In defence of the Ptolemaic Model (sort of)

Continuing with my fascination with using historical astronomy to discuss problems in science, today I will be looking at how science can believe silly things for a really long time, before finally everything clicks into place.

From antiquity until the late 16th century, the dominant belief was that everything went round the Earth. The Sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, all of it was whizzing round a completely static Earth, that doesn’t even spin on its axis. Oh, and everything zooming around the Earth is made out of a special substance called aether, embedded in spheres which are also made out of aether.

Now, this might all sound rather ridiculous to our 21st century ears, but 500 years ago, this was not just what the uneducated peasants believed, but what the key scientific thinkers of the time would have used as a theoretical basis for everything astronomical. And the reason for this was because the Ptolemaic Model worked.

The way we’re usually taught the story went is that everyone believed bullshit for a long time, and the church was to blame for this, and when Copernicus came along with his model, it was only the Catholic church that really got in the way of it being immediately widely adopted, by virtue of doing shit like locking up Galileo.

However, this is only partially true, and it definitely wasn’t as linear as that.

The Ptolemaic Model seems absurd from our perspective, because it goes to almost comical backflips to explain observable phenomena which can easily be covered by “it all goes round the Sun in kind of elliptical orbits, duh.” For example, planets sometimes appear to switch direction, and start moving “backwards” across the sky (this is known as retrograde). This is pretty easy to explain if you grok that everything is moving round the Sun at different distances: we’re overtaking them, or they’re overtaking us. However, if you whack the Earth in the middle, like we did for millennia, this requires things to be moving in small circles in their bigger circle around the Earth. I want to try and explain this better, but to be quite honest, I’ve tried and tried to get my head around epicycles, equants and deferents, and I can’t. Basically, lots of circles are moving around in a really fiddly fashion.

However, here’s the thing: it worked. It worked really well at accurately predicting where everything would be in the sky. It worked so well that it took over a century from Copernicus’s publication for a heliocentric model to become dominant, because for most of what they were doing, using the old model worked just as well, and this was, after all, the model that the scientists of the day had learned from their own training.

Firstly, critiques of the Ptolemaic Model existed pretty much from the time Ptolemy’s model was developed. From pagans in Carthage proposing that Venus and Mercury went round the Sun, to the Islamic scientist ibn Al-Hatham who literally wrote a text titled Doubts on Ptolemy, there were always, well, doubts on Ptolemy. However, observations that contradicted the Ptolemaic Model were usually explained away in terms of a model which was still geocentric.

When Copernicus published his theory, the most influential astronomer of the time, Tycho Brahe, acknowledged that Ptolemy had a lot of problems, but also acknowledged that Copernicus had a whole bunch of problems, too. He therefore created the Tychonic system, which agreed with Copernicus that the Earth rotates, and the planets go round the Sun… but that the Earth is stationary and the Sun goes round the Earth. Again, with our modern sensibilities, this sounds on a par with Hollow Earther beliefs, but at the time it was quite neat, explaining many of the observations which had put holes in the Ptolemaic Model. It remained reasonably popular as a theory for another century or so, peacefully coexisting with the Copernican model, and indeed being really good for astronomers who didn’t want to get persecuted by the Vatican, and only fell out of favour when the weight of observations meant that the Earth had to be in motion around the Sun. This, by the way, was in the 18th century.

Oh, and while we’re at it, the Ptolemaic Model is still used these days for certain applications. Ever been to a planetarium? Their projectors are built with the innards resembling the Ptolemaic Model, with little circles moving round bigger circles. For an ancient theory, it was surprisingly robust.

So why did the notion that the Earth is the centre of everything persist so long? Mostly, it just made common sense. After all, it’s not like we feel the Earth moving around, when we look up at the night sky, it certainly looks like we’re in spheres within spheres. And, of course, it really does flatter our egos to think we’re the most important special snowflakes, rather than some insignificant little specks on a pale blue dot at the arse end of nowhere. It went mostly unquestioned for a long time because it was a strong theory which just so happened to also fall in with social constructs about our own significance.

Geocentric models were pretty decent, but they were also, at the end of the day, wrong.

It’s worth remembering the hardiness of the Ptolemaic Model when we look at other scientific theories which are taken for granted at present. I bang these drums a lot, but, say, for example, differences between men and women. Or, in fact, the existence of two biological sexes. Just because smart people believed in it since antiquity, doesn’t necessarily make it right.


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In which I review a book that I read: Playing The Whore

Since I heard that Melissa Gira Grant wrote a book about sex work, I’ve been desperate to get my grubby mitts on it. Having now read Playing The Whore: The Work Of Sex Work, I want to recommend that every single one of you reads this fucking book.

Weighing in at just 132 pages, I’m astounded Gira Grant managed to pack in so much vital–and radical–analysis in such an accessible format. Central to her thesis is the concept of a “prostitute imaginary”, a cobbled-together bundle of myths which occupies our minds. These myths are systematically examined and dismantled through a feminist lens. Everything you thought you knew about sex work is a lie, it seems. Did you know, for example, that among a sample of over 21, 000 women who do sex work in West Bengal, there were 48, 000 reports of violence perpetrated by police, but only 4000 perpetrated by customers?

Gira Grant has a theory as to why this may be the case. The forces of public imagination surrounding sex work run strong. Misogynists, law enforcement and feminists alike view a sex worker as always working, as nothing but a sex worker. She (as Gira Grant points out, this stereotype is always of a cis woman) is somehow deviant and subjected to stigma for her deviance. Simultaneously, focus is on representations of sex, rather than the concrete. We only see sex workers being arrested, or peek through a peephole to see what we want to see. With all of this going on, the voices of sex workers can easily be ignored, creating this situation:

These demands on their speech [in testimony in court and the media], to both convey their guilt and prove their innocence, are why, at the same time that sex work has made strides toward recognition and popular representations that defy stereotypes, prostitutes, both real and imaginary, still remain the object of social control. This is how sex workers are still understood: as curiosities, maybe, but as the legitimate target of law enforcement crackdowns and charitable concerns–at times simultaneously. And so this is where the prostitute is still most likely to be found today, where those who seek to “rescue” her locate her: at the moment of her arrest.

The book travels in a spiral, revisiting the same points over and over again to the joint problems of violence and coercion from law enforcement, and how other women, especially feminists, aren’t helping–and in fact, attempts to rescue can often make things worse, such as demonstrated in a case study in Cambodia, where attempts to “rescue” sex workers have led to many women being dragged away to “rehabilitation camps”, repurposed prisons where women have died or set to work long shifts behind a sewing machine.

A lot of what we as feminists have been doing wrong is related to “whore stigma”, which Gira Grant explains goes beyond simple misogyny:

The fear of the whore, or of being the whore, is the engine that drives the whole thing [a culture which is dangerous for sex workers]. That engine could be called “misogyny”, but even that word misses something: the cheapness of the whore, how easily she might be discarded not only due to her gender, but to her race, her class. Whore is maybe the original intersectional insult.

It is a desire to reverse away from “whore stigma”, which predominantly affects sex workers, but can also hit women who are not sex workers, which links with a lot of problems within mainstream feminism: Gira Grant theorises that it is no coincidence that feminists who are anti-sex work are also often transphobic. And, likewise, anti-sex work laws are often used against trans women and women of colour, from unfair targeting for stop and search, to disproportionate incarceration.

It makes for uncomfortable reading at times, this litany of our own mistakes as feminists, and perhaps nowhere is it clearer than in an analysis of objectification, and the feminist line that sex workers increase objectification of women. The evidence upon which these assumptions rest is dealt with in short order, and Gira Grant highlights the dehumanisation and objectification of sex workers at the hands of women, as silent props, and, often depicted in a frighteningly demeaning fashion.

In dismantling the myths, Playing The Whore offers glimpses of the reality of sex work, the diversity of all that this umbrella covers. The book explains neatly how sex work fits in among other forms of work, of how once upon a time, sex workers and housewives were sisters in arms. At times, I wish the book were far longer, as I feel as though there are tantalising hints of analysis to come which never quite develops but is merely teased. Although this book is neither explicitly anti-capitalist nor explicitly ACAB, conclusions of this nature bubble under the surface, never spelled out, for this is not quite within its scope in its current form.

This book is a must-read feminist book. I would go so far as to place it as a crucial Feminism 101 text. The first feminist book I ever read way Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, whose ideas I am still struggling to unlearn, as it gave me a shameful attitude towards sex workers and femmes for years I will never get back. Playing The Whore casts a critical eye on patriarchy while actively dismantling the stigma many women face, and teaches the central feminist values of listening, and solidarity. For readers more versed in feminist theory and praxis, it allows us to evaluate our past mistakes and encourages us to rebuild on more solid ground. By rights, this book could and should shake up feminism for the better.

But sadly, I fear it will not, for I fear the forces Gira Grant outlines are too powerful to be brought down by this smart little book. We have had centuries of clinging to a prostitute imaginary while coming up with numerous excuses to silence the voices of sex workers. I believe that this book will largely be ignored by the mainstream with their stake in speaking for and over sex workers. A recent review of Playing The Whore by a liberal cis white feminist took umbrage to Gira Grant’s centring of sex workers in a book about sex work, and decided that she would rather read about “demand”. Mainstream feminism wants sex workers decentred from discussions directly pertinent to their livelihood, it wants to keep sex workers on the margins. It will not listen.

Gira Grant knows this, which is why she concludes with a rousing cry for decriminalisation, in the hope that the rest will follow. This conclusion, and the solidarity Gira Grant asks for are concrete things which we as feminists who do not do sex work can support.

Happy birthday, Voltairine de Cleyre

Happy birthday, Voltairine!

I hope this virtual birthday card breaks all realms of plausibility and somehow reaches through space-time to you. 145 years after your birth, you’re still remembered and much-admired.

I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that those who remember your name comprise a radical bunch of anarchists and feminists. Your speeches and writings, more than a hundred years later are still cited by us, loved by us.

There often comes a moment when I think to myself, ‘what would Voltairine do’? This usually comes when discussions of action come up, and I always think about your essay, Direct Action. The bad news is, in my time, we’re seeing an increase of rejection of the tactics of direct action. These days, you can’t break a window without a clusterfuck of liberal handwringing.

I know it was much the same in your day, and that we still haven’t combatted liberalism, but the state has made itself more powerful than ever, with the advent of new technology,and abuses this privilege to send people down for the smallest, most peaceful actions such as sitting in a shop. They’ve taken away our ability to strike, Voltairine: the once-powerful unions now defanged dinosaurs.

The will of the unions just isn’t there anymore. It’s hard enough to get them to walk out for a day, let alone the burning steel-mills and sabotaged printing-presses you wrote of.

Direct action is the only way we can achieve change, I agree with you and so do many. But while the spirit is willing, right now the flesh is decidedly weak. The best we can muster is a lot of people going camping, which has pissed off the police a bit, but it looks to me like people waiting around to achieve a majority while in a state of mild discomfort. It’s nice to see baby steps, but I feel like the time has come to run head-on at the whole corrupt system.

You’d probably shit a brick if you saw it, Voltairine.

With social issues, we’ve hardly got much better. Although men are no longer legally allowed to rape their wives, most of Sex Slavery still applies. Our mass-media sells women the idea that we must truss ourselves up in discomfort and dedicate our lives to attracting a mate. They mask fear of women’s sexuality in “oh God, think of the children”, thus dragging the next generation into this way of thinking.

As for marriage, you were absolutely spot-on there: your thinking still resonates a century later. The divorce rate is steadily climbing, but despite this, society insists on banging the marriage drum. In good news, the right to marry will soon be extended to same-sex couples. In bad news, that means a whole other bunch of people will have that norm forced upon them. It looks like equality, but it smells like extension of oppression.

In the long run, some things have got a bit better, but really nothing has happened. It’s not your fault, Voltairine, it’s ours. We haven’t been doing enough.

The few of us who remember you, we are continuing your battle, we are inspired by you. We commemorate your birthday. We will fight until your thoughts become an amusing historical artefact, a time capsule of a life before liberation.

Happy birthday, Voltairine!


Stavvers xxxx

P.S. If you ever fancy coming to visit, try to settle your differences with Emma Goldman. Her and Mary Wollstonecraft have mastered time travel.

Edit: Voltairine, I spoke too soon. On this, your birthday, people in New York are blockading Wall Street, engaging in a massive act of direct action that has been labelled “economic terrorism”. I’m sure you’d be happy.

A daydream I had

Sometimes I daydream about spending time with historical figures. It is not because my real friends are crap; they are good enough. They simply lack the mystique required for daydreaming.

This particular fantasy begins, as most do, with a historical figure showing up on my doorstep. The set-up is largely irrelevant: it is a contrived scenario which allows everything to happen, much like a porn film but without any fucking.

“Hello,” says my visitor, “I am Mary Wollstonecraft. I hear you like to harbour time travellers in your imagination so you can show them around 21st century life. Do you mind if I stay with you?”

“Of course,” I beam, delighted by my new houseguest. “Come in, I’ll show you everything.”

Mary Wollstonecraft follows me into my kitchen. “This is a kettle for boiling water,” I say, brandishing the cheap white Tefal. “It runs on electricity. I’ll explain electricity properly later, but basically it’s how we fuel most things round here these days. It comes out of here.” I point to the plug, then run my hands along the wire.

We drink tea, and Mary Wollstonecraft looks politely baffled by my slightly confused attempt to explain the physics behind electricity. I worry slightly about taking her outside and having to talk her through how cars work. It doesn’t help that I have no idea how the internal combustion engine functions myself.

Next, I show Wollstonecraft my room. I have braced myself to explain television (“like a play, but everyone in the country can watch it in their houses! It runs on electricity, too. Remind me to explain electricity to you later.”) and the internet (“sort of like telegrams, except MUCH faster and you can said it yourself. Wait, you do have telegrams in your time, don’t you? Oh fuck it. It’s like letters except instant. And it runs on electricity, which I promise I’ll explain to you at some point.”). Wollstonecraft surveys the room, her eyes glancing over all of the features: the TV, the computer, the pile of dirty laundry in the corners.

Finally she pauses. She stares intently at the bookshelf.

“You still have books here?”

“We do,” I say. I shove my Kindle under yesterday’s newspaper. I don’t think I’m ready to tell her about ebooks.

With wonder, she runs her hands along my disorganised collection of books. “They are bound in paper,” she says quietly.

Her fingers alight on one particular book. Slowly she pulls it from the shelf.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

“I wrote this book,” she whispers.

Bollocks, I think to myself. What if she hasn’t already written it? What if I have just created a temporal paradox in my daydream, and I’m going to have to spend the rest of this tube ride imagining some sort of situation where Mary Wollstonecraft develops memory loss before she goes back to her time and writes that book? I knew I should have put it in my handbag before I invited her into my fantasy.

“What year is it?” Wollstonecraft asks.

“2011,” I reply.

“That means I wrote this book more than 220 years ago,” she says. “Are you free now?”

“Let me show you,” I say. I am relieved. She is less concerned with understanding electricity and more interested in the state of modern gender roles. This will be much easier for me to talk about.

I take Mary Wollstonecraft to a high street. Her brow furrows in disgust at billboard after billboard advertising products to make women beautiful. Baubles and trinkets.

I sit her down and we read The Blank Slate together.

“So science has proved that women are naturally inferior after all?” Wollstonecraft sighs. She is tearful in her disappointment.

“Quite the opposite,” I say, handing her a copy of Delusions of Gender. “It’s just that there’s still a lot of people who think that women are weak and inferior and will speculate as to why with a Darwinian fairy tale–remind me to tell you about Darwin later. You were probably right with your assessment that it’s all down to how we treat women.”

“How does that affect women?” she asks.

I do not speak for quite some time. Silently, I roll us both cigarettes. Wollstonecraft does not smoke, and finds my perpetual smoking rather unpalatable, but I know she will need it for what I am about to show her.

“I am going to show you something horrible.” I pass her a copy of More magazine.

She reads it; I hear her periodically scoff and harrumph. As her hands start to shake with rage, I pass her the cigarette, lit. She takes a long drag.

“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT?” exclaims Mary Wollstonecraft. The cigarette drops from between her lips and burns the paper.

“Seriously, what the fuck is this shit? It’s all just beauty regimes to attract a man, and shopping and fucking and it’s all about pleasing a shitting cockfuck arseholing cunthammer man!” Wollstonecraft, as conjured by my imagination, is somewhat less eloquent and rather more profane. She is completely right in her assessment of the magazine.

Wollstonecraft exhales in long puffs until her face is no longer puce. “I had vainly hoped that some things might have changed.”

“In a way, they have,” I say, by way of reassurance.

“They have not. You may claim to have nominal equality of the sexes, yet it is all the same. We still teach women inferiority and weakness. Women are still kept in a state of utter abjection!”

I nod.

“Mary Wollstonecraft, will you help me amend this?” I ask.

“I shall,” Wollstonecraft replies with smouldering determination.

A training montage ensues wherein I guide her through some of the more problematic aspects of her thinking, such as her attitude to the working class and her religiosity. I also teach her about things which were never discussed in her time, like sex toys and queer politics. She is a swift learner. As she is loudly decrying certain radical feminists for their transphobia, there is a crash at my front door.

Where once there stood a front door, there is now a woman clad entirely in red and black, wearing a belt of milk bottles with protruding rags. Framed in smoke, she is brandishing a weapon: a brass ray gun.

“Hello,” she says, “I’m Emma Goldman. I’m here to help you smash the patriarchy.”

Of course, the problems identified by Wollstonecraft two centuries ago cannot feasibly be solved with an imaginary time travelling steampunk anarcha feminist collective, so I will leave the narrative there.

There is still work to do. A lot of it. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is largely as relevant today as it was when written. As Mary Wollstonecraft would say, fuck that shit. 

Maturity and making peace with the establishment

I recently took the Political Compass test. I rather predictably ended up in the bottom left (the anarchist corner), though I do not think it is a brilliant measure of where a person lies politically–some of the questions were worded poorly, and I think more than two dimensions are required to measure political leanings and… That is essentially beside the point. This post is about one of the questions on the test:

“Making peace with the establishment is an important aspect of maturity.”

I have heard this line before. I have heard it from trolls. I have heard it from friends. It is nigh-on memetic. Grow the fuck up and accept the system.

I vehemently disagree. To unpick this statement, let us turn to the work of Jean Piaget, a hugely influential developmental psychologist. Piaget’s research focused on how children learned, and how they mature cognitively. Through observation and experimenting with teaching, he identified key cognitive milestones which children pass as they mature.

According to Piaget, children are natural, curious “mini-scientists”. As they grow older, they develop and refine the ability to develop and test hypotheses, building an understanding of how the world works. Maturity is dynamic, as conceptualised here: a constant quest of questioning everything. Making peace with the establishment is the opposite of this: making peace with the establishment is to take a step back from logical experimentation and exploration.

Acceptance of the establishment also requires the belief that everyone thinks the same way: that the established set of default options is what is generally accepted as correct and that anyone who believes otherwise is somehow strange. The belief that everyone thinks in the same way as you is known as egocentrism. According to Piaget, one should grow out of this belief by the age of seven.

Unswerving acquiescence has an ancient tradition. In is apparent in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 3 is basically St Paul bollocking the Corinthians for being immature and telling them to grow the fuck up and do what God tells them. A little later in the same book, the famous quote comes up:

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me (1 Corinthians 13:11)

Here, Paul is talking about settling down into a monogamous relationship and starting the traditional family favoured by the system.

For two thousand years, submission to the established order has been incentivised by dangling the carrot of maturity. When boiled down, it sounds like a schoolyard taunt. “If you don’t do as we say, you’re a baby“. It is the clique setting the rules, enforcing their law in any way they can. The law of the playground plays out on a large scale, and many of us buy it wholesale.

In a way, I was lucky to be so thoroughly unpopular at school that nothing I could do would gain social approval. I grew immune to such disdain and therefore had the means to allow myself to flourish. I read, I tried on identities. I experimented with views and beliefs. I learned all I could. And I came to the conclusion that something was not right in the world, and I fight what I, through Piaget’s top level of reasoning, concluded was correct. I accept I may be wrong, and presented with good evidence can be swayed.

I arrived where I am through thought. Surely this is more mature than blind acceptance?


Lysistrata’s direct action

An interesting piece of news today: women in Columbia have been engaging in a “crossed legs” protest, refusing to have sex until a road into their town is repaired.

The method of protest itself is not new at all: sex strikes have happened in many places, including Naples, Kenya and Belgium. The reasons vary: sometimes it is to end a war. Others, it is to stop men letting off illegal fireworks. It is an established form of protest: Lysistratic strikes are included on the seminal list “198 Methods Of Nonviolent Action“.

The term “Lysistratic strike” comes from the Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which the women on all sides of the Peloponnesian war decide to stop having sex with their husbands until peace has been negotiated. Although the play was written by a man, there are several woman-positive themes in the play. It is, essentially, a story about female solidarity. In order for the strike to work, all women must be involved–scabbing is simply not acceptable. When the women unite, they are incredibly powerful: their actions end a long and fruitless war. The message is empowering; it says, stand together, sisters, and you will prevail.

A second incredibly likeable aspect of Lysistrata is that it accepts that women enjoy sex. For a play that is two and a half millennia old, this is fairly advanced thinking. The women in Lysistrata are portrayed as having just as much difficulty with not having sex as the men. They are devastated to have to do without the lioness on a cheesegrater position.* They miss sex, because they really like it. Unfortunately, this kind of admission that women enjoy sex is sadly lacking from a lot of drama, even today.

Lysistratic strikes themselves have two huge positive points going for them. They are entirely peaceful, and they require a lot of solidarity with fellow women, as demonstrated in Lysistrata.

There are, though, problems with Lysistratic actions from a feminist perspective: there is a vast degree of submission to the patriarchy. When women go on a sex strike, two admissions are made:

  1. That men have all of the power
  2. That a woman’s only tool for negotiation is her body

The sex strikes that have occurred throughout history never address either of these issues–they focus, instead, on the issue of protest, be it war, or government formation, or fireworks. Once the fight has been won, the women return to relative powerlessness, their bodies returned to their husbands. It is this that differentiates Lysistratic strikes from more familiar labour strikes. In a labour strike, the workers withhold their labour until certain, labour-related conditions have been met. In a Lysistratic strike, women withhold sex until certain, non-sexual conditions have been met.

The word “withhold” is a loaded term itself: to use the term “withhold sex” implies that this is something that the women should usually be distributing: it is their role to fuck, and to refuse is an act of strike. It is seen as remarkable, that women are not fulfilling the traditional duties of marriage, their jobs. I am therefore relieved to see that Lysistratic strikes are not treated in the same way as labour strikes, where the full force of the establishment conspires to push workers back to work. I have seen no reports of systematic rapes following Lysistratic strikes.

It is not surprising, then, that Lysistratic strikes tend to happen in more patriarchal spaces, as they require patriarchy to be effective at all. It is also worth noting that heteronormativity plays a part in such actions: in a more queer community, wives refusing to fuck husbands would be far less noteworthy.

While it is pleasing for me to see women standing in solidarity in an attempt to make the world a better place, this is tinged with the foul taste of patriarchy which detracts heavily from the beautiful female empowerment it could mean. Lysistratic strikes are not about a woman’s control of her own body. It is a temporary withdrawal from a heteronormative, patriarchal role to make a point, and then a return to those conditions.

Lysistratic strikes cannot, by their very nature, overthrow patriarchy. So I will eschew this method of direct action, and instead continue my quest to understand the lioness on a cheesegrater position.


*If anyone works out what the lioness on a cheesegrater position is, please let me know. It’s been bothering me since I saw the bloody play.

Small victories: battling the Hydra

Heracles had the misfortune of being born the bastard son of a god with a terrible marriage. The scorned wife, Hera, hated the boy, and hated the man he became, and strived to make his life a special kind of suffering. Life was a losing battle for Heracles, plagued by a series of unbeatable foes.

He found himself, one day, striving to kill the unkillable. The Hydra. Many-headed, it dwelt in a foul swamp and bled poison. Heracles went for the obvious solution: he took a sickle and chopped one head off the beast. Its head landed with a satisfying thump. This will be easy, Heracles thought. One of my twelve labours over before tea-time. He kicked the head aside.

When he looked up again, he realised the magnitude of his task. Two heads had grown back where moments before there had been nothing but a bleeding, fizzing stump.

Fuck, thought Heracles.

Heracles was nothing if not persistent, though. He happened, with a little help from his nephew and wise Athene, upon a solution: kill it with fire.

Each head was hacked off, and the neck cauterised with flame.

The unkillable was slain. Heracles prevailed.

Today, we have beheaded the Hydra: the News of the World, the vile, filthy rag, has closed down. It was, as I had hoped only hours ago, slain by its own rhetoric.

It is only one head of the beast, though, and this head will grow back twofold. As the News of the World dies, another member of Murdoch’s empire will ascend. Murdoch now owns less of the UK media than before, so it becomes more likely that he will be able to finalise his purchase of BSkyB, filling our televisions with yet more of his tawdry, spiteful pap. Another Murdoch Sunday paper will spring up: the Sunday Sun, perhaps, or the Sun on Sunday, or even, given the tabloid’s love for terrible puns, simply the SUNday. It will rise up unless we cauterise the stump.

Even then, it is still a many-headed beast. There is the rest of Murdoch’s empire to take on. And beside those heads, there is that of the Daily Mail, hissing poison and hate. Next to the tabloids sit the broadsheets, chattering vitriol, appearing composed.

And it is more than just the media, this beast. What of the police, with whom money exchanged hands in the News of the World scandal? What of the government, who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the gutter press?

Most importantly, what of the system, of which these scandals are merely symptoms? Rags like the News of the World would never exist in a world without grasping, greedy capitalism, or misogyny, or racism, or rampant, intrusive voyeurism. These heads need chopping off and purging with fire.

Today we have witnessed something a tiny victory. It may not even be a victory without more of a fight.

Like Heracles, we must keep burning and hacking. He persisted. He had a happy ending. If we keep fighting, so might we.

Kallistei: the curse of Eris

Eris, the goddess of discord and strife, was pissed off. The other gods were having a party and nobody had thought to invite her. Perhaps they had snubbed her; she had a habit of ruining parties by disagreeing with everyone and trying to start a fight. Nobody liked to sit next to the goddess of discord when all she did was whisper gossip into their ears. “Hera finds your hunchback repulsive, Hephaestos”; “Demeter thinks you smell a bit fishy, Poseidon”; “You are literally the only Olympian Zeus wouldn’t fuck”.

It pissed Eris off, being left out like that: a perfectly enjoyable night of low-level discord at a wedding, which doubled the fun. She had been planning on seeing just how much she could ruin the happy couple’s union before the marriage were even consumated. If they had only invited her to the party, perhaps she would have played nice and spent just one evening without deciding that the world needed more wars and it was her job to make that happen.

Eris thought hard about how to spoil the party for those bastards who excluded her. Something simple, something divisive, something that would fuck shit up entirely. Turning an apple over in her hands, a plan formed.

Catfight, Eris thought. A catfight so epic it will be remembered for thousands of years to come.

Taking a knife, she carved a message into the apple. One word, a few letters with the potential to bring down cities.


The wedding feast was in full swing. Gods and heroes danced together, wine flowed. They did not see her there. Eris could have joined the party, but she was pissed off.

Eris lobbed the apple, high into the air. It tumbled, glinting gold. Heads turned skyward.

The apple landed with a bounce between three goddesses. Eris stood back to watch; a smile playing at her lips. They read the message.

Kallistei. For the fairest.

Aphrodite, goddess of love, declared that it must be hers. She was beautiful, she embodied passion and love. Surely it must be hers?

Cow-eyed Hera, the goddess of marriage, claimed the apple for her own. Her own marriage was a shambles: her husband Zeus fucked his way around the pantheon. They had never had the conversation about boundaries and limits. If they had, Zeus would not have heeded it, so Hera responded to his transgressions with vengeful wrath. Her insecurities led her believe that someone must see her as the fairest.

Even smart Athene, clever Athene, goddess of wisdom and warfare, fell prey to the apple’s message. Athene wished fervently that she were the fairest. She declared it hers.

To settle the dispute of who was most beautiful, the goddesses took what they believed to be the only democratic approach: they would ask a man to validate their beauty. They petitioned Zeus, king of the gods with a roving eye for beauty.

He refused. His relationship with his wife was fraught enough. Any answer he gave, he thought, would be wrong.

And so they chose a mortal man, Paris of Troy, who had a decent track record in settling disputes. The three goddesses agreed that he could judge their beauty and tell them, once and for all, who was the fairest, and who owned the apple.

Eris smiled.

Paris chose Aphrodite in the end. She had the power of enchantment and love, and promised Paris the love of the most beautiful mortal woman alive. The other goddesses bickered, knowing Aphrodite had played dirty. They were gratified as a war began. Athene returned to her rightful place, strategising over the Trojan war. Troy fell after a war of ten years.

Eris smiled.

The golden apples of the days of gods with human failings shift forms. They were, after all, only symbols of scarcity.

Yet the curse of Eris remains as potent as ever. Kallistei, emblazoned across this season’s must-have Louboutins. Kallistei, tattooed on the arm of the rock star boyfriend. Kallistei, vajazzled across a bald cunt. Divisive symbols, belonging only to the fairest.

We squabble, we beg men to validate our beauty, and Eris smiles.