision, but also there are claims that many of them have been found to have ancient origins long before they were used by their apparent inventors, and it isn’t clear whether the scripts are ancient, invented consciously or received in visions. This makes their origins obscure. It’s also notable that there’s a remarkably large number of them. It’s also probable that there was a strong motivation for indigenous West Afrikan scripts to be promoted in order to refute the idea that Black people were inferior, either by inventing the writing themselves in response to this or as discoveries of ancient scripts to demonstrate that ancient Afrikans south of the Sahara were not illiterate. Having said that, I don’t consider it problematic that a script could appear fully-formed in someone’s mind because the same kind of thing happens to me in other situations, and I don’t think I’m unusual in that respect. Vai script was also alleged to have been secret and Bukele may have invented the dream explanation as a cover story. It was apparently used by Afrikan slaves in Suriname before it was supposèdly invented or revealed to Bukele. Then again, the writing in Suriname is said to be due to spirit possession. The whole thing is very confusing, at least to an outsider. All of this is very interesting, but it means that the scripts need to be considered in their own right rather than in terms of their origin in order not to lead to confusion. That said, there are a number of scripts in England which are said to have resulted from the same phenomenon such as Celestial and Enochian.

One of the most striking scripts is illustrated at the top of this post: Benin-Edo. Edo was the main language of the Benin Empire in what is now southern Nigeria, founded in 1180 CE. I haven’t yet been able to find out much about it but it doesn’t appear to be ancient. It existed by 1999 CE though.

An incomplete list of West Afrikan scripts includes: Yorùbá Holy Script, Bassa, N’Ko, Nisbidi, Mende, Bamun, Kukakui and Shumom. One of the issues with writing these languages in the Latin alphabet is that the systems so far invented for them, which I would guess were invented by Christian missionaries, don’t do justice to their phonology. Although there are several widely-spoken and major exceptions to this tendency, most languages which originated in Afrika south of the Sahara are tonal, and this is often not well-represented in the Latin scripts. Moreover, there are a number of sounds in West Afrikan languages, such as the double-articulated “gb” and “kp” and the prenasalised stops such as “ngk” and “mb” (my representation, not part of the actual spelling) which are contrasted with the actual consonant clusters forming completely different words. That is, there can be an N followed by a D or an “ND” sound, and they’re two different things. Syllables represented by vowels can also be poorly represented. Hence there are a number of factors involved in the use of widely varying scripts in West Afrika. I also wonder whether they constitute an important part of the tribes’ identity, and this brings me to South Asia.

The South Asian scripts are all descended from Brahmi. In Northern India and Nepal, these scripts are often characterised by a horizontal line joining the letters or characters in a word together. This is because they were originally written on palm leaves and the line is a vein in the monocotyledonous leaf with its parallel venation. In South India and elsewhere, and in a few scripts in North India, the characters are discrete, being neither cursive nor joined by the line. South Asian scripts are abugidas. Each consonantal character includes an intrinsic vowel, often schwa but sometimes, as with Bengali, a short O, which has to be specifically shown not to be present with a cancelling sign or a vowel modifying the letter placed to the left, right, above or below the consonant. Some also have conjunct consonants, which mix two or three letters together. Gurumukhi, used to write Punjabi, uses a line but lacks conjunct consonants and is particularly clearly written. Gujurati is one exception to the use of the line in a North Indian language, and uses separate characters without an associated line. In South India the letters are always separated. The scrpts extended well beyond India and were modified. Particularly notable is ‘Phags Pa, used to write Tibetan, which although it’s written left to right horizontally like the others, also tends to pile letters up vertically, and is far from being phonetic. Southeast Asia, with the exception of Vietnam, uses Brahmi-derived scripts as well, including the apparently longest alphabet of all, Khmer, used to write Cambodian with sixty-three letters, although this claim seems to have been rescinded as there are now said to be only thirty-three. Khmer uses a lot of letters with the same sound because they were used in Sanskrit and have fallen together.

The situation in South Asia, particularly India, seems to be that every language deserves its own script, which again I would attribute to some kind of identity politics. Not all South Asian languages have a long literary tradition. For instance, Burushaski, a language isolate spoken in Pakistan, may have had a written form which died out, and is written in both Latin and Arabic. Ol Cemet’ is an alphabet as opposed to an abugida or abjad (Arabic and Hebrew) invented in 1925, and is used to write Santali, a Munda language.

This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive survey of the writing systems of the world so much as a sketch of the situation. It seems to obey some kind of 80:20-like distribution and resembles the distribution of languages, although not in the same areas. Most of the Islamic world uses Arabic, most of the Russian- and Slavic-influenced world Cyrillic, and South Asia has a plethora of scripts of its own. East Asia has a number of Chinese-influenced scripts with the exception of Hangul which is logically organised as opposed to having evolved without conscious influence. West Afrika in particular has a large number of scripts due to a variety of factors. The Americas have had scripts which are now extinct and are now dominated by Latin, but also have some non-Latin scripts which were consciously designed. Finally, most of Europe, Afrika and Oceania use the Latin script, though Arabic and Tifinagh are used in North Afrika and the first was historically used further south. The usual 80:20 type rule can be applied to this, where the majority of languages use a small number of scripts but a fair proportion also have their own, but it’s notable that outside South Asia, which has both a large number of languages and a large number of scripts, often one per language, most scripts are only used by one or two languages, and they do not correspond to areas of great linguistic diversity. It’s also clearly a lot easier for a constructed script to be adopted than a constructed language such as Esperanto.

Mimicry And Fooling

Yesterday I saw one of these and was blown away:

Bee-mimic Hoverfly. Hutton Wandesley, England.
Date
29 May 2011
Source
Own work
Author
Sandy Rae

This is Vollucella bombylans, a quite remarkable species of hoverfly who mimics bumblebees. Note the plural. Different races of this species mimic different species of bumblebee. This one, not the variety I saw yesterday, is plumata, mimicking Bombus terrestris:

 © entomart

This is apparently the more common variety, but not the one I saw yesterday, who was bombylans, resembling Bombus lapidarius:

By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50403575

I actually saw two of these yesterday, or I should probably say I noticed two yesterday because chances are I’ve seen loads but just thought they were bumblebees. One of them was near some allotments and a small watership and the other actual came into the living room through an open window, hovered for a bit, and left again. I thought it was just awesome and I can’t believe I knew nothing about them until yesterday. Well, almost nothing. I was aware that there were shaggy hoverflies but had never focussed on them closely enough to realise that they were actually mimics like the other, better-known kind. It’s also notable that no hoverflies have English names. They’re just generically known as hoverflies regardless of their species.

The term “race” is of course politically charged. Nonetheless it is used in biology to refer to a taxon below the level of species throughout the empire of life. Species are easy to define if an organism is both alive and reproduces sexually, because it constitutes a breeding population. A species cannot usually interbreed with another and produce viable fertile offspring, although it happens occasionally. Every other taxon, as far as I can tell, is poorly defined, and this comes out particularly when one considers the level. There seems to be nothing formal to distinguish between orders, families and genera, although a genus isn’t often going to be taken for a family or vice versa. The same poor definition occurs below the level of species in the form of subspecies and races. Some people treat the two as synonymous while others view races as below the level of species. Races can be completely invisible, an issue which comes up in herbalism where some races of a particular species of herb have very different active compounds than others, making certain races practically useless but also practically indistinguishable without extensive testing. Races can generally interbreed, because they’re below the level of species, but often don’t because of different lifestyles, being geographically separated and so forth.

In the case of plumata and bombylans, interbreeding does take place. They lay their eggs either in the nests of German wasps or the appropriate species of bumblebee. I don’t understand how they survive in wasp nests because they really don’t look like them (incidentally German wasps are not all from Germany, they’re just called that – many live in Britain), but in the case of the bumblebee nests there clearly is an advantage to looking like them, or rather, a link, since they start out as larvæ. This raises the question of whether their larvæ are also similar to those of bumblebees.

There are two broad categories of mimicry: Müllerian and Batesian. Müllerian mimicry is where a number of species who are, for example, noxious-tasting or poisonous, look similar to each other, such as the viceroy and monarch butterflies, both of whom are foul-tasting:

By DRosenbach – Collage of en:File:Viceroy 2.jpg by D. Gordon E. Robertson and en:File:Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus Male 2664px.jpg by Derek Ramsey, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27245820

For a long time this was thought to be Batesian mimicry, the other type, exhibited by hoverflies, where species make themselves like another to put off potential predators. The Syrphus genus of hoverfly is the classic example of this, who look like German wasps in spite of not having stings. I can only assume that bumblebees are more dangerous to some potential predators than to humans, since they’re apparently worth mimicking.

Saul Kripke came up with the idea of “fool’s tigers”. It would seem to make sense, although it has never happened in this particular case, for a harmless herbivorous mammal to evolve to look like a tiger in order that smaller predators would be scared off by their appearance. This isn’t what Kripke had in mind of course. Rather, he imagined there was another species who looked exactly like tigers but were completely unrelated and impossible to distinguish without something like dissection. With this example, Kripke was extending the idea of fool’s gold, or iron pyrites:

By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99444453

To me, iron pyrites, and I used to have large chunks of the stuff, doesn’t look much like gold. It differs from gold in a variety of ways. For instance, its specific gravity is around five compared to gold’s 19.3. Nonetheless it looks like gold to a casual observer. I don’t know much about it: for instance does it conduct electricity? It looks like a metal, but is it? Apparently not: it’s a semiconductor. One thing is clear though: the appearance of fool’s gold as similar to gold is not the result of evolution. Sometimes things just seem superficially similar through pure coincidence. The question arises in my mind as to whether there are organisms who look similar independent of mimicry.

It often seems to me that many labiate plants are Batesian mimics, resembling stinging nettles, for instance dead nettles and mint, although I don’t know that that’s true. The labiates are a family of plants, now renamed the lamiates because of botanical taxonomy (rant pending), which all have square stems in cross-section, lipped flowers in whorls alternating with leaves, and most of which happen to be edible to humans. They include species very similar to nettles in appearance, but also more diverse forms such as lavender (which is fairly toxic), rosemary, and in fact most culinary herbs. It seems hard to believe they aren’t engaging in mimicry, although clearly rosemary and lavender aren’t, but I don’t know that for sure. They give the game away when they flower, since their flowers are colourful but those of stinging nettles, which are unusual for having discrete sexes, are green and hard to see.

Getting back to Kripke, I often think that his views, as expressed in ‘Naming And Necessity’, would be very useful applied to identity politics. However, yet again that’s mainly a topic for another blog. It can, however, be applied usefully to anti-racism. The task he sets himself is to answer the following questions:

  • How do names refer to things?
  • Are all a priori statements necessarily true and all a posteriori statements contingently true?
  • Do objects (including people) have essential properties?
  • What is identity?
  • How do natural kind terms refer and what do they mean?

In English, we just have the word “hoverfly” and it refers to any member of the sylphidæ. There would have been a time in the past when we didn’t distinguish between hoverflies and wasps, so we probably would’ve just called them ƿæpsan (I assume they’re feminine in Old English). Today we have separate words, and we use them to refer to species with different behaviour and origin, but we don’t have a word which means “slender stripy yellow and black flying insect who doesn’t produce honey” any more. Is this because we don’t currently consider that to be a natural kind? They’re not related, but they exist in the perception of various animals, hence the appearance of hoverflies, so is that not also a natural kind?

I’ve already mentioned race once in this post. It comes up again here. White invaders labelled all Black people as the same, so Afrikans, Melanesians and Australian Aborigines, for example, are all Black. However, there is more human genetic diversity within Afrika than there is in most of the rest of the world, and Melanesians in particular have markèdly different DNA, since they have Denisovan genes in their genomes, so there’s a very strong sense in which Black people do not constitute a natural kind. They do, however, unfortunately constitute a kind in the sense that they are subject to a great deal of racism by White people and our system. In this particular case, biology comes to the aid of anti-racism.

Kripke rails against Frege’s and Russell’s descriptivist theory of names, which is the claim that names are identical to the descriptions people ascribe to them. This doesn’t work with, for example, wasps, because at one point the word which has now become “wasp” would probably have meant “slender stripy yellow and black flying insect who doesn’t produce honey” but also included the idea that they could all sting, and it was only later found that hoverflies don’t sting, along with a lot of other things about them which made them very different to wasps, and because of that, the agreed description turned out not to be associated with the word “wasp”. This also probably applies to most English speakers history with that word: as small children they probably would’ve been afraid of the wasp stinging them even though she was a hoverfly, and called her a “wasp”. Kripke was heavily involved in establishing what’s now known as the causal theory of names, which is that a naming act occurs which gives something a name, and after that a chain of cause and effect links other uses of that name to the item. That is, at some point someone notices there’s a group of insects who look like wasps but only have one pair of wings and don’t sting, and calls them “hoverflies” (it probably wasn’t like that), then someone learnt the word from them and so on down to today, so the name for hoverfly is not a replacement for “non-stinging striped flying insect” or whatever, but a word inherited through probably fairly recent history from that original “baptism”.

Much of the time it looks to outsiders that philosophy, particularly in the English-speaking tradition, has become simply an argument about language and definitions. This can’t simply be an argument about wording or definition because it’s about how the connection between the world and language works. Kripke claims also that there are necessary truths about things “out there” in the world, such as the idea that water is necessarily H2O. His specific claim here is that we have discovered that water can always be analysed as consisting of molecules of two hydrogens and one oxygen, and that it can be no other way, the important thing here being that it’s an actual discovery based on observation, not something based on logical analysis, and in fact could not be based on that. I’m not entirely sure about this because water could be at least eighteen different compounds based on whether it contains protium (the common hydrogen), deuterium or tritium and oxygen-18 or oxygen-16, and this seems to be a discovery which has refuted the idea that water just is H2O. The mere fact that oxygen-16 and -18 are called oxygen is contingent, since tritium, deuterium and protium all have different names even though they’re the same element. A clearer example is found in “Hesperus is Phosphorus”. The Greek name for the Evening Star, i.e. Venus, is `Εσπερος and its name for the Morning Star is Φοσφορος, and it’s been discovered that the two are both Venus, so “Hesperus is Phosphorus” is a necessary truth which has been discovered by observation. But has it been discovered that hoverflies and wasps are necessarily in different insect orders? There is a possible world where stingless wasps with a single pair of wings exist and another where wasps are closely related to true flies, so it would at first seem that they are not necessarily as different as they are here, but if we were to travel to such worlds, we would be using the English language as we know it incorrectly if we were to call the stingless wasps over there “hoverflies”. We would ourselves still be trapped in that causal chain and be mistaken, and we could discover we were mistaken by, for example, looking at their DNA. It’s also still not clear what even constitutes an order. Hoverflies and hymenoptera are not closely related, but is there a higher taxon which includes them but not other endopterygota such as butterflies and beetles?

Now I want to apply this to ethnicity. We White people call anyone with a generally dark skin tone “Black”, and institutional, structural and active personal racism ensure that they are at a disadvantage relative to us. We have also discovered that we are all so genetically diverse that skin tone is just one genetic trait among many which are mixed through the whole species, but there is still a relevant difference between White and Black people because of how Whites have historically treated Blacks. I often feel that the way Afrika south of the Sahara defines itself is in danger of becoming negative and primarily in terms of its colonial history, and this history of being oppressed is what holds the identity of Blackness together. However, it would be foolish to deny that this aspect of Black identity is not “real”, and I’m acutely aware that I’m making this comment as a White person. Looking at Kripke’s version of naming, it appears that we have discovered that it’s necessarily true that a Black person and a White person genetically differ only in the genetic traits which confer innate differences in skin tone, but DNA and genes seem to have a kind of kudos lent them by natural science. There’s a whole different history which could lead to the claim that Black people are necessarily adversely affected by racism in a way White people are not. What are we supposed to do with this? Is it fatalistic or does it mean that Whiteness and Blackness would not be significant in a non-racist world, if one can exist? I don’t know. I feel like I’m treading on dangerous ground here, as a White person. A little help would be most welcome.

What If America Were Normal?

Nothing in what I’m about to say should be taken as a personal insult to any American citizen or anyone living in the States. I should also point out that normality is an illusion and not worth considering as a concept. It’s a bit like the idea of something being “natural” or “unnatural”: pretty much meaningless and only superficially significant. If you examine the concept of normality too closely, it tends to fall apart, so it depends on ignorance and unwillingness to enquire more closely. However, that very failure to examine something through lack of knowledge can also be useful in that you don’t get bogged down by facts and you can sketch something which seems realistic on the face of it to other people who don’t know much about the topic either. That’s kind of what I’m aiming at here.

There is of course a concept out there of “American Exceptionalism” and another one called “Manifest Destiny”, both of which are probably significant in forging national identity. And the US is indeed exceptional, being the world’s most powerful and wealthiest nation, and also one of the largest and most heavily populated. That isn’t what American exceptionalism means though. The idea of a normal America is, in a sense, the opposite of American exceptionalism. The question I’m asking here is what the US would be like if it wasn’t exceptional? By that, though, I’m not particularly thinking of wealth, power, population and size, although all of those may be connected to that idea. Therefore I’ll outline those two ideas first.

American exceptionalism is the idea that there is a qualitative difference and uniqueness about the USA which doesn’t apply to other countries, and sets it up as an outlier in some way. I am personally a little dubious about this regardless of whether it’s positive or negative to think this because I think of the country as a “melting pot”, that is, an amalgam of all the ethnicities and national identities making it up, who were either there before Europeans reached it, were brought with willing settlers or came unwillingly as slaves or indentured labour, and of course immigrants in more recent times. This mixture in itself could make the US exceptional because it could become more representative of the human race than other nations, but in fact the dominant image as presented to the world is of course Northwestern European. And I am myself Northwestern European, something I identify with more strongly than any national identity, so I will tend to be oblivious of the implications of that identity more than most other people might. It does seem, though, that the cultural and ethnic mixture is not generally what American exceptionalism is.

Ways in which America might be seen as exceptional have included its Puritan roots, the complete absence of feudalism from its history, freedom of religion and republicanism with a decidedly small R. England, of course, has a state religion, as had many other countries at the time, and there were also religious connectons with many social struggles in Europe centred around the authority and therefore potential sovereignty of the Roman Catholic Church, such that the alternatives seemed to be either to allow an extranational authority to have some control over a government or to have the government or head of state be also the head of the Church. The US has neither of these, and this is a very good thing. Westminster has bishops in the House of Lords and the Queen as head of the Church. The US is also a republic, and I would also say that it’s also somewhat democratic as simply being a republic because you’ve got a dictator in charge is rather pointless, at least in peacetime. Nowadays this is a pretty common situation but this was not so in 1776 and the allegiance with France makes a lot of sense here. As far as I can remember, the only other republic in Europe at the time was the microstate of San Marino, which even now only has a population of around thirty thousand. I would prefer the US to be less exceptional in this regard because I am mildly republican, mainly because I think there are much bigger issues, primarily that the UK is not communist, and I can’t see the point of having an apparently democratic republic which is still rampantly capitalist. I have a hunch that Puritanism ultimately led to the Labour Party in this country, so it’s interesting that it took such a different course in North America. The Puritans were in a sense trying to build Jerusalem in a promised land.

This brings me to the Mormons and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. To a European, or this European, the Church of the Latter Day Saints seems kind of irrelevant in a way. My understanding of Christianity, and as I’ve said before I no longer regard myself as a faithful Christian substantially because of the behaviour of certain churches in the States, is that Christ came once for the whole world, that those who couldn’t’ve heard the Good News would be judged as if they had and that there was no need for a further manifestation. It’s also abundantly clear that Native Americans are most closely genetically aligned with East Asians in the Old World and therefore not descended from the Jews. However, to someone in North America I can understand that the sense of something happening “over there” rather than on their own continent could be very strong, and here in Britain we’ve had the British Israelites, who were Gentiles who believed the English were descended from the Jews and were therefore God’s chosen people, so it even happens here.

“American Progress”, 1872 allegorical painting of expansion of the USA by John Gast

That very White lady is carrying a book. As far as I know, the idea of Manifest Destiny is dead today, but I’m probably wrong. The idea here is that the West of the North American continent was destined to be made in the image of the East and that US institutions and people (presumably meaning Whites of European descent) were especially virtuous. I’ve heard that the Mormons believe the Constitution of the United States is divinely inspired, and this seems very much to go along with this idea. An important part of it is that there seems to be an idea of divine right and God aiding the American settlers in this aim, which is irresistible because God is on their side. I would be interested to know where Black people and Native Americans fit into this idea. I can at best only imagine paternalism. Of course I could spend time looking into this but I’m trying to use broad strokes here and use my ignorance to produce something more assertive than it might otherwise be. This will probably lead to me doing something crass and naïve, but the alternative is obfuscatory waffle and I’m not doing that here. And like American exceptionalism, I don’t feel entirely negative about the idea of Manifest Destiny (aren’t there a lot of capital letters in this post?), because if it means the spread of republican democracy that would seem to be a good thing, provided it was proper democracy as opposed to the likes of the Trail of Tears, nuclear testing on Western Shoshone land, Black slavery and indentured servitude of White people being tolerated and whole swathes of people being conveniently written out of the rights the US government is supposed to have given them.

In a sense, the idea of a “normal” America could still include exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, but in a very different form. The question I’ve set myself works like this: what would the United States be like if their distinctive character were more in line with other countries? Is there a straight line of progress from which the US have deviated and many other countries haven’t?

Canada springs to mind as an example of a nation which has pursued a different historical path but still shares features with the US. However, as a country Canada is itself quite atypical. Most Canadians live within a couple of hundred kilometres of the Forty-Ninth Parallel and Canada is of course a monarchy. It’s also barely cohesive according to some Canadians I know (again I’m being wilfully ignorant here). It’s fairly atypical nowadays for a developed country to be even a constitutional monarchy.

In South America, some countries have a large enough Native American population relative to their Europeans for it to be acknowledged officially as an influence on their culture and national life. I’ve already mentioned Bolivia on here in that respect. By contrast, US culture seems to be much more dominated by Whiteness, and I wonder why this is. I don’t think it’s entirely unfair because I suspect the population of Native Americans, even at the start of European colonisation, was smaller than it was in Central and Southern America. It obviously didn’t help that they were deliberately and accidentally infected with European diseases and massacred by the Europeans, but this wasn’t a uniquely North American thing. The thirteen most common Native American languages are Central or Southern American, or Mexican, and unlike the situation in Bolivia, Perú or Paraguay, the situation for the US as a whole is not of a single or a couple of widely spoken non-Indo-European languages. Nonetheless, the US is a federal state, so it could in theory have official second languages. Navajo is only the thirty-third most spoken language in the country. And it’s at this point that it becomes particularly clear, if it wasn’t before, that one reason the US is not “normal” is its history. Navajo is still spoken by more people than Gàidhlig is in Britain, even proportionately, and yet Gàidhlig is one of our official languages.

The second language over most of the US, perhaps surprisingly even including Alaska, is Spanish. The exceptions to this are the states of Hawaiʻi, where it’s Tagalog, the Dakotas, where it’s German, and Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, where it’s French. The unexpected one there is Tagalog in Hawaiʻi, because why isn’t it Hawaiian? It also surprises me that Tlingit or Inuktitut are not the second language in Alaska. However, in Canada the whole country seems to be officially bilingual, so it might be expected that either the US as a whole has two official languages, English and Spanish, or that each state has an official second language such as German for North and South Dakota, but in fact the US has no official language at all. Maori is an official language in Aotearoa New Zealand, so it does happen that indigenous languages in English-speaking countries can have that status, and therefore it would also make sense for Navajo at least to be an official language in the states where it’s spoken. That, then, is one oddity about the US which could be normalised.

A second peculiarity is the nature of its democracy, more specifically the Electoral College. This exists because of the historically poor communication between Washington DC and the rest of the country, meaning that those present in the city would be better informed and make better decisions than elsewhere. It doesn’t make sense nowadays and many Western democracies have proportional representation. Therefore it could be expected that if the US was “normal”, it would also have proportional representation. There isn’t just one form of proportional representation of course, but it could be expected to have it in some manner. This would then have a knock-on effect on its party system. As it stands, the US has just two significant parties, which have moreover been rather similar to each other over much of their recent history, and this is where it gets complicated, because the right-wing nature of the Democrats has influenced party systems elsewhere in the First World. A four-year term for the Presidency, on the other hand, is pretty normal. But Congress would be expected to have a somewhat wider ranges of parties in it, and the oddity of having a President whose politics are at odds with the rest of the legislature is another anomaly which might be expected not to exist.

Then there are the three “biggies” in American politics which don’t occur much elsewhere in democratic countries: the right to bear arms, the existence of capital punishment and the strong influence of religious fundamentalism on politics. I’m not going to tell anyone else how to run their country, but I know that many Americans agree with my view on the right to bear arms, that it is not the right to bear firearms as they exist today and that they could be expected to exist within the setting of a militia. This is probably somewhat complicated by the popularity of hunting in the US. Practically anyone outside America perceives their gun culture as hazardous and pathological, even in countries which have their own such as Switzerland. I wonder in fact if the Swiss approach to firearms is closer to the intent of the US Constitution. Nonetheless, as far as I know no other Western democracy has the right to bear arms, although the fact that they’re “out there” does present a problem with gun control. There has been a similar problem in these isles with the north of Ireland in that respect. Responses to mass shootings in the rest of the world are usually to tighten gun control. It would certainly be expected that a “normal” US would have the usual prohibition of firearms to civilians.

Capital punishment is currently abolished in Europe except for Belarus and two small unrecognised republics in Eastern Europe. In North America, it exists in several Caribbean nations, including Cuba, and in South America it’s still on the books in Guyana but it’s a long time since it’s been used. On the whole the death penalty exists in countries which are either totalitarian régimes or have significant fundamentalist religious influence on their politics. This is a bit of a generalisation as, for example, it doesn’t seem to apply to India where it still exists. The biggest perpetrator by far is China. Consequently the US is definitely unusual in this respect.

Unlike the “U”K, the US is an officially secular country. For some reason this hasn’t stopped it from being strongly influenced by religion, and for atheism or non-religious sensibilities to be frowned upon in many communities. The oddity here is that the US is not unusual in being officially secular, given its position in terms of freedom and enlightenment, but it is unusual in having a strong religious influence on government policy, which is not the kind of thing you generally expect from a democracy in the developed world. In particular this influences the attitudes taken towards the queer community and abortion, as well as the teaching of evolution in schools. A more normal society would be more secular in its general community. There would be less church attendance, schooling would not be influenced by creationism, homophobia would be less acceptable and abortion rights would be enshrined in statute law rather than depending on case law. There would probably also be less support for Israel and less Islamophobia.

The issue of racism can’t be passed over here without comment. Overt and active racism is clearly endemic globally, and sadly the racism of the US is only remarkable in degree rather than qualitatively, but there would still be some differences. There would not, for example, be any attempts to impose literacy tests on the right to vote. In India, ballot papers have been illustrated for a long time and in this country we have logos representing the parties on our papers too, which I presume is linked to literacy concerns. The enormous Black prison population is also widely seen as a loophole in continuing slavery, so the prison population would be smaller and there would be more non-penal approaches to crime. But there would still be racism, and it would still be institutional and structural.

I therefore present to you the Unexceptional United States of America (UUSA):

The UUSA has a written constitution, four-year presidential terms, is a federal republic and is officially secular. In these respects it’s like the exceptional version. However, it also:

  • Has proportional representation
  • Has a smaller prison population
  • Has the official languages of English, Spanish, French, German and Navajo, depending on the state, and possibly others.
  • Has fairly liberal abortion laws
  • Has several parties substantially represented in government at any one time.
  • Has strong gun control.
  • Is a place where racism and homophobia are considered far less acceptable.
  • Has no death penalty.

I also think it would have some kind of socialised healthcare system and be less “patriotic”, e.g. there would be no Pledge Of Allegiance in schools and Old Glory would be less in evidence. American English is still spoken with its own grammar, vocabulary, accent and spelling, but they use the metric system.

Please note two things about this. Although I believe this would be a better country than the current US, I’m not explicitly advocating for this country. Also, although I’m extremely left wing, this is not a left wing America. It’s still a country where capitalism is relatively unfettered and has unfair advantages, where free enterprise is prized and where there is very little sympathy for communism. This is still a rich country with an aggressive interventionist foreign policy, and still a very unequal country, and in particular it’s still very racist.

The reasons the US is not like this are of course historical. It has a history of slavery, it was colonised by Puritans, practiced genocide on Native Americans and all of these things have left scars on its identity today. This is a fantasy America, and it would be difficult to imagine a series of events which could have led to its reality. But this is America as an unexceptional nation, and I’ve done this to illustrate what’s odd about that country. No intent to insult anyone exists here.

Have a nice day.

Being “Right On”

There is a long chain of terms referring to the concept of “wokeness”, and I’m not sure which came first. I think it was probably “right on”, followed by “ideologically sound”. The phrase “loony left” is also in there somewhere, and later on there’s “politically correct” and finally “woke”. “Politically correct” was used with a somewhat different connotation in ‘I CLAVDIVS’, although it may just have been the 1976 TV series rather than the 1934 novel, which is itself based on the works of Suetonius and Tacitus, who both flourished in the second Christian century. If there really was a Latin version of the phrase “politically correct”, it presumably means that some kind of similar meaning existed almost two thousand years ago.

I find the fact that the phrase was used in ‘I, Claudius’ absolutely fascinating. It occurs in episode XII and emerges from the mouth of Pallas:

Aulus Plautius writes that Augustus means nothing to the Britons, but they’re more than happy to worship you as a god. He regrets having taken the decision without first consulting you, but feels sure that you understand that it was politically correct. The temple is known as the Temple of the God Claudius.

Uxor Claudii interfecta erat. Claudius’s wife had been killed. More specifically, she was executed by order of Claudius, for expedient reasons. Sarada is the expert on the novels and TV series, so I shall bow to her judgement and fervently hope that she chips in after I post this, but my understanding is that politics in the late Republic and early Empire is kind of Machiavellian and pragmatic, and there are “correct” ways of doing things in the sense of it being etiquette writ large, and in this situation “politically correct” merely means expedient – convenient and practical without regard to right or wrong. This brings up the issue generally of how conservative politics “ought” to work generally, and in the context of Roman history it’s the Republic which is in the conservative position in spite of the fact that it’s less authoritarian and more democratic than the Empire, which abandoned democracy as a means of increasing its power, and perhaps providing bread and circuses.

Anyway, it’s notable that the same general idea keeps being renamed and rehashed, and this seems to have been going on for something like five decades now. The phrases “right on” and “ideologically sound” are respectively late ’70s and early ’80s in vintage so far as I can tell. The first of these now has connotations of being “down with the kids” and “cool”, perhaps because the idea of being right on was more mainstream, at least in youth culture, than it is today. “Ideologically sound” has a more judgemental flavour of thought policing about it, but since it has an “-ology” can be considered as portraying the idea as quasi-scientific, and I have a lot of sympathy with that because I feel there can be such a thing as rationally planned and evidence based politics, based on research and theory rather than something like surveys and focus groups about what might be popular or could be spun in a particular way to make it appeal to the electorate. “Loony Left” has the obvious problem of having an ableist slur in it, so for the first time the idea is, well, two things: pejorative and insulting to the people holding to it. However, there’s a caveat there which I’ll come to. At the time, the word “loony” was used freely by both the Left and Right, including the famous poster of Margaret Thatcher with the slogan “There is only one loony left”, as seen above. To today’s “woke” generation, that poster seems anachronistic and insulting to the mentally ill, and it’s notable that it’s a left wing poster as well, which does suggest that there has been some change.

“Politically correct” in its near-contemporary sense is a recycling of the idea of the “loony left” with a connotation more similar to “ideologically sound”. The difference between the two is really that the first implies lack of contact with reality in a pathologised way, whereas the second entails lack of contact with reality due to an overarching belief system into which everything can be fitted regardless of its connection with reality, but based, perhaps, on overthinking and failure to engage with the “man on the Clapham omnibus”, and of course it would be a man in this context rather than someone else. However, it could also be that this older connotation of “politically correct” is still present in the newer usage of the term because the concerns expressed may be tokenistic and superficial. I don’t know if the initialism “BAME” for “Black And Minority Ethnic” is widely accepted by people conforming to that description or not, although I do know that some people in that category don’t welcome it at all. I’m not an insider in that respect, but one thing I am an insider to is “LGBTQ2IA+”, which I think is ridiculous and potentially dangerous. It doesn’t make sense to have a long acronym which invites disrespect when you could replace it with something like “Gender and Sexual Minorities” (GSM), “Queer”, or my idea “L+” – “Lesbians and other groups marginalised or in a minority in connection with sexuality, gender or romantic proclivity”. The problem with them is their inelegance. They don’t feel like they were invented by an arts graduate or someone talented at writing or coinage of new words. They’re also jargon, and jargon is anti-language. It’s about hoarding information, signalling that you are in an in-group, and these are supposed to be about out-groups, and tokenism. You can’t fix society just by inventing new words to describe it and using them to communicate that you’re better than everyone who doesn’t use them. Language is clearly important, but it isn’t everything.

This, I think, is the germ of truth at the hostility of the Right (and I’m going to analyse that soon too) to the use of these phrases and ideas. There’s an element of what the Right calls virtue-signalling in this. You have to be careful what you mean with that phrase. It wasn’t originally politicised and doesn’t represent a new phenomenon, but there could be said to be two different ways in which this kind of language is being used. In one form, the language is used as an organic part of the person’s or group’s value system, and in this respect is less problematic although the clumsiness of the terminology and its opacity to many are still troubling. In another, the language can be used either cynically or unwittingly tokenistically, as a form of slacktivism, like signing online petitions or sharing links about certain topics without bothering to read them on social media. It can even be used as a form of political correctness in the older sense of the term, as a way of making it seem like an organisation cares when in fact it doesn’t and has done nothing to address more systemic or institutional issues. This can be seen, for example, in the use of quotas for employment of minority groups where an employer reaches a certain point where they have the minimum required number of Black or disabled people and proceeds to shut down the possibility of anyone else in those categories working for them.

Hence there really is a problem with wokeness if it’s superficial, and that should be acknowledged rather than digging in harder. That said, that isn’t all there is to wokeness, and there’s a particular danger in obliviousness to privilege and getting groups to oppress themselves.

One of the more insidious aspects of prejudice is that those who don’t bear the brunt of it don’t notice it. This means that if you are, for example, an able-bodied White heterosexual adult man, there are likely to be few to no examples of prejudice against you due to aspects of your identity. I am of course a White middle class able-bodied adult myself, and as such I just will be unaware of many of the benefits I accrue from being in these various privileged groups. If there is an aspect of your identity which is not privileged, you may or may not be aware of it, but if you are, it may then be possible to generalise across the board and put yourself in the position of someone who is in a marginalised group of another kind. This is, for example, why there’s such a thing as Black Womanism as well as feminism: Black men are subject to racism and therefore share some interests with Black women which White men do not share (in an immediate sense) with White feminists, and also White feminists are alleged (since I’m not feminist I can’t comment for certain on this) to tend to focus more on their own position in a White world of better-paid jobs and the like, and this is of course a generalisation which may reflect my own privilege in various ways.

Then there’s the issue of internalised prejudice. A person with one of these characteristics may consider herself to be defective in some way because of them or to blame herself for her situation. This is of course the “Uncle Tom” effect of excessive deference to White people. If someone also subscribes to the idea that they have power to change their circumstances, if those circumstances don’t change and it’s to do with an aspect of their perceived identity this can lead to them blaming themselves for it, and this is learned helplessness, a crucial aspect of the behavioural model of depression. An extra problem can emerge here because it could be that an aspect of someone’s identity might not even be recognised anywhere as a source of prejudice. For instance, this is a trivial example, but because my surname is short I have problems with my bank account due to the assumption that all last names have at least four letters. I’m not going to heap pity on myself for this because it isn’t important and makes hardly any difference to my life, but there are other aspects of who someone is which are both far less trivial and far less recognised. An example of this in my own life is my former button phobia, which was pretty seriously disabling but gave me perspective on other forms of prejudice.

One particularly poorly recognised source of prejudice is against neurodiversity. Neurodiversity could be understood to mean “being on the autistic spectrum”, but the problem with that idea is that those characteristics are not a one-dimensional gradient but more like a landscape. It’s also not just about autism, but many other aspects such as attention deficit and dyslexia, and even left-handedness and cross-dominance. Another trivial example stemming from my cross-dominance is that computer pointing devices are usually on the right hand side of keyboards and their cables may even emerge through a hole on the right side of the desk they’re on, and place settings in restaurants tend put the fork on the left and the knife on the right. In both situations, my own neurodiversity means I always have to swap the cutlery and the pointing device over, and in the latter case that isn’t always possible. It doesn’t make a huge impact on my life but is an example of unanticipated neurodiversity, and this is important.

Words such as “racism”, “sexism” and “homophobia” are often understood to reflect active and conscious prejudice, and of course that does happen and is undesirable. However, it should also be borne in mind that these are not the central problems with these features of society. For instance, because of the disadvantages Black people have had historically in this country, Black children are less likely to see Black people in prestigious positions, and therefore lack rôle models, and since many of them were deemed educationally subnormal due to cultural biasses in intelligence tests they may not be able to perform to their true potential, and so forth. Social connections between White people may go all the way up to the top of society, since our nobility and royalty are very often White, and because White people, whose families may have become rich because of the Atlantic slave trade, already have such connections it’s easier for them to reach these positions. None of this has anything to do with anyone alive today consciously or unconsciously judging someone by their skin colour, and also, even White people suffer from structural racism because we miss out on the talents of that section of society.

Nowadays strong connections tend to be made between what might be called “wokeness” and the Left, which in fact may not make a lot of sense. Historically, trade unions have opposed Black workers and women being employed, and if the forms of government described as “Communist” are examined more closely there is often quite severe homophobia involved. For example, the Sandinistas of Nicaragua are on record for seeing homosexuality as counter-revolutionary and bourgeois, and the Communist Party of Britain historically supported the homophobic régime in the Soviet Union, and still supports the People’s Republic of China where the psychiatric profession still runs the health care system based on the assumption that homosexuality is a mental illness. Meanwhile, the party in Britain with the largest gay membership is actually the Conservative Party. It’s entirely feasible to analyse marginalised groups in terms of class struggle, but this is often subject to problems such as the lack of appeal to those in the working class who are sexist, racist and homophobic. But the message here is that although we are accustomed to thinking of “woke” culture as Left wing, it actually isn’t, which isn’t the same as saying it’s wrong but indicates that the problem of prejudice is more deep-seated.

Semantic drift is probably worth addressing here. It’s a recognised phenomenon in language that words change their meaning over time. Three particularly good, and possibly connected, examples are the words “nice”, “silly” and “gay”. The word “nice” originally meant “ignorant”, “silly” meant “happy” and “gay” seems to have meant “pretty”, although this is controversial. It would be easy to see the disquiet I feel with superficial wokeness as akin to the rather spurious objection some people make to the loss of an older meaning of the word “gay”, when it wasn’t in fact a significant part of their vocabulary and in fact this is tacit homophobia. Against this I would say that the constant attempt to rehash the idea of “right on” is a way to make it look like a new onslaught on the supposèd rights of the privileged fuelled by shadowy agenda. It appeals to people’s aversion to novelty after a certain age or mindset has been adopted, to be ageist for a moment. To restate then, it appeals to aversion to novelty by making it look like a new attack on reason.

Then there’s the question of cultural appropriation. This is complicated by two different processes. On the one hand is the internalisation of oppression. If a person of a particular culture sees a prestige culture adopt one of their practices, they may admire this and see it as a compliment, which is fine, but this could be coming from a position where they judge their own culture as inferior to the other, and they may also adopt a practice which is more negative into their own culture from the other. For instance, the Chinese pronoun 他 used to mean “she/it/he” and lacked a sense of gender. In the twentieth century,  她 was introduced to mean “she”, using 女, the 漢字 (hanzi) meaning “woman”, to emulate Western languages. To twenty-first century eyes this looks like a backwards step, and I would say it’s based on unthinking emulation of Western practices. The other process is inappropriate nationalism. This comes into Yoga and some Indian philosophy. As I’ve mentioned recently, there are attempts to claim Yoga for India and I’ve witnessed this being extended to Carvaka. There’s also a very common idea that one’s own national language is ancestral to all or many others, which happens in India, Hungary, with Hebrew and for some reason with the Antwerp dialect of Dutch. I should just briefly explain that Carvaka is an Indian school of philosophy which is atheistic on the grounds that karma is enough to explain the workings of the Universe. This has a cultural sensibility distinctive of South Asia to some extent, although it reflects the “just world hypothesis” which is widespread in our species. I have personally been accused of cultural appropriation for discussing Carvaka. However, if you believe that Carvaka has historically been used to describe the nature of the Cosmos or believe that it now does, and I think that’s rare but I’m not sure, then it’s on a par with Western physics and metaphysics and not the property of a particular culture. I cannot currently see that as problematic, although I’m open to persuasion.

On the other hand, I do see Judaism as having a point here, and this is where I return to the issue of cultural appropriation as a bad thing. I have a problem because I have faith that God is moving me to study the Talmud even though I’m Gentile and the Orthodox view is that I shouldn’t. Some Orthodox Jews also emphasise the Noachic Covenant with respect to Gentiles. This is the idea that after the Flood (you don’t have to believe in that literally), God imposed a covenant on all human beings to follow, and only later made it more specific to the Jews, that we should follow seven mitzvot. My issue with this is mainly that it seems to be very conservative in nature, but the point is that there is a moral system for the Gentiles to follow. As you may know, I don’t currently count myself as a faithful Christian because I see the behaviour of people whom I accept on faith to be Christian themselves as not showing evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and this is not judgemental so much as concern that they were promised help which is not available to them. There’s also the issue of the Blood Curse in Matthew 24:25 –

 Τὸ αἷμα αὐτοῦ ἐφ’ ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ τέκνα ἡμῶν

  • His blood be on us and on our children.

This is reported to have been said by the Jews in response to Pontius Pilate after Christ’s trial. The situation is then that much of Judaism is adopted wholesale into the early Church, where it becomes used for anti-semitic purposes, ultimately leading to the Holocaust. I can’t be doing with this and I do regard it as cultural appropriation. This leaves me in the awkward position of being a Gentile in the Judæo-Christian tradition who must also reject rabbinical Judaism but remain theistic. The Noachic Covenant, as well as being conservative, simply doesn’t seem sufficient. Why should we be governed by only seven mitzvot? What’s wrong with having 613? But in any case, it really feels like cultural appropriation to me and consequently I feel that although I can remain in the Abrahamic tradition, Christianity as it’s normally understood and practiced is inappropriate.

In conclusion, then, I have probably blundered in here where others would’ve been more cautious and thoughtful, but sometimes it’s better to say something than remain silent on an issue. If I want one thing to be taken away from this, it’s that historical and social processes have led to a society which exhibits racism, sexism, ableism and other “isms” in its very structure, and although we need to take responsibility for this and act against it so as not to be part of the problem, it isn’t about scapegoating White, able-bodied heterosexual men. It’s just that they, and to the extent that I am in those categories, we, do benefit from our privilege and should do something to share our benefits with others. Don’t go away with the idea that I think these are deliberately perpetrated. I don’t think anyone maliciously wore clothes with buttons just to freak out button-phobic people back in the day, and I don’t think there’s some evil conspiracy among office furniture designers to put the mouse cable hole on the right side of their desks, but the fact remains that these features are problematic for some people, and we should do something about them.

Love And Other Gods Part II

This is the second part of my reaction to Michael Nangla’s autobiographical description of his mental health journey, which I started yesterday

Michael Nangla, just to fill you in, is an acquaintance of mine from the Continental Philosophy MA at Warwick, academic year ’89-’90. As I never really integrated myself into Warwick University successfully for reasons I mentioned yesterday, he or any other student there could never be more than an acquaintance, but he interests me because we are the same age and made the same decision to follow this course, and he later got sectioned and diagnosed as bipolar. Michael is a passionate, serious and genuine person whose life, experiences and opinions are very interesting and thoughtful.

The second major psychotic episode was provoked by the second Gulf War. He felt the suffering and death perpetrated substantially by Tony Blair very intensely as a personal loss. By this time, I had already been through a rather numbing personal crisis regarding the first Gulf War, and by the second one I was rather more immured from it than I found desirable. The issue for him was confronting this loss at every turn. This wasn’t helped by his friend David’s death by his own hand. He began to feel that his work at the BBC, which one of his friends had criticised, seemed vapid and dishonest, which exposed the void and emptiness behind everything. An early sign of what an outsider might recognise as a psychotic break occurred when he heard a voice saying “everything is infinitely divisible”. I don’t know if there’s a connection, but this is metaphysically the view that hyle is the ultimate reality of matter rather than atoms. However, there’s also a famous quote by Demokritos:

νόμωι (γάρ φησι) γλυκὺ καὶ νόμωι πικρόν, νόμωι θερμόν, νόμωι ψυχρόν, νόμωι χροιή, ἐτεῆι δὲ ἄτομα καὶ κενόν.

  • By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void. 

I’m not suggesting for a moment that this had any influence on his experience, but it is literally true that what we live in is largely an illusion, although his take on it is social in nature. Then he says something which has direct relevance to a conversation we once had at Warwick. As you probably know, I’m panpsychist and tempted to accept hylozoism. I believe that all matter is conscious. I once gave a work in progress seminar to this effect, to which Michael responded that it seemed like I’d been influenced by too much Cannabis. I’m paraphrasing here. When I expressed this belief, it impressed him as deeply delusional. The response he suggested, and which I took, was to base my ontology on ethics – as Levinas put it, “ethics as first philosophy”. I followed exactly this and found it led me in a circle back round to panpsychism. This is probably the most significant interaction between him and me, because it determined my future views and the foundations of my later philosophy of life. On the occasion Michael recounts here, he says that “everything outside and inside me was abundantly sentient”. This is notably close to panpsychism, except that the claim there is universal consciousness rather than sentience. For me, panpsychism is an almost prosaic fact of life, though one which means I have obligations to everything, even inanimate objects. For Michael, his similar belief was apparently a sign of madness, but the difference, apart from the fact that sentience and consciousness are not the same, is that it was a much more vivid reality to him than it usually is for me, although I have my moments. I actually feel that it would be better if I felt this as strongly as he.

I’ve previously mentioned (not sure that’s the right link) that I feel disquiet at what I perceive to be an Ayurvedic negativity about birth because it means one is still trapped in the round of reincarnation. Remarkably, Michael makes a very different claim about Indian and British attitudes towards birth. In his view, and this is from the horse’s mouth so I can’t really dispute it, that “in India birth betokened a gift from God. In Britain one sensed a feeling of it being sinful.” I can’t account for this discrepancy. To me it seems that in the Abrahamic tradition, as we at least would be expected to be here, birth is an unequivocally positive event. In our tradition, a baby is an entirely new creation rather than someone who has become trapped in another life, and therefore is a blessing. I can’t account for this discrepancy. I also don’t know how it would be for a Sikh, apart from this particular Sikh, because their tradition combines these two strands of faith. I just don’t know what to make of it except maybe to say that the grass is greener on the other side.

It’s often quite hard to distinguish which events are taking place in Michael’s head and which are “real”, but I’m immediately going to restate that. Michael’s reality and account appear to include elements which would not be widely observed. This is actually very effective. It reminded me a little of the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’, where it took me a while to register that Nash had become psychotic, because of course this is what psychosis is like. There’s a lack of what a psychiatrist might call insight into the condition. But it isn’t only Michael who experiences the world in this way. None of us know what it’s like to be anyone else or if that even makes sense. As Sartre might put it, there’s the world, which is our phenomenology, and then there are holes in that world which are other people. Hence Michael has a conversation with his counsellor and Tony Blair about the morality of the war, and whether this is a literary creation or a memory of how he experienced the situation at the time doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Blair was not held to account for his actions by the British public, and has still got away with it. His therapist, Peter, is, interestingly, also part of Michael’s account even when he would not be agreed to be present by others, and this is a dream-like situation, as is unsurprising because of the nature of many states others might classify as psychotic. Peter becomes a positive influence in Michael’s life by being able to be internalised in this manner. It’s like he’s his guardian angel. He is however decidedly not Michael. For instance, he appears to contradict Michael’s view of samsara.

Peter’s fees were very high, and this raised the feeling in me that help should not be so expensive, including my help. As a healthcare professional myself, I often feel guilty (not ashamed) at asking clients for money. It isn’t that I don’t feel I deserve it although that can be there too, but more that we shouldn’t be living under an economic system where people’s suffering becomes profitable.

One thing that surprised me about this account is how left wing Michael seems to be. This leads me to think even more that we were presenting masks at Warwick to an extent which went well beyond how Kierkegaard meant it. I was much more myself at the philosophy department at Leicester Uni than I was there. It seems there was a kind of emergent consensus beyond anyone’s individual control, but I would raise a caveat there. Whereas this may have been true, it was also the case that I was constantly removing myself physically from the site. It should probably also be said that Warwick is a campus university separated physically from Coventry and that many students, Michael included, actually live in Leamington Spa. Also while we were there, there was a peculiar and I think irresponsible art project to make the site unfriendly with the use of searchlights and other things, which was supposed to be replaced later by a contrastingly friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Bearing in mind the mental health issues rife among students even then, this feels like they were playing with people’s lives. I suppose the people we think we know are merely projections of our own minds a lot of the time, and the atmosphere of the campus and my attitude towards it contributed to that.

It got to the point in reading ‘Love And Other Gods’ that I couldn’t even tell if his daughter existed for a while. People who know me will be aware of our “phantom baby” situation, a kind of game we played as a family to account for a child I felt we were missing a couple of years after our son was born. I won’t go into it here, but given my uncertainty regarding the connections between Michael’s reality and mine, and the apparent non-existence of several of his protagonists, it took me a while to register that Hayal is real. This reflects his own difficulty in adjusting to her birth. He wanted to be there for his child, but catastrophically the passion of his love for her once again tipped him over the edge. This reminded me of post-puerperal psychosis, the situation many mothers find themselves in after they have given birth, and in a way it’s a tribute to his empathy and involvement with his wife’s pregnancy and birthgiving that this happened. Practically, however, it was a disaster, as it meant that he got sectioned mere hours after becoming a father, missed those crucial early days with his daughter and was unable to support the two of them as they settled in at home. It also reminded me once again of Warwick, because one of the MA students took a year out when he became a father. He describes himself as “ashamed to call myself her father”, which I’m going to have to say is misplaced, but it is also interesting that he chose the word “ashamed” rather than “guilty”.

I love how Michael is so openly emotive and feel also that this is part of his diagnosability, by which I mean that the psychiatric profession as it is can technically fit him into ICD-10 F30-31 somewhere quite easily, but this should only be taken as a guide to how he might be approached and doesn’t reflect the florid reality that this is a whole person with entirely valid experiences in front of us, whose experiences moreover arise as a substantially valid response to circumstances such as parenthood, romantic love and grief at the loss of life from an illegal war. It felt like the people he encountered in his episodes were aspects of himself or a dramatisation of his internal conflicts, perhaps along the lines of dissociation, where action and conversation can take place projected out into his sensory perception which do appear to reflect what’s going on for him. It’s as if his inner critic is a literal figure standing there in the room with him, along with others who are also participating in his drama. I imagine this would be useful for a playwright.

I’ll finish by quoting Peter, Michael’s therapist: “I don’t believe existential problems can be medicated away indefinitely”. Now I don’t want anyone to go away from this thinking I’m down on anti-psychotic medication. I have known too many people whose lives and and the lives of those around them have taken a nosedive after discontinuing the likes of haloperidol or chlorpromazine, and I do recognise their value. I also think it’s potentially an insoluble problem for some people when they become psychotic, but there is also art and meaning in Michael’s life which he successfully emphasises in his writing.

So, I haven’t done this book justice at all in these two posts and I strongly recommend that you read it. You can get it here and it’s quite an experience to read. It was published as part of a larger project which aims to open conversations about mental health, and is hugely worthwhile. Please do the man some good and get it if you can.

“Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been. . .?”

I have literally visited the States very often in my dreams. It usually turns out to be New York City because I have friends there, but is occasionally somewhere else, notably Roanoke, Virginia. However, the chances of me actually going over there in reality are pretty small. I have never been outside Western Europe. I think of my area of the world as what would look like a rectangle on a cylindrical projection map. The extreme points of my range are: Inverness, Inishmore, Madrid and Rome. Hence the closest I’ve ever been the the US is Inishmore, which is around 4200 km from Lubec, Maine, which is the easternmost point in the US and is apparently also near to the Bay of Fundy. I have in common with many US citizens, then, the fact that I have never left my erstwhile political unit, the European Union, although after Brexit I’m no longer in the EU itself. I often wonder how similar my dreams in the US are to the actual locations, but the chances are I’ll never know.

If it’s the right word, I hope that I’m not racist against Americans. In other countries, like many other Brits, I’ve occasionally been mistaken for an American, but then I’ve also been thought of as German, which apparently I used to speak with a French accent. It’s probably worth bearing in mind that if your first language is English and you’re in a language where few people speak it, the chances are you will be thought of as American, and therefore that there’s value in the idea of solidarity with them. Although I’m far from happy with the political situation in the States, that has nothing to do with how I feel about the people who live there. I don’t consider, for example, Donald Trump to be their fault or to be representative of most of the people I know. I actually think the US is something of a melting pot in the sense that in its behaviour, and Britain too has been “Top Nation” in its time, it’s kind of an average of how human beings behave when they’re in a geopolitically successful and powerful nation, and they are where we would be if we were a similarly powerful country on the world stage. And in any case, people are people.

There are even ways in which I admire the US. I admire the fact that it is to some extent a liberal democracy and a republic, and that it’s an officially secular state. I also think there’s an element of being representative of the human race. This doesn’t mean I’m going to gloss over White supremacy, the history of slavery, the Trail of Tears or anything else, but the British Empire has been at least as bad in exactly those areas. I don’t want to be critical here. That’s not my aim. And I think their spelling is better than ours and I even prefer some of the pronunciation and grammar to that of Southern English English in particular. I do wish they used the metric system, but contrary to some people’s belief, the UK is in no wise metric. I wish we used the metric system too, or at least that we didn’t use the Imperial system.

I once came unstuck at a party when discussing the US due to wording something poorly. I said that I wanted to see America, and one of the best things about it was that it had large areas of wilderness which were largely devoid of Americans. The reason I said this was that I saw Americans as representative of humans in general, and I meant that much of America was wilderness and empty of humans, but I can understand why it’s misunderstood. But it remains the case that the idea of the American wilderness excites me because it’s so much closer to its unpopulated condition than most of Western Europe, at least in my imagination. I honestly didn’t mean any offence against American citizens.

But the chances are that I will never visit the United States, because I may well not be able to obtain a visa, I have very little money and don’t really agree with air travel because of its environmental impact. When I think of means of getting to the place, I can only imagine island-hopping via Iceland, Greenland and Baffin Island into mainland Canada and then heading south, or somehow making my way all across Siberia to Alaska. Neither of those is remotely probable. The other option would presumably be by ship, which would be very difficult and arduous. In any case, there’s the visa problem.

I’ve tended to relegate the concept of visiting the USA to the “never gonna happen” shoebox under my mental bed mainly because of the idea that I might at some point be asked the question, “are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”. The answer is that I haven’t, but I have donated quite a lot of money to it in my time, amounting to something like $2000. I should clarify that there is of course more than one Communist Party, so to be more specific I have supported the Communist Party of Britain. I have many disagreements with them, and think in particular that they’ve tended to be too trusting of governments claiming incorrectly to be Communist such as China and the Soviet Union, but even so, they’re much closer to my politics than most other parties.

In detail, the main way I’ve supported the Communist Party of Britain is by buying the ‘Morning Star’ newspaper and occasionally making donations. I am not, however, a Communist. I’ve never been a member of any Communist Party although I consider the Labour Party, of which I have been a member, to have been way too right wing to be worth supporting for most of my adult life. However, I’ve more often been in the Green Party, which is even closer to my politics than the Communist Party, the problem with it being that it expects to be able to achieve its aims through the ballot box. It would be nice if it could of course, and in fact I hope it can. I would describe my own perspective as libertarian socialist or green anarchist, although I also have sympathy for the catholic economy to some extent. I also think these views are, well, one way of putting it is this. There was the British Empire, which attempted to tax the colonies without representing them, and was a monarchy. Then there was some degree of progress when some of the North American colonies broke away from the Empire and established a classical liberal republic with a written constitution and a representative democracy whose franchise gradually increased (as it did here). Extend that further and you have a communist society, with direct democracy and a greater extension of rights. Communism is the third dot in the line which progresses from imperialism through the US Constitution. It is not a contradiction of the US system of government but an extension of it.

Extensive financial support of a Communist Party has generally been considered equivalent to membership by the United States government. However, there have also been exemptions. In many countries it’s practically impossible to function without being a Party member. It can bar you from jobs, higher education and progress in your career. The US government takes this into account and recognises that many people have only joined the Party under duress. The specific wording is:

“any immigrant who is or has been a member of or affiliated with the Communist or any other totalitarian party (or subdivision or affiliate thereof), domestic or foreign, is inadmissible.” INA § 212(a)(3)(D)(i). An affiliation is presumed to exist where there is a “giving, loaning, or promising of support or of money or any other thing of value for any purpose to any organization.” INA § 101(e)(2). Thus, even a small monetary donation to a Communist party would constitute an affiliation.

I have undoubtedly done this, and have been a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and in fact on the regional committee, and have worked extensively within local CND, which many people would associate with the Communist Party, as well as other movements such as various peace and anti-war campaigns. However, I also know CND members who have managed to get US visas, so this may not be an issue. Also, the Immigration and Nationality Act makes a bizarre equation between the aim to establish the economic, international, and governmental doctrines of world communism and the advocacy of establishing a totalitarian Communist dictatorship, when it’s impossible for a Communist society to be totalitarian. I presume this is based on a belief that ostensibly Communist societies will inevitably turn into totalitarian states, or that their profession of Communism is mere rhetoric from the start. When I was a teenager, until I was sixteen or so, I actually did believe in Stalinism. I believed that what we in the West heard about the Soviet Union was propaganda with no basis in fact and that it was necessary to sacrifice a generation in order to achieve a truly communist society. I’m not proud of these beliefs, but it’s common for teenagers to adopt extremist and naïve positions they later grow out of. In fact I wouldn’t be able to function in such a society, but it shouldn’t be about me but the common good, so I would consider myself to be a similarly acceptable sacrifice. In any case, what that wording means is that any party with the name Communist in the title can be presumed to be advocating a totalitarian system, and that any member would do so as well. It is true that many Communist Parties don’t tolerate any kind of dissent.

The exceptions are: involuntary membership, which I’ve already covered; being under the age of sixteen; by operation of law; for obtaining employment, food or other essentials of living. There’s also a waiver, which I’ll come to later. Now the thing about the last one is that you might, in a liberal democracy, have to join the Communist Party in order to work for them, or to be elected to a position in a trade union because it would make you more appealing to the electorate. This could mean, for example, that George Galloway would be exempt. The conditions of membership expire after two years, or five if you were involved in government. But the problem here is that there’s a “chilling effect”. I have considered actually joining the Communist Party of Britain a few times and I can’t honestly say that the possibility that I would never be able to go to the US hasn’t been a factor in choosing not to do so, and I wonder how many other people, outside the jurisdiction of the United States, have gone through the same process. Is this condition actually a deterrant for people who are not governed by the laws of the USA?

The waiver is for first-degree family relatives. If you have a first-degree relative who is a US citizen, you may be exempt. It occurs to me that this is actually a potential entry into the US for Communists because they could persuade such a relative to become an American citizen. Presumably this would be most relevant for Cubans, although I don’t know the situation within Cuba for Communist Party membership. There is also a non-codified “non-meaningful association”, which has never been used.

A couple of issues with this, using the word “couple” in such a way as to provide the occasional exception to it meaning “two” which has to be done from time to time. Firstly, I’m not aware that this condition applies to extremist fascist parties or even extreme “Islamic” ones, although this may be covered elsewhere in the law. At some point I may read through the whole thing to determine if this is the case. I can’t see that having foreign fascist activists in the US would be a good thing for the country’s maintenance of liberal democracy. Secondly, there is not just one monolithic “Communist Party” in each country, although of course there would be in some, and the belief systems held by them would vary. They’re certainly not all totalitarian unless you posit that Communism inevitably leads to that. One example would be the former Socialist Party in this country. Thirdly, there are other political parties which don’t have the word “Communist” in their name which are nevertheless Communist, and these vary. For instance, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party is a Trotskyist group of which Frances de la Tour and Alasdair MacIntyre have been members. Does this mean that neither of them can set foot on American soil? I haven’t heard that de la Tour isn’t allowed to go to the US, or wasn’t when she was a member.

And fourthly, the belief system of the Green Party is, to my mind, pretty close to that of Communism, although they may not believe in violent revolution to overthrow the status quo. Many Communist Parties, however, also field candidates for election, for instance, the Communist Party of Britain and the Revolutionary Communist Party. They may sometimes believe that elections are useful and that violence is a last resort. Getting back to the Green Party, it seems that if the US wishes to close its borders to Reds, it’s inconsistent for them not to do the same with Greens.

If I were under the delusion that this blog had a significant audience, the contents of this entry may have scuppered my chances of ever entering the US, and it could be seen as imprudent for me to have said this at all. To this rather abstract and theoretical end, I’m going to make the following statement: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any Communist Party. I probably am a “fellow traveler”. Even so, there is a sense in which I may have been on American soil. US Military Bases are, as I understand it, US territory for certain purposes, and I have been on a bus service which drove through an American base as part of its regular route, and if they are indeed American territory, it’s also possible that I’ve been on American soil on other occasions. I couldn’t possibly comment. Maybe a lot of friends and acquaintances have, in fact. Lindis Percy and Pat Arrowsmith come to mind.

To conclude then, I don’t know if I will ever be able to go to “proper America” or if the opportunity will ever arise anyway. Incidentally, I am actually an American taxpayer, but that’s another story.

Living By Numbers

Recently I’ve had enormous trouble trying to book my Covid-19 vaccine appointments. I didn’t get the expected text messages, didn’t get a ‘phone call, had no emails and so forth. At some point the government announced something to the effect that all over-fifties had now been offered the jab, and they moved on to something like over-forties. Well, I hadn’t. I then attempted to book via the NHS website and was given the option of using my NHS number or full name and other details. Not having my number to hand, I used various combinations of my name as I assumed I’d registered with my local health centre, only to find that none of them worked. Since I also have no correspondence from the NHS, on which that number would be printed, I had to find a card with it on it, and that worked.

NHS numbers have ten digits. Some people consider them more useful and reliable than other means of identification in the UK. Here in the UK, probably like most other Western countries, we have various numbers associated with us. We have our National Insurance number, which is to do with NI contributions, a kind of pension tax. These begin with two letters followed by six figures and a number. We have driving licence numbers, which seem to consist of our surnames, possibly abbreviated, followed by six digits, two letters, one digit, two letters and two digits. One of those digits encodes gender but I don’t know about the rest. There are probably many others. For instance, I presume there’s a number of some kind on the voting card and on people’s National Service enrollment papers, which nowadays would only apply to men who’ve completed their three score years and ten. Such is life in a bureaucratic society. One thing we don’t, and shouldn’t, have, is a number which is used to link up all of these databases, because that would be an invasion of privacy.

The synthpop band New Musik, whose name I’m rather surprised to find isn’t spelt with a Z, released a single in 1980 called ‘Living By Numbers’ which got to number thirteen in the UK charts. To a limited extent, it was an iconic track (is that possible?) and is often seen as prophetic, but in fact the idea is much older than that. A little like Janis Joplin’s 1970 song ‘Mercedes Benz’, which was shockingly used eventually to advertise that actual car, and ‘Light My Fire’ by the Doors being scandalously used with the permission of the other band members but not Jim Morrison’s for a TV ad, ‘Living By Numbers’ was fairly soon licenced to advertise Casio calculators, which is rather less shocking but still seems rather inappropriate. The idea behind the song is of course that bureaucracy is not interested in who you are as an individual but just as an impersonal number. It reminds me a little of an incident in the 1980s where a vegetarian had her benefits cut off because she refused a job at McDonald’s, and the response was “it isn’t true that she has no rights because she’s vegetarian. She has no rights because she’s unemployed”.

Going a bit further back, there is the famous opening sequence to the 1967 cult TV series ‘The Prisoner’, where as far as I can remember none of the characters were given names, but numbers:

I am not a number. I am a free man! I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered ! My life is my own.

In the real world, Holocaust victims and survivors spring to mind all too easily, with their tattooed numbers. I’m not sure how far back beyond that this goes but it seems like the kind of thing the Prussians would’ve done in the nineteenth century or maybe a bit earlier, and of course it also brings the British Empire and the first French Republic to mind.

In ‘The Prisoner’, the numbers indicate a hierarchy, and I suppose that in a way everyone who is remotely related to the Queen, which is all of us, already has a number corresponding to our order in the line of succession to the throne, usually running into the millions, but a hierarchical number is not a good thing in this setting. It would also be notable that in such a system, it’s very likely that White people would tend to have lower numbers than Black people, Gorgios lower numbers than Roma and so forth. In fact the chances are there would be a big gap between Whites and others in this situation, which is one reason why we should have a republic: a non-White head of state is very unlikely ever to happen in the British monarchy. Likewise, the driving licence number encodes name and gender, National Insurance the order in which it was issued and so on. It’s all to easy to extract various pieces of data from these numbers which could be abused for prejudicial reasons.

I have an unusually short surname beginning with an unusual letter. I’ve heard that there are four two-letter surnames in Britain: By, On, Oy and Za. This has probably changed recently as I’m aware that Ng is a fairly common surname and I seem to recall that O is the shortest surname of all recorded officially in this country. I’m fairly proud of my surname and identify strongly with it. In fact, for some time I identified more with my surname than my given names. Having a name of this nature is problematic for the systems which have to deal with it. For instance, the field that takes my surname in my bank account expects at least four letters, and when I was at university the pigeonhole used for internal correspondence was used by other students as a repository for items they’d dealt with or discarded, meaning that it filled up with bits of paper and envelopes which I couldn’t throw out because they weren’t mine, but the assumption was that the usually empty compartment could be used as a waste paper bin. When I’ve signed my name on petitions and sign up lists, it’s sometimes been perceived as a joke. Without careful prompting, which is often ignored, my name is usually mispronounced or misspelt. It’s also near the end of the alphabet, meaning that if anything is allocated in alphabetical order it may be skipped over or simply omitted. More importantly, because of its ethnic origins being obscure to many English people, I suspect that it leads to various inaccurate preconceptions. I am aware, for example, that in the past I have practically never been called for a job interview, and sometimes I wonder if this is connected to my name, although it clearly isn’t the only factor. I don’t think my name helps.

However, my situation is mild compared to many others. Other people have short surnames or unusual names in various ways, and other aspects to their names which mark them out as being assumed to be a particular gender, ethnicity or age. When their names appear on job application forms, exam certificates, applications for accommodation, educational or training opportunities, the unconscious bias of the people charged with processing these kicks in before they’ve even met. Sexism, racism and ageism are all easier in these situations. Moreover, something like half the population has traditionally changed its surname at least once in their lives, and people change their official names for various reasons. Hitler, for example, probably became a very unpopular surname from about 1945. In this country the process is quite fiddly because our legal system is common-law based (I may have the details wrong here because I’m not a lawyer). There is no central registry for names which is disseminated to various bodies such as utility companies, Inland Revenue, banks and landlords, and that’s as it should be, but it does mean you have to trundle around with your bit of paper getting everyone to change it. If you wish to remove a name imposed on your family by slave traders, you still can’t do that unless you go through this process. And so on.

There has been a centuries-long trend towards formalisation of identity. Surnames seem to have begun in England in the eleventh century but were not tied officially to families until the end of the Middle Ages. In Scotland, they were first used in the twelfth century but didn’t become universal until the nineteenth. They also used to be patronymic or occasionally matronymic, as in MacDonald and Macintosh, or Mcintosh and McDonald. This is of course still the case in Iceland, and the situation in Ireland is rather similar to Scotland’s. Before that people were mainly known by their so-called Christian names, now their first names. This all results, of course, from the increasing scale and connectivity of society, and the imposition of governmental and other bureaucracies. The existence of numbers to identify people can be seen as an extension of this process. However, they tend to be viewed very negatively.

Denizens of the Halfbakery will know what I’m working up to here because this is an idea I posted on there seven years ago: use numbers instead of names. Currently parents usually name their children, and there are certain restrictions on them, though fewer than in many other countries. For instance, names can’t have digits in them, which is a shame because if they could the problem would be half-solved. Before I go on, I want to emphasise that for everyday purposes, we would continue to use our names as we always have. We don’t go around calling ourselves by our NHS, National Insurance or driving licence designations, and it would be absurd to do so. That just isn’t a common neurotypical way to behave. However, using our names in other, official contexts risks prejudice, unconscious, systemic or conscious. Therefore, at birth people should be allocated an alphanumeric code at random, or as close to random as possible. It needn’t be unique because names are not unique, but a five-character alphanumeric code provides more unique strings than the current population of Britain. Examples are 8WXDY and 5K9BW. Although both of those begin with digits, they were randomly generated. Certain numbers or sequences of letters should be excluded, for instance 666 or personal names, or anything which spells a real word, and to allow a bit of space to do this and anticipate population growth an extra character could be added. These are not particularly memorable of course, but needn’t be remembered particularly because they are used exclusively for official purposes: on birth certificates, bills, ID cards, job applications, contracts, bank accounts and the like. They should also be allocated at random and although they could be changed by deed poll or petitioning the Register Office, this would not often happen, mainly because it wouldn’t be worth the faff. Facilitating the change would lay the system open to abuse, and should therefore be avoided, so making it somewhat more than trivial should allow for that. The situation is that any official document or record on which a name is inscribed should have this code instead. For legal purposes (and as I say, I’m not a lawyer), these are names. For everyday purposes they are not, but actual names are never official although signatures are.

This initially has a dystopian ring to it, but it has major advantages in two different ways. Firstly, it drastically reduces the chances of prejudice at an initial stage of contact with a formal organisation of some kind, although sadly not as much as it might, but I’ll go into that in a minute. Secondly, it makes changing your name much easier. You just call yourself something else and ask others to do the same. Your real name is never used by anyone official anyway.

I want to emphasise that I am serious about this and if possible I would like to campaign on this issue to have it adopted as official government policy.

There are of course still problems with this, mainly because it doesn’t eliminate prejudice. For instance, one’s address or activities recorded on a job application form give some indication regarding your gender and ethnicity and clearly date of birth or dates when certain other events took place gives clues regarding age, so it isn’t watertight, but it would be a stride in the right direction. It has a certain stigma to it of course, and I would expect this to be the main obstacle to having it adopted, but it’s non-party political and this is a major advantage to having it adopted. I wouldn’t want it to become a specific party policy because that would lead to tribalism. I happen to be left wing myself but this really doesn’t seem like a left-wing idea. Identity politics ought not to be a party issue, ideally, with the exception of certain extremes.

So let’s do this. I’m open to criticism, but I currently strongly believe this should be done.