Cargo cult activism

During the Second World War, the indigenous people of the South Pacific experienced an upheaval: suddenly their islands were flooded with naval airbases. It wasn’t all bad: the big aeroplanes bought exciting new things: food, clothes, medicines. The people grew to like it. When the war ended, the troops were gone, but the people wished the big aeroplanes full of fantastic goods would come back.

So they did what they thought would summon them. They built runways, performed military drills and fashioned air traffic control towers, where they sat wearing headphones of wood.

Unsurprisingly, the big aeroplanes never came back. It was never about the headphones or the military drills? Yet how were the cargo cults to know this? By all appearances, these trappings summoned the big aeroplanes and all of their bounty.

In activism, we sometimes find ourselves in a similar position. The most egregious example, perhaps, is the occupation of public squares. It stems from the uprising in Egypt early this year, where millions of Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square until they toppled their government and achieved regime change. Admittedly, things have not exactly got better for the Egyptians since their regime change, but the formula appears to go like this:

  1. Camp out in public square
  2. ???

And so Tahrir Square became something of a meme. In the months that followed, conscious attempts were made to copy the great Tahrir Square occupation. In Spain, they camped out in Puerto del Sol. In Greece, Syntagma Square. The UK made several attempts: on March 26th, the word went up to turn Hyde Park into Tahrir Square. People camped out in Trafalgar Square for several weekends. A picnic was held on the steps of the Bank of England that was called an occupation.

What do these things have in common? None of them led to a revolution.

Then there is the example of the ongoing occupation of Wall Street. The people have been there for weeks, now, and are gaining vast popular support. Comparisons to Tahrir Square have been made, of course. Unlike Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street is unlikely to lead to revolution: perhaps that was never their goal at all–the occupation has been described as its own demand. There is hope, of course. There is always hope: the occupation could genuinely be used as an organising space to build a better world if it so chose, but it will need to go beyond camping in a public square. The numerous copycat occupations springing up across the States are as unlikely to breed revolution as any of the other squares.

So what is the difference between these occupations and Tahrir Square?

As MagicZebras points out, it’s not about a bloody square. We are a cargo cult, pitching tents in public squares in the vain hope that it will summon better times.

Part of the problem is location. Tahrir Square was prominently placed in front of governmental offices, a visible statement of “we’re here and we’re watching you”. In contrast, many of the other square occupations, including Wall Street, have been tucked away in minimally-invasive places.

Another problem is numbers: millions of people were in Tahrir Square, in contrast to the thousands who camp out in the larger derivative square occupations.

Another big difference is the conditions from which the occupations sprung up: Tahrir Square happened after days of lively protesting and rioting, while all of the others, save Syntagma Square, happened in conditions of relative peace.

In contrast to organising camps such as Climate Camp or the Greenham Common Peace Camp, square occupations are often not used as a springboard for proximal direct action. This is a shame: Occupy Wall Street easily has the numbers and the proximity to do some serious disruption of trading, yet they have not. While its utility as a collective living space and a demonstration of communal spirit is admirable, it could do so much more.

And I wonder, then, if it is hamstrung by attempting to be like Tahrir Square. In Tahrir Square, their presence alone was disruptive: millions of people, refusing to leave until the government they despised had gone. In Wall Street, the protesters now have mayoral approval to stay as long as they like. Time will tell if they seize this opportunity and escalate. It is certainly the best way to move forward, if their ultimate aim is to fix a broken system.

In short, then, we must stop with the Tahrir Square cargo cult. Tahrir Square was perhaps unique: a product of its conditions. It was certainly not just occupying a square that caused revolution, and we may need to let go of the romantic notion that going camping will overthrow governments. For our own motivation, we must be realistic about what we can achieve with an action, rather than dreamy aspirations. Failure is ultimately disheartening.

We are unique. We are not Tahrir Square, and nor should we try to be. Let each action be a response to its own circumstances, with conscious awareness of our own strengths and limitations.

We are not Tahrir Square, and nor do we need to be.


Porn-blocking is a terrible idea. Full stop.

Anarchism suggests that the forces of the state, capitalism and religion interact with each other to restrict liberty. Sometimes anarchist propaganda writes itself, when the state, capitalism and religion get all nice and chummy with each other and join forces to restrict liberty.

In this case, four major ISPs have decided to start up an “opt-in” system for viewing “adult material” as part of a “think of the children” initiative from the government and a Christian lobby group. They have also set up a website to make it easier for people to complain about things that are unsuitable for children, although the site does not facilitate complaining about a government which is thoroughly unsuitable for children and will put almost half a million children into relative poverty during their existence.

The “porn-blocking” system will be based on the principles of adult content locks on mobile internet, which is hugely problematic. SonniesEdge has written a fantastic post about what is wrong with this system. For gay teens, internet pornography can save them from unwanted outing and risk of violence. For young people everywhere, blocking “adult material” means blocking advice about sexuality, sexual health, abortion and, very importantly, information for trans teens that they are not alone. To block this content is dangerous. Such systems do block this important content: my phone wouldn’t even let me open the post in which SonniesEdge talked about these problems!

There are issues with feasibility for porn-blocking: the internet is a big place, and there’s a lot of content. Two options are available: the “baby with the bathwater” option, where an overzealous internet filter also merrily blocks out innocuous websites about birds with slightly rude names or common names, so most people opt-in for adult material because it’s really annoying not to. The other option is a lighter filter which is rendered thoroughly useless by the fact that most porn gets through anyway. At any rate, either is useless. You can find anything on the internet if you work hard enough.

There will be ramifications from such policy, and for a system so geared towards “family values”, problems will arise within the establishment-sponsored nuclear family. What of relationships where one partner wishes to opt-in to see porn, while the other does not want hir partner watching porn? Furtive porn-wanks are rather harder when the internet bill differentiates between whether you get the porn or not.

I don’t believe porn is inherently misogynistic or racist or homophobic or transphobic. The thing is, most of it is. You have to work hard to find porn that isn’t somehow oppressive. By my own value system, I would rather not have my theoretical kids stumbling on material of that nature, lest they internalise somewhat that set of beliefs–and statistically, given the abundance of oppressive porn, that’s the stuff they’d be bumping into. I still think the porn block is an utterly rotten idea.

The problem is not that the big evil internets are corrupting our children. The problem is that we live in a world that allows oppressive porn to be the default, the dominant, the mainstream. The problem is patriarchy, the problem is kyriarchy, the problem is prejudice, both benevolent and hostile. The problem is that capitalism sees these things as a wonderful way to make money and reinforces these horrible beliefs, making itself richer while conditioning consumers to buy further into these values.

Capitalism is cleverly playing both teams in this little porn-blocking escapade. Its Ronald MacDonald head smiles benevolently and vows to protect the kids. Its Hugh Hefner head leers and asks a young woman if she would please bleach her anus so she can look just like all the other porn stars. Both become stronger: if they block the internet, young people will have a far harder time accessing information about why the mainstream porny view of sex and sexuality is so incredibly off, and what sex and sexuality can be. And that’s far more dangerous than accidentally stumbling on a close-up of improbably double penetration.

The solution is not to block the internet. The solution is to block the means for oppressive, artificial power structures to thrive.

Unlucky and lucky

Today is World Mental Health Day, and I mark it with the revelation that I have depression. One in four people will be affected by mental health problems at some point in their lives, and I am on the wrong end of those odds. Still, I am not alone: I know dozens of people who are affected by a rainbow of mental health problems. Sometimes, given my social circle, I forget that in our general culture, mental illness is still massively stigmatised.

And it is. There are many who do not believe that mental illness is “real”. Being “all in the head” is somehow distinct from physical illness. This is not true: many mental health problems require treatment, mental illnesses can be disabling, and the diseases of the mind/body distinction is false anyway. Despite this, when I go through bouts of depression, I am harangued by work colleagues about when I’ll be “over it” and back. Most days, I see tabloid newspapers screaming about how people are claiming disability benefits for depression. Of course they are. It can be debilitating.

Then there’s the treatment. I waited ages before I got any treatment. One dear friend of mine was twice referred to the wrong sort of counselling–only discovering this after having waited to receive this treatment for months. Another friend asked for bereavement counselling and was curtly informed there is a nine month waiting list for that. Treatment of mental illness leaves a lot to be desired.

Then there’s the having to explain to people that sometimes I won’t get out of bed all day, or I might run off in tears, or react strangely to something, and it’s not like there’s a magic wand to cure this problem. I’m different, basically, and that’s sometimes a little difficult.

Despite all of this, maybe I’m lucky–just a little bit lucky. As I mentioned, today is World Mental Health Day, and I have just given a run-down of the experience of a not-impoverished person living in the capital city of a developed country.

If I suffered from mental health problems somewhere else in the world, I’d probably be a lot worse off. Stigma is higher than that which is experienced in a reasonably-aware society. 4 in 5 people in developing countries do not receive treatment at all, even though treating a condition like depression is as successful as treating HIV with antiretrovirals. Mental health problems interact with other problems people face: people with HIV, cancer or other chronic conditions are more likely to experience depression, and as a result of their depression less likely to adhere to treatment regimens for their physical conditions.

And, of course, the elephant in the room: mental illness is a killer. Every 40 seconds, someone commits suicide.

There’s a lot to be done, and it needs to happen globally. Morally, we cannot let people continue to suffer from illness, and we need to get better at supporting people, both through treatment and through destigmatisation. Beyond morals, even to a cold capitalist it makes sense: improving mental health provides a big, happy workforce and a bunch of cheery consumers.

This is what World Mental Health Day is for: let us be aware of the vast public health problem in front of us, and give us the will to fix it.

Just FYI, this is what trivialising rape looks like

The rape apologist brigade often decry feminists for “trivialising rape”, perhaps by making distinctions between “serious rape” and “date rape”, or perhaps by suggesting that labelling non-consensual sexual experiences as rape is infantilising women.

What we do, though, is not trivialising rape at all. We argue that the legal definition is insufficient. We point out that the figures for rape are far larger than most people would like to imagine. We point out that people do not have to simply suck up the fact that they have been raped and that it is all right to feel horrible about it. We acknowledge rape as incredibly serious; we do not trivialise it at all.

On the other hand, some do trivialise rape. Take this chap, who thinks that building wind farms are just like rape, because he thinks windfarms are a bit ugly and they are subsidised by public money and he’s an unpleasant fuckwipe. Or this chap, who thinks paying taxes is just like rape, because he’s an unpleasant fuckwipe. Or this chap, who inexplicably managed to get himself elected as Mayor of London, who thinks giving money to charity is just like rape, because he’s an unpleasant fuckwipe.

It’s clear that these people have never been raped, and it’s telling that all three come from such a privileged position that they consider minor, trifling little issues which are actually beneficial for society to be akin to personal violation.

It is these unpleasant fuckwipes, not feminists, who trivialise rape.


Props to @thatsoph for finding the windfarm-rape article and @bc_tmh for the Boris piece.

It’s OK to wank over Foxy Knoxy now

Amanda Knox has won her appeal, and her conviction for the murder of her flatmate has been overturned.While I am no legal expert, it had seemed to me like much of the evidence against Knox had been circumstantial, and, considering further scrutiny found her innocent, it would appear that Amanda Knox is not a murderer.

Whether Knox was a murderer or not always seemed to me to be the important thing about the story: who killed Meredith Kercher? Was her flatmate somehow involved in the crime? Unfortunately, for many, this was not particularly relevant. Aside from the typical tabloid recounting of grisly scenes of murder, what was more salient was that Amanda Knox was an attractive young woman. The tabloids lapped it up. “Foxy Knoxy”, they called her.

It is immediately apparent that the interest had never really been in whether Knox killed anyone: after all, we never hear of Horny Hindley or Chesty Westy, as both Hindley and West were not deemed attractive or young enough to provide the fascination.

Amanda Knox, on the other hand, was reported on at times in a way that only omega-list celebrities going to the shops are reported. Take for example, the 2010 Mail article about Knox’s slander hearing: the headline read “AMANDA KNOX CHOPS OFF HAIR AND SUFFERS “DEPRESSION” BEFORE SLANDER COURT HEARING”. Here, the hearing–the actual, newsworthy part of the story–is added almost as an afterthought, behind the story of a young woman getting a haircut and suffering from mental health problems, which, with typical Mail sympathy, are hygienically sealed off with quotation marks as though they do not exist at all. The first line is even more telling: “The cool-headed composure and piercing blue eyes remain familiar from her murder trial.” Knox’s looks, to the Daily Mail, are far more important than the news.

The tabloids appeared to have quite the crush on Amanda Knox, and therefore desperately tried to crowbar in as many photographs of her as possible around slight allusions to the actual story. Never is this more apparent than in tabloid discussion of Knox’s sex life: gushingly lurid descriptions, followed by a slight tut-tutting, just so they don’t look too much like they’re cracking one out over someone who might be a murderer–except for those, like this tweeter, who actively preferred the idea that Knox was a murderer.

It must be an utter delight, then, for the crass media types to finally be free from the guilt of a crafty wank over a killer, following Knox’s appeal result. No-one was more open about this fact than Channel 5 televisual torture The Wright Stuff, who proposed as their phone-in question:

Parts 2 & 3: Foxy Knoxy: Would Ya?
So Amanda Knox has been cleared of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher. She’s entirely innocent. She’s also undeniably fit and loves wild sex. Or did. So if you were a guy who’d met her in a bar and she invited you back to hers, would you go? I’m being quite serious. Or would something in your brain make you think twice?

There are interesting, relevant things to be discussed around the story of Amanda Knox’s appeal. For example, what might be the impact of being imprisoned almost four years? How does this reflect on the Italian justice system? What about Raffaele Sollecito, who was also cleared on appeal?

Instead, though, there is the same old tired focus on Amanda Knox as a sex object rather than a human being, except now one can spunk on her photograph without having to fold the Daily Mail article over where it alludes to her crimes.

Our misogynistic media is thoroughly obsessed with two things: attractive young women and lurid crimes They must be utterly delighted that finally some legitimate wanking material has emerged from the story of a murder.


Man-flu: is it a real thing?

As I write this, I have tonsillitis. So does a male friend of mine. It came on at around the same time two nights ago, and we’ve both been taking the same medication. As I write this, he is curled up in a little ball, unable to swallow. Me, I’m full of soft food and blogging. So what is the difference here? Does my friend have man-flu? Is man-flu even a real thing?

Man-flu is the term used to refer to how men always seem to be iller than women. With a cold, men are more likely to label it flu than women. Apparently.

Note the distinct lack of hyperlinks in the above paragraph. This is because the idea of man-flu is based on anecdotal evidence, and a web-survey from readers of Nuts magazine. Nuts magazine has a certain target demographic, which is distinctly male, and asked some rather leading questions. From self-report, then, it would appear that man-flu does not really exist at all.

But then there’s the science–the actual, sciency-evidence-stuff that means man-flu must exist, and that men do get sicker than women. A study came out showing that men have weaker immune systems than women, because female hormones improve the immune system. It seems so clean-cut when viewed like that. Man-flu exists.

Except it doesn’t. That study was conducted on mice who were given a gene that generally doesn’t exist in humans. I don’t think any more needs to be said about how thoroughly unapplicable that finding is to real human beings.

Then there’s the evolutionary explanation, which sets my teeth right on edge as anything attempting to explain differences between men and women by the medium of “we were made this way” does. This explanation goes back to the hormones again: testosterone makes men more vulnerable, apparently. It all comes down to sex, apparently, and men have swapped the ability not to get knocked out by a little sniffle for greater reproductive success. There’s also another study which suggests women go down to “male” standards of infection after the menopause. Once again, the evidence to support these claims are shaky at best: it comes from single studies.

In terms of single studies, there are also some which suggest that women are worse off. For example, women tend to take more sick days, and tend to perceive more pain. Of course, these studies do not prove the existence of “woman-flu”; they are of roughly the same level of evidence as that “proving” man-flu.

In short, then, man-flu probably doesn’t exist, at least not in any way which has been scientifically detected. Perhaps, then, the effect is down to socialisation: perhaps men do tend to milk their illness more than women as they have been taught to do so by the pervasive man-flu myth. Or, perhaps it is down to stress: in one study of man-flu, the results were found to be explicable entirely by stress, and it is entirely possible that this effect is down to how men are taught to cope with stress (suck it up!) which impacts badly on their immune systems and makes them more ill.

At any rate, as a scientific phenomenon, men do not seem to be sicker than women as a function entirely of gender. If man-flu exists, it is a social phenomenon.

So my friend, the poorly friend, is not more ill because he is a man. I am not feeling better because I’m a woman. It’s likely to be down to individual differences: I am the sort of person who takes illness with a lot of stoicism. Once, while pissing blood from my head and in a post-seizure daze, I tried to send an ambulance away as I had decided I was completely fine and I could handle it myself. Apparently, my grandmother was much the same, and once tried to hide the fact she was having a heart attack as she didn’t fancy being ill at that time.

Individual differences. Socialisation. These are what make certain people sicker than others. Our gender is probably thoroughly irrelevant.