Haven’t Had a Good Fight in Ages

So here are some things to fight about:

1. Failing to make the distinction between sexism and misogyny is as unscientific as failing to make the distinction between authoritarianism and fascism.  Precision is important–if we actually want to solve the problem.

2. There is a certain disgust-inspiring smugness that goes with some flavors of agnosticism.  Yeah, sure, if you want to say, “I don’t know the answer, therefore neither do you,” then feel free; but not knowing something is a pretty silly thing to be proud of.  Agnosticism is a very specific epistemological position, and one that I think is wrong.  We can talk about why I think that when you lose your attitude.

3. Speaking of atheism, the fact that some atheists use their belief as an excuse for anti-Muslim bigotry says as little about atheism as the fact that some Christians use their belief as an excuse for homophobia says about Christianity.

I’m on a roll.

4. One more on religion (because if you can’t get into an argument about religion, you just aren’t trying): As an atheist–a materialist–I believe that the history of religious thought is as much a valid subject for scientific investigation as anything else in nature or society.  Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that only as a materialist can one actually understand the development of human thought, religious or otherwise.  Point being, the atheist who simply condemns religion as an evil without paying any attention to how it developed, to its complex and often contradictory role throughout human history, to how it emerged from and then in turn influenced the society that produced it, is being profoundly unscientific.

5. Concerning literature, I believe two contradictory things: 1) People can enjoy reading whatever they want, and ought not to be judged for it–if you say, “that book is horrible and you shouldn’t have liked it,” you’re just being an ass.  2) One important part of improving our field is to be sharply critical; if we don’t recognize what’s bad, how are we going to get better?  It seems like these two positions ought not to contradict each other, but in practice it always seems like they do.  ETA: This is apart from the content, especially in a moral sense, which is a whole different conversation.

6. Obama supporters keep pointing at things Obama has done that Republicans would have supported if Bush had done them.  And they’re absolutely right; there is a lot of that going on.  They seem to be missing the fact that they attacked Bush for doing the same things Obama is doing.

7. Expanding on something I said a while ago on Facebook: There is a difference between the prejudice felt by an oppressed people, and the prejudice felt by oppressing people.  Lenin spoke of the difference between the nationalism of the oppressor, and the nationalism of the oppressed. To just toss it away with, “prejudice = prejudice” is wrong-headed.  In the real world, A is never equal to A.  The history and experience of oppression makes a difference.  If you find yourself saying, “Black people say….” you are being a racist, an asshole, and an idiot.  If you find yourself saying, “White people say,” you are just being an idiot.

8. Last but not least, something we can all fight about: driving.  People who have the attitude, “I can drive in the left lane all I want as long as I’m going the speed limit,” are jerks.  People who have the attitude, “I should be able to go as fast as I want in the left lane no matter what else traffic is doing and if you’re going slower than I want I’m within my rights to tailgate you and flip you off as I zoom by on the right,” are jerks.  Both fail to realize that driving is a cooperative endeavor, and the more we all work together, the safer and more pleasant it will be.  It’s kind of like life.


Boskone:Doing it Right–Plus Pointers For Those Doing it Wrong

Geez, Boston. Got enough snow?

Boskone, or Snowkone, if you prefer, was everything I hope for in a convention.   I don’t like mentioning people, because I’ll leave someone out and feel bad, but the whole thing was a joy. I was very well taken care of by the convention, the panels were fun, and the weather wasn’t all that much of a problem except that too many people I wanted to hang out with couldn’t make it or could only make it for a while (I’m looking at YOU, @rnmelton). I missed saying hello to my old friend Vicki, and would have liked to have spent more time with Charlie Stross, but I can’t really complain. The VP dinner was a delight. Great good times. Thanks to everyone who made it so much fun.

I need to specifically mention the bio that Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote for me.  Some conventions seem to have abandoned the old tradition of finding someone to say nice things about you in the program book, and then laughing at you when you get flustered.  And since I’m on the subject of conventions, here are a few things that Certain Other Conventions can learn from Boskone (and Minicon, and Loscon, and many others who do it right). Some of these are from my experience, others from friends.

1. If you can’t afford to give your guest’s “+1” a free membership, you can’t afford the guest. This applies to GOHs, and to those invited to participate in programming in exchange for a membership. When you say, “We will give you a free membership, and give your friend a special reduced rate,” you look like you’re in over your heads, and many of us worry about being trapped at a convention that is going to fall apart. (Some of us have been to those, and failed to enjoy them.)

2. If someone in your department, or in another department, is screwing up, do not try to enlist the guest on your side of the political infight this has produced within your convention committee. If you aren’t all working together in perfect harmony, fake it.

3. The thing of offering the GOH a choice between giving a speech and being interviewed is relatively new, and awfully nice. (Thanks, Jo–that interview was a high point of a great weekend.) But if the GOH must give a speech, let him or her know about it. Preferably before the convention.

3.1. Heads-up: A panel with one person on it is called a “speech.” See above.

4. Do not ask the guest to write a free story or draw a free picture or whatever, even for charity. (I’m a little embarrassed to mention this one, because after feeling all put-upon by one convention that asked me to do that, I developed some major health problems, and the next year I was the charity. It was extraordinarily kind, and I still have warm thoughts about them. But still. You ought not to do it. Or at least, make sure the guest knows about it before accepting.)

5. Checking the guest into the hotel before he or she even arrives is not required, but, oh my god, it is wonderful when it happens. I mean, Cesare H. Tapdancing Borgia, is it nice! You get to the hotel, exhausted, stressed, worried that you’re going to suck as a GOH, and someone walks up to you and says, “Here’s your key. Go to your room and chill out. Want help with your bags?” Until you’ve been in that situation, you have no idea just how big a deal that is.

6. First thing, even before the room, make sure the guest knows where meals and such are coming from–ie, if you’re supplying a per diem, put it in the guest’s hand before he or she has to ask; if the charges can go to the room, say so. This is to save embarrassment. Some of us feel really weird saying, “So, um, I’m hungry. Can you, er, buy me a meal?”

6.1 ETA: This is more of a note-to-self to check on it before accepting an invitation, but, if you’re offering a per diem, make sure it is actually enough to feed the GOH and any guest for the time you’ve asked them to be there.

7. Having a programming questionnaire that includes things like, “what events do you not want to be against,” and, “who do you want to do panels with,” and, “who do you not want to be panels with” is also relatively new, and a very fine thing that saves a lot of irritation. For the record, there was no one at Boskone that I asked not to do a panel with, but I very much appreciated being asked.

8. After the convention, if the guest didn’t suck, say so. I mean, give us a bit of reassurance. You would be amazed at how insecure we can be. “They hated me,” we say to ourselves. “I was stupid on panels, and didn’t talk to enough people, and they really wish they’d invited Jerry Pournelle instead.” (To be fair, as a guest, you should do the same–if they ran a good convention, like Boskone did, tell them so. Hey, Boskone, you rock!)


Rant: Idiocies About the American Indian

Someone on Facebook published this quote by Ayn Rand:  The Native Americans didn’t have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using…. What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.

I would like to believe no one on this blog needs an explanation about how utterly disgusting that is.  In my opinion, it flows naturally from the concept that property rights are above–or a part of–human rights.  This is what one would expect of such an ugly, reactionary philosophy.  But it was the comments of some of those attacking the quote that made me roll my eyes.

“They were one with the land,” went one predictably inane remark.  And, “they were a part of nature,” went another.

First of all, probably the most offensive thing is referring to American Indians as a monolith.  I mean, seriously?  The pastoral (in the literal sense) lifestyle of the Navajo is somehow identical to the complex agricultural life of the Powhatans or the Aztecs?  The nomadic life of the Lakota is the same thing as the settled life of the Cherokee or the Seneca? The ancestors of the Pueblo who lived in Mesa Verde had the same life as the Iroquois of the Great Lakes?  Some tribes in the Kansas Territory supported abolition, others owned slaves  But they’re all the same?  What the fuck?

Second, what is this, “one with the land,” bullshit?  Like every human being ever on the planet, the American Indian, in different ways, according to the development of productive forces and the nature of his environment, consciously altered that environment. That is what human beings do.  If we are “a part of nature” then the form that “oneness” takes is conflict.  We wrest our living from nature, in conflict, as does every other living thing right down to the microscopic parasites in the intestines of our dogs.  What makes human beings unique is our ability to planfully alter nature in accordance with our wishes–we not only build tools, but we build tools to build tools.  This activity changes nature, adapts it to our needs.

This “one with nature” crap is only one, tiny step up from the racist “noble savage” idea every serious anthropologist had abandoned by the end of the 19th Century.   And speaking of anthropologists–it is very popular today to dismiss the work of Lewis Henry Morgan, and cry racism for his use of terms like, “savagery” and “barbarism” and “civilization”  in defining cultural states.  But Morgan, who took the time to study and learn the nuances and subtleties of the different tribes with whom he lived, was far, far more respectful than the “one with nature” types we run into today.

By claiming that those who lived on the North American continent didn’t planfully change their environment, and by lumping them together, you are, in essence, denying them humanity, every bit much as Ayn Rand does.


Rant: The Study of History

Not long ago, someone I know made a remark that perfectly captures an attitude I have run into a thousand times:  “Something[‘s] been on my mind. History is essentially a fiction, a creative retelling at best. We shouldn’t judge our history on its accuracy but more on whether it leaves us empowered enough to have better lives. This idea has been abused, though.”

Been abused? Similarly, the Bush and then the Obama administrations decided the NSA could spy on US citizens, but this power has been abused. In case you missed it, that was irony; of course it was bloody abused, because its fundamental nature is abusive. The idea that the study of history is fiction starts off as rubbish and then gets worse.

Let me make one distinction right off, because it often seems to be a point of confusion:  there is a difference between history (what happened in the past) and the study of history (our understanding and opinions about what happened in the past). It seems trivially obvious that the object of the latter is to come as close as possible to the former, but, in any case, they aren’t the same.

There is more to the study of history than accuracy, but it must start there, with the struggle to find out what actually happened. It isn’t easy, and obviously any historian is coming at it from a particular viewpoint–the best of them make clear what this viewpoint is. But after we have determined what happened (yes, six million Jews were murdered, even if you feel more empowered believing otherwise; yes, the slaughter of the American Indian and the near destruction of his culture actually happened; yes, Bush really did sanction torture and Obama really is committing murder without due process, no matter how empowering it is to you to deny these things), we need to understand why. Once we have committed ourselves to the ongoing (and very difficult) task of determining what actually happened, we have only begun. Because the point of the study of history goes beyond, “it is good to know what happened.” The point is to be able to generalize–to understand the working of historical laws in order to make them work for us in the same way that we learned about the General Theory of Relativity and now use it in our GPS devices. Of course Einstein’s work was very difficult; and yet, one rarely hears a physicist say, “determining the laws of the motion of matter on the subatomic level is very difficult, so I think I’ll just conclude there are no laws.”

Ah, what is that I hear? Grinding teeth? What is that I see? Rolling eyes? Yes, I said historical laws–the laws of motion that apply to the actions of socially organized human beings over time. The absurdity of those who deny such laws exist is usually self-evident. What is theory? It is merely generalized experience. So let me put it this way:  If you are going to say there is no such thing as historical law, then be aware you are contradicting yourself every time you wave your arms in frustration at the American voter and say, “Didn’t they learn anything the last time we had a <fill in the blank> in office?” That thing you just did was complaining that other people are failing to make the correct generalizations about history. (A note in passing:  I believe that, if you are saying that, you are failing to make the correct generalizations about history, but that is another discussion.)

We know about the law of combined development (that the technology base of a culture can leapfrog, taking what it learned from another culture and, not just catching up, but surpassing it with entirely new technology). We know that economic systems that were an advance at one time–as landlord-based feudalism was an advance over a society built on slave labor–will at some point begin taking society backward and need to be replaced, as capitalism replaced the feudal-monarchical system. We know that there has been a trend, over the vast scope of history, for more personal liberty and greater democracy. Knowing these things permits us to draw important conclusions about what is happening now, and what needs to be done about it. When we see widespread attacks on democratic rights, we need to be able to draw conclusions about whether this is a fluke because some individuals happen to be not nice, or if it is part of a broader, more systemic problem. The study of history is invaluable in making this determination, and this study has nothing whatever to do with how “empowered” we want to feel.

In my opinion, the study of history is in its infancy. We are still, on many levels, postulating the existence of the ether for describing how light travels. We need to understand better. But of one thing I am very certain: this understanding will not come from people who believe that history is fiction.

FUCK post-modernism

I made a tweet regarding events in Chile on this day in 1973, and included a link to an article that, placing the blame above all on Washington, was also critical of Allende.  Someone tweeted this back: “FWIW that narrative differs from the one you find in Chile, where e.g. Allende is regarded as socialist.”

The word “narrative” jumped out at me, and I realized suddenly that it had been months since I last spewed forth my utter hatred and disgust for post-modern philosophy.

Post-modernism is built on the notion that we can’t actually know anything, we only construct “narratives.” The very concept of “narrative” carries the implication that one is as good as another, and one chooses a narrative based on one’s goals.  But goals are subjective; truth is objective, and thus to interpret the world based on narrative is to deny that it is possible to actually know anything.  But all of human progress has come from the effort to know things, and then act on that knowledge.  It’s not about “narrative,” it’s about the effort to discover the  laws of motion that guide processes in the objective world.  This inevitably leads the post-modernist to reject the concept of progress.  I find this appalling.  Also, stupid.

Post-modernism works very hard to use language that obfuscates and excludes–that’s why it’s so easily subject to hoaxing; anything that wants to consider itself a science ought to make clarity and precision and transparency guiding principles.  In particular, post-modernism uses Marxist-sounding lingo in its effort to undermine what is most vital for Marxism–that is, understanding social processes and communicating that understanding to the working class.

As I said earlier, post-modernism attacks and rejects the very notion of progress.  They do so, today, using the latest and most advanced technology that progress has produced.

Post-modernism is built on attacking Enlightenment beliefs.  There were, to be sure, ideas produced by the Enlightenment that deserve serious criticism: the perfectibility of Man, for example, or the belief that human thought can be independent of time, place, and material conditions.  But post-modernism attacks what was most progressive in the Enlightenment: the idea that human beings can learn, can work to improve conditions, can make advances in social and economic equality.

Post-modernism not only rejects the notion that we can learn from history, but, in many cases, insists that there is no such thing–that there is no objective truth to be known in past events.  The idea that people will study history from the point of view of their own beliefs is not new; historians have known it as long as the discipline of history has existed.  To go from there to utter rejection of the validity of historical study is like saying that, because human beings are mortal, the medical profession should be abolished.  I suspect many post-modernists have visited a doctor (although, in many cases, I wish they hadn’t).

During a discussion at this year’s Fourth Street, someone mentioned that, in the arts and sciences, post-modernism was most associated with, among other things, architecture.  Someone at the table where we were sitting remarked, “I don’t know about you, but I want the person who designed the building I’m in to believe there’s an objective world.”


ETA: After some discussion with jenphalian, it seems I need to clarify something.  The word “narrative” is not, in fact, evil.  There are times it’s appropriate when discussing someone’s view of events and interpretation of facts.  But I will stand by my position that these times do not include efforts to understand politics, economics, or, really, anything beyond the personal level.