Perhaps the most significant story from a former Sad Puppy ever

I had considered writing a piece about how the various right wing blogs and outlets I read are reacting to the current Covid-19 pandemic. However, I feel I have to point everybody to this frankly epic true story by Declan Finn http://www.declanfinn.com/2020/03/i-have-returned-from-italy-part-1-oh.html

If it was fiction and Declan was a made up character it would be the story for our times, encapsulating so much about 2020’s America and it’s relationship with Europe, the odd cognitive distance from reality of the American right and the very real human issues of coping in a world where the multitude of connections start shutting down. I’m reminded of John Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire as the flow shuts down the gateways between worlds.

For those who don’t want to visit Declan’s blog, let me sum up. Last week (yes, LAST week) Declan and his wife went to ITALY for a holiday. As you can imagine (and indeed could have predicted last week when Italy was already well, well into its crisis) things did not go well.

The collision between belief and reality is laid out in unwitting detail. I genuinely hope he is fine (he and his wife are apparently safely back in the US or as safely back as anybody is).

The short version therefore of how right wing blogs are reacting plays out in a personal level in Declan’s story. Initial scepticism and eagerness to carry on as if it is all a fuss over nothing which then collides with an escalating reality and blaming the government.

Trying to sum right-wing reactions to the Covid-19 situation

As you all know, I read a lot of right-wing/conservative blogs to try and make sense of what people I disagree with are thinking. Nobody who has been following the cognitive decline of the right will be surprised to learn that the uniform reaction to the potential pandemic is that it is all somehow beset by lies. Conservative thinking is no longer just beset by conspiracy theories but rather has become a process of generating and sorting conspiracies.

So beyond the general notion that there is a secret truth hidden behind the virus coverage, there is no other consensus. Instead, positions vary wildly sometimes even within the same article by the same person. The positions include:

  • The virus is a hoax and the deaths are just regular flu.
  • The virus is not a hoax and is in fact more deadly than we are being told.
  • The Chinese government is exaggerating the numbers.
  • The Chinese is hiding that the number of deaths is much higher.
  • WHO/governments/media are exaggerating the danger and there is no need to panic as it will all turn out to be nothing. (e.g. former Sad Pup & Tor Boycotter Peter Grant: “I continue to believe that the current “panic stations” response by many to the threat posed by the coronavirus epidemic is overblown.”)
  • Prepare serious doomsday prepping right now. (e.g. same article “We already have sufficient food and essential supplies for a good three months. It’s comforting to have them available, in case local quarantines become necessary.”)
  • It’s not actually a pandemic.
  • It is actually a pandemic but WHO are pretending it isn’t because of reasons.
  • The virus is a Chinese biological weapon released deliberately for reasons (that make no sense obviously).
  • The virus is a Chinese biological weapon released accidentally.
  • The US economy is in serious danger.
  • The US media are just saying that the economy is in danger to hurt Donald Trump.
  • The left are trying to pretend that Trump will impose martial law and cancel elections.
  • Trump should impose martial law and cancel elections (that’s Vox Day in case you were wondering).
  • This is just like {insert past thing: swine flu, SARS, the Y2K bug} and they told us we were all going to die then {they didn’t} and so we needn’t doing anything {ignoring that those past things weren’t an issue because people took them seriously and did stuff}

There are obviously multiple things going on here. Firstly communication among the American right has become predicated on the idea that the news media in general and any kind of government official/civil servant is lying. Of course, “lying” doesn’t tell you a great deal and in that translate to the twin claims that situation is less serious and more serious. The “they are all lying” heuristic that’s been adopted only eliminates the possibility that things are as they appear to be.

Secondly, there is a lot of shotgun punditry going on. In the face of having no actual insights or extra information, a pundit makes multiple (even contradictory) claims. One of them will turn out to be right. Covid-19 is unlikely to be exactly as serious as health experts are saying and hence will either be a bit less serious or a bit more serious with a distribution of scenarios of varying probability spreading out from there. Speculate about enough scenarios and later on you can claim to be prescient.

Thirdly fear and anxiety have become the defining qualities of right-wing thought. You might respond that isn’t everybody feeling fear and anxiety currently and that’s true but the right has adopted free-floating fears as an ideological goal. It’s not so much Orwell’s image of a boot stamping on a human face forever as the dark figure lurking in the shadows behind you forever. Ramping up racial fears is part of the conservative strategy but also finding ways to exploit the crisis to attack immigration.

But fourthly…public health crisis are exactly those kinds of situation where well organised government responses work well. The potential economic fall out are also circumstances were stimulus spending is a smart idea under any moderately coherent economic theory. So the Covid-19 situation is seen as both natural territory (it provokes fear and insular attitudes) and as a ideological threat (because people will look to governmental solutions).

I don’t think will see a simple narrative emerging from the right on Covid-19. It will keep shifting an evolving although the core theme that the media is lying will stay as a constant.

In the meantime, wash your hands.

Today’s quiz: what are the right putting in their bodies?

OK multiple choice question. What surprising thing are the right (from the intellectual dark web to the alt-right) consuming? Is it…

  1. Milk
  2. Bleach
  3. Turpentine
  4. Benzodiazepine
  5. All of the above at the same time
  6. All of the above but at different times

Did you guess 6? Well done!

Milk. This is an old one and the alt-right have been trying to make a point about genetics, race and Europeaness by ostentatiously drinking milk (see https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/milk-white-supremacy-racism_n_5bffad35e4b0864f4f6a3e28?ri18n=true ) As always their grasp of genetics and evolution is limited.

Bleach. In recent years, the right have been highly vulnerable to quackery to the extent it can be hard to work out who is the con-artist and who is the gullible mark within their ranks. Now they’ve latched on to a quack cure that’s been sold before as a cure for everything from AIDS to cancer. The snake oil is basically bleach and QANON fans have been recommending it as a protection against coronavirus. (https://www.thedailybeast.com/qanon-conspiracy-theorists-magic-cure-for-coronavirus-is-drinking-lethal-bleach?via=newsletter&source=DDMorning ) Needless to say, it isn’t.

Turpentine. Former comic and now main attraction at Vox Day’s streaming service, Owen Benjamin has apparently taken to drinker small amounts of turpentine to cure intestinal parasites. Again, I’ll just note for the record that drinking turpentine is a bad idea. (see here for the history of this toxic habit https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/is-turpentine-medicine )

Benzodiazepine. At least this is a prescribable drug and not a cleaning product. However, it is mildly surprising to discover that Jordan Peterson has been struggling with an apparent addiction to the drug. (http://www.wehuntedthemammoth.com/2020/02/08/jordan-petersons-quest-to-beat-his-addiction-to-klonopin-sent-him-to-russia-and-nearly-killed-him-his-daughter-says/ ) Nothing wrong with taking your prescribed meds but there is something deeply incongruous between Peterson’s actual mental health and his public claims about mental health (his own, other people’s and the best approaches to it). Back in 2018 Peterson and his daughter were championing a meat only diet as a kind of panacea for physical and mental health (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/stephaniemlee/jordan-peterson-daughter-mikhaila-meat-carnivore-diet )

I like democracy but…

I should start by saying this isn’t a specific dig at the issues with the Democratic caucus in Iowa. Indeed, the premise of what I’m going to talk about (whether political parties should be internally democratic) has big caveats when considering the USA. For reasons good and ill, the primary component of US elections has become a key part of the broader process and that means it is hard to draw a fine line between the internal political processes of the two main parties and US democracy in general.

However, more generally, there is a question I’ve been mulling over for years — mainly as a result of being active in the UK Labour Party in the past. It is a simple question of whether democracy is the right choice for the internal processes of a political party within a representative democracy and specifically for a left wing political party

The ‘for’ case is obvious in broad strokes. Democracy is something we should value and encourage. We should want the people we elect to be ideologically committed to democracy and hence that ideological commitment should stand out across the board. Democracy should be a kind of virtue of character within an organisation to the extent that we should be able to see it in action within an organisation as well as externally. Also, if I’m going to be a member of a political party, I want my voice and opinions to be heard and contribute to decision making. I don’t want to be directed from above.

So what is the ‘against’ and why do I give it any credence? The against isn’t so simple but it consists of a few things. Firstly, the virtue of democracy lies with the consent of the governed. It is a way of holding the power of government in check and it’s virtue is greatest in the situation of government. It’s less obviously a good thing in different organisational circumstances (obvious counter-examples being a passenger aircraft under normal circumstances*). Democracy makes the most sense when a decision is intended to reflect the views of a broadly defined group. With a political party there’s an odd circularity there. Which group is a political party representing other than its membership who are defined as group by being members. With the Labour Party there was a historical sense of a group beyond mere party membership i.e. it was a party established to represent the interests of the labouring classes. Over time that became less distinct but given that idea, there was a kind of sense to the kind of hodge-podge federated process of trade union representation within the Labour Party.

For elected representatives of a political party there is even a basic conflict if they are held to represent both an internal party political democratic outcome and an external representative democracy outcome. Put another way, is an MP representing the people who chose them to be a candidate or the people who chose them to be an MP? As a voter rather than a member, there is also an advantage in having political parties represent particular qualities or consistent beliefs rather than the shifting internal dynamics of a political party.

Put another way, imagine a political party that was internally non-democratic (perhaps organised like a corporation) but ideologically committed to democracy (i.e. if in power as a government enacts policies that foster democracy). Would I want to be a member of such a party? No, ugh, it sounds like work. Would I vote for such a party? Hmmm. I can’t imagine them being a party I would like. However, would they be inherently worse than parties like the Australian Liberal Party or the UK Conservative Party than have some degree of membership democracy but are inherently autocratic in power? Of the two, we should care more about how a political party would enable or hinder democracy when in power as a government than how they enable or hinder democracy within themselves.

*[I can think of abnormal circumstances where decisions on an aircraft should lie with a vote among the passengers but they aren’t counter-counter-examples. They illustrate that democracy is applicable to some circumstances and not others to varying degrees.]

Australian Honours System is Very Broken

Today is a public holiday in Australia as Sunday was Australia Day aka Invasion Day. Yesterday was also when honours are announced following an Australian version of the British honours system. Notable among them was Bettina Arndt, a right-wing ‘men’s right’ advocate:

“An Australia Day honour for controversial writer and sex therapist Bettina Arndt has been condemned by advocates of domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.  Arndt was made a Member of the Order of Australia “for significant service to the community as a social commentator and to gender equity through advocacy for men.”

In 2018, Arndt interviewed convicted paedophile Nicolaas Bester and posted it online with the title “Feminists persecute disgraced teacher”. The former Tasmanian teacher was jailed in 2011 for grooming and repeatedly raping a 15-year-old student.”

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/sexual-assault-survivor-advocates-outraged-over-bettina-arndt-s-australia-day-honour

Nor is this a one off occurrence. Last year in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list was Professor Adrian Cheok, a candidate for a far-right political party and sex-robot advocate:

“In 2017, organisers of the Foundation of Digital Games conference in the US state of Massachusetts were forced to issue a formal apology after Prof Cheok made personal attacks on Twitter against academics who raised moral concerns about his research.
Professor Cheok’s use of “aggressive, belittling, or otherwise intimidating language” was “a serious violation of the norms and values” of the conference, the apology said.”

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/governor-general-to-face-formal-request-to-cancel-adrian-cheok-s-queen-s-birthday-honour

In the past two honours list there have been two notable far-right people with extreme views adjacent to the Men’s Rights Activist movement. Ardnt is also part of Jordan Peterson’s Thinkspot project, while Cheok has connections with Brietbart’s Steve Bannon. In both cases, neither person appeared to independently meet the level of notability or professional contribution that would merit their awards i.e. neither was a case of people who had made some other major contribution to Australia but coincidentally had extreme political views.

Superversive Press is closing

In an announcement on January 20, Superversive Press announced it was closing http://www.superversivesf.com/?p=841 This follows on from the announcement that a series of planet-themed anthologies were shifting publisher (see Declan Finn here http://www.declanfinn.com/2019/10/release-update-moon-anthology-is-sort.html and File 770 here http://file770.com/pixel-scroll-10-21-19-oh-this-is-the-scroll-its-a-beautiful-scroll-and-we-call-it-pixela-scrollte/ )

Specialising in conservative orientated speculative fiction with an intent to ‘inspire from above’, the publisher was a part of a wave of attempts to revitalise right-leaning science-fiction in the mid 2010’s. From my perspective, given the world we do live in, experiments like Superversive Press were a far more positive outlet for some of the angst and frustrations among conservative SF/F fans than others. If we had to be in the midst of a culture war within science fiction, it was much, much better to be conducted with people exercising their creative energies creatively.

I don’t want to sound to hypocritical and laud their output with praise. The books they published very much weren’t for me and some pushed quite toxic ideas (eg https://www.amazon.com/MAGA-2020-Beyond-Milo-Yiannopoulos/dp/1925645487 which is no longer for sale). However, the many authors and editors who tried to make a go of Superversive genuinely attempted to do what many critics of the Sad Puppies said conservative writers should do if they felt shut out: set up their own outlets and demonstrate the works that they claimed were being overlooked.

More generally, the capacity for like-minded authors to collaborate on boutique e-book publishing houses is something that is of interest beyond the specific politics of Supervesive Press. I’d rather niche publishers were more viable and were less vulnerable to the vagaries of life.

It’s interesting who else has a troll problem

As Vox Day has been increasingly distancing himself from the world of science fiction and dedicating more of his time to tilting at the windmills of large tech-platforms, I’ve been taking less of an interest in his antics. However, as I was writing about trolls yesterday it is appropriate to write about a different troll problem today.

It seems Vox is beset by a troll problem. Having spent a bit of mind-numbing time looking at various Reddit threads and some incoherent You Tube videos, it is fair to use the term ‘troll’. We aren’t talking about argued responses to Vox Day’s behaviour but rather people clearly trying to wind the guy up. Politically the stuff is coming from the same cess-pit of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories as Vox’s base. However, the dank-meme subculture was a ready recruiting ground for Vox Day’s brand of extreme white nationalism for years, so attacks from this direction are interesting politically.

The substantive complaint is around Day’s “Unauthorised TV”: a subscription video service that is part of his alternative tech platform plan. The scenario is a familiar one to readers here: Day announced a big bold plan that will a numerous features (like the buttons of the Open-Office Mouse) and will end up as a rival to mainstream equivalents (just as Castalia House was supposed to surpass Tor). There is a flurry of activity and recruitment and money raising (again, think of Voxopedia). An actual, tangible minimum viable product genuinely is delivered (again, Voxopedia) but it is substantially less than the original vision. Don’t worry! All those other features are on the way, the true believers are told and maybe there is more money raised. The amazing features never eventuate and again, consider Voxopedia remains jut a clumsy, vandalised copy of Wikipedia that a tiny number of editors struggle to stop drifting further out of date — none of the amazing capabilities (such as different versions of articles based on you political position) have ever eventuated and they never will.

The same seems to be true of Unauthorised TV. I say ‘seems’ because obviously I’m not subscribing and also I didn’t track what was originally promised. Defenders of Vox Day can correctly point out that the basic promise is delivered (e.g. Castalia House genuinely did publish actual books, with covers and a modicum of copy-editing) and detractors can point out the gulf between the reality and the fever-dream ambitions. [Speaking of which, I wonder what happened to that comic book movie…]

The broader context is the deeper divisions within the alt-right. In particular the current strength around the so called “groypers”, the latest iteration of extreme nationalists with a cartoon frog obsession who are associated with the latest white nationalist leader Nick Fuentes (https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Nick_Fuentes ). The other element is Vox Day’s alliance with the increasingly unstable Owen Benjamin (see here for earlier coverage https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/10/25/vox-day-sort-of-denies-he-is-a-flat-earther/ ).

Alt-right figures follow what I call a dark-wizards rule. Being territorial and ideologically anti-social (not the same as personally anti-social) and dogmatically committed to clear social hierarchies, you can’t have two of them in the same general space unless it is in a lord-vassal* (or if you prefer, master-apprentice) arrangement. Where somebody like Vox Day maintains patterns of allies it is where those allies have their own environmental niches and where they can offer each other things transactionally (e.g. Milo Yiannopolous, Mike Cernovich or Stephan Molyneaux) and where they may even ostensibly have marginally less similar politics.

So Fuentes rise in popularity was going to lead to a feud with Vox Day, which is what happened but slowly and with an intermediate feud between Owen Benjamin and Fuentes first. The details of the feuding don’t really matter as they weren’t questions of substance and Owen Benjamin is incoherent even by the standards of a whole subculture of incoherence.

Skipping forward in time. Reddit (particularly sections dedicated to Owen Benjamin) and various YouTube channels (the people concerned hop around accounts a LOT because of repeated bans and rule violations) have got it in for Vox Day big time. I’ve seen nothing new here** (these aren’t people doing original research) and there’s no deep ideological difference, it is just a mish-mash of stuff (I even saw a screen-gab of a page from here included) and stupid nicknames and homophobic insults (and random anti-Semitism). In short: trolls…but trolls aiming their trolling at a guy who tried to weaponise trolling.

On Friday matters must have come to a head for Vox Day and he announced an ultimatum:

“I’m giving Davey Crocko, RealOwenBenjamin, ultrafuzzyforeigner, and the rest of the Unauthorized-hating gamma trolls on Reddit and YouTube 24 hours to come clean, declare their real identities, admit their actions, and thereby avoid having the wrath of the VFM and the Legal Legion of Evil crash down upon their heads.”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2019/12/24-hours-trolls.html [link for reference – not recommended to follow it]

Whether that is an idle threat or has some substance I don’t know but the reaction from the trolls was derisive. Day is also claiming that there have been some sort of cyber attacks on some of the tech services. I’ve no way of ascertaining whether there is any truth in those claims and there are zero people involved in this fuss who could be regarded as a reliable source.

In a substantial dose of even more unwitting irony, Day himself is now bemoaning the quality of online discourse these days:

“In what is a crushing refutation of libertarian theory, the Internet and the devolution of what were once civilized anonymous discussion spaces on bulletin boards and CompuServe have clearly demonstrated that Man cannot handle the freedom of a perceived lack of accountability.”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-troll-wars.html

He’s also concerned about how there’s no way forward other than legalistic means:

“No matter how we react – and notice that we did ignore it for months until events yesterday rendered that impossible – there has never been anything to it. By this bizarrely twisted illogic, people only react to true accusations, against which stands the entire history of written and case law dealing with defamation, slander, and libel.”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2019/12/an-interesting-perspective.html

Which takes me back to a point I have made before. The SFWA and later the WSFS membership absolutely did the right thing in the end by taking an uncompromising response to Vox Day’s antics. Following his OWN advice on how to handle those whose only aim is to act in bad-faith and disrupt an organisation and the discourse within an organisation, is to not attempt to reason or become further embroiled in a bad-faith discussion.

tl;dr obnoxious people are shouting at each other.

*[See also the distinct pecking order within the Sad Puppies]

**[Aside from one point: there is a claim that the video service Day is promoting is actually using Vimeo’s infrastructure. Which is a bit ‘so what?’ However, the argument is that this disproves that Day is spending the money on a tech platform independent of the mainstream tech platforms.]