A study in denial

I could have written a post like this one every other day for the past few weeks. Highlight one of the right-wing blogs I read and talk about their reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. The story would be the same over and over: a mix of genuine confusion, an even more irrational faith in free market economics than usual and the now standard belief that genuine expertise is the hallmark of deception.

But I’ll highlight the inevitable one: Sarah Hoyt https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/04/03/assume-a-spherical-cow-of-uniform-density-in-a-frictionless-vaccum/ The truth of the general statement I made above would also be nearly true of Hoyt’s blog. Not quite every other day but nearly so, there has been a post about the virus offering a close to fact-free dissent about the wider view of the pandemic.

The denial isn’t hard to understand. There really is no doubt that measures to reduce social contact reduces the spread of the disease – indeed, that’s almost axiomatic about communicable diseases. There’s also not much doubt that reducing social contact has a negative impact on the economy. Which takes us straight to the dilemma of every nation on Earth currently: saving lives will hurt your economy. A corollary to that is that there really is no immediate free market solution to the pandemic. Give it time and yes, there are fortunes to be made from vaccines and treatments but this current situation is genuinely a big-government kind of problem and hence even conservative governments are trying to buy time with quite severe laws restricting our movement.

For libertarians and pseudo-libertarians this must be nightmarish. OK the actual situation IS nightmarish but for the pseudo-libertarians like Hoyt the world has turned on its head. The route through the next months has narrowed to variations on the same basic policy: massive government efforts to keep the health system running, laws massively restricting human movement, massive government spending (based on borrowing) to stop the economy from collapsing. This is not a war (the pseudo-libertarians quite like war) but it is not unlike a war-footing but without the militarism that the pseudo-libertarians enjoy.

For the piece linked above the frame is a standard denialist line: models are simplifications of complex things and hence don’t capture the complexities and hence must be false and wrong and bad etc etc. Part of that is true. Models are simplifications of complex things and have aspects that are known to be both false and misleading. The simplest example (and analogy – which is cool that an actual example is also a metaphor for itself) is a map. Maps leave out details. A roadmap exaggerates the width of roads for the purpose of visibility. Any model must contain such simplifications and errors because that is the purpose of models.

The situation is even more dire than that though. Not only is every model ever wrong (to some degree) but we have no choice but to use models. Unless you are omniscient being, you can’t know everything. So you HAVE to use models. Your brain uses models, your basic SENSES use less than perfect models that approximate and fill in missing details. It is not unlike the version of the laws of thermodynamics (attributed to either Allen Ginsberg or C.P.Snow – take your pick)

  • You can’t win
  • You can’t break even
  • You can’t leave the game

People get that the first two must be true about any kind of model (cognitive, mathematical, computer-based) i.e. that the model is a simplification and that there will be aspects of the model that are misleading. People don’t always get the last one: you can’t escape models. Which takes me back to Hoyt:

“This came to mind about a week ago as I was stomping around the house saying that anyone who relied on computer models for anything should be shot.  My husband was duly alarmed, because as he pointed out, he has designed computer models. At which point I told him that’s okay because his models do not involve people.  Which is part of it.  Throw one person into a model, and you’ll wish the person were a spherical cow of uniform density in friction-less vacuum.”

The question Hoyt raises unintentionally is if people are not to rely on computer models then what SHOULD they rely on? What is the alternative? Because not relying on models at all is an impossibility. The virtue of a formal model is that they are examinable. Hoyt uses the old joke about the mathematician given the task of helping a farmer but the joke itself reveals a strength of a mathematical model as the butt of the joke. The simplification and hence the way the model departs from reality is overtly stated. The alternative is situations were we use models without realising we are doing so an without understanding how the cognitive model we are using departs sharply from reality.

Luckily for me (if not for the health and safety of her readers) Hoyt provides a perfect example of exactly that kind of unexamined model:

“It’s hard to deny the disease presents in weird clusters. I have a friend whose Georgia County is about the same level of bad as Italy. Which makes no sense whatsoever, as they have no high Chinese population. And while the cases might be guess work (with tests only accurate AT MOST 70% of the time, it’s guesswork all the way down) the deaths aren’t. The community is small enough they all know each other. And they’re losing relatively young (still working) and relatively healthy (no known big issues) people.”

Hoyt is still stuck with a mental model of Covid-19 as a “Chinese” disease — as if somehow the novel coronavirus has a memory of where it first infected humans. Spread of the disease has long since moved well beyond travellers from China. For example, I believe in Australia more cases originated directly via travellers from the USA than from China. Mind you, remember this a person who puts every effort into refusing to believe that there can be such a thing as unconscious biases (at least among people she approves of).

Having robustly asserted how people aren’t spherical cows, Hoyt then promptly spends multiple paragraphers generalising about New Yorkers and Italians and so on. More flawed models.

That takes us to Colorado. Colorado, Hoyt assures us, is different. Now that is clearly true. Colorado is not Italy and it is not New York and some of those differences do matter for the spread of the disease. It is a less densely populated state without a doubt. Hoyt argues that because Colorado is different then the rules should be different.

“So, why are the same rules being applied to both places? AND why are both places treated exactly alike? And why are both places assumed to be on the same curve as Italy or Spain or Wuhan, places and cultures, and ways of living that have absolutely nothing to do with how we live or who we are? And here’s the kicker: if you allow states like Colorado and others that naturally self-distance to go about their lawful business, not only time but more money will be available to study the problem clusters.”

Here is the real kicker. Models are imperfect (by definition) and those imperfection can be misleading (by their very nature) and you can’t NOT use models of some kind or another BUT we have a way of minimising the mistakes we make. The method is simple but it has taken us millennia to work it out: we check the outcomes of our models against data and observation. Now even with data we still have models (sorry, they are inescapable) but we have ways of checking our conclusions against others.

Colorado isn’t a mysterious far away planet. We can literally go and see how Covid-19 is progressing in the state. I’ll use the John Hopkins University visualisation tool for tracking confirmed Covid-19 cases that is available here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6 The tool allows you to drill down to state (and within state) data in the USA.

Colorado (pop. 5.696 million) currently (April 4 6:50 Sydney time) has 3,742 confirmed cases of Covid-19. For comparison, New South Wales (pop. 7.544 million) has 2,389 confirmed cases and that’s with long established Chinese communities (that Hoyt seems to regard as the only risk factor) as well as Sydney being a major cruise ship destination (an actually pertinent risk factor). Colorado does have major ski resorts* and I suspect we’ll get a better sense of the role they played in the pandemic in the future.

Yes but…as I said, even data relies on models of one kind or another and maybe Australia and Colorado are using vastly different diagnostic criteria or maybe it is due to vastly different testing regimes. I might genuinely be comparing apples and oranges. Sadly, we can reduce (but not remove) disparities in reporting by looking at a more sobering statistic: deaths.

According to the John Hopkins University dashboard New South Wales has 12 confirmed deaths. That’s a tragic and worrying amount. Yes, many more people die from all sorts of other causes but these deaths add to that total or mortality and the progress of this pandemic is far from over. That’s just the beginning of the numbers.

Let’s compare with Colorado (there is also state specific data here also https://covid19.colorado.gov/case-data). From the same data source Colorado has had 97 deaths so far. It’s when I saw that number that I shuddered and decided that I’d write this post rather than just shake my head at Hoyt’s nonsense. I knew things were bad in some parts of the US but I’d assumed that some of the denial I was reading was because the writers of this toxic nonsense were in states were the wave of the pandemic was still to hit. Ninety-seven deaths, shit. I keep looking at that number and knowing that there other places in the US where the numbers of deaths are being under reported particularly for vulnerable communities and shuddering at what might be the true scale of thins.

Now sure, maybe the differences in testing and diagnostic criteria and data collection are so different between NSW and Colorado that the number of cases is incomparable BUT they would have to be significantly different in two different directions simultaneously. That is, if NSW are under-reporting the number of cases compared to Colorado then the case-fatality rate in Colorado is even worse when compared with NSW. I’m not making the comparison to say which state is somehow doing ‘better’ (it’s not a race or a competition) but simply trying to get a sense of what I can see HERE and compare it with where Sarah Hoyt is. It is undoubtedly a crisis here and we’ve got a conservative government in power at the state level and the national level and heck, both of them if they had an excuse to cut spending and pull back on entitlements and let business run wild they would and you know what, they aren’t and in fact they are doing the opposite. That’s not because they have had a sudden ideological conversion to policies they have derided for years but because massive government spending is the ONLY way to keep the economy going. When conservative ideologues rush to implement free government funded childcare it is safe to assume that they felt they had no other choice.

The morbid irony here is that Hoyt is ignoring her own advice. Rather than just look at Colorado and consider whether that state, regardless of what is going on anywhere else, is in the midst of viral outbreak and in grave danger and what action in such a circumstance the state government should take (hint: major restriction on movement and social contact to keep hospitals going and to give time for treatments and vaccines to be developed) she is insisting that because Colorado is not New York it can’t need the same measures as New York. It’s a compounded level of illogic.

Strip everything away from that piece by Sarah Hoyt and what you are left with is the common theme that captures so much of the train of political thought that joins Ayn Rand to Trump to Jordan Peterson: the desire to dress up wishful thinking as something other than a demand that reality should accord with their personal desires.

There’s no conclusion. Stay safe. Wash your hands. Think of others. Be kind. Don’t spread nonsense.

*[To be fair New South Wales does have ski resorts as well but during the start of the pandemic it was 1. summer here and 2. they were on fire.]

Timothy Presents: The Real Shape of the Earth

From the desk of famed director, author, bon vivant, registered realtor and cult leader, Timothy the Astronomical Cat.

Only a fool thinks the Earth is flat but only BINARY thinkers, their heads full of ones and evil zeroes think the only other option is some sort of ball, like the Earth is just some stupid plaything, a child’s toy if you will. No, no, the Earth is wonderful and delicious and ours for consuming like a tasty treat that we must gobble up until there is nothing but crumbs, indigestion and a lingering disappointment in ourselves.

NO! WAKE UP! Forget the lies you were taught by people who are slaves to BIG TEXTBOOK. Don’t listen to the naysayers and nincompoops, the scoffers and scrofulators. The truth as revealed by these images I made Camembert Felonious make, SHOW THE TRUTH that the CEOs of the multimilion dollar scam that is BIG TELESCOPE don’t want you to see.

The Earth is a donut people or, if you are British, a doughnut, or if you are Cam, a duohgnut. Perfectly round and yet differently round. Alt-round, if you will.

“Boo hoo, waah wahh” that’s what my critics sound like. No, you people wouldn’t be able to tell when they were on the inner bit of the donut. That’s nonsense because the inner bit has the north pole and the south pole and NOBODY is allowed to go there except the military and penguins. Why do you think the north pole and south pole look EXACTLY the same people? Why does RUSSIA have BASES in the south pole? Because they are north pole bases! How do penguins get to Canada, people? Seriously, just google for pictures of penguins in Canada. Oh, sure, they’ll say “that’s a zoo” or “that’s just a logo on a paperback book” or some other slim excuse to hide the truth.

*[Note from Camestros: The wonderful Earth texture was from here http://www.shadedrelief.com/natural3/pages/use.html ]

Cat psychology

A reader asks me:

“Hi Cam,
You are lucky that your cat can talk and is so ready to share his views. I never know what my cat is thinking. Can you share some of your experience with Timothy and give us all some insights into the inner lives of our cats?”

I’m always happy to help and I’ve compiled this chart to help you match your cat’s facial expression to their thought process. Obviously this is based on Timothy and your own cat maybe different.

Springtime for Bialystock and other stories

More than one person has asked me about Vox Day’s move into the movie business. I considered writing about it the other day but it’s always a fine line between keeping an eye on the alt-right and inadvertently helping whatever con game is going on. Specifically, crowd funding a film that never gets made is a simple way for an unscrupulous person to make money out of gullible people and if you can blame the film not being made on evil SJWs then a cynical person can even avoid getting blamed for not delivering. Is Vox Day such a person? I don’t know but I believe his ethics are dubious in other ways.

In the end curiosity got the better of me and so I went to see who and what is going on just in case other things happen.

So a short summary. Vox Day released a ‘trailer’ for a film version of one of his publishing house’s comics: “Alt-Hero: Rebel’s Run”. The trailer is in two parts. The first part is a mix of some footage of a woman in sunglasses in a car (presumably the Rebel character from the comic). This is edited together with bits of stock footage to give an impression of an action movie. After that is a pitch about a possible movie based on the property with interviews with the comics writer Chuck Dixon, Vox Day and the proposed producer and director of the film.

The film hasn’t been made yet so the actor and the footage is neither here nor there currently. It’s the start of a crowd-funding campaign to get investors to fund the production of the film.

looking for investors

The production company Galatia Films appears to be a real company that is involved in real films. The man named as producer, Daniel McNicoll, main claim to fame is a documentary about swords in films which mainly features lots of clips from other films as well as interviews with Viggo Mortensen and Karl Urban. The film was promoted by Alex Jones of Infowars [https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Alex_Jones] who had McNicoll on his show. The proposed director, Scooter Downey, is also a real person whose main credit is producing a propaganda documentary for the dodgy right wing ‘journalist’ Mike Cernovich.

In the middle of the scheme is a company set up specifically to make the film called “Viral Film Media“. Regular readers will note that the initials are “VFM” i.e. ‘vile faceless minions’ Day’s nickname for his followers. Having said that Day himself is not part of the company as such.

Details about the company are available from the crowd-funding platform that is being used. This is a somewhat obscure platform called “Silicon Prairie” based in Minnesota, which was Day’s home state until he fled abroad. The specific VFM page is here https://vfm.sppx.io/ [archive link]

VFM has been set up as a limited liability company [an LLC https://www.investopedia.com/terms/l/llc.asp ] and currently has assets of $297,423 which is all as cash or cash equivalents. It has a set of directors which include Daniel McNicoll who is also Executive Director of Galatia Films. Vox Day isn’t a director or an officer of the company, which is interesting.

The aim of the crowd funding is to raise between $750,000.00 and $1,070,000.00. Which is both a lot of money and hardly any money at all depending on how you look at it. There’s a nifty breakdown of how the money will be spent.

  • Creative: Writer, Producer, Director and Actors:
    • $174,250.00-$273,490.00
  • Production: Production Staff, Art Department, Proceeds Camera, Food, Lighting, Sound, Wardrobe, Make-up, Props, Travel, Locations, Production Office:
    • $209,100.00-$308,530.00
  • Post-Production: Editing, Music, Sound, Title, CGI, Graphics, Deliverables:
    • $209,100.00-$308,530.00
  • Marketing:
    • $41,820.00-$41,820.00
  • Contingency expenses:
    • $41,820.00-$41,820.00
  • Professional fees (legal, accounting):
    • $20,910.00-$20,910.00

The company boast of already having secured the services of a scriptwriter for the film, a certain Vox Day.

Securing a writer is an important step

The company hasn’t spent much money yet although it did spend $3,054 on the trailer. People have made successful films for less than a million dollars but there aren’t many examples. Notably, Vox gets paid as a writer so long as the film company starts production. Which makes this definitely different from the plot of The Producers, as the incompetent Nazi writer in that film doesn’t get paid.

[ETA: If you visit the Galatia website you will see a trailer for the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Obviously this isn’t one of the company’s films. The connection is that, according to IMDB, one person in the company was an uncredited “development executive” for the film.]

How to blow up the Death Star and/or other doomsday weapons but mainly the Death Star

I don’t always sleep well but when I do suffer from stress induced insomnia it’s never at the initial falling asleep stage. One excellent talent I have is falling asleep. I’m very good at it but it’s not a skill much celebrated.

If I do wake up in the middle of the night (and some claim that’s a normal sleep pattern) the trick I’ve found for getting back to sleep is finding something that is both complex enough to be distracting from more stressful thoughts but so inconsequential as to not be stressful itself. Anyway, I woke up last night worried about multiple things that the long-suffering meat robot has to deal with when Monday comes around. So many things in fact that I spent the darkest hours plotting how to blow up the Death Star in some detail.

The canonical method for blowing up the Death Star was determined by two factors. The first was George Lucas wanting to fit in a sequence based on WW2 movies, in particular Dambusters and 633 Squadron. The second was to give Luke a specific heroic feat to conclude the story of the first film. I’m not going to gainsay those aesthetic choices.

However, as a piece of problem solving the whole strategy is less than perfect.

  1. Huge numbers of people are killed. Sure, it’s war and self-defence but the people killed are also people enslaved by an evil empire run by a mind controlling space wizard. Fewer deaths would be inherently good.
  2. A large proportion of the Rebellion’s pilots are killed in the attempt. There are deaths on both sides and while the bulk of the casualties are on the Imperial side, the proportional cost to the Rebellion is huge. We know they are short of pilots because they happily let Luke Skywalker fly an X-Wing.
  3. The plan can’t actually work. To be fair, the Rebellion doesn’t know this and they also have very little choice. In the end though, the plan ONLY works because Luke has hitherto untapped force powers and because he gets in-flight advice from a Jedi space-ghost.
  4. The plan is last ditch in terms of timing. The Death Star is destroyed just at the point at which it could destroy the Rebel base. Some margin of error in the timing would have been better as a plan (although less good dramatically).
  5. The Rebels have no idea what a safe distance for blowing up a Death Star is. For all they knew, the explosion could have destroyed them or at least what remains of their fleet. The Death Star has enough power to blow up a planet, turning it into a bomb is less than wise.

Point 3

I’d like to deal with point 3 first mainly because the plot manoeuvrers the Rebellion into the position where it apparently has no choice other than a last-ditch attack using small fighters. The issue is that they can’t actually land a bomb into the magic vent despite it’s resemblance to a womp-rat.

Is there a better option? Instead of firing a bomb into the vent, wouldn’t it be better to place the bomb manually? In terms of war films, think The Guns of Navarone instead of 633 Squadron. No time to infiltrate the Death Star, I hear you say? We’ll get back to that but for the moment we don’t need anybody to get into the Death Star as the vent is on the outside. Drop off some commandos into the trench and they can plant the bomb.

Too hard? Too much of a suicide mission? Well, it is even easier than that. Astromech droids are designed to crawl about on the surface of space vessels and interact with devices on the surface. Drop an R2 unit equipped with a bomb into the trench and let them beep-boop its way to the vent. The tie-fighters will try and blow it up but now they will be the ones trying to hit a small target in a trench while the x-wings attack them.

It would be a noble sacrifice by droid but the Rebellion doesn’t otherwise show much respect for the lives and autonomy of droids. This plan doesn’t address the huge number of casualties but arguably it would lead to marginally fewer x-wing pilot deaths.

Obi-Wan’s commandos

I couldn’t think of a better solution than R2-commandos without there being a bit more space in the plot. Infiltrating the Death Star with demolition experts is a safe plan all round but the story gives no time for that to happen. We do know that it is possible to infiltrate the Death Star as the crew of the Millennium Falcon manage it somewhat unwittingly, earlier in the film (to what extent Darth Vader lets them is another matter).

To fit a commando raid into the story would require Obi-Wan to access the plans to the Death Star in R2D2, make sense of them, understand the weakness and assemble a team to do the job. None of which happens or has time to happen.

However, assuming that Obi-Wan could do all that, then points 2, 3, 4 and 5 can be dealt with. Plant a bomb and blow up the Death Star from a safe distance.

There’s got to be a better way

I know I’m a bit R2 fixated, but the plucky little droid can do an awful lot. Noticeably, when he is aboard the Death Star he manages to gain control over the station’s computer systems. R2 has the whole place hacked. The simplest (but least dramatic) solution to the Death Star problem would be for R2 to introduce a virus or exploit some other IT vulnerability in the Death Star.

Ideally, once compromised, the Death Star could be set to self-destruct (all spacecraft have self-destruct sequences by the fundamental laws of space-opera). With sufficient notice, the Death Star could be safely evacuated thus minimising loss of life except for the weird monster that lives in the trash compactor.

Speaking of which…I don’t know if there is a way of getting that trash compactor monster to destroy the Death Star but it would be worth having a sub-committee look into it.

Using non-Star Wars technology

I guess a computer virus is not really in keeping with Star Wars, even though there is no way they couldn’t exist in that universe. What other SFF technology could dispose of a Death Star more safely?

  • Nanobots. Get some nanobots on that thing and let them feast on all that tasty, tasty technology. The whole thing gets nibbled to death.
  • Trap it in hyperspace somehow. We don’t see it use hyperspace in a New Hope but it must get around somehow. Trapping the Death Star in another dimension sounds plausible but as we don’t know how hyperspace is supposed to work, this isn’t much of a plan.
  • Use the force. When Alderaan is blown up, the loss of life is felt across the universe as disturbance in the force. Maybe, if they all concentrated really hard when the Death Star appeared, they could have rotated it just a bit so that it missed. With the Death Star rendered tactically useless by the sheer force of will of whole planetary populations not wanting to die, the Empire would be forced to retire the whole project.
  • Teleport the Death Star crew off the station. This requires the Rebellion to have Star Trek teleporters but the Empire not to have protection from Star Trek teleporters.
  • Go back in time and not let Palpatine become Emperor. A more elegant solution than a blaster.

Around about this point I drifted back to sleep.

How to talk about Russia?

I’ll confess at the start that this post doesn’t have an answer to the question in it’s title. Also the title could have been “How to talk about China?” or Israel or the USA. I’ve granted myself permission to talk about Britain and Australia in any damn way I like 🙂 but they aren’t examples of the problem at hand.

I’ll skip to Australia and China first of all, because for many people this will be a more neutral example. During the recent Australian Federal election, one of the nuttier right wing parties was Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. Palmer is a Trump-like figure, an erratic businessman with political ambitions and like Trump, he is prone to wild speculation.

Part of his shtick was conspiracy theories about China. An airfield in Western Australia was supposed to be a secret bridgehead to a literal Chinese invasion. Anti-China sentiment and specifically anti-Chinese racism has a long history in Australia. In more recent times the xenophobic One Nation Party, these days more infamous for its anti-Mulsim stance, began as an anti-Asian immigration group. Without a doubt, Palmer was trying to manipulate deep seated anti-Asian prejudices in Australia to gain votes.

But. The current Chinese government is an authoritarian regime which really does seek to influence Australian politics. Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, described the issue in this way:

‘Let me make one thing clear. I am not in any way downplaying the seriousness of concerns that have been raised, both from inside and outside government, about foreign interference. They must be taken seriously. In our liberal democracy, there should – and there must – be debate about matters affecting the integrity of our democracy and the sovereignty of our nation-state. But there must be responsibility exercised in public debate. It is a dangerous thing to invite hysteria. It is doubly dangerous to invite anxiety about the Chinese party-state that may shift into animosity towards people with Chinese heritage. It is concerning to see sensationalism now creeping into mainstream commentary. Consider, for example, the references in Professor Hamilton’s book to “panda huggers”, to “dyeing Australia red”, to “China’s fifth column in Australia”, or to Australia being turned into a “tribute state” by a Chinese “silent invasion”.’

https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/news/opinions/chinese-influence-debate-must-avoid-racism

The issue is not just intended racism but the way a genuine story or issue can then feed into racist/xenophobic narratives. Take for example this story from New Zealand in 2017:

A China-born MP for New Zealand’s ruling party has denied being a spy after it emerged that he had spent years studying and teaching in universities with links to Chinese intelligence services.

“I am not a spy,” Yang Jian, the National party’s first MP born in mainland China, told reporters on Wednesday after a joint investigation by the Financial Times and New Zealand’s Newsroom revealed what they described as his hidden past.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/13/china-born-new-zealand-mp-yang-jian-denies-being-a-spy

I’ll take the guy’s word for it but whether the accusation is true or not, the story itself feeds into a classic racist trope that dual or foreign-born citizens or citizens of a given ethnicity or religion have divided loyalties. That idea has been used in many anglophone countries to attack Catholics in the past and is still used against Jews in public life.

In the US currently there is the issue of Russian attempts to influence the US election. I think the evidence that Russia was trying to get Trump elected is pretty strong, the evidence that Trump was actively cooperating with that effort is also strong but the evidence that it had a significant impact is less strong.

The discussion around Russian influence though, often plays on historical fears and rivalries between the USA and Russia/the USSR. Old racist tropes about Russia are all mixed up with genuine issues along with more hysterical conspiracy theories.

The core of these issues is there are different aspect of communication at play.

  1. Intent of the person communicating
  2. The factual content of what they are communicating
  3. The framing of the communication
  4. How that communication fits in aesthetically with entrenched prejudices

With somebody like Clive Palmer, it is easy to see how 1,2,3 & 4 are all informed by racism and the desire to manipulate racism. However, even if we do our utmost to expunge racism from 1, 2 & 3 when discussing world affairs, we personally have very little control over 4.

You can be very careful with your language and have the purest intent and frame what you are saying very carefully and still be switching on xenophobic lightbulbs on in people’s heads. The more deeply entrenched those racist tropes are within a culture, the harder it is not to play into the racism aspects of an issue. The anti-Asian racism within Australian culture (which is about as old as European culture in Australia) is an obvious example but so is anti-Semitism.

As I said at the start of this, I don’t have answer. People acting in bad faith will exploit silence just as much as they will exploit words to spread disharmony and hate. Nationalistic governments will often play into racism directed against their dominant ethnic group precisely to bolster their own support.

Over the years, I’ve tried to change how I talk about the USA, for example, from a broad brush anti-Americanism to less metonymic language that helps separate the actions of a government from a nation and a nation from a people and a people as a homogeneous group from the reality of a diverse collection of people. It’s easy to fall into language that helps bolster a nationalistic perspective which in turn enables the kind of deep cultural prejudices I’m discussing. It’s not enough though and the depth of the communication trap seems unresolvable.

Did fandom cause the collapse of civilisation or vice versa? Let’s Assume Neither :)

It’s been a long time since I linked to a post by the improbable 2016 Campbell Award Finalist and Inaugural Dragon Award Winner for Best Horror Novel That Was Actually A Space Opera, Brian Niemeier but a posy at his blog caught my eye [direct link, archive link].

Brian’s politics mixes standard alt-right nationalism and misogyny with a particularly reactionary form of Catholicism. People may recall Brian’s concern that literal demons are controlling the left (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/demons-and-witches-and-the-left/ ), so not exactly a Pope Francis or Vatican II fan.

Anyway, Brian has a hypothesis about religion and fandom:

“Kicking Christianity out of public life didn’t usher in a bright, sexy chrome utopia. Instead of directing their pious energies into scientific pursuits, America did what everyone does absent Christianity: They turned pagan.”

‘X-thing is a religion’ is a bit of a cliche but I don’t think that analysis is wholly wrong. Rather, I don’t think religion is really a single social phenomenon at all but a whole bunch of things — which is why cultures don’t follow one of Christianity/Islam/Judaism have quite different boundaries as to what is and isn’t religious and how religion plays a role in wider society*. So, sure, I can believe there’s some commonality between fandoms and religion.

Indeed, I’d go further and say that I think how we engage with fiction and products of the imagination has a close connection with spirituality and how religion has become a part of human culture. Brian is making a different argument though:

“Human beings are wired for worship. If social pressure discourages worshiping God, those with less fortitude will worship trees, rocks, or even plastic figurines.


Religious identity was the engine that built the West, and it’s still a major motivating force elsewhere in the world. What has happened in the American Empire is that Christian identity has shattered, and the pieces have been scattered throughout various hobbies.


Which was precisely what the main players in the Enlightenment wanted–to reduce religion to a hobby indulged in the home with no effect on public life.”

Fandom therefore being the eventual warped expression of people’s instinct towards religion suppressed by the machinations of Enlightenment philosophers. I think we can safely assume that this is not the case. However, the next paragraph is what really caught my eye:

“To see how people’s identities have gotten mixed up in their hobbies, take a quick glance at the ‘gate controversies popping up among various fandoms on a more or less daily basis. #GamerGate was the big one, but it failed due to infiltration by controlled opposition and exploitation by online grifters. It’s telling that every subsequent fandom revolt has enjoyed a brief honeymoon period before skipping straight to the “milked by grifters” stage. “If a man loses faith in God, he doesn’t believe nothing, he’ll believe anything,” is illustrative here.”

It can be hard to tell with the alt-right what is a bad-faith nonsense and what is sincere nonsense. Occasional you get paragraphs like this that are so lacking in self-awareness that they can only be a sincere expression of some very confused beliefs.

As a reminder: Brian was not a major figure in the high points of the Sad Puppy campaigns (a relevant example of one of the right wing uprisings in fandom) but leveraged those campaigns to get his books promoted by the Rabid Puppy slates into a Campbell nomination and a Dragon Award. Brian was also the charmer who tried to stir up a second Dragon Award nomination into another culture war battlefront in a bid to get more votes for his book. (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2017/08/08/niemeier-wants-the-dragon-awards-to-be-a-culture-war-but-the-culture-doesnt-want-to-play/ ) There may be better example of the ‘milked by grifters’ stage of the Sad Puppy Campaigns but only because it was never not a grift but Brian is a good example of late stage band wagon jumping.

“Few now can imagine–by design–a time when popular culture wasn’t partitioned into myriad fractured fandoms. Sure, people had different tastes, but there were cultural touchstones everybody shared, and more of them. Everybody tuned in to The Shadow. Everybody read Edgar Rice Burroughs. Everybody saw Gone with the Wind. But a people with a shared culture and a strong identity is hard to conquer, so universal popular culture had to go. Fandom was the murder weapon used to kill Western culture.”

Again a reminder: Brian writes anime-inspired right wing science fiction about people fighting in space-robot suits. He’s not exactly aiming for the mainstream. It’s that lack of awareness of his own micro-niche writing that makes me think he genuinely believes that’s what happened — that rather than technology and population growth making it economically easier for people to find stories that appealed to more finely delineated niches, that this was an actual plot to divide society.

Does he really think he would be happier if the only books or films available where the most mainstream ones? Also, if he believed that then shouldn’t he be doing his utmost to just consume the most modally consumed media? But it is like the person who wants religion to be mandatory who doesn’t get that it wouldn’t necessarily be their religion that would be enforced

He finishes his essay thus:

“Fortunately, there are creators laboring to forge new culture in the tradition of our ancestors. For a refreshing take on the mecha genre that clears away all the stale cliche cobwebs, check out my new martial thriller Combat Frame XSeed.”

Irony is dead, a knock-off Kindle Unlimited far right combat mecha killed it.

*[Not that Christianity, Islam or Judaism follow the same template either, but the similarities are what tend to shape what Western culture regards as the things a religion has: a god, a priest, a temple, a holy book, quasi-laws, exclusivity]