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Sunday, 1 March 2015

Racists do not Speak for Us

White liberalism has problems. First it was Bill Mahler on his Islamophobia rant, now it's a column in the Independent. They claim to speak for liberal values, which are often broadly reducible to atheism and LGBT people. I want to address this.

For too long, the atheist and LGBT communities have tolerated our self-appointed leaders seeking advantage in Islamophobia. Maybe Richard Dawkins and Peter Tatchell really think there is some threat of Sharia Law being imposed in the UK. However, this seems unlikely. Muslims make up a tiny minority in Europe in general and within the UK. Even if a majority of Muslims were in favour of abandoning a thousand years of common law, (which is already a dubious assertion), they don't have the political backing or the numbers to make this happen. The idea that this is some kind of threat is absurd. Dawkins and Tatchell are being deliberately disingenuous. These men are (presumably) smart enough to know better.

Meanwhile, Christianity, the majority religion, is often threatening to both atheists and LGBT people. One need look no further to our closest allies, the US, to see a country where Christian parents can bully their trans children to death, like the case of Leelah Alcorn. And where Christianity is such an official part of that 'secular' state, that they hold a National Day of Prayer. Indeed, former president George HW Bush gave an interview where he called for atheists to be stripped of their citizenship. American Christian extremists are part of an international network, which does have links in the UK and have done some serious harm abroad. These religious extremists have travelled to Uganda, specifically to persecute LGBT people there.

And nobody spills endless ink on a national stage about the Christian threat. Because Christians are dominant and have power. Which is exactly why they actually are a threat, and also why nobody wants to have to deal with the fallout. Because obviously not all Christians are extremists, only a small minority - something that is also true for other religions, although that fact tends to be conveniently forgotten. When one lives in a dominant Christian milieu, it's immediately very obvious that there are some positive aspects to the structures created by Christian organisations and that many Christians are peaceful and harmless and privately horrified by the misogynistic and homophobic activities undertaken under the banner of Christianity. Yet, somehow, white liberals are systematically unable to perceive that this kind of ideological diversity might exist in Islam. Why is that?

LGBT people and, to a much lesser extent, atheists in the UK are 'subaltern'. In many ways still, we do not have direct access to power and are not granted platforms to advocate for ourselves unless we enter into a bargain with the powerful. We can have nice shiny platforms to advocate for ourselves only if we couple that with advocating against other unpopular groups. At least, according to Spikvak in Can the Subaltern Speak. Surely now, though, atheists and LGBT people are much more empowered than we used to be? And Grace Dent, the Independent columnist, does not appear to be part of the LGBT community, so we're not even getting access to a major media platform, we're just being used as a stick to beat people with. Our role as subaltern has shifted from being consistently outsider to some sort of militarised symbol of tolerance. 'Look at how well we treat LGBT people' says the west (please pay no attention to the discrimination behind the curtain). We're better than our military enemies because we're less awful. And thus our militarism becomes pink-washed. We invaded Kuwait many years ago to defend premature infants thrown out of incubators by the Iraq army (one of the most telling and canny lies ever told in the US congress). Now we fight ISIS to save the gays. Militaries that only recently decided to admit LGB people are now supposed to be our saviours.

There are multiple problems with this model, aside from the obvious moral ones. If we turn LGBT people into symbols of western values and western tolerance, then those who we would bomb are incentivised do the same. Putin shows he's different from the bullying US though the state's aggressive homophobia. Western militaristic pink washing puts the lives of LGBT people in other countries at risk. LGBT people in the west, as a whole, don't have a lot to gain from this strategy (although individual self-appointed leaders may find it personally very rewarding), but our community overseas has really a lot to lose.

Furthermore, and very importantly, this narrative erases the entire existence of Muslim LGBT people, especially those who are organising for their own rights. The binary opposition of white liberal vs homophobic Muslim is an invention of the western press, serving the pinkwashed military. This is the ideological heir of Blair's war in Iraq. The binary opposition of white racist vs LGBT Muslim almost never arises in the media, despite this being a real issue with a real, non-imaginary risk of violence for people in the UK. Hate crimes maim and kill people in the UK. ISIS doesn't. One of these things is a real risk for people here. The other isn't. Some fascist groups in East London have specifically appealed to the imaginary dichotomy between LGBT people and Muslims as a basis for their organising. The kind of rhetoric used in today's Independent is not without consequences.

For too long, white liberals, atheists and LGBT people have only quietly grumbled at the Islamophobia of the more famous members of our ranks. 'Sure Peter Tatchell might be an idiot about his warnings on Shaira Law in the UK, but look at all the good he's done,' we said. However, we cannot let people advocating for our rights throw others under the bus for our supposed benefit. In addition to being immoral, it's also dangerous for us as a community. One need only look at Tatchell's recently split with trans people to see how a willingness to sacrifice some unpopular people can easily grow to include ourselves.

We need to take stronger action - to link our remaining struggles for inclusion to the struggles of others. We must complain loudly when Islamophobes are invited to speak on our behalf. We must cease financially supporting organisations, like the Peter Tatchell Foundation, that make Islamophobia part of their platform. We must condemn Islamophobia where it happens and not let our white liberal 'allies' use as as tools to further racist agendas. This must stop now.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

A boot stamping into a human face forever.

So I logged into twitter and saw this:

Allow me to provide more context than anyone wants about the latest trans vs terf twitter storm.

The weekend, the Observer published a letter, where terfs complained that universities no longer invite them to speak. One section of it complained that Julie Bindel is no longer given a university platform to advocate for conversion therapy for trans people. She is forced to constrain her remarks to national newspapers, instead of taking her case directly to trans young people.

If the phrase, 'conversion therapy' seems familiar, that's because it came up in Leelah Alcorn's suicide. Conversion therapy doesn't turn trans people cis any more than it could make a person gay or straight or left-handed or blonde. It wouldn't have any effect at all, if it weren't devastating for people. Leelah specifically cited it in her suicide note. Terfs such as Bindel think it should be absolutely the only option for trans people. Alas, given her national platform, she has advocated this as public policy and nearly scuppered the law that gives legal recognition to trans people in the UK. This is not a harmless disagreement or just an ideological row. Terfs have been much more effective at causing material harm to large numbers of trans people than right wing Christians have been. Normally, this is framed as a long running any annoying internet argument between trans women and some feminists, but in fact, it was because of successful organising by terfs that, until recently, all trans people in the US had to pay out of pocket for trans-related medical care. They got it removed from medicaid, which had the knock-on effect of also dropping it from private insurance. Bindel has campaigned for this to also be the case in the UK. In response, the NUS has a policy of not inviting her to speak at student unions (so-called 'no-platforming'). She describes this as a McCarthy-esque limitation of freedom of speech - to not be given a university platform to advocate for something that would surely mean the deaths of many trans people. (Bindel says she doesn't want trans people to die, but not all Terfs agree.)

So the letter in the Observer says it's undemocratic not to give a platform for a relatively privileged group of people to call for harm of less privileged people. Peter Tachell, an often heroic campaigner for LGBT-rights, is a free speech fundamentalist and signed the letter. Possibly he was not entirely aware of the context. Or maybe he is - I seem to him recall him defending hate speech that was directed at him personally. Nonetheless, I think it's a stretch to say that demanding an apology from a political candidate who questions whether or not trans people should have the right to access public toilets (Rupert Reed) is an attack on his free speech. Indeed, normally free speech involves a lot of back and forth and often this includes asking politicians to apologise. (Which he did and the Green party has reaffirmed that their platform is welcoming to trans people, so I would tend to see this as having had a positive outcome.) Indeed, I think the entire letter is disingenuous and I'm disappointed to see Tatchell signed it.

As I said in an earlier blog post, I tweeted at him about it, as did loads of other people. For the record, I'm sorry for being part of such a huge mass of people and for the snarky tone that I took. I've been the topic of a much smaller twitter pile-on and did not enjoy it. Some of the posts directed at him were much more hostile than mine. The included image above contains a tweet which reads: 'I'd like to tweet about your murder you fucking parasite'

While this stops short of an actual death threat, it does cross a line. I'm not going to condemn or excuse the person who sent it (nor is it my intent to condescend to them like the concerned person who photographed the tweet). I will say that a lot of trans people are vulnerable. Many come from homes that do not support us. If we run into financial difficulty, poorly-thought-out 'protections' of our privacy can make it extremely difficult to access benefits. Many trans people experience tremendous amounts of transphobia from the family, their community and their work environment. A very large percentage of trans women lose their jobs on coming out and many of them face systemic discrimination which makes it difficult to get a new job. I'm sharing this not to assign any angry a tweeter a mantle of victimhood, just to note that some trans people are very badly stressed by circumstances that are not their fault and are due to them being trans. Many are not, but most trans people have dealt with very serious transphobia for at least part of their lives.

Meanwhile, Peter Tachell, for whom I have quite a lot of respect, has managed to make a career as a campaigner. He has a foundation. He can work full time at addressing injustices, including ones that don't effect him personally. He has taken on trans rights recently because he thinks its the right thing to do. I see this as noble and note that his LGB campaigning has caused him quite a lot of personal hardship and even physical injury. However, his support for trans rights is somewhat undermined by his signing of this letter. He has a strong identity as a champion of trans rights and some of the funds that he collects to support his work are from trans people and allies who want to help him work on this cause. If he is getting identity and funds based on work for other people, but then suddenly sides with those who want us to die, you can see where the term 'parasite' might come from. And indeed, how a stressed person in a vulnerable community could easily get angry enough to tweet that.

But who is this person who is so concerned about the orignal tweeter that they chose to photograph the tweet? Indeed, before we get to that: posting images to things like twitter is not only a huge waste of bandwidth, but is a major accessibility problem for people who rely on screen readers, such as blind people. If you're going to use a screen cap, please provide a transcript. If that's too long for twitter, you're on the wrong platform!

The photographer, Beatrix Campbell is, of course, the person who wrote the letter in the Observer, complaining that universities don't like to issue paid speaking invitations to those who actively wish harm to some of their less empowered students. She also is, unsurprisingly, a terf, who has previously written about Julie Bindel being no-platformed. How does she describe her ideological foes who don't want their student fees to go towards people who would deny them medical treatment? 'Transgender people who used to live as men and now live as women', she wrote, also in the Guardian. (For people claiming to be silenced, they do seem to get rather a lot of space in influential national newspapers.) It should be very clear that this formulation is calling trans women's womanhood into question. She complains in the column that she doesn't like being called a transphobe. I think there might be an easy solution for that, which is to stop using formulations like that one. Indeed, this formulation would deeply problematic if applied to trans women in their 30's, 40's and so on. But as most undergraduates do tend to be young, it's especially disingenuous. Somebody who has come out in their teens or early 20's to start living as a woman probably has not actually lived 'as a man' in any meaningful sense or for any length of time. Which is neither here nor there, as you don't need to have lived as any gender to be against giving paid speaking engagements to somebody who wants to deny you needed medical care!

So Ms Campbell, who wants to gently remind everyone that trans people are not always and forever their own gender, is very deeply concerned about the well-being of this angry tweeter. Not so concerned that she wouldn't try to keep her out of 'women only spaces', like public toilets, or to reach out to her directly, but I'm sure her concern is entirely sincere. She's also very concerned for her new bestie, Peter Tatchell, who was the target of this wish for death. Peter was touched enough by all this concern that he re-tweeted it.

Meanwhile, Tatchell is fairly angry about all the abuse he's getting and is posting inadvisably to Twitter about all the very hard work he's done for trans people (which is true, he has done) and how under appreciated he feels (this is the less advisable part) and why can't we be nicer to our allies even when they collaborate with people who are out to harm us?

And... that's it.

This is twitter. Twitter is hurt, angry people lashing out. People with OBEs and national newspaper columns whining about being silenced. People who should know better crying they aren't beloved enough and should be allowed to speak over those for whom they're meant to be working for and how their free speech is violated when they can't.

Everyone is angry. Everyone is hurt. Everyone feels like they're right. Everyone feels like their feelings are the most important thing going on here. Everybody is lashing out. And this is today on twitter. And yesterday on twitter. And tomorrow on twitter. And every day on twitter. I just can't take it any more. I'm done.

What twitter is good for: if a corporation does something stupid and embarrassing, you can force them to apologise and stop doing the thing that was probably not making them any money anyway.

What twitter is good for: multiplying anger and hurt feelings until they risk turning into a black hole of awful.

What twitter is shit at: changing anyone's mind about anything, getting corporations to stop doing things that are unethical but profitable, getting people to behave better, being a thing I want to spend any more time with.

I'll be on Diaspora, where we can have longer posts, longer comments, visible threads and hopefully a lot more light and a lot less heat.

And I'll be at my local. Talking to people I know, to their face, taking a walk when I feel really angry and trying to avoid being murderously angry or petulant as fuck.

The Problem with Twitter

These last few days, I've run into Twitter storms twice. Once was reported on in a New York Times article, How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life. This was a followup on what happened to the woman who tweeted a crass AIDS joke about Africa. I remember the tweet when it happened and the sense of outrage at her apparent racism. What was she thinking?

I don't remember if I tweeted about it at the time, but I probably did. And today, I tweeted annoyance at Peter Tatchell. Along with 2000 people. To be fair, Tatchell is often a bit annoying. He's also extremely consistent and has campaigned tirelessly for years. I don't agree with all of his positions, but he applies them absolutely evenly, treating homophobes exactly the same no matter where they're from or what the cost to himself personally. He may be wrong some of the time, but he' also extremely principled.

Sarah Brown and Natacha Kennedy do a good job explaining what the issue is, but let's leave that aside and talk about twitter. That I happen to agree with the points raised by the 2000 tweeters (or rather, me and 1999 others) is almost beside the point. I entirely disagree with GamerGate and while many or most of those guys just want to intimidate and harass, at least some of them just want to talk about what they find annoying or personally oppressive.

For whatever reason, Twitter seems to lend itself to outrage. There are several possible reasons. The Twitter company has been extremely poor at dealing with trolls, which may have encouraged a certain institutional culture, but I think that's not it, as the Twitter pile-on effect seems to be non-ideological. I suspect there are two major reasons. One is the brevity required and the other is the extremely poor threading.

Yesterday was my birthday and I have not actually deleted my facebook account. So I logged in to look at an event and found around a hundred messages posted to my timeline. I thought I could take advantage of people cruising by to better advertise the event, but this didn't work at all. Because people didn't actually look at my profile. They saw a notification, a chance to leave a very short message and they did so. Along with everyone I've ever met. That kind of UI decision distances people from the milieu in which they are operating. They never saw the other messages, including my own post inviting them to a concert. Similarly, I had no idea that I had joined thousands of other people when I was snarky about 'freeze peach' at Tatchell. What's more, the brevity of the medium forced me to distil my snark down from a much longer thought about how he is really consistent about free speech, even if I think sometimes misguided, and how given the context in which he began his activism, this view might make more sense.

Whether or not twitter is actually more prone to pile-ons is something that seems deserving of more research. Could this happen with tumblr, or does the (terrible, but still less bad) threading help put things within a context? Does the longer format help? I've seen trolls on Diaspora, especially repugnant MRAs lurking on the feminism tag, so it may be that pile-ons are cross-platform and not a side effect of brevity. However, Diaspora MRAs are certainly aware of their attempts to shout down all feminist discourse and are not stumbling blindly into it the way I think many twitter users seem to do so.

Accounts like @YesYoureRacist exist to point out that casual racism is still very prevalent online. With more than 59000 followers, though, it's clear that when I make a reply to a racist tweet he's highlighted, I'm hardly alone. Indeed, I sometimes get 'likes' on my replies even weeks later. And these likes bring up a performative aspect mentioned in the times article. I might not realise exactly how many people are tweeting along side me, but I am definitely tweeting publicly. Each of which might reach a few more people, in widening concentric circles of outrage. Each of which is devoid of knowledge of other circles, making it seem like each of us is one of only a few voices crying out in the wilderness, to the acclaim of few, but still to acclaim.

The times article also talks of this direct, public reach of people seeming democratising. But instead it easily becomes mob-like, for a strange sort of mob that may be largely unaware of each other. It is a neoliberal simulacrum of democracy, in which we all think we have something special and unique to say back to whatever has provoked reaction. It's as if each of us is at the centre of our own little protests. But in fact, we are an avalanche of (often interchangeable) opinion falling upon another unfortunate individual. Worse than not actually being democratic in any meaningful sense, it feels like a way to be heard. It seems like action has been taken, when in fact, one poor sap has been made an example of. It takes each of us less than a minute each to say something snarky, outraged or mean to whatever has come up that day, and then we can move on. If this is a company or a brand and the problem is not complex, this really can be effective at solving the issue. If some shop has stocked a racist children's toy, for example, the outpouring of thousands of angry tweets will quickly cause an apology. But most of us are not companies.

I probably say at least a dozen idiotic things per day. And since I was raised in a deeply prejudiced culture, some of those things are occasionally fairly awful. In the old days, I was sometimes met with stony silence, realised my error, apologised and tried not to do it again. Call-outs made me a better person. But these days, I'm more socially isolated, tend to spend most days working alone and post my random thoughts to Twitter. I have not yet caused a storm of outrage, although I have said dumb things to some activists who very nicely took the time to point out that I should stop – something they did not have to do and which I appreciate. Their followers did not chime in. One day, though, maybe I'll try to be funny in too little space, or say something sarcastic that gets stripped of context. Nobody is right all the time, and when it's my turn to be wrong, how many people will speak up? How many will see it? I once played in a concert in front of other music students and every single person in the audience separately and quietly pointed out my one wrong note.

I don't want to be the kind of person who blindly joins a mob. I don't want to cause people to lose their jobs. I'm not even sure I want to always be so brief with expressing my thoughts. I used to complain about political soundbites on the news and now my own words, as if I'm trying to be some kind of celebrity, are often similarly abbreviated. Finally, the near-constant outrage, even when I'm entirely in agreement, is really tiring. How many of us really have anything to say that's meaningful in that format? We might all have aspirations of being Jenny Holzer, but even she provokes in a way that can't be responded to so briefly.

I'm not quitting Twitter, but I'm re-evaluating it's usefulness, especially as a political tool. Although a rather offensive twitter advert claimed that #Ferguson happened there, it really did not. Our engagement with online mediums from our living room is really not being on the street. And, again, this simulation of democracy is ultimately disempowering. Nor was Twitter really any kind of serious force in the Arab Spring. Twitter is ultimately just another for-profit social network, selling our relationships, thoughts and even outrage back to us for a profit.

Friday, 6 February 2015

What is Noise Music Anyway?

The question I am most frequently asked about my commissions is, 'What is noise music?' An excellent question!

Noise music is incredibly diverse, from the lush drones of Éliane Radigue, to the aggressive edge of Elizabeth Veldon, to the quiet whispers of Maggi Payne, to the subversive raucous of Cosey Fanni Tutti to the glitchy digitalism of Shelly Knotts. There is also, of course, a specific context and history of the genre, starting with Russolo's Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noise, up through early industrial and bands like Throbbing Gristle and then Japanese noise from people like Merzbow. But even though this is important, let's talk about what sonically unifies these many different sounds of noise music, rather than the cultural bit.

Different kinds of music have different elements that are their primary focus. For example, Bach chorales are largely about harmony. Christmas carols are about melody. And a lot of current pop music is primarily about rhythm. Noise music is about timbre. That means the quality, or texture, of the sound. There can, of course, be all of these other elements in noise music, but a noise composer is very often trying to create a collage of sounds that are interesting based on texture.

Unlike other musical elements, there isn't really a specialist vocabulary for timbre. Sounds might be described as 'rough' or 'smooth' or 'glitchy'. Practitioners talk about this roughly the same way as listeners do. While noise music isn't exactly new – the Art of Noises was published in 1913 – it's still very much an area being explored, not fully codified in the way that other musics might be.

In fact, you can make noise music yourself! Although noise has not historically been given much consideration, any new parent can tell you that babies love noise. Humans are attracted to this kind of music from their youngest moments. We all are born with an attraction to these kinds of sounds. So you can experiment yourself at noise making and try recording some sounds that you think are nice. Your might use the microphone on your phone, your camera or your laptop (or a regular mic if you have one). Try dragging your mic along different surfaces, to record the sound of the physical texture. How does your sofa sound vs a wall? How do different kinds of bricks sound? Or try putting your mic next to something that makes interesting quiet sounds.

Pause for a moment and listen to the place you are at. What do you hear? Maybe your laptop fan? A refrigerator? A kettle? A copy machine? Passing cars? If you put the mic very close to the source of these sounds, sometimes the recordings can reveal hidden depth. Maybe your office copy machine has a quiet rhythmic clicking as it copies.

Now that you have all these recordings, you can try to arrange them. Audacity is a free program that might be useful for this. Or maybe you want to listen to them as they are. Play your collages or recordings for a friend. Now you're a noise composer!

If you have a bunch of recordings you like and want to commission me, I can use them as source material. Commissioned music makes a great gift for babies or for Valentines Day! Order yours today!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Public Key

Do you want the NSA (or Google, or your ISP) reading your email? Of course not! Do you want to simultaneously frustrate David Cameron? Hells, yes! Fortunately, you can encrypt your mail, using a tool that's a wee faff to set up, but very easy once you get going! Mailvelope lets you encrypt or sign your email, even if you use a web interface. Those of you using hotmail or gmail, this is the encryption tool for you.

You're going to have to click through to the howto page, as the route to the configuration menu is somewhat non-idiomatic for firefox. However, once you get going, encrypting is dead easy.

Once you get started, we'll need to exchange public keys. What's that, you ask? EFF answers all your questions about this. This kind of encryption is the kind that Edward Snowden swears by, so it really does work and EFF's description is very readable.

UPDATE (7 Feb 2015): If you have trouble decrypting, make sure your version is up to date.

Ok, now that we're clear on that, allow me to present to you my public key:

Version: Mailvelope 0.11.0
Comment: Email security by Mailvelope -


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Review: Unchosen

Publishers will very frequently send review copies of their books to newspapers. Sometimes they review them. Sometimes they don't. Often the books eventually end up being sold as used to staff members. Which is how my journalist wife brought home Julie Burchill's memoir Unchosen

I'm only reviewing the first chapter. Apparently the last chapter is largely about a strange conflict between Burchill and my wife's cousin's rabbi, who officiated at a wedding I went to several months ago; but despite that tenuous personal connection, I'm not going to carry on. Indeed, rather than make an attempt to summarise what I've read so far, I will talk about another book.

This other book is imaginary (or, alas, is probably not imaginary, but I haven't read one like it). Imagine a memoir where a white person goes on and on about how they love "the blacks". There are pages and pages about how great black people are at sports and rhythmic music, including statistics about the races of past Olympic gold medallists and music award winners. The author of this imaginary book sharply denounces racists, who they implicitly define to be people who criticise the political and military behaviour of some African countries - including black people who complain.

Now replace 'the Blacks' with 'the Jews' and 'some African countries' with 'Israel' and switch around the stereotypes appropriately and you've pretty much got the gist. Burchill defines herself as a 'pro-Semite', which is to anti-Semitism what benevolent sexism is to sexism. It doesn't take many pages to get this across, but somehow she manages to pad it out into a chapter. One might feel tempted to see this as a Stephen Colbair- like performance. Is there any self-awareness lurking underneath her fawning bigotry? By the end of the chapter, it seems clear there's not.

To compare her to Ann Coulter would also be unfair to Ms Coulter. Coulter is cynical and espouses what Frankfurt calls 'bullshit.' I can't know her mind, but I'm confident from context that she knows it's bullshit. Burchill, on the other hand, seems to be as painfully sincere as its possible for a British person to be. (And if this is the result, I can see why sincerity is so taboo.)

It is not enough to call this book terrible. I need a word to use to describe the vegan coconut faux-nutella I bought the other day. The same word cannot possibly describe both. I would eat the whole jar of that stuff before read another chapter of the book - maybe another five jars. The word 'terrible' is far too forgiving. To apply it to this book would be to render it incapable of describing a host of banal things that are ill-conceived and best avoided. Or perhaps, this is the platonic form of the ill-considered and avoidable.

How did this book come to be? When I have a terrible creative idea, which does happen to everyone, usually I can rely on a good friend to gently steer me away from it. I can only conclude that Burchill either has no good friends or they're as monumentally tacky and racist as she is. Unfortunately, its too easy to see why a publisher picked it up and why reviewers, including whoever filled this used review copy with pencil notes, wrote about it. There is, however, an implication that many people bought this book at full price and read it. People who were not paid to do so. People who may have even gotten through the whole thing. What I really want to know is: who are those people? How many of them are there? What on earth are they thinking?