Nerd + Communism etc

Minecraft is a computer game.  This is a post I made on a forum for a particular Minecraft server, which hosts the game in multiplayer.  If you’re unaware of what’s going on in the MC community (or, perhaps, even of its existence), some of this will be very confusing to you, but the major points for lay people are:

1.  Minecraft has been a success because of modding – that is, volunteers reworking or modifying code to create variants on the game.

2.  Minecraft’s (now former) owners, Swedish developer Mojang, have recently begun legal processes to enforce their property rights over a community which has flourished in the grey area between proprietary and open-source software.

3.  Mojang has very recently announced the sale of Minecraft to Microsoft.

Hope you noobs can follow along.

Notch is a billionaire. That blows my mind.

A few things. First, on evil companies. Wauter, I can see some of your points regarding Apple, but as Steve Jobs never sent troops to retain his control of Palo Alto, I wouldn’t quite put him in the same league as Putin. That being said, Apple’s factories in China are pretty horrendous, so I wouldn’t call them a bunch of saints either. As it happens, I think a lot of the accusations of ethical shortcomings against Google also came about because of their business practices in China; specifically, they agreed to the government’s demands to filter out politically unacceptable content, like the Tiananmen square demonstrations and the response. Plus they gather a lot of data on people, which gives them a lot of power, which should be cause for concern if only because no one voted these guys into this powerful position (at least the NSA, as a government agency, is THEORETICALLY accountable to someone… alright, bad example). I would generally agree that microsoft is inherently no more or less evil than any other major capitalist firm. Bill Gates is pretty infamous for unsavoury business practices, but as you point out that’s more a difference of publicity rather than actual actions between Microsoft and Apple.

That being said, the real question here isn’t whether Microsoft is better or worse than Apple or Google, it’s whether it’s better or worse than Mojang. Here, I’m not convinced this buyout is a major game-changer (in the meta sense; sorry to everyone I’m losing with this post). In recent months, Mojang has been operating as you would expect any company which profits from its intellectual property rights to act. In a way, selling out to Microsoft is just confirming the status quo. We’re left with the same set of problems now as we had a week ago.

The fact is communism and capitalism make poor bedfellows (again, see China). Notch, from what I gather, comes from a background in open source. Open source, the cooperative design and sharing of articles of software, is what’s made Minecraft amazing for us all: it’s what’s allowed bukkit and all the neat mods and minigames that make the game about much more than breaking blocks and putting them on top of other blocks. At the moment, the future of the bukkit project (and, by extension, a lot of minecraft modding projects), along with countless Minecraft servers, is in question due to the decision that Mojang, not Microsoft, has recently made to enforce it’s EULA. I can imagine this has caused a lot of anxiety on Notch’s part: these aren’t his ethics. But capital has its own rules, and the bigger a project gets the less optional they become. I don’t remember whether it was Emerson or Fight Club that said that “The things you own end up owning you.”

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will find a way to steer the Minecraft project through this current border dispute with the community. Maybe I’m a little less hopeful than I was when Mojang was in charge, because Microsoft has never attempted to disguise its hostility to open source, and has a track record of being extremely aggressive on issues of copyright, but I reckon that’s where Mojang has been heading anyway. That being said, any owner of Minecraft has a definite commercial interest in working with the community and encouraging modding; that’s what makes the property valuable, because it’s what keeps us all engaged. The question is whether they’re capable of doing so.

It’s dangerous to make predictions (c.f. Karl Marx, 1848), but we can at least evaluate some possible scenarios. Scenario one is that Microsoft figures out some position that satisfies their property rights while allowing the community a big enough slice of the pie to stay engaged. In that case, things will continue more or less as before, though we’ll all probably have to update our servers to whatever mod ends up representing the compromise solution, and certain business models are probably defunct (I think the dreams of servers producing a livelihood for members of the community are going down the drain; I’ve been observing the fate of several major servers which are in crisis at the moment over this EULA business). Again, this scenario relies on Microsoft finding some sort of compromise between its interests and those of independent server operators and programmers. Stranger things have happened.

The second scenario is that Microsoft tries to implement a compromise which is either too one-sided or even too slow (a lot of people are already searching for greener pastures) to keep the community on board. As this thread shows, they’ve got a lot of work to do against their own reputation, and they’re not entering the fray during a stable time. So yeah, we could see the end of Minecraft as the massive social phenomenon it has become in the last decade. A lot of servers would shut down, development of mods and plugins would slow to a trickle. Minecraft would end its days as a decent game on the X-box and not much more. But this would be a process, taking months, not days. You’re not going to wake up one morning and discover all of your favourite hangouts are gone.

I would really like to see scenario one come around, because I’m still having fun with this whole thing, but I feel prepared for scenario two. Again, it’s important to remember what makes Minecraft valuable* is the community, because, let’s be honest, in and of itself it’s a rather limited game with graphics for which “retro” is probably being too kind. Community is a slippery concept to define, so much so that I usually avoid using the term altogether, but in this case I’m talking about a network of relationships and a shared set of cultural concepts, and those aren’t going to go away even if this particular game stops being so fun and interesting. Minecraft was only ever a tool for us to find each other and have conversations and adventures together. There will be other tools and other adventures, no matter what happens. It’s hard to imagine something that could do what Minecraft has done. But then, no one, not even Notch, ever predicted that Minecraft would do what Minecraft has done. Minecraft has developed the concept of virtual social space in amazing ways that we don’t just unlearn when we log out. The most important lessons of Minecraft aren’t confined to its universe of creepers and zombies. No one’s got property rights on your friendships or confidence or creativity, even if you can’t hold on to every material thing you involve in those processes.

* I kind of want to get into the distinction here between a thing’s commercial value, called its exchange value, and its inherent beneficial properties, a.k.a. its use value, but I think I’d feel too silly.  [note: my in-game name is also usevalue]

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Dear Dogfuckers: An Open Letter to the Government of Queensland

Dear Dogfuckers,

Congratulations on creating one of the most insidious marketing campaigns for your proposed budget cuts I could ever have imagined.  You have managed to clothe servility to corporate interests in the language of social democracy.  Obviously, you’re not the first to do this, but I think you’ve set a new standard in your complete lack of moral integrity and disregard for any notions of democracy.  You declare the time has come for Strong Choices, but you actually offer only one choice: service cuts.  You invite us to have our say, but you have prepared the script we are to read.  You ask us to boldly unite in pushing the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society deeper into deprivation.  I used to think I was a writer, but now I see I must renounce that pretension, faced with such an unsurpassable talent to manipulate words into meaning whatever serves your short-sighted policies.

This is from the pamphlet I got in the mail today.  From you.  “To build a vibrant future for Queensland, we urgently need more infrastructure and our modern services expanded.  But we are being held back by long-term debt, accummulated by previous governments, of almost $80 billion.”  That $80 billion sure is an impressive number, and you extract some other impressive numbers, like $450,000 an hour in State debt repayments.  “That interest bill robs the Government, and all Queenslanders, of money we could be spending on the infrastructure and services we need for our growing population.”  That is a fucking master-stroke.  It took me two or three times to wrap my head around it: in order to fund infrastructure and services, we’re going to need to cut infrastructure and services.  Of course your argument isn’t totally circular; we all know how the chips will fall.  Public servants, Indigenous people, the sick and disabled, the very young and the very old, will be asked to tighten their belts in order to build up infrastructure for extractive industries like uranium mining which, thanks to the equally egregious moral bankruptcy of the Federal Labor Party, makes only a token contribution to the public coffers which will be expended to build rail and port facilities to increase the profitability of the business.  You guys are geniuses.  You’re using the language of socialism to justify a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.  You must have degrees even fancier than mine, and mine are pretty fancy.

These are hard times, we need Strong Choices, you say.  Yes.  Now is the time for strong Australian manly types with massive fucking testicles.  Nicely played.  Your definition of a Strong Choice is truly amazing.  First, strength means taking the most popular global solution to a budget deficit currently in public discourse: austerity (even if you aren’t calling it that, c’mon).  Strength is seeing that option as completely necessary and unavoidable.  Strength is the refusal to explore alternative fiscal strategies (renegotiating debt springs to mind; I mean, after all, that’s what the banks offer people for their mortgages one million times a day on t.v.).  And choice is merely an acknowledgement that there are many ways to fleece the public.

And this is where your genius reaches unknown heights.  You’ve set up a web site for people to supposedly have their say.  I went to that web site hoping I’d have the opportunity to write you a long, rambling, and abusive letter.  Instead, there was this bizarre little computer game where I got to make cuts to the budget.  Let me correct that: I was forced to make cuts to the budget.  I actually tried to skip through the game (I have better video games, with more cogent political theories, on my computer already) to get to an anticipated text field to vent my spleen.  Your game designers would literally not let me bypass this game without making “sufficient” cuts (I really don’t know how you came up with your numbers for what is an apparently “necessary” level of spending cuts), so I guess “my” budget with a $20 billion surplus, the product of rapid and frustrated clicking, will be amalgamated into some set of statistics which you’ll later use to justify what you planned to do anyway.  When I finally bypassed this stage, I was offered a chance to sign up to your mailing list.  Well, you’re already posting me this bullshit, and spraying it all over the television screens, so I decided that was unnecessary.  And that was it.  Apparently, I’d had my say.

Let’s go over that again.  Your definition of consultation is to come up with a plan (cut social services to finance industrial infrastructure), ignore the fact that that plan was the product of your deliberately chosen policy objectives and thus present it as unavoidable and necessary, and create a web site where people can give their input in the form of how they would presumably like to implement your policy (a form of choice which you will doubtlessly represent as free, open, and democratic as your attack on reality and the poor continues), and then offer to let them join a mailing list.  Oh, and you put a note that you don’t promise to take any of this account when actually implementing policy.  I’m sorry, let’s go over this again: democracy is everyone being allowed to log onto a web site and describe how they agree with government policy in a way that carries no actual weight in policy-making.  I could do this all day.  It’s so fantastic.

So here’s my proposal:
– If you are a member of the governing party, resign today.

– If you are the premier of Queensland, publicly admit that you tried to pull a fast one, read out a list of names of everyone who helped design the policy and their corporate affiliations and what level of funding your political career has received from these corporate sources, and, finally, on live television, have yourself stabbed to death (you would have no shortage of volunteers, I assure you).
– If you work for the marketing company which is spearheading this campaign on behalf of the government, quit.
– If you work in public service and are tasked with carrying out these plans, chuck it in the bin.  Tell your boss whatever you like: it’s taking longer than expected, you’re on strike, you threw it in the bin.  I don’t care.  Don’t be a part of this.

– If you are a resident of Queensland, write an abusive letter to the government.  You can play the web game if you like, but if at the end you feel empowered as a citizen you should lay off the booze.

The one thing I truly appreciate about your implementation is that your absolute lack of interest in public voices has forced me to write this letter in a public place, rather than expending my rage into some government hard drive which will be erased in a few months.  That is the best outcome of your policy: you’ve forced people to call you dogfuckers in public.

Because you are.  You are dogfuckers.  You fuck dogs.  All of you.  And that’s why you’re smiling right now, because you won’t read this letter; maybe a dozen people will.  The majority of citizens have suffered through the education system you’ve designed to produce compliance and, beyond the intuition of being cheated, will not be able to formulate any strong opposition to your total abuse of the English language, and you’ll get to fuck more dogs.  And us.  You dogfuckers.


James Pollard

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Some thoughts to @OccupyOakland regarding the DAC: what is surveillance and how do we fight it?

What is the DAC?

For those who don’t know, the Domain Awareness Center in Oakland is a surveillance processing centre undertaken by the City and the Port of Oakland with funding from the Federal government through some sort of Homeland Security scheme or other.  As the receipts indicate, the DAC was to be an office with some reasonably high-end computers running data analysis on intelligence.  Here, intelligence refers to the actual material product of surveillance; we will shortly have to distinguish between data and meta-data, but for now it’s enough to know that the DAC would not be carrying out acts of surveillance as such to produce new pieces of intelligence, but rather it would be dealing with articles already produced by other surveilling arms (police, port authority, homeland security, etc).

Whose interests does the DAC serve?

The American people, obviously, in that it fights terrorism.  Well, you know.  The funding for DAC comes from the great sea of anti-terrorism funding, made into a fiscal priority by the Bush administration, and persued with renewed zeal under Obama.  A gigantic government bureaucracy devoted to finding and destroying terrorism.  This brainless beast is so driven that, failing to find any terrorists, it will start creating terrorism itself in order to have something to find.  Over a decade after 9/11 we have of course learned that counter-terrorism means an attack on all of us.  In this instance, the main targets of surveillance are obviously minority communities, dockworkers, and various types of political agitator.  Why?  Because the great autistic beast is fixated on finding threats to national security, the nation being understood as a collection of money and infrastructure (Capital, get it?  get it?).  This is the language in which the political class encodes its subserviance to the law of accumulation.

It should be note the distinction between individual capitalist firms and the needs of capital as such.  Naturally, we expect firms like SAIC generously finance hawkish politicians, as their corporate profile indicates a proclivity for military contracts.  But does this indicate that firms like SAIC are the main drivers behind the paranoid practices of the war on terror?  If so, then why not extend this logic to other firms?  Hewlett-Packard is a driver behind a sinister corporate plan to build high-tech surveillance centres and a computer lab in every elementary and high school in the country.  The Marriot hotel wants drinks at the bar convered under expenses for workers on government contracts.  Et cetera.  These firms, as individual capitalist firms, must commit themselves to the goal of making money above any ideological commitments the individuals that compose them might have (which is not to say that these commitments are entirely irrelevant; racial profiling could not function without them, for instance, but they are not the main drivers of billions of dollars from one market to the next).  The state emerges as a distinct actor with claims to represent the general aims of all the stakeholders (stakes in society are publicly traded); it’s precisely through this act of abstraction and generalisation that something distinct emerges, because interests can’t be simply mathematically averaged.

It’s interesting to ponder how this distinct agency, U.S. Homeland security, comes to accord with the local institutional actors: the City of Oakland and the Port of Oakland.  I’m unfamiliar with port governance, so let’s stick with the City.  The mayor has signed off on this multi-million dollar surveillance operation.  How is she relating to the ideal of fighting terrorism?  She could be a believer in it, in which case Oakland is in for some crazy times.  She could be a cynic: big bucks means she can lower crime statistics two percentage points before the next election.  Or she could be a coward: she knows full well that anti-terrorism is a sinister con, doesn’t believe in it, and would like to have done with it and spent the money on women’s shelters instead, but she doesn’t want to go into the next election looking soft on terrorism.  I mean, come on: the federal government sends you a check for a few million dollars to fight terrorism: how would you explain not cashing it?  Here we see how effective interests are defined not by individual inclination, but by structural relationships, and the need to maintain or modify them.

Okay, so what does it actually do?

While I can’t say with definite certainty what Oakland wants with a big computer lab, I would offer what I think to be reasonable hypotheses.  First, this centre is for cataloguing and analysing data.  CIR (op cit) reports it would “link surveillance cameras, license-plate readers, gunshot detectors, Twitter feeds, alarm notifications and other data into a unified ‘situational awareness’ tool.”  The aforementioned (already existing) tools gather huge amounts of information.  None of this data, we know, is ever of much use preventing crime.  Rather, it’s about prosecuting it: you could use gunshot detector data in a murder trial, license-plate readers to issue speeding tickets, etc.  Framing this as a privacy debate misses the point: we have already lost the “battle” to keep the police from legally recording incidence of gunshots, or to patrol public roads.  If someone ran a red light, would the 4th amendment be relevant in their defence?  (n.b. for those like me who had to look it up, the 4th amendment is the one that says the government can’t search you unless they got a damn good reason, or a pretty good reason, or something).

Just in case my point is mistaken or elicits legalistic responses, let’s take an example of surveillance where the law is actually being violated: the recent scandals surrounding the NSA.  People have framed this as a privacy invasion centred on the image of an NSA pervert masturbating to the content of their e-mails, or what have you.  The NSA nerds came forward in defense to say that they weren’t reading people’s e-mails.  I mean, they could if they wanted to, but that wasn’t what they were doing.  Again, though here we might say the 4th amendment is clearly being violated, we lost the battle on the government’s ABILITY to read our correspondence a long time ago.  Calling the 4th amendment is only useful once you’re already on trial to discount evidence; you can’t pre-emptively accuse the government of surveillance when you send a letter through the post, even though you know that they COULD and WOULD read it if they wanted to badly enough.  Listen to the NSA nerds: they’re interested in the metadata, as I would argue DAC is.

So what’s meta-data and how is it used?  Meta-data is literally data about data.  Let’s imagine a case study: a controversial summit to be held in the city of Oakland, blocks away from a poor neighbourhood, well-publicised and demonised in the popular press, etc.  The planners know in advance, obviously, that there will be resistance to the summit.  In the planning phase, meta-data might include number of times prominent activist accounts are retweeted, the circulation of an online petition.  This would help them estimate numbers and identify key organisers.  What is the government then in a position to do?  If they discover the protest will be large enough to cause a threat, banning it could be pointless, even counter-productive.  In order to retain legitimacy, the government cannot seize and permanently detain activists wholesale.  It is safest to illegally arrest people who are some way marginal, and only in circumstances which can be defined as extreme.  So, leading up to a protest, the police could perhaps arrest the 2-3 people who mentioned bringing petrol tanks to the protest in their e-mails (one of whom turns out to be an FBI mole) but they couldn’t simply jail everyone handing out leaflets.

During a protest the analysis of meta-data is mostly about tactical awareness.  Imagine your are the cop in charge of policing a protest: you are standing behind your line at an intersection.  Ahead of you the crowd seems to be thinning.  You hear a loud pop from two streets over.  What do you do?  It’s a fun and absurd hypothetical question.  The point is that using just one’s senses, even discussing things with other cops, leads to brief, impressionistic fragments of information.  A computer could track the movement of crowds and key individiduals throughtout the city, helping the commander make more informed tactical decisions, but we will see in a minute why this asset is limited.

Perhaps the best use of this analysis is after a major confrontation.  While you can rarely round up every activist in the city BEFORE a demonstration, mass arrests AT demonstrations are generally permissable (though you may expect a mild scolding from centre-left newspapers).  Let’s say you have 100 people in your cells on the evening after the protest (which were designed to hold 60).  You barely have the staff to identify them all, let alone file charges.  Regardless of the technology, the job is sorting through everyone you arrested and seeing who you might actually be able to pin something on, and tossing the rest out.  A decent computer running facial recognition software could chug through a few hours of protest footage from twelve different sources, and identify the movement of protestors during the event faster than humans sitting with vcrs, coffee, and donuts.  The transition from mass arrest to “the Oakland [integer… 4, 7, 14, whatever]” would happen faster.  The integer eventually convicted might be slightly larger.

The nature and purpose of surveillance

We can see that at every stage the analysis of metadata WOULD mean a slightly higher rate of cops arresting people and getting convictions out of it, but the gains are measured in a few thousand dollars of prevented property damage, perhaps a few hundred thousand on criminal prosecutions, and a handful of actual convictions.  We can see at every stage surveillance is not watching everyone all the time and thus getting all of them, but about watching a few people every time and making sure they get got.  Foucault teaches us that the most important effect of surveillance is its perceived, not its actual, inevitability.  The most important effect surveillance has is not in the punishments it metes out, but in the changed behaviour in the surveilled.  The privacy argument is unattractive not because I consider its moral objections totally invalid (spending millions of dollars to arrest more marginalised people is pretty repugnant), or its legal arguments completely useless (hey, if some evidence gets thrown out of court, I’m in favour of it).  My problem with it comes from the practice it represents.  Privacy is the mindset of an enclave, and here I would like to provide an argument for what an enclave is and why the state would encourage it.

An enclave is a social group which sets itself aside (and is set aside) from society.  (As in to cleave away?  False etymology prof right here; it’s probably Latin.  Wait, cleave is probably Latin.  Couldn’t be.  Must be Old English.  Surely?  Hmm.)  Muslims in America form an enclave; historically, Jews; the queer scene; the enviro scene; the anarcho-punk scene.  The presence of enclaves in society can be immensely productive; society needs perspectives somehow originating outside itself, and enclaves are the closest thing.  Enclaves can be sources of revolutionary ideas in politics, art, philosophy and science.  But there are two risks to enclaves: assimilation or exile.  If the words of an enclave suddenly become agreeable to many, then slowly the enclave becomes absorbed into that society and indistinguishable from it.  In the end it is just a word; the medieval monks who set themselves apart from humanity to contemplate holiness were lavished with so much wealth and adoration by medieval Europe that their worldliness soon became a mirror of precisely the kind of cynical selfishness they were supposedly purposed to prevent.  Alternatively, an enclave can become so devoted to its purpose that it drifts farther and farther away from the wider shared social reality.  While this state of isolation might produce some dizzying insights and revalations, this disconnection leaves the enclave without any social power.  Prophets that return from 40 days in the desert pledging to bring the Kingdom of God get crucified, you dig?

Privacy is the cry of a resistant enclave under invasion.  Well-known reactionary Randall Munroe* may see it as a deep insight, but it’s fairly commensensical that acts which one takes in the public sphere are public actions, and that the internet was designed precisely as one great public sphere, as is the downtown of any city.  Those who are attempting to assimilate do not need to cry privacy, for they purposefully live their lives in accordance with the law in the public eye.  Here we see the exact opposite approach: a black man beaten in public (i.e. rebuked for trying to peacefully assimilate into public space) will call for transparancy, not pricacy, in the matter.  At that stage, the enclaves of intelligence-gathering and other such skullduggery will cry for privacy in the name national security.

It may sound like I am calling for resignation and assimilation as the only hope for changing the public sphere.  I am not.  But radicals who hope to intervene in society can’t do so by operating in private.  Security culture, the culture of keeping collective decision-making secret, prohibits broader participation in radical practices.  The production of a new language and new social practices (hand signs etc) is to be expected within a movement’s enclaves.  But it’s self-evident here that the most useful practices are those which can be made intelligible.  The most obscure gestures are the most powerless.  And this is the danger of the tendency towards separation.

The resistance to the DAC transpiring right now on Twitter is morally righteous, there is no doubt.  Let me describe what I understand is happening: they have mobbed a public council meeting.  They are demanding that the DAC be discussed.  They are heckling the council members.  There is a symbolic drama here that I am well versed in: the group voice, organised through a mike check, against the voices of seats of power, which drone into microphones in the same annoyed monotone.  The plebian dress of the activists against the suits of the regime.  The chants and songs; the agenda and the minutes.  It’s like a medieval mystery play, and it’s beautiful in many ways.  But you kinda had to be there, you know?

This play of forces, this drama of rebel against tyrant, is too deeply coded in experience to be relevant to those in society who want nothing more than to be fully recognised and incorporated into society, and whose day-to-day struggles are about fighting against those forces which would marginalise them.  So what then?  Should the activist milieu simply do its best to assimilate into marginalised communities?  Given the whiteness of the activist scene, that could be one creepy-looking strain of Maoism.  (Kinda like the Mormon missionaries in Melbourne who only try to convert Vietnamese people, you know?  Those guys weird me out.)  No, I am in favour of some sort of vanguardism here, I suppose, in that I think it is worthwhile to stand apart from society, observe it, and then intervene with the violent gesture which disrupts the normal play of events.  But if that gesture only makes sense to me, it’s pointless, or perhaps an art exhibition.  The problem is that eveyone KNOWS it is just a gesture.  What are the possibilities of this attack on parliamentary procedure transpiring in the Oakland town hall?  Will the mayor and city council be seized and brought before a revolutionary tribunal?  Will someone burn down town hall?  Will the mob storm the arsenal and fling open the doors of the prisons?  Well, someone could get arrested and it might just make the evening news.  The gesture may resound loudly or it may be barely a whisper.  But everyone knows, already, that after it was made that the operations of power will be the same.

I follow Zizek’s suggestion that we need a gesture of tremendous violence, but it needs to be against our link to the system.  Here the activist identity, the supposed act of defiance which will always be contained within statistically predicatble, analysable patterns, is a hindrance.  The need to play out a drama prevents us from actually asking what we’re changing.  Let’s be honest: the person who’s conquered city hall enters it in a suit; that is the uniform in our culture for someone entering the hall in expectation of reaping the fruits of victory.  Someone who’s entering in torn jeans, a sweaty DK t-shirt, and a mohawk is there to enact a ritual gesture of defiance for which they may or may not be punished.  The battle of the activist has a circularity of making a series of obscene gestures simply for the right to make obscene gestures.  How about some real obscenity for a change?

Stop obsessing with the possible nefarious activities of the powerful behind closed doors and look at what they do in broad daylight.  If a police spy surveilling a handful of activists is a threat, then why be silent on the mass surveillance of poor youth through schools and community policing?  If resistance to surveillance is to be an efficacious gesture, and not merely a libidinally satisfactory one, it should target mass surveillance that seeks to identify, segregate, and brutally punish any kind of dissent or resistance.  Who consigns more people to jail, the cop who reads the data printout analysing activist twitter feeds, or the school administrator reviewing testing scores?  Here, the violence we inflict on our oppressors need not be merely symbolic.  Standardised tests can be boycotted.  The legions of white anarchists aching to riot and de-arrest people: where are they when kids are getting patted down and put through metal detectors every day at school?  Cops drive around preventing theft while rents go up and food budgets shrink.  All of this could be resisted in the kinds of direct confrontation activists claim to crave; disrupting these apparatuses of control would have far more effect than disrupting power’s equally ritualistic unveiling of a new computer lab as the latest white elephant in the fight against “terrorism.”  If they can’t build it in Oakland, they’ll outsource it to Palo Alto.

I admit that the structure of this essay is slightly insane.  It’s a standard rebuke from the internet: you’re doing X, you out to be doing Y.  But surely that is what Occupy claims to be doing for American society?  I ask only that the self-proclaimed rebels have the courage to more than enact the spectre of rebellion; and if you didn’t want to get crucified, you shouldn’t have gone out to the desert in the first place.
*Seriously.  Randall Munroe would not know an insight about the human condition if it tied him to a rocket and fired him into space at 0.8 times the speed of light while an observer was passing in the opposite direction at 0.4 times the speed of light.  Mister Munroe, what would it appear like to an observer orbiting Alpha Centauri?

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The Problem with “Privilege”

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via The Problem with “Privilege”.

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Reflections on CBT, and a hello to new people

So I saw I got two new anoymous followers.  Hello Dennis.  Your paintings are lovely, but I’m such philistine that I don’t know how much attention I’ll be giving your work.  (Oh, and poetry is something I know even less about, but I look forward to progress in your writing on homelessness.)  For now, I’d like to intervene in a discussion on Doc Jennings’ blog about the merits and drawbacks of cognitive behavioural therapy.  “Sarah” says,

I must be among the minority, given the popularity of CBT and the apparent impact it has on others, but I find it an incredibly patronising and invalidating form of therapy, the therapeutic equivalent of “pull yourself together”. It is based on the assumption that a depressive or anxious person is inherently irrational, which is not the case. There’s plenty of genuine and rational reasons for depression and anxiety.

A few good points in your response.  1. an absolute rejection of the concept of “pulling yourself together,” 2. CBT as a collaborative process, 3. emphasis on capacity-building for unwell people (I don’t have clients, just friends, so I’ll meet you halfway), 4. the necessity of non-judgemental listening.  That said, I think it’s an oversimplification to suggest as you do that Sarah has merely had a bad experience.  This is something I’ve experienced, and something a lot of people experience.  In this post, I want to draw your attention to some of the structural (i.e. not contingent) factors which inform these kinds of experience, and make some suggestions for professional practitioners such as yourself (you know, until the revolution, when we’ll all have communities of care etc etc happy hippy rainbow funtimes whatever until then some of us need professional help).

Ideally, therapy is a mutal, egalitarian practice.  But in reality, there’s almost always a power relationship in that room.  To borrow the metaphor of the “knapsack” of white privilege, what do the participants enter the room with?  Well, the therapist walks in with a bundle of degrees, years of experience, decades of institutional approval (yeah, I’m not the best historian, but I think Freud was considered radical at the time?  Oh my goodness, what bad writing… moving on…), and whatever privilege got him or her through med school in the first place.  (I can see from your profile picture that you’re also a white man; the Scottish education system is still one of the more accessible ones to poor folks, or at least it was when you got your doctorate, which is not to say it isn’t quality, so I won’t make any guesses about your parents’ income or what college you went to; but you’re older than I am.  Are you straight?  Married?  A homeowner?  Have you ever suffered from a mental illness or disability? Etc.)  I myself have a fair bit of privilege as a straight, white, mostly hetero and gender-conformist man with several university degrees.  I’ve been in therapeutic situations where I could wield that power (a younger, less qualified consellor who presented slightly effeminate) to argue out my version of events and point of view in cases of disagreement, but in others it mattered more that I was young, poor, depressed and autistic.  This draws us to the question of rationality.

Your position, that the patient’s irrationality is merely temporary and an effect of the episode, is compassionate but not, I feel, fully democratic.  Their are many different “rationalities,” there are many different “realities,” not just the one you encounter in your life as a well-to-do professional.  There are experiences you and I will never understand, truths we can only learn by listening to others who have lived different lives.  So I’m politically opposed to this dichotomy.  I think “healthy,” or “pragmatic,” might be better terms.  A friend told me a story from therapy.  She said to the counsellor something like, “The world is a terrible place because of X, Y and Z.”  Her counsellor said, “That’s true.  But do you want to keep having nightmares?”  She responds something like, “Well, no.”  So her counsellor suggested “Well let’s find more enabling approaches to these problems.”  I really like that phrasing, because:
1.  There’s absolutely NO disputing of my friend’s rationality or her ability to interpret reality.

2.  It takes a political stand of saying “Yes, there is a patriarchy.  There is racism.  Feminism is not a neurosis.  Being an anarchist is not a neurosis.  Being an anti-racist is not a neurosis.”

3.  It offers my friend an informed choice: she can come up with new approaches if she wants to, but if she thinks her current approach is still useful there’s explicit respect for her right to maintain it.

Obviously I’m not talking about delusions here (I’ve got delusional friends: their battles with shrinks are usually over trying to get drugs that are strong enough to keep the walls from talking to them) nor do I think an individual’s autonomy is absolutely sacrosanct if their beliefs motivate them to harm others.  I’m restricting this discussion to self-destructive patterns of thought and behaviour, and while I may disagree with self-destruction I don’t believe my right to intervention here overrules anyone’s right to mental and bodily autonomy.  Moreover, based on our already-discussed placement within, and participation in, systems of oppression, I believe that to declare a monopoly on reality or rationality is imperialistic.

Working within institutional settings particularly, but not exclusively, one often has to admit that one can’t always be the good guy, no matter how badly one wants to be.  So what’s my idea of best practice?

1.  Don’t make a secret out of the power imbalance.  You’re not fooling anyone.  Especially if you notice someone seems to mistrust you, it might even be worth explicitly discussing.

2.  Be prepared to admit your ignorance.  Don’t wait to be asked.  Say “You know, that’s not something I knew much about before you told me.  I may have to think about that.”  Then go think about it.

3.  Be explicit in the techniques you’re using.  Tell them what you told Sarah, or what the counsellor told my friend: “These are some strategies that I’ve learned for managing emotions; from what you’ve told me about your situation I reckon you’d find them useful.”  Explain that you’re practicing CBT, explain the rationale behind re-evalutating one’s perceptions of the world.  Use emotionally neutral case studies.

4.  BE PATIENT with your own limitations.  As an autistic person, I express myself in weird ways (I understand this is also true of schizophrenia).  I often want to tell long narratives, or I jump between anecdotes.  Some of this is me trying to explain something complicated; sometime’s it’s just me regulating my anxiety.  The point is, I’ve had experiences of shrinks who wait twenty minutes to decide they understand where I’m coming from and they’re in a position to intervene.  Either it’s a set of instructions, irrelevant kinds of cognitive dissonance, or really annoying and pointless lines of questioning, seeking like a bloodhound for the problem THEY have with my life, rather than the problems I have.  Seriously, fuck those guys.


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Handy-dandy reading list for intersectional social justice buttkickers

I’ll get the jokes out of the way in a single introductory paragraph so you can just ignore the white boy ramblings and skip to the useful shit.  So I says to Lia, I says to her, “So I think I’m still coming to grips with a lot of different kinds of oppression, my participation in them, and strategies to be a good ally.  Keep stepping on my tongue.”  And she’s like “This is not new to me.”  That said, my bet paid off, and Lia disgorged a wonderful list of resources.  Anyway, cheers for this; I’ll try to be a good archivist and get around to prettying up these links at some stage (got a bit of vertigo at the moment).  If anyone thinks something should be added here, feel free to leave it in the comments.  I may eventually put together a seperate article on ableism, because that’s something I’ve been gathering links on for a few weeks.

Lia says (slight edit for clarity, plus I capitalised some shit because I’m like that): This is an old list from a group I used to be in on all kinds of stuff.  Credit goes to “Girl Gangs,” 2010.  I’m not amazingly clued up or insightful, I’m just good at compiling readers.


mostly i need them so much because just being kind and respectful doesn’t come that easily to me


Privilege 101

“Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it

Cultural Appropriation Roundup

On Reverse Cultural Appropriation

Inclusionary Language

Comments and the Myth of Free Speech

How to Suppress Discussions on Racism

How Not to Be Insane When Accused of Racism

Derailing for Dummies


Disability 101

Ableist Language

“But You Don’t Look Sick” Spoon Theory and Invisible Disabilities

silentmiaow, ‘In My Language’ (autism, oppressive norms about thinking/language/being in the world)

Eli Clare, ‘Body Shame, Body Pride: Lessons from the disability rights movement’ (FORGE Forward Keynote Address) (disability/trans intersections, bodies, disclosure, self-determination)

CIS-SEXISM/TRANSPHOBIA [note: several links have been added to the original GG list from Lia’s own work] (Trans 101 on the bottom right of the page has a bunch more links)

Lesbians and Feminists against Transphobia

Beyond Trans 101

Beyond the Binary: How Shall I Describe My Body? [autistic editor’s note: delicious use of “shall,” rock on.]

Beyond the Binary: Where Do I Fit In? [I got nothin.]


Feminism 101 / Read this first


Five things white activists should never say


Nomy Lamm, “It’s a Big Fat Revolution”

Nikki Monster, “Fat Etiquette Tips for the Non-Fat”

sizeoftheocean on fat and embodiment

Fat Dykes Statement: Smith, Heather (1989) ‘Creating a Politics of Appearance’ Trouble + Strife, 16, Summer, 36-41.


Cultural Appropriation Bingo: Common Defensive Responses

Trans Bingo

Asexual Bingo

Disability Bingoes (visible and invisible)


“Can we stop using the term ally?” short post that suggests the term “ally” is problematic for building an identity out of someone else’s oppression

Whose ally? a longer piece critiquing dominant models of anti-oppression organising in western (and probably english-speaking in particular?) radical activist circles

QUEER a great article by queers for liberation, not same sex marriage


Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, “Femme Shark Manifesto”


Class Matters (focused on class cultures — not really economic systems)

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Rationing mental health

Been a few days off the SSRI’s and it’s been my first serious depression.  Fairly minor trigger (I HAD A FEELING OH NO), but it kind of spun out into a feeling of being quite isolated.  I’ve been really working on mindfulness lately, which is how I’m able to phrase it that way: “I’m feeling isolated right now.”  Once you do that, you’re in a position to bring other facts into the equation.  “Well, I have these strong relationships, I have these support figures in my life, I have these people to rely on.”  Or, more generally, “Right now, this isolation feels permanent and absolute, but it is neither of those things, because nothing is either of those things.”  (Except, of course, the eternal gorgeousness of Daryl Hannah; them’s the rules.)  In other words, I’m kinda riding the wave, and there’s reason to believe it’ll pass without too much of a fight.  So we’ll see how I go with this whole withdrawal business.

In any event, this emotional event has brought a few troubling considerations to mind.  Somone I was close to once criticised me for trying to provide support for unwell friends while I myself was unwell.  Looking back, I think the remark was a bit absurd in its ableism.  First of all, it presumes that “getting better” is simply a goal I can set myself as a prerequisite to trying to be a supportive friend to others.  I’m at a place in my life where I’m not even sure what “better” is supposed to be (not trying to be melodramatic; I’m just saying I don’t understand what that would imply as a project).  Second, it seems to assume I have the luxury of watching friends go through emotional, financial, or other crises without intervening.  Like I have friends to spare or something.  Finally, it presumes my own problems render me incapable of extending meaningful support to others.  I dunno.  Maybe that’s how this person saw me.

The apparently reasonably well-known spoon theory is a metaphor which explains the everyday life choices people with chronic and disabling physical or mental illness experience as rudely quantified:

You don’t just get up. You have to crack open your eyes, and then realize you are late. You didn’t sleep well the night before. You have to crawl out of bed, and then you have to make your self something to eat before you can do anything else, because if you don’t, you can’t take your medicine, and if you don’t take your medicine you might as well give up all your spoons for today and tomorrow too.” I quickly took away a spoon and she realized she hasn’t even gotten dressed yet. Showering cost her spoon, just for washing her hair and shaving her legs. Reaching high and low that early in the morning could actually cost more than one spoon, but I figured I would give her a break; I didn’t want to scare her right away.

The author goes into a whole economics of spoons, of borrowing against tomorrow’s spoons, saving spoons for later, et cetera.  But she doesn’t go into interpersonal spoon transactions.  This is turning into an essay.  Let’s say this is an essay about that: interpersonal spoon transactions.

I’ve never written about interpersonal spoon transactions, so let’s analyse the two new terms.  First, what does interpersonal mean for a disabled person?  For me, it means a wide circle of mentally ill friends.  I surround myself with mentally ill people, as we have a lot to talk about.  (And ableism is pretty fucking annoying.)  It means my family.  It means a few quite formalised relationships (an old boss or a teacher or doctor).

Second, we have the transaction.  At any given point, I can take my spoons and loan them or gift them to others (as one does with cash, food, cigarettes, etc), or I may scab a spoon off someone else.  How does that actually work?  Well, first, there’s an opportunity cost.  That varies depending on circumstances.  Let’s say I want to ask a close friend who’s doing reasonably well for advice on rent (and by “advice” I mean) or to at least let me unload about difficulties with a housemate.  That’s a pretty normal request, so we might only be talking about one spoon to overcome the anxiety.  But imagine you need to talk to someone about something really personal and intimate.  Right there, the opportunity cost shoots through the roof.  A mentally well and supportive friend?  Two spoons, sure.  A good friend with a mental illness?  Fuck, this is asking a lot, four spoons.  No one to talk to but your mum and it means, for instance, coming out, or admitting an addiction etc?  That is going to be a hella awkward conversation.  Conservatively, eight spoons.

And how many spoons can you get out of it?  Well, let’s say you pay the opportunity cost to ask a sick friend for help, but find out they’re already overwhelmed.  You’ve actually just lost a spoon.  Some people have more to spare, but again that damn opportunity cost.  It can be prohibitively expensive to even ask for help.  But let’s say you find a good transaction: low opportunity cost, high payoff.  You’re still not out of the woods.

With chronic illness, you have to make investments for the long term.  You have to develop relationships with enough intimacy to sustain meaningful interpersonal care and support.  So even if you know in the short term someone is capable of helping you through an emotional crisis, there is always the fear that if you demand too much, too early, in a relationship you’ll wind up down a friend.  Then there are medium-term considerations.  You might have friends who will support you through thick and thin, but if you overload someone or stress someone out you might go a few days or a week where the two of you have trouble talking.

So one is constantly making calculations about when, and whom, and how to ask for help; equally, when to offer it, or when to refuse a request.  Naturally, all this overhead and administration costs a few spoons in its own right…  So obviously my answer to not supporting others until I “get better” is that the numbers simply don’t add up.  That is a very sub-optimal survival strategy.  But what practices can we take up instead?

1.  Educate ourselves as a community (I find the word community rather icky; it implies too many borders, too much immobility, to resemble any kind of utopia for me, but I’d have to write another essay, and I’m tired).  That means we need to be clear and practical in our understandings of sexual health, addiction, mental illness and disability.  It means we have to have an understanding of structural oppression as a driver of mental illness.  For fucking instance.

(Then the author ran out of spoons, and he never completes old drafts.  Have some bullet points, people.)

-Honesty (causes fewer problems; lowers opportunity costs)

-Openness (YO, WHO’S GOT SOME SPOONS?  I don’t know.  I haven’t thought this through.  Whatever.)

I’m feeling less depressed now, anyway.

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