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November 30, 2010
Holding US journalism in contempt
Posted by Teresa at 09:49 PM * 226 comments

Some of the most interesting commentary I’ve seen in the wake of the latest Wikileaks release has been about the US news media’s habit of cravenly pandering to the government.

From the Guardian, Simon Jenkins, US embassy cables: The job of the media is not to protect the powerful from embarrassment:

The state department knew of the leak several months ago and had ample time to alert staff in sensitive locations. Its pre-emptive scaremongering over the weekend stupidly contrived to hint at material not in fact being published. Nor is the material classified top secret, being at a level that more than 3 million US government employees are cleared to see, and available on the defence department’s internal Siprnet. Such dissemination of “secrets” might be thought reckless, suggesting a diplomatic outreach that makes the British empire seem minuscule. …

These disclosures are largely of analysis and high-grade gossip. Insofar as they are sensational, it is in showing the corruption and mendacity of those in power, and the mismatch between what they claim and what they do. …

Clearly, it is for governments, not journalists, to protect public secrets. Were there some overriding national jeopardy in revealing them, greater restraint might be in order. There is no such overriding jeopardy, except from the policies themselves as revealed.

Glenn Greenwald is strongly recommending this startling BBC interview with Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times, and Carne Ross, consummate diplomat and former British Ambassador to the U.N. As transcribed in Greenwald’s column:
KELLER: The charge the administration has made is directed at WikiLeaks: they’ve very carefully refrained from criticizing the press for the way we’ve handled this material. … We’ve redacted them to remove the names of confidential informants … and remove other material at the recommendation of the U.S. Government we were convinced could harm National Security …

HOST (incredulously): Just to be clear, Bill Keller, are you saying that you sort of go to the Government in advance and say: “What about this, that and the other, is it all right to do this and all right to do that,” and you get clearance, then?

KELLER: We are serially taking all of the cables we intend to post on our website to the administration, asking for their advice. We haven’t agreed with everything they suggested to us, but some of their recommendations we have agreed to: they convinced us that redacting certain information would be wise.

ROSS: One thing that Bill Keller just said makes me think that one shouldn’t go to The New York Times for these telegrams—one should go straight to the WikiLeaks site. It’s extraordinary that the New York Times is clearing what it says about this with the U.S. Government, but that says a lot about the politics here, where Left and Right have lined up to attack WikiLeaks—some have called it a “terrorist organization.”

The essential piece is Glenn Greenwald’s WikiLeaks reveals more than just government secrets. It’s a shame Salon couldn’t come up with a better title for a flaming and spectacular piece of political analysis that uses phrases like “morally deranged barbarians” to discuss ways in which the WikiLeaks flap reflects the degradation of American political culture.

Note: Greenwald isn’t talking about WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. He’s skewering the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Sarah Palin, the aforementioned Bill Keller, and CNN’s journalistic standards in general.

And something to look forward to in 2011: Assange has announced that early next year, “a major American bank will suddenly find itself turned inside out.” Should be interesting.

November 29, 2010
Argument du jour
Posted by Patrick at 10:32 PM * 295 comments

Two very smart takes on the prospect of a Joss Whedon-free Buffy reboot: Romanitas author Sophia McDougall talks herself into a very fragile truce with the idea. And io9’s Charlie Jane Anders argues that we need the kind of female heroes who should have followed Buffy, not another exercise in “digging through the scrapheap of old stories, looking for pieces of IP that [Hollywood] can break down and sell for parts.”

November 27, 2010
“We live underground. We speak with our hands.”
Posted by Patrick at 09:22 PM * 166 comments

Hilariously expensive speaker cables. ($6,800 “& eligible for free shipping with Amazon Prime.” Not a misprint—as the manufacturer assures us, “Dielectric Bias System (DBS) (US patent 7,126,055): Greatly improved performance is made possible by a constant 72 volt charge on all K2’s insulation. Similar to how the earth’s magnetic field makes all compasses point north, the AQ DBS system creates an electrostatic field which causes the molecules of the insulation to all point in the same direction. This minimizes the multiple nonlinear time-delays. Sound appears from a surprisingly black background with unexpected detail and dynamic contrast.” Uh, right.)

Inevitably: multiple brilliant Amazon reviews. Most recently, a concise work of short SF:

Somewhere in our brave new century, somebody actually pays nearly $1,000 a foot for speaker cable. And somewhere else, people toil anonymously to write things like that review. One can see the rough emerging outlines of Eloi and Morlocks—but not which is which.

(Thanks to Olga Nunes on Twitter.)

November 25, 2010
The right song for the wrong time of year
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:45 AM * 172 comments

Thanksgiving has generally been, for me, a tremendously ill-timed holiday.

By late November, I’ve rarely been in the mood for thankfulness. My SAD is usually in full effect, and I’ve generally had at least one serious depressive episode by then. To manage it, I have to live a careful, constrained life: it’s unwise to stay up late, drink, or skimp on time in front of the light box. And still I’m conscious of a tremendous diminution of myself. Winter Abi is simply not as intelligent, as energetic, as pleasant to be around as Summer Abi. It’s like being the lackluster younger sibling at school. Everyone expects better because they know the bright one.

But, you know, people grow up, even me. A lot of my views on SAD are based on a deep resentment of it. And while that’s completely natural, it’s also entirely unproductive. Hating it is hating an inextricable part of myself, and that never ends well. So I’m working on that, looking for the good (a definitionally difficult task).

What I notice, when I manage to take a break from resentment and despair, is how much I appreciate the small, simple things when I can’t reach for the big ones. Going to bed every night, settling into the mattress in the dark, curled around my teddy bear*, looking forward to sleep. Reading Making Light in front of my light box in the early morning, before the household is awake. The cycle ride to work in the chilly air, with the bare trees reaching for the painfully clear sky. Wearing worn gloves, because it feels good to be thrifty rather than buying new ones. Shared jokes with my colleagues, small triumphs, kindnesses and luck in the working day. Hot tea. Crisp apples. The way the water looks as I walk beside it at lunchtime; I could watch it for hours. The ferry ride across the IJ en route home, with that subtle feeling that everyone on the boat with me is part of a secret, ephemeral community. The shape of Martin’s shoulders glimpsed through the kitchen window as I arrive at the house. The smell of my children’s hair, the sound of their voices, the feel of their arms around me.

In the summer, I think, pleasures come cheap and easy. I become glutted with them, and the simple ones can’t compete with the vast flood of potential, the lure of everything I can do because I have a year’s worth of energy and enthusiasm compressed into the light months. I think in great grand sweeps and forget the details.

But, you know, when I look at the actual things that I enjoy in the summer, it’s more of the same: the immediate things, like waking up, cycling to work, eating good food, and seeing my family. I just lose the value of them in the rush, the same way that someone with twenty pairs of shoes appreciates the twenty-first much less than they did the second.

So maybe now, when joys are small and dear, is the right time for Thanksgiving.

(In any case, here it is upon us. Have a good one, those who celebrate it, and raise a glass to absent friends.)


* Yep. A large, soft Gund named Ursula. Wanna make something of it?

November 18, 2010
Open thread 150
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:44 PM *

One of the things I love most about learning another language is watching it slice the syntactic cake of the world in unexpected places.

Sometimes a language will lack some—to me—indispensable term or distinction. Dutch, for instance, doesn’t clearly differentiate between one’s nephew and one’s very small male cousin, or one’s niece and diminutive female cousin. They’re both neefje and nichtje respectively.

But equally strange are the vocabulary items that teach me some concept which has been lurking all my life in the inarticulate space between the English words I know. One such word is anderhalf. Literally, it means “another half”, but it is actually “one and a half”.

It can only be used adjectivally, never as a noun. So one can’t say drie gedeeld door twee is anderhalf (that would be één en een half). But one can ask for anderhalf liter sinasappelsap or say you’ll meet someone over anderhalf uur, and get one’s 1500 ml of OJ or meeting in 90 minutes thereby.

November 15, 2010
Plagiarism and the mechanics of privilege
Posted by Teresa at 07:15 AM *

Thesis: The primary way most Americans make money is the salary their job pays.

The primary mechanism of privilege in most Americans’ lives is that it enables those who have it to get jobs that are better and more lucrative than they could get on merit alone.

That said, here’s an utterly fascinating article by “Ed Dante” in The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story. It begins with Jonathan Barkat’s editorial note:

Editor’s note: Ed Dante is a pseudonym for a writer who lives on the East Coast. Through a literary agent, he approached The Chronicle wanting to tell the story of how he makes a living writing papers for a custom-essay company and to describe the extent of student cheating he has observed. In the course of editing his article, The Chronicle reviewed correspondence Dante had with clients and some of the papers he had been paid to write. In the article published here, some details of the assignment he describes have been altered to protect the identity of the student.
That is: it’s real. The author does what he says he does. Onward.

“Ed Dante” now:

The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business. I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): “You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?”

I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

I told her no problem.

It truly was no problem. In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else. …

You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students’ writing. I have seen the word “desperate” misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn’t write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren’t getting it.

For those of you who have ever mentored a student through the writing of a dissertation, served on a thesis-review committee, or guided a graduate student through a formal research process, I have a question: Do you ever wonder how a student who struggles to formulate complete sentences in conversation manages to produce marginally competent research? How does that student get by you? …

Of course, I know you are aware that cheating occurs. But you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it. Last summer The New York Times reported that 61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place. …

It is my hope that this essay will initiate such a conversation. As for me, I’m planning to retire. I’m tired of helping you make your students look competent.

It is late in the semester when the business student contacts me, a time when I typically juggle deadlines and push out 20 to 40 pages a day. I had written a short research proposal for her a few weeks before, suggesting a project that connected a surge of unethical business practices to the patterns of trade liberalization. The proposal was approved, and now I had six days to complete the assignment. This was not quite a rush order, which we get top dollar to write. This assignment would be priced at a standard $2,000, half of which goes in my pocket.

A few hours after I had agreed to write the paper, I received the following e-mail: “sending sorces for ur to use thanx.”

I did not reply immediately. One hour later, I received another message:

“did u get the sorce I send

please where you are now?

Desprit to pass spring projict”

Not only was this student going to be a constant thorn in my side, but she also communicated in haiku, each less decipherable than the one before it. I let her know that I was giving her work the utmost attention, that I had received her sources, and that I would be in touch if I had any questions. Then I put it aside.

From my experience, three demographic groups seek out my services: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.

For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let’s be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn’t get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.

One of Atrios’ ongoing themes on Eschataon is the cast-iron stupidity of many of the people at the top of our media and business elites. They simply are not competent in ways that comparable leaders and executives were in the past. Personally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the mainstream media’s large-scale grasp of information and their ability to analyze it went into a perceptible decline around the time that university degrees became standard for those jobs, and the salaries paid to top names went up.

You know why it’s harder to nail a rich kid who’s committing plagiarism in middle school or high school? Sure, they tend to go to better schools and have more resources, but that’s not the real answer. What does it is their parents’ willingness and ability to sue schools for academically disciplining their children. Their reason? If you flunk their kid for cheating, he or she won’t be able to get into a good university and thereafter get one of those really good jobs.

Fear of lawsuits is also the biggest reason universities don’t back up instructors who accuse students of cheating. A common euphemism: “It’s difficult to prove plagiarism.” It isn’t that difficult to prove it in an academic context. The hard part is demonstrating it to tone-deaf lawyers, judges, and juries.

Back to the article:

As for the first two types of students—the ESL and the hopelessly deficient—colleges are utterly failing them. Students who come to American universities from other countries find that their efforts to learn a new language are confounded not only by cultural difficulties but also by the pressures of grading. The focus on evaluation rather than education means that those who haven’t mastered English must do so quickly or suffer the consequences. My service provides a particularly quick way to “master” English. And those who are hopelessly deficient—a euphemism, I admit—struggle with communication in general.
The students who are hit hardest by this system are the ones who have to work while going to college, which curtails the time they can spend on research and writing, and who don’t have the money to pay for plagiarism. If they’re truly desperate, they can buy a previously used uncustomized paper, which greatly increases their chances of getting caught.
Two days had passed since I last heard from the business student. Overnight I had received 14 e-mails from her. She had additional instructions for the assignment, such as “but more again please make sure they are a good link betwee the leticture review and all the chapter and the benfet of my paper. finally do you think the level of this work? how match i can get it?”

I’ll admit, I didn’t fully understand that one.

It was followed by some clarification: “where u are can you get my messages? Please I pay a lot and dont have ao to faile I strated to get very worry.”

Her messages had arrived between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Again I assured her I had the matter under control.

It was true. At this point, there are few academic challenges that I find intimidating. You name it, I’ve been paid to write about it. …

I have become a master of the admissions essay. I have written these for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you’re Brown material, why the Wharton M.B.A. program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of your chosen course of study. …

You know what’s never happened? I’ve never had a client complain that he’d been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken. As far as I know, not one of my customers has ever been caught.

Read the whole thing. The comment thread is good too.

===========

Postscript: One of my habitual vices is answering questions at Yahoo! Answers. I’m usually reliable, but last night I did something slightly wicked. Here’s the question:

URGENT!!! WUTHERING HEIGHTS?
I have a huge essay due (only 5 paragraphs) but it counts a lot for my grade. The paper is pretty much on the setting of Wuthering Heights, but not just the setting in the beginning of the book, the setting throughout the whole book. I have to make a thesis statement about the setting, it could be anything, and in my essay I need to prove the thesis statement right. I really can’t think of a thesis statement, can anyone help? I would love for a lot of responses for this .. any details would be good too about the setting or anything .. my teacher gave examples such as why it’s always stormy and ugly at Wuthering Heights but it’s nice at Thrushcross Grange, why could that be? I guess that might make for a good thesis statement .. PLEASEEEE help :)
I sincerely doubt she’s read the book. Notice that her teacher has practically handed her the answer, but she hasn’t thought about the assignment long enough to notice that fact. Notice also that she’s trolling (in the original sense) for lots of responses containing lots of details about the book. She’s no first-timer at this.

If you tell querents too blatantly to suck it up and do their own work, Y!A is likely to hand you a disciplinary smackdown. Instead, I took my inspiration from the Flying Moose of Nargothrond’s Tolkien Homework Page, and came up with a coherent and defensible thesis about the setting of Wuthering Heights:

Here’s a thesis statement: Wuthering Heights is an early work of science fiction that takes place in a dimensional bubble separate from our own universe. We know this because any time someone gets too far from the Wuthering Heights/Thrushcross Grange/Gimmerton Kirk triangle (think Bermuda Triangle), they cease to exist as far as the story is concerned. Nothing outside the bubble is a solution to anything that happens inside it, no matter how logical that should be. Characters living inside it only leave if they’re desperate, and for some strange reason, they keep coming back. …
Don’t feel sorry for her. When I finished explaining the skiffy angle at more length, I gave her the standard answer, plus some useful additional bits of info. If she thinks about it for two minutes, she can pull together her five paragraphs.

Yahoo! Answers is full of kids who think nothing of dumping their entire homework assignments into a single query, including the teacher’s assignment header. Some of them do that with research paper assignments. I see no reason to doubt that “Ed Dante” is telling the truth.

November 13, 2010
Reason 6,136 that the internet is not a waste of time
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:10 PM * 86 comments

I’m not a regular reader of Roger Ebert’s blog. He writes good stuff, such as his deeply personal account of his experiences with the AA, but reticula longa, vita brevis, you know?

Still, right now he’s pulled the cork out of a bottle, and it’s interesting watching him deal with it. He wrote a piece on lonely people, and how he had come to understand something of the value that the internet has for them. He wrote it from the perspective of being one of those happy people who does not get lonely, and I think he goes astray as he does. He wants to attribute it to causes, to lost loves or love never found, but I tend to think that some of us are simply prone to longing.

I don’t even know what we long for. Not necessarily for companionship, or love, or friendship and interesting conversation; I have all of those in abundance. I’ve been married seventeen years, and I know I am beloved. My children adore me the way that children often do adore their mother. I have friendships both in person and remote. And I return all of these sentiments wholeheartedly. I’m not achingly lonely the way I was as a teenager. But still…

An evangelical type might tell me I long for his version of God. Madison Avenue will happily detail all that I should long for, and how much I can save by buying it while it’s on special offer. Many Americans, particularly conservatives, will tell me that I long for liberty, here in “oppressive” Europe. Perhaps any or all of these people are right, but I doubt it. My experiences don’t match their assumptions.

Something in me longs for a place I feel at home; perhaps that’s it. This has been particularly sharp in the past few years, since my move to the Netherlands. Homesickness and culture shock are both flavors of loneliness. But I have lived abroad all my adult life. I left America at 23, and if I went back now, I would not fit in. Looking around my expat-heavy office, I see that many people learn to wear that strangeness with an ease I rarely find.

Mostly, I think, it’s just part of who I am. I’ve learned not to try to fill that longing with unsuitable things. (Or perhaps it would be better to say that I’ve learned to try not to fill it with unsuitable things. The lure of chocolate and unnecessary bookbinding supplies frequently causes me to fail.) One can live with this thing, as one lives with depression or fatigue.

The first article got a lot of comments, and Ebert has just followed it up with another post. He seems particularly struck by the impact that abusive families have on children (a matter we are not unacquainted with here, of course). But he still spends some time groping for an explanation, making it something beyond simple character. I am reminded of at least one counselor I went to in the past. We didn’t make it beyond one appointment.

Then he moves on to talk about the nature of the comments on his first article, which seem to him like nothing so much as an AA meeting:

Reading more than 400 comments under my previous entry, it occurred to me that I was attending a virtual meeting. Usually on a blog people will comment on each other’s posts. Disagree. Attack. Correct. Support. Lecture. I sensed there was something different about this group of comments. I caught on that they were mostly first person. They were about the experience of that writer. They said, This is what’s happening in my life. They said, Here is how I feel about it. Nobody wrote back saying, The trouble with you is… or suggesting What you should do… Nobody was corrected. Nobody was attacked. Everybody spoke.

I know those conversations. I love such threads deeply, here and elsewhere. I am honored when they’re something I started, and uplifted when I join them partway. That sort of intense honesty also brings me back to PostSecret every week.

Such community, I think, is balm for the longing person. Knowing that one is not alone, even in the feeling of isolation, is a powerful and empowering thing. And reaching out of one’s own solitude, making others feel valued and important, fills the incoherent hole better than chocolate.

Kudos to Ebert for recognizing it. And thanks to you, here, for being such a community.

November 09, 2010
It’s good to be all the king’s men
Posted by Avram Grumer at 10:56 PM * 47 comments

Did Congress declare Educate the Public About the Hierarchy of Justice Week and I missed the announcement? Because the past few days have drawn a very clear diagram of the modern American law-enforcement privilege pyramid.

At the bottom of the pyramid, black and Hispanic men, who can be stopped on the street and frisked for no legal reason.

Just above that, college students, for whom a non-violent crime like hacking into a high-profile website nets a 30-month sentence.

Above that, local cops, who can kill an unarmed and restrained man and get a shorter sentence than our computer hacker, above.

What’s better than being a cop? Being a financial manager for “ultra high net worth individuals”. A Morgan Stanley Smith Barney money-shuffler in Colorado rear-ended a bicyclist, then drove off, but the state DA has decided not to bring felony charges, because that might affect the guy’s job.

But there’s a rank even higher than that! At the top of the heap, you get federal intelligence agents, who can destroy evidence in a torture-related murder case, and the Justice Department will just sit there “investigating” until the statute of limitations runs out.

November 07, 2010
Are those gears on your staff?
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 10:12 AM * 444 comments

I’ve been reading the to-and-fro about steampunk with great interest since Charlie Stross posted his rant. And though there have been great sweeps of argumentation back and forth, there’s one teeny tiny footnote I wanted to make to the original essay. I haven’t seen it around anywhere.

See, for me there’s a rich irony in the fact that Charlie cites China Miéville’s essay on Tolkien. Because one of the guys who would have been nodding along to passages like this?

It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers’ fortunes. In other words, it’s the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.

That would be JRR Tolkien. (Though he might have disagreed about contraception as a solution.)

There’s a lot of criticism, by Miéville and others, of Tolkien for his romanticization of a sanitized medieval era. I’m not sure I agree with that summary, even with regard to Rohan and Minas Tirith, but that ex-horse has worn out enough whips without me adding to it.

But there’s one society in Middle-Earth that is not based on the Middle Ages, not directly: hobbit society. It’s derived from a kind of intellectual Middle Ages 2.0, true, but not one of Tolkien’s creation. The Shire isn’t remotely medieval in its social structures: women own property (Lobelia Sackville-Baggins);§ a gardener’s son can become mayor; there are servants but there are no lords.

What hobbit society really is is an Arts and Crafts community. Possessions are few, handmade, treasured and beautiful: gifts circulate from owner to owner. There is work for all hands, but leisure time for parties as well. Even a gardener makes a living wage.

Using the Shire, Tolkien actually tackles the very subject matter that Charlie wishes the steampunk crowd would† **. It’s true that Saruman did not descend on Hobbiton in a zeppelin‡, and his zombies were cleverly disguised as half-orcs. Nor did his attempt at industrialization last long enough for Rosie Cotton to have to turn to prostitution to support her impoverished family. But the Scouring of the Shire is most certainly about the damage of empire, resource extraction and mechanization to a formerly peaceful society.

Now, I agree that Tolkien doesn’t really address the problem of the price of Victorian industrialization in any meaningful way, because he doesn’t engage with the roots of what created it. But neither did the Arts and Crafts movement itself; for all of its attempts at social engineering, its solution was basically to go back to a crofting and crafting society and try harder to make the economics work. Convince people on the upward curve of possessions-as-happiness to want less stuff. It was about as successful as any such movement in history has been (which is to say, not).

Though it failed, we still live with the legacy of the movement: ironically, many of the most beautiful steampunk artifacts draw heavily on the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the Arts and Crafts era. Meanwhile, the ecological slogan of “reduce, reuse and recycle”, and the pull of deep-value durable goods over disposable ones, comprise yet another attempt to get people to own fewer things and better ones. In other words, Tolkien’s proposal is still tempting.

Here endeth the footnote.


§ I stand corrected, and indeed did know that women in some medieval societies did own property. I’d still say that there’s a significant contrast between Lobelia’s agency in society and, say, Éowyn’s, but this is a distraction from my actual point.
† And do, but this essay is not about that.
** Note that none of this is in the films, apart from Sam’s brief vision in the Mirror of Galadriel
‡ Though Isengard would have been a fantastic mooring tower, with some pretty good thermals from the underground fires to boot

November 06, 2010
Like an arrow or like a banana?
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:48 PM * 150 comments

My personal philosophical Giant’s Drink—the thing I think about a lot and never find a way to adequately address—is the tension between what people are and what they do (or say). I usually refer to it as Essentialism versus Phenomenology1.

It’s my belief that this contrast has become an intellectual minimal pair, a distinction with a difference, in the aftermath of the Victorian increase in social mobility. The tool to parse the difference is the acceptability of discrimination against someone on a given basis. Once some circumstances of one’s life could change, there emerged a difference between discriminating against them on variant and invariant grounds2. It’s taken some time to work through; even in 1950’s America, for instance, blatant racism was unremarkable in many parts of polite society.

But here we are now, in a culture where it is no longer acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of what they are3. And yet the temptation remains, as long as we are human. No one has enough time to deal justly with everyone they run up against; prejudice and discrimination are low-energy ways of figuring out and fixing one’s place in the world, and using them in combination with immutable traits means one only makes a judgment once. We work hard to avoid doing these things, to find other ways of coping, because they’re easy.

One strategy is to focus on more mutable characteristics: the way people dress, the way they look at us and talk to us, the people they associate with. It’s certainly more flexible: to get another reaction, a person merely has to change their accidents rather than their essence.

Still, the easy impulse remains, and people blur the line in many ways. Patrick posted a link the other week about race and the recession from a British perspective. The article is going somewhere else, but it sideswipes what I’m talking about here on the way:

Today, in place of rigid schemas assigning people to races based on some supposed ‘bloodline’ or ancestry in an original human family - Aryan, Semitic or Hamitic as the case may be - we increasingly have a slightly less static, less schematic, but nonetheless essentialist hierarchy of cultures: we have moved from colour to culture, from body to belief…

And that shift has facilitated a certain amount of confusion about what racism is, and has provided an alibi not merely for anti-Muslim racism, but for more traditional forms of racism that single out, for example, young black men. The latter were the subject of a short screed by the Spectator’s in-house provocateur and shock-commentator Rod Liddle last year. The basis of his attack was that these men were responsible for the overwhelming majority of robberies, muggings and violent crimes in the capital. The statistics for convictions did not actually back this up […] However, the empirical claim was almost secondary. When challenged on his claim, Liddle explained that he wasn’t talking about ‘race’, but about ‘culture’. He suggested that there was a particular culture among these men that valued and encouraged anti-social attitudes and behaviors.

Of course, the deprecated cultures often turn out to have the very people in them that can’t be acceptably discriminated against on an essentialist basis. But even when they don’t, there’s an assumption that giving up one’s culture, one’s phenomenological characteristics, is easy—or even possible.4

I happen to disagree with this assumption, and the argument I’d use is the I coulda been a cheerleader argument. See, I was a geeky teenager, a little overweight and with bad skin. I read a lot of books and talked about weird things like Greek comedy and space travel. In theory, if I had started dieting in middle school, worn a lot of foundation (or makeup at all), stopped reading science fiction and ancient stuff, learned to converse in a manner more in tune with Seventeen magazine and made the right friends thereby, I could have been a cheerleader in high school.

But I would have had to abandon my values and the things I valued to do that. Those are the things that define me inside my head, the same way that my appearance defines me to others. They’re essential. And I couldn’t decide to do that at fifteen, sitting in the amphitheater watching the tryouts. I had to have decided that four or five years earlier. So it is with many phenomenological arguments: they require people to become something they don’t identify as truly themselves, and they require the process of transformation to have begun long since.

Where does phenomenon end and essence begin? Is there a simple bright line? I used to think so. I don’t any more.

The two places where I bump against this in my current intellectual life are both political: the implications of sexuality, and the tribal aspect of party affiliation.

In my adulthood, the vocabulary around sexuality has changed markedly, moving from a phenomenological assumption to an essentialist one. The distinction between heterosexuals and homosexuals5 is no longer “sexual preference”, but rather “sexual orientation”. But apart from the “God hates fags” gang, and the “this is your cross to bear, sucks to be you” crowd, that presents a problem, because essentialist discrimination is Not Cool anymore.

I think this is the argument that will finally win marriage equality among people who don’t know6 any gays. Here’s a video of what happens when phenomenological heterosexists are given an essentialist perspective. A certain proportion of the people shown will not retain the satori7, and others will find a phenomenological excuse to retain their bias. But what I see in the video is that the person on the street’s belief that essentialist discrimination is morally wrong is stronger than their xenophobia.

(The battle isn’t won yet. There’s plenty of essentialist distaste carefully disguised as phenomenological criticism, usually involving the word “lifestyle”. But note how much of it is deployed to prevent gays from living the same lifestyles as straights: marrying, adopting, serving in the armed forces.)

Political party affiliation is a messier and weirder thing. There’s a subset of people who think that party affiliation is a phenomenological manifestation (subject to change when someone gets mugged/loses their job8), but act as though it is essentialist. This is the source of much of the defensiveness around political dialog: the feeling that disagreeing with someone’s beliefs is tantamount to discriminating against them. Essence also influences phenomenon in the area of symbolic beliefs, which are markers of what people are masquerading as things they think are true.

This stuff gets everywhere. Is Deafness defined as something some people (don’t) do, or something they are? Should Asperger’s Syndrome be cured, or embraced as neurodiversity? Should felons be able to vote after they’ve finished their sentences? Should kids (or their mothers) avoid conspicuous differences to protect them from being teased? Is bullying something people do, or something they are?

Is anyone a stabber? Or do people just stab?


  1. Or, when I’m being less pretentious, noun versus verb. Feel free to suggest better terms.
  2. I’m talking about political and economic discrimination here. Forms of social discrimination (such as shunning), though closely related, are a distinct and slower-moving phenomenon.
  3. There are exceptions. Pedophiles, for instance.
  4. As was pointed out in the comments to my most recent entanglement with this issue, assimilation (phenomenological change) may not be possible if there is also a sufficiently visible essential difference. Then no change will ever be enough.
  5. The popular discussion has not yet absorbed anything more complex, like bisexuality. It will in time.
  6. that they know
  7. OK, probably just kensho
  8. I’m not doing a straight-up party equivalency thing here. But the impulse to tribal loyalty, applied to party politics, is pretty well universal across the political spectrum.

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