So how are people reacting to impeachment?

Last week I looked primarily at how the least pro-Trump of the pro-Trump trio of groups were reacting to some Democrat electoral victories (short version: badly) but I didn’t talk much about the other two groups. There are weird and interesting things going on there as well. I’m not going to be posting many links for reasons that will become obvious.

Reluctant Converts

The group I call reluctant converts are conservatives/libertarians who were initially distrustful of Trump and apprehensive about him during the GOP Presidential nomination process but who pledged support for him by the time of the election or since. In terms of the milieu of right wing authors discussed here that would be people like Sarah Hoyt or John C Wright.

Their main political issue currently is the name of the whistle-blower who raised concerns about Trump’s Ukraine phone call. The case for anonymity for the whistle-blower is simple, they went through the right channels, we all should want some protection for public servants holding elected officials accountable and there is genuine reason to think they might come to some harm. In terms of the veracity of the complaint, the whistle-blower’s claims have since all been verified. There does not seem to be any key points of fact that rely on the integrity of the whistle-blower as a witness. To use an analogy with more conventional crime, they are the person who rang the cops rather than a key witness.

However, naming the whistle-blower has become a big thing among right-wing media. Fox News has been dancing around it. Former Superman actor and now right-wing personality Dean Cain, apparently named the wrong person. Supposed libertarian Rand Paul has been naming them and among the group I call the Reluctant Converts it has become a point of honour to circulate a name on social media.

Facebook and Twitter, mindful for once of the danger of internet mobs (which if you recall the Reluctant Converts are very much against if said mob is three or four people and left-wing) have adopt a no-tolerance policy to spreading names of potential whistle-blowers. With a mighty cry of “you’re not the boss of me” some of the Reluctant Converts have taken to posting multiple times one of the names. As a consequence they have ended up with Facebooks bans. Sarah Hoyt in particular has been busy disrupting her own social media presence to circulate a name, which essentially means nothing, as if it was a major revelation. Spoiler: the whistle-blower was somebody you have never heard of.

It’s both odd and predictable. The ad-hominem argument is central to the mode of debate as is a concept of contamination. If the whistle-blower can be shown to be a Democrat then, the argument goes, Trump is innocent even though the facts revealed by the whistle-blower have been confirmed by the White House.

The Ironic Cheerleaders

This is were things are a lot more strange. The Alt-Right is currently in one of its phases of shifting grifters. The good news is that there is currently lots of metaphorical back stabbing and infighting and the bad news is that whoever comes out on top will still be a racist arse spreading hate.

The current landscape can be summed up with three oddly-similar looking boyish fascists (links are to Rational Wiki). Off on the alt-lite/intellectual dark web side is the irritating Ben Shapiro who is nominally anti-Trump but mainly promotes similar ideas. More overtly supporting Trump is Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA. Currently seeking leadership of the 8-Channers and other odious internet denizens is Nick Fuentes of America First (which is as fascist as it sounds). Fuentes is actively disrupting Turning Point USA events presumably as a way of gaining status and also to give his followers something edgy to do (see ) In short Kirk hates Fuentes and Fuentes hates Kirk and everybody hates Ben Shapiro. It would be funny but Fuentes main objective is to push more overt anti-Semitism.

Confused yet? OK, remember Richard Spencer, the crypto-Nazi involved in the murderous Unite the Right Rally? Milo Yianopoulus (another name fading into obscurity) released audio of Spencer having a very emotional and very-Hitleresque rant in the wake of the disaster of the Unite the Right Rally. The release of the audio by Yianopoulus was clearly intended to discredit Spencer, presumably on the grounds of being too obviously a nazi. Why would he do that? The answer is that Spencer has been critical of Fuentes – I assume because everybody involved are an ugly mass of egos and bigotry. There’s a point where close examination just finds more gross toxic sludge.

Quite where Vox Day sits in that mess of backbiting shitholes I don’t know but I believe that Day’s friend, the flat-earth former actor Owen Benjamin is also feuding with Fuentes.

Relatively not grounded in reality

It would be hard to describe the ‘Sceptical Advocates’ reaction I discussed in an earlier post as either measured or rational (it ended with calls for mass executions of political opponents) but at least it was a comprehensible (if appalling) position. Heading into the other groups, things become even less grounded and bizarre.

Things are only going to get even stranger.

So how are people reacting to recent electoral results in the US?

Several weeks ago I discussed a way of classifying different styles of Trump support that I encounter online – mainly in ex-Puppy circles. [see ] I have been watching to see how different political events generate reactions from these groups and what that might presage about Trump’s overall support.

With the impeachment proceedings it would be simplest to say that there’s no obvious change in any of the groups. They see the Democrats as bad and the impeachment as partisan as per the GOP line. The same essentially pro-Trump message is seen in all three groups including the group I called ‘Sceptical Advocates’ who claim not to be actually supporters of Trump per-se.

I was wondering how these groups are reacting to recent Democrat electoral victories [ ] and it is probably too early to say. The main reaction appears to be ignoring but among the ironic cheerleaders there are dark mutterings about defeatism. More generally there is the usual fact-free conspiracy theories about election fraud.

The other continuing marker (particularly among the ‘Sceptical Advocates’) is the objection to urban voters. Simply put, they portray the idea of people in towns having more people and hence out-voting people who live in more sparsely populated areas. It’s such an entrenched idea that it often doesn’t need to be overtly argued. However, it carries with it a whole bunch of related poorly thought through concepts particularly around immigration and the idea that towns and cities have big populations because of illegal immigration. That last idea is what creates a straight line between the Sceptical Advocates who portray themselves as moderate libertarians and the Ironic Cheerleaders who are more overtly white nationalists.

And if I’m going to talk about poorly thought through ideas from a person who sees themselves as a moderate libertarian than who better than our old pal Brad Torgersen [archive link to Facebook]

Remember this is while the Republicans still control the federal Senate and the Presidency. The point being that Trump’s support will continue to be backed by people who actively dislike him but who regard not only the left, but moderate Democrats and indeed anybody who lives in more densely populated areas as politically illegitimate.

[ETA post script: Woah…in the comments to his post Brad goes somewhere even I’m surprised by:

>image removed<

Good grief.]
[Update 2: So apparently Brad T must have thought better about that comment and it’s now gone. As this isn’t the ‘Document every appalling thing Brad ever said’ blog (I can’t afford the storage upgrade) I’ll take that image away.]

[Update 3: …so…Brad T has since put up a Facebook post complaining about Facebook taking something of his down for breaching Community Standards ” I don’t know what FB’s bots are tripping on, and it’s not explained what specific item(s) are “against community standards” which has become such a laughably absurd concept this past year I almost have tears in my eyes. Suffice to say this is what happens when we let the software do the thinking. Perhaps I ought to be reassured? Skynet and The Borg aren’t super-genius evil. They are in fact drooling-moron stupid, and incapable of parsing fundamental human interactivity. ” From this I infer that Brad didn’t take his comment down, Facebook did and according to Brad he can’t work out what they took down.]

Vox Day sort of denies he is a flat earther

I say “sort of” because he really doesn’t believe the Earth is more or less spherical. One of Day’s recruits to his video streaming thing has been the comedian Owen Benjamin Benjamin had the beginnings of a Hollywood career including co-starring with Christina Ricci in an obscure film in 2009. However, his career got derailed by his increasingly extreme views. These days Benjamin pushes extreme anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which amount to a kind of unified theory in which her thinks everybody is trying to make you believe lies about the moon landing etcetera as part of a Satanic plot. It’s the usual nexus of anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia with epistemic paranoia. The central theory is that people are lying about everything to make you believe lies in general.

What’s interesting here is that Day appears to be following Benjamin down the same path. Not that Day also doesn’t push the same kind of fallen-world anti-Semitic nonsense but that he’s being more open about how out there some of his beliefs about the world are — including flat earthism.

The specific pretext is this 2012 interview with a NASA data visualisation person: The interview explains how he helped create an image of one hemisphere of the Earth as seen from space by stitching together multiple higher resolution images of Earth. Aha! Say the flat Earthers, Manipulation! Lies! etc etc.

It’s something you see a lot from falt-earth to vaccine denial to global warming denial: a rejection of any data, images, graphs etc that relies on any kind of inference or data cleaning etc. The demand is for evidence that is an unfiltered capture of external reality — which is impossible. Heck, not only is it impossible but which we know is myth at least since the time of Plato. What you see out of your own eyes is stitched together and processed and inferred.

Day sums up his position:

“Notice that ALL of the hemisphere photography we think we’ve seen has turned out to be nonexistent. It’s becoming clear that from the evolution fairy tale to the Blue Marble fraud to the dinosaur fraud and the satellite myth, the world is very, very different than we have been told it is. What is the point? To deceive you into serving Satan rather than God.”

Interestingly he gets a lot more pushback in his comments than he normally does. I guess even Day’s followers aren’t keen to adopt a flat-earth although structurally it’s no different than the anti-vaxx and anti-evolution stuff Day peddles.

In the comments Day responds with a weak equivocation:

“VD October 24, 2019 12:20 PM Jesus… The earth is not flat. What part of “fraud is being committed concerning X” leads you to immediately conclude that this means “Therefore Y”? I don’t believe the Earth is flat. But I don’t believe the mainstream narrative concerning the nature of the Earth either, because it contains too many lies. Binary thinking is usually a serious mistake.”

The “mainstream narrative” here being that the world is more-or-less spherical.

Unfortunately Day really does need to engage in some binary thinking here. Just by visiting different places in the world we can quickly observe that whatever curvature the Earth has it’s pretty much the same everywhere. Sure big mountains are pointy and oceans are flat but in both places you can observe that whatever is going on it’s pretty much the same everywhere. That is seriously limiting to the range of possibilities for the curvature of the Earth. A flat or curved disc with an inaccessible underneath would have edges with a radically different curvature. Any shape that you could circumnavigate, if it wasn’t basically a sphere, would have some spots with extreme curvature that frankly everybody would have noticed i.e. the Earth really isn’t a cube.

A sphere isn’t just one option among many for the shape of a thing. It’s a particularly special shape. If you want a uniform (more or less) curvature and no edges, then let’s just say your options are limited. Or…maybe the devil is making me say that…

A bad survey about the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’

This is an edited version of three Twitter rants from yesterday. It started as an off-cuff reaction but I was too far into it before I thought that it should be a blog-post rather than Tweets.

Stephen Pinker tweeted out a very weird bit of science theatre created by Michael Shermer.

Pinker has enough critical thinking skills that he should look at it with hefty scepticism…but obviously isn’t. It’s pretend science, using play-acting at science to refute what is obvious and ignores the core issues.

The “survey” by Michael Shermer (which should be a red flag in itself) was sent to 34 notable people associated with the label “Intellectual Dark Web” and asked where they stand on a number of issues. The survey was anonymous, so the views identified in the survey can’t be matched to the individuals asked.

Each and every one of the people surveyed is a public figure who have made multiple public statements about politics and social issues. I don’t need an anonymous survey to find out what Andy Ngo or Sam Harris thinks, I can go and read what they say. And it is what they SAY that matters and what defines the IDW term not what they might privately think. If Sam Harris thinks he has warm & fuzzy liberal beliefs that’s nice but the whole point of the “dark web” label was the contrarian issues he promotes. Maybe Ben Shapiro secretly believes Global Warming is real and climate change is caused by humans. I don’t know but what matters is he propagandises the opposite. If an anonymous survey of the 34 “Intelectual Dark” Webbers reveals that their underlying views are more centrist and mainstream then that is not evidence that the public perception of their public positions is wrong. Rather it confirms a key point about the IDW.

The fundamental issues with the disparate group lumped together as the Intellectual Dark Web is that they are DISINGENUOUS about their politics. It’s not news that Jordan Peterson thinks of himself as moderate and reasonable. We knew that already. It doesn’t change that he (and Harris & Shapiro & Ngo & Quillette) frame and enable a perspective that bolsters the far right. The whole “we are the reasonable ones” is part of the schtick of the IDW. That they’ll boost that in an anonymous survey is, frankly, wank.

Let’s be sceptical as I’m sure Dr Pinker and Shermer would want us to be. Let’s take one conclusion Pinker raises from the survey: The members of the IDW are “concerned w climate” Let’s look at the survey: The survey agrees: “67% strongly agreed that global warming is caused by human actions (no one strongly disagreed)” So their you go! Hoorah! No, no let us be sceptical first. If this was GENUINELY true would it not be easily observed?

To the empircism-mobile! Here’s the output of the Quillete Climate tag zoiks! A hefty TWO article, one concern trolling Greta Thunberg and the other saying people shouldn’t be mean to capitalism. Yes, Quillette is just one source but it is one that connects Steven Pinker on the one hand (who we can observe genuinely does advocate for action on Global Warming) with Andy Ngo on the other hand (who genuinely does have connections with the alt-right and violent far right groups) via Claire Lehmann (Quillette’s founder, fan of Pinker and one time boss of Ngo).

Yes, Steven Pinker himself has a better record on the of global warming but the issue he raised was to look collectively at the IDW and their media-organs. Broadly this is not a group trying to do very much about helping with the issue. And wow, think of the actually good the IDW could achieve given their actual audience. Whatever they may think of themselves, collectively they do have the ear of many on the right – exactly where climate change denial and bad science on the topic is endemic. You’d think these out spoken people might be busy being outspoken on a potential planet wide disaster.

It gets worse. The actual sample was only 18 not 34 people. Nearly half of the 34 didn’t answer. So when the survey says “67%” (the percentage favouring gun control and which believes global warming is real) actually means “12 people” That’s actually both more plausible and more wretched. Even if we accept that 12 of those IDWs think climate change is real, it says almost nothing about the group. Any one member of the original 34 people is a hefty 3% of the population being sampled and hence missing any one of them can have a large impact on the results. This is particularly true given that we already know that the label of “Intellectual Dark Web” is being attached to a group with a very broad range of views on many topics.

Shermer is assuming non-response to the survey is random across the traits being surveyed (i.e the 18 is a random sample of the 34). There is no reason to believe that and really anybody who is wants to seriously call themselves a sceptic should dismiss any general conclusion from the survey without substantial additional supporting evidence.

Indeed there’s good reason to assume that the 18 who responded is not a good random sample of the 34, just on the nature of the numbers. It is very hard with small numbers in a survey for the sample to be representative because one person makes a big difference. Shermer hides that by quoting percentages rather than raw totals but with small number percentages hide how few people he’s talking about. It’s not invalid to look at proportions with small sample sizes, sometimes that is all you have but there’s a point where 12 out of 18 is more informative than 67%.

We can illustrate the issue with the women who were surveyed. Of the 34 named people in survey associated with the “Intellectual Dark Web” 8 (24%) are women. In the survey 3 (17%) are women. So are the IDW 17% women (generalising from survey) or 24%? Obviously 24% is the correct figure but 17% is the equivalent of the the kind of survey conclusions Shermer presents. In fact any one woman listed is 13% of the IDW women, so one more woman answering makes a huge different to sub-sample of women. Any one person is 6% of the whole sample of 18 people!

Circling back to 67% claim. Again assuming everybody who responded is being honest (which I doubt) the survey actually found that 12 people of the 34 who were asked believed in gun control and the same number believed that global warming was real (which I’ll add isn’t saying much, some prominent sceptics will say global warming is real, just as many anti-vaccination campaigners will say they support vaccinations – it is the ‘but’ that follows where the issues lie). That might mean 67% or there about of 34 believe in gun control but a safer conclusion is no less than 35% do (12/34) and no more than 82% (28/34). Given how granular this data is, hoping the estimate is in the middle isn’t supported.

This is why I call it theatre. It is the wrong methodology applied badly. It illustrates methodological snobbery. Synthesising the complex views of a small group of people is exactly where qualitative methods work better. It is a domain where you need to put on your humanities hat and apply those humanities skills. Shermer is using sciencey film-flam by presenting a pointlessly anonymous survey and presenting the results as percentages as if there were proportions of the whole group.

Don’t get me wrong I absolutely LOVE applying basic quantitive methods to things and place where they don’t always make sense. It’s very much my hobby but even on this less than 100% serious blog I’d throw more caveats at better numbers than Shermer is using.

Bad, bad, tactics by Extinction Rebellion

This anti-climate change protest by Extinction Rebellion was extraordinarily foolish:

Let us count the ways:

  • It was poorly targetted. Who was disrupted? Commuters in the East End of London. Not wealthy people, not decision makers. Ordinary people trying to get by.
  • It had no thematic connection. The disruption targetted public transport. The net effect was to encourage people to DRIVE to work.
  • It was arrogant and alienating. It elevated the concerns of the protestors over the concerns of people who the protest should aim to persuade. That makes the protestors concerns look insular, out of touch and arrogant. It makes action on climate change politically less likely and easier for politicians to demonise.
  • It wasn’t direct action. Direct action is where people directly intervene for moral reasons against the thing they are protesting against. For example, disrupting the building of coal-fired power plant. The ethics of direct action are a thing in themselves but they very much depend on whether it is justified to directly stop a thing happening. This protest has the theatre of direct action but isn’t. There’s no ethical imperative here to stop people travelling by train.

There’s a moral equation between an extreme situation and extreme action. It is one that gets debated left and right, and within and outside of governments. However, just like war and revolution, that moral equation isn’t a carte blanche. There has to be a plausible connection between the action taken and some reasonable (and proportionate) chance of preventing, ameliorating or limiting the extreme situation.

There’s no moral justification for obviously bad tactics.

A.C.Grayling on Brexit & Britain

I was reading this piece by the philosopher/public intellectual A.C.Grayling on Brexit

I sympathise but there’s an awful lot of wrong in there and while I agree with the general thrust of his argument, I think there are deep flaws that need highlighting.

Naturally, I’ve no particular complaints about the sections which describe how uniformly awful Tory policy and internal politics have been prior to and throughout the Brexit debate. Manifestly, Cameron’s austerity policies deepened divisions, insecurity and unrest in Britain. Equally manifest was the cynical use of a referendum to resolve internal Tory tensions on Europe not only spectacularly backfired in terms party unity but also led to what was an internal toxic debate within conservatism become a national toxic debate. It was the equivalent of picking at a zit an causing a massive facial infection that runs the risk of spreading to the brain. On these points Grayling is correct but also they are (or rather should be) unremarkable.

I do have issues with some other matters though. The first has to do with the Labour Party:

“Miliband’s mistake was to change the rules for Labour Party membership and for election of the leader in such a way as to make the party hostage to the least electable – and as it has proved, least effective – leadership since Foot. His changes led to an influx of entryists from the left and their choice, with the artificial power of the block vote of Len McCluskey’s Unite union, of Corbyn as leader. This has proved one of the biggest helps to the Tory Eurosceptics on the far right of politics, because Corbyn, who has learned nothing and not moved on from his apprenticeship at the feet of Peter Shore and Tony Benn half a century ago, is a Brexiter and has abetted the Brexit cause mightily, only very lately being moved – with a sound of screeching dug-in heels – by the massively Remain Labour members and voters to less of a fudge on the issue. “

Grayling sees this very simplistically but I’d contend he is largely wrong and right only by evading key aspects. I have always been doubtful about Corbyn’s capacity to lead the Labour Party and there is a factual element to Grayling’s point about Corbyn’s electability. However, Grayling treats this just as a matter of fact about Corbyn, as if ‘least electable’ was some intrinsic property of the man. Corbyn has his flaws but his views are neither as extreme as his detractors make out and his abilities as politician and thinker are not particularly poor – indeed compared to the man who is the actual Prime Minister, Corbyn is a model of careful thought and wise leadership. Corbyn has made missteps but nothing anywhere near as appalling as David Cameron’s error — a politician that prior to Brexit was held up as an epitome of moderate, sensible leadership.

The truth about Corbyn is that he is unexceptional except in one regard: he is to the left of the Labour Party. Otherwise, he is unremarkable in his qualities as a Labour leader. Even his approach to Brexit has been typical of Labour leaders with major issues of the day: try to manage a principle compromise and avoid taking a strong ideological stand. On nearly any other issue other than Brexit, the pressure on the Labour leader to the square the circle on divisive matters would be the norm. It is Brexit that is exceptional in that it is an issue in which the centre and self-perceived moderates of British politics feel a strong and full commitment to the EU is needed. They have a point but it is a point the left has made to plethora of Labour leaders in the past: take a strong stance on a issue and you will bring voters along but vacillate and you concede ground to the right.

The electability (or otherwise) of Corbyn is no mystery either. The Labour Party is a coalition of political movements and ideologies. All mass political parties with hope of forming a majority in government are coalitions of this kind. However, that coalition within Labour has been built on a premise that the right of the Labour Party will not concede to the left and the left must always concede to right. For Corbyn to succeed he would have needed to have been an exceptionally adept and probably far more ruthless politician. Milliband’s “mistake” was that rank and file support for a Labour leader would not necessarily transform into support from Labour MPs. However, party political reform is never easy nor swift. Labour wouldn’t transform into (or back into) a more participatory mass movement party overnight. At a different period of history this would have been just another chapter in the evolving nature of the British labour movement. The ‘mistake’ was that this coincided with the absurdity of Brexit.

“That moderated, with a more temperate tone entering politics in the period between the end of Thatcher and the post-2010 coalition. But as a result, politics became somewhat less attractive to energetic, clever and ambitious people, with the result that – with some extremely honourable exceptions – the general quality of MPs is not nearly what it was.”

I don’t know if this is true one way or another. I suspect it isn’t but more to the point Grayling skips over how this argument is actually a strong argument for Corbyn. Grayling is also skipping over a deep and obvious political divide in the UK during those years that is directly relevant: the Iraq War.

In both the UK and the US the ostensible left-of-centre political parties supported the pointless, globally destabilizing, incompetently run, morally compromised and politically deceptive war in Iraq. The difference in the UK was that the party in power was that very left-of-centre political party. Britain’s support for the US war in Iraq was a terrible decision on multiple levels but if we focus just on how it shaped future party politics, it led to whole swathes of Labour politicians being essentially compromised by their support for a monumentally bad policy. Tony Blair’s support for Bush’s war created a deep chasm of distrust within the Labour Party and between Labour and it’s electorate in general. The Global Financial Crisis was less a creation of Labour’s but being in power when the GFC also helped deepen the mistrust between Labour and the wider population.

On other matters were Grayling is not wrong but not entirely right either consider:

“And finally on this fourth point, we need to recall that our hopelessly undemocratic first past the post electoral system lies at the rotten core of these arrangements. It disenfranchises the majority of voters, turning them off politics. It puts majorities into the House of Commons on minorities of the popular vote. It entrenches two-party politics, in which elections produce one-party government by turns – with the foregoing ‘elective tyranny’ resulting. It is a mess, and reform is urgently needed.”

This is true but I suspect secondary to the core issue. Once Brexit became a national topic of debate, it would only be properly resolved with a substantial majority one way another. A more proportional parliament might have a different spread of political parties but it is not clear that it would have a majority of MPs in favour of Remain. Yes, more proportional voting or voting that doesn’t penalise smaller parties (as in Australia) may have eased divisions with the Tory party *if* the system had been running for years but only by making it easier for Eurosceptics to gain electoral success outside of the Tory party. Indeed, that is what happened with UKIP gaining votes in the more proportional European Parliament elections.

Which takes me to what Grayling is avoiding: why support for the EU is less strong than it needs to be to defeat the nationalistic Brexit supporters. Yes, the right wing press in the UK has been running anti-EU propaganda for decades and the Brexit campaign during the referendum used lies, nationalism and xenophobia to drum up support. However, Grayling is complaining about the far-left being insufficiently in support of Remain. Yet he doesn’t take time to consider why people who otherwise don’t buy into either Boris Johnson’s pathological lies or Nigel Farage’s racism, may still be less than 100% in favour of the EU. Without that understanding Grayling makes the same common error that runs through all of this: politics is about building coalitions of people with divergent views.

The European single currency placed those countries participating into an inflexible monetary policy. The impact of this in the light of the Global Financial Crisis was severe economic policies placed on a number of countries such as Greece, that would still have suffered economic hardship but which could have managed better if they had had more control over their own monetary policy. The UK wasn’t Greece and wasn’t part of the single currency, but in the years leading up to Brexit, the EU took on some o the worst features of the EU as a project i.e smaller states having to buckle under pressure from the bigger economies. I personally don’t think that invalidates the EU as an entity, anymore than bad government policy by a given government invalidates the idea of the nation it is governing. However, without acknowledging the flaws in the EU, Grayling’s analysis is clearly incomplete. There is left-wing scepticism of the EU for a reason.

I do think Britain should Remain and even a less traumatic Brexit than the possible No-Deal Brexit will cause untold harm. However, either stay focused on the specific issue of Boris Johnson and the failed conservative government or look at all the issues underlying the divisions.

How to avoid talking about China

A sequel of sorts to this post about the issue of criticising the government of a country versus criticising the country and it’s peoples.

Events in Hong Kong have quite rightly led to disquiet and anger at the Chinese government. The Chinese government would prefer it if people treated the anti-protest crackdown as a private matter between it and the citizens of Hong Kong. The citizens of Hong Kong (or at least some of them) disagree sharply on that point.

I actually don’t personally know anybody who thinks the anti-protest measures are a good thing or who doesn’t sympathise with the protesters in general. So it is easy to see any voice of support for the protestors as being unambiguously good. But let’s say, for sake of argument, that there was more nuance here, more complexity, etc then “anti-protest measures” are something we should ALWAYS eye sceptically not because all protestors are right but because we should always worry when the police get new powers and when ordinary people get hurt. There is a parallel with war and military action as a government policy — sure we can think of wars that were necessary or even morally imperative but as one of the most extreme things a government can do they should always been critically examined. There are some policies/actions that any and every government should expect significant public pushback against.

Which in a roundabout way takes us to video-games:

“Professional Hearthstone player and Grandmasters tournament competitor Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai gave an interview this week. At the end of it, Chung expressed support for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, reciting a protest slogan and wearing a mask associated with the activists who have taken to the streets. His words set off a chain reaction that led to his year-long suspension from Hearthstone competitive play. It has also led to a sudden incursion of political debate in a space that — to its detriment — often works hard to be anything but political. “

Blizzard have suffered a righteous pushback against this with many people boycotting their games. In turn Blizzard have opened up another chapter in the annals of corporations attempting to control or limit what people say.

Blizzard had attempted to push a values-free approach of “no controversy”, a line akin to the idea of “no politics”. It’s a familiar line and the twin to the other values-free stance of absolute free-speech. I find it fascinating that BOTH positions are things that I associate with the modern-right and approaches I have seen people on the right have demanded for science-fiction. We’ve also seen how neither are viable.

  • Absolute free-speech enables bullying and perversely ensures that speech of some people is shut down, marginalised or bullied into silence from hostile and toxic environments.
  • “Politics free” enables the powerful to go unchecked, it allows toxic behaviour to go unchallenged and (surprise, surprise) ensures that speech of some people is shut down, marginalised or bullied into silence from hostile and toxic environments.

The two positions are genuinely polar opposites but play a similar role and have similar consequences. Absolute free-speech enables the loudest voices and “politics free” enables the voices of the most powerfully entrenched.

Sure, it would be great to have a position on free-speech that could be separated from the CONTENT of what is being said but such a thing is a fantasy. It is a fantasy precisely because speech is powerful and hence can cause harm. If speech was not powerful then free-speech wouldn’t be important!

There was a way out for Blizzard, a way for them to retain the idea that they could enforce “no controversy” but it wouldn’t be easy. The way out would be simply to have no involvement with the Chinese government in a way. In such circumstance, statements about Hong Kong would be effectively neutral to them rather than “controversial”. Of course, that is in no way feasible in a global economy where China as a country is an important part but it highlights how ideas like “politics free” is itself not a neutral idea but one that requires somebody to draw a line between what is politics & what is not and between what is controversial and what is not.

Nationalism in particular politicises everything. Governments that conflate criticism of themselves with criticism of the nation they govern and the people within their nation (or even people of connected ethnicities beyond their borders) set out to make criticism controversial and even more adversarial. It is the mirror of bigots who use the behaviour of a government as a basis for attacking people based on ethnicity. That was the theme of my earlier post, highlighting how nationalists with opposing sympathies openly shape their rhetoric to make the argument about ordinary people rather than the actions of governments.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Israel as an example here. It is paradigmatic of the problem, where far-right nationalist governments in Israel conflate criticism of government policy with anti-semitism and where far-right anti-semites internationally use Israel government policy as a basis for justifying their anti-semitism. The net effect is to poison discourse and to create a kind of emotional or discursive tax on discussion. I’ve mentioned a similar dynamic in Australia where criticism of the Chinese government can be exploited by nationalist elements in Australia and tap into a deep vein of anti-Chinese racism within Australia.

There is no easy way out. There are matters that we should speak loudly about and the multiple nationalist crackdowns worldwide can’t be ignored. However, we also need to speak with both care and compassion. We should avoid metonymic references to “China” when we mean specifically the Chinese *government*. We should avoid ethnic stereotyping always. We should avoid implying that individuals have dual loyalties. We should avoid falling back on lazy nationalistic or conspiratorial tropes of the past.

I’d like to finish on the question of boycotts versus avoidance. The question of whether a group or a business can do business with or have a commercial relationship with a country with an authoritarian government is a fraught one. There is a positive argument that economic or cultural engagement can help a country. However, like speech, such involvement can never be values-free. It means that you are in a position where politics and controversy are things that can happen to you as a consequence. Even if nobody is calling for a boycott of Country-A currently, if you are doing business with/in Country-A and events or government policy shifts then you aren’t going to be in a position of being blissfully neutral about that. That doesn’t mean that if you do business with Country-A then you are endorsing all the policies of its government but it does mean you are saying that it is politically better at that time to engage with them rather than not engage – and that is a political statement.

“No politics” is not an option.