The Perilous Territory of Roman Britain

August 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sometimes the most fascinating things become the centre of public shitstorms.  For example, recently, a British conservative got all worked up into a later over a BBC cartoon for kids that appears to show a Roman family as African, as in black.  Chances are, this character was based on Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman Berber governor of the province of Britain from 139-42.  He was from what is now Algeria.  Mary Beard, Professor of Ancient Literature at Cambridge University and author of the Times Literary Supplement’s column/blog A Don’s Lifegot involved on the discussion on Twitter and noted the ethnic diversity of the Roman Empire in general, which is kind of obvious, given the geographic spread of said Empire.

And then, things got insane, as they do on Twitter.  Beard was attacked in the typical misogynist tones of social media. And then, NYU Professor of Risk Management, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, got involved and mocked Beard on Twitter.  Now Taleb is usually somewhat of a buffoon on Twitter, he seems to have fun with the platform. And there is nothing wrong with this.  But, he acted like a prat.

His response:

Then British journalist Nick Cohen got involved:

Ah, the fragility of the male ego.  But, here’s the thing, Beard did not go after his credentials.  She went after his knowledge-base and area of expertise.  Beard, of course, knows a thing or two about a thing or two about Rome.  Taleb, on the other hand, is a professor of risk management.  Apples and oranges.  But, male privilege means that one does not need to defer to greater expertise on the part of a female colleague.  This reminds me of the time that my wife, who was then writing a dissertation on Northern Ireland, was told by a male colleague that The Troubles were ended because of the Cranberries’ song, “Zombies,” as if the people of Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, suddenly realized that they were the zombies!

But Taleb was just a bore.  He became the cover Twitter misogynists used to attack Beard, not for her ideas or commentary.  No.  They commented on her body, her age, and so on.  And they denigrated her academic qualifications.  Commentators continually referred to Prof. or Dr. Taleb and to Ms. Beard.

This, I hate to say, is par for the course in academia and the wider world.  I cannot count the number of times I have seen or heard this in action, where my female colleagues are disrespected in this manner.  One reported that her course evaluations talked more about her body than her teaching efficacy.  Another reported that her looks seemed more important to her students than her knowledge.  The now largely disused site RateMyProf initially only allowed hot tamales to indicate the hotness of a professor for women.  Eventually, it was applied to men as well.

Women have to work harder to gain the respect of students.  I see this almost everyday at work.  And, frankly, this is bullshit.

The thing is, we’re taught to believe that we live in a time of progress, that things are getting better.  They’re not.  The simple economic measurement women’s wages as a percentage of men’s for equal work has barely changed in the past 30 years.  And then there’s social media.  Remember #Gamergate?  That’s one egregious example.  Beard’s story is another. But it happens every single day.

I don’t think this is getting better.  I think it’s getting worse.  And the same is true, in many ways of racism, homophobia, and the like.  Social media allows people to hide behind anonymity to be bullies.

We need to be better.  This cannot keep happening.  We need to do a better job of educating people, so that they’re not bullies.  And the thing is, I’m not sure that many of the people who act like this online actually recognize their real-world actions.  As in, it’s easy to call someone names on a computer screen, not seeing the actual impact of it.  There are, essentially, no consequences for the abuser in this world.  Thus, education.  We need to convince people that there are consequences of their on-line actions, just as there are consequences for their real-world actions.

Maybe then we can live in a world where women, amongst others, aren’t attacked on-line for the simple fact of their gender (or race, orientation, etc.).



Clint Eastwood and Political Correctness

August 5, 2016 § 22 Comments

I have to admit, I like Clint Eastwood, the artist.  He’s the star of one of my favourite films of all-time, The Good, the Bad & The Ugly.  And he’s made some mighty fine films of his own.  He’s also a complex man.  He claims to be libertarian, but he’s supported both Democrat and Republican politicians.  He’s called for gun control since the early 1970s.  He was also a progressive mayor of Carmel-By-The-Sea, at least on environmental issues.  And he’s long been an advocate of environmental controls.  And, clearly, since he’s been mayor of his little resort town, he clearly isn’t opposed to government at all costs, nor is he opposed to using government power for the common good.

But, in recent years, he’s become a bit of a loose cannon.  His speech at the 2012 Republican Conference, the so-called “Empty Chair” routine, was unforgettable.  But this week, he was in the news again, complaining about the “pussy generation.”  See, Ol’ Clint is tired of political correctness:

[Trump]’s onto something because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells.

We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.

My response? So what? First, Clint Eastwood loves to come off as a tough guy when he’s going off on a tangent like this.  Clint Eastwood ain’t no tough guy, he plays them in movies. That’s a big difference.  Second, Clint Eastwood is 86 years old.  When he was growing up, Jim Crow and segregation existed in the US.  Is that what he wants to return to? I presume not.

As for “political correctness,” you know what?  I’m sick of this one too.  Creating an environment in the world where people feel comfortable, where we are all respected and treated fairly is not a bad thing.  It’s easy for a multi-millionaire 86-year old white man to complain about the things that weren’t called racist 80 years ago.  What discrimination has Clint Eastwood faced in his life?

And this is the thing, the people who complain about “political correctness” tend to be white and middle class, and quite often male.  In other words, they tend to be people who don’t know what it feels like to be the target of discrimination or hate speech, or, worse.  It’s easy for them to claim there is no discrimination, no racism in society.  They’re not targeted by it.  It’s easy for Eastwood to complain about the “pussy generation.”

In short, you cannot complain about “political correctness,” or claim there is no such things as racism, sexism, misogyny, or homophobia if you are of the dominant group in society.

More to the point, a long time ago, a great man once noted that the mark of a democracy was how it treated its minorities.  And that is most certainly true.  That great man, by the way, was former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (the father of current PM, Justin “Hotty Pants” Trudeau).


On Privilege

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

I was recently in a situation where something blatantly both tasteless and racist occurred, through the actions of one individual.  This individual apologised, heartfully and seriously.  Most accepted his apology, including at least some of the aggrieved.  But, in the aftermath of the apology, I overheard people complaining that “some people need to learn to take a joke” and so on.  Oddly enough, it was always white, middle class people saying things like that.

In response to my previous posting on why we need feminism, I got trolled on Twitter, by men, telling me that women bring on rape, sexual assault, and other unwanted attention themselves.  In the past, these kinds of trollings have also led to me being called names that challenge my manliness.

Racist jokes are not funny.  Nor are threats of rape.  Same for homophobic comments.  And yet, some white people, some men, and some heterosexual people think they are.  This, my friends, is privilege.  The worst thing about privilege is that most people with it do not realise they have it.  I don’t honestly think that many people who laugh at racist/misogynist/homophobic jokes are actually racist/misogynist/homophobic.  They’re not trying to offend, oppress, or hurt other people.  And yet, they do.  Without realising it.  And quite often, when they realise it, they get defensive and say things like “some people need to learn how to take a joke.”

Privilege is usually blind, those with it don’t see it, don’t understand all the advantages they’ve earned due to a calculus of skin colour, gender, sexuality, and class status.  Take, for example, Julian Casablancas, the frontman of New York rock band The Strokes.  Casablancas is the son of John Casablancas, a rich businessman and founder of the Elite Model Management group.  Casablancas as a new solo project, called “Tyranny,” and in the press release, he says,

Tyranny has come in many forms throughout history. Now, the good of business is put above anything else, as corporations have become the new ruling body. Most decisions seem to be made like ones of a medieval king: whatever makes profit while ignoring and repressing the truth about whatever suffering it may cause (like pop music, for that matter).

Meanwhile, in England, comedian Russell Brand is trying to stir the people up against their government, to protest, to demand accountability.  On the one hand, I admire Casablancas and Brand for their rabble-rousing, but both live incredibly privileged lives.  Both are very wealthy men, and both of them have earned a lot of money due to the very things they are protesting, power relations and corporations.  And they are apparently being unironic in their new stances.

Privilege is a funny thing.  We live in a culture where some talk of “mindfulness”, and yet do not practice it.  In order to be aware of privilege, we need to be aware of it.  Be aware of the advantages we have gained in life due to that nexus of skin colour, gender, sexuality, and class.  There are hierarchies all across society and there are hierarchies within sub-cultures.  And we need to be aware of power and privilege.

Bad Journalism: A textbook case

January 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

On Saturday, Montréal’s left-wing, nationalist French-language daily, Le Devoir, published a rather simple-minded article about a series of homophobic attacks that have occurred lately in Montréal’s Gay Village.  A series of assaults last weekend came on the heels of several others in Fall 2013.  This has left many in the Village feeling unsafe.  The Service de police de la Ville de Montréal, not surprisingly, refuse to see a connection between a series of attacks on gay men and homophobia.  Plus ça change, I suppose.  Amazingly, while people in the village are feeling unsafe, Vincent Richer, the commander of Station 22 in the Village, claims that the neighbourhood is safe and secure.

But then there’s the article.  It talks about the fringe characters of the neighbourhood, the ones in shadows, the homeless, the drunks, drug addicts, etc.  And then there’s the usual drunken frat boys who like to show off how enlightened they are by heading downtown into the Gay Village to call people names.  As an aside, a funny story: back in the day in Vancouver, I was sitting outside at the Fresgo Inn, an all-night greasy spoon in the West End, on Davie St., that’s long since gone.  Next door was a café, with all of these big, huge, hot gay men on the patio.  A bunch of meatheads started calling them names.  It did not end well for the meatheads, they got beaten pretty good for their efforts. And that being Vancouver, the police, after reprimanding the neighbourhood guys for getting violent, arrested the meatheads for creating a disturbance.

Le Devoir also set a team of journalists into the Gay Village one night last week, as if they were heading out into Whitechapel, London, on the trail of Jack the Ripper.  Seriously, the article reads like a horrible anthropology paper.  But then, as my friend Anna Sheftel pointed out on Facebook, the paper proceeds to insinuate that the hate crimes on gay men is being perpetrated by the homeless, drunks, and drug addicts (the frat boys get forgotten).  As if, to paraphrase Anna, all violence is the same, as if all marginalised groups are the same.  As she notes, the LGBT community has a disproportionate number of homeless, especially youth, even in a place like the Gay Village.

All in all, this is horrible, bush league journalism from a newspaper that should, and usually does know better.

Niall Ferguson: Somewhere a village is missing its idiot

May 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

By now it is no secret that I think Niall Ferguson is a pompous simpleton.  I give the man credit, he has had a few good ideas, and has written a few good books, most notably Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.  His recent book, Civilization: The West and the Restwould have actually been a pretty good read if not for his sophomoric and embarrassing discussion of “killer apps” developed by the West and now “downloaded” by the rest of the world, especially Asia.  He has also been incredibly savvy in banking his academic reputation (though he is losing that quickly) into personal gain.  He has managed to land at Harvard, he advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008.

But a few days ago, Ferguson outdid himself.  Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, California, Ferguson responded to a question about John Maynard Keynes‘ famous comment on long-term economic planning (“In the long run, we are all dead”).  Ferguson has made it abundantly clear in the past that he does not think highly of the most influential and important economist of all time, which is fine.  But Ferguson has also made it abundantly clear that part of his problem with Keynes is not just based on economic policy.  John Maynard Keynes was bisexual.  He was married in 1925 to the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, with whom he remained with until his death in 1946.  By all accounts I’ve read, the marriage was a happy one.  But they did not have children, which obviously upsets Ferguson.  But more troublesome for Ferguson is the fact that Keynes carried out many, many affairs with men, at least up to his marriage.  Fourteen years ago, in one of Ferguson’s more forgotten books, The Pity of War, Ferguson goes on this bizarre sidetrack on Keynes’ sexuality in the post-WWI era, something to the effect (I read the book a long time ago) that Keynes’ life and sexuality became more troubled after the war, in part because there were no cute young boys for him to pick up on the streets of London.  Seriously.  In a book published by a reputable press.

So, in California the other day, to quote economist Tom Kostigen (and who reported the comments for the on-line magazine Financial Advisor), who was there:

 He explained that Keynes had [no children] because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.

It gets worse.

Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.

Indeed.  Remember, Ferguson is, at least sometimes, a professor of economic history at Harvard.  That means he has gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students in his classes.  How are they supposed to feel about him when they go into his class?  How is any right-thinking individual supposed to think when encountering Ferguson in class or anywhere, for that matter?

Today, Ferguson apologised on his own blog.  He called his comments his “off-the-cuff and not part of my presentation” what they are: stupid and offensive.  So for that, I applaud Ferguson.  He has publicly owned up to his idiocy.  But, I seriously doubt these were off-the-cuff comments.  Those are not the kind of comments one delivers off-the-cuff in front of an audience.  How do I know?  Because I’ve talked in front of large audiences myself.  I’ve been asked questions and had to respond.  Sometimes, we do say things off-the-cuff, but generally, not.  The questions we are asked are predictable in a sense, and they are questions that are asked within the framework of our expertise on a subject.

Moreover, there is also the slight matter of Ferguson’s previous gay-bashing comments in The Pity of War a decade-and-a-half ago.  Clearly, Ferguson has spent a lot of time pondering Keynes as an economist.  But he has also spent a lot of time obsessing over Keynes’ private life which, in his apology today, Ferguson acknowledges is irrelevant.  He also says that those who know him know that he abhors prejudice.  I’m not so sure of that, at least based on what I’ve read of Ferguson’s points-of-view on LGBT people, to say nothing of all the non-European peoples who experienced colonisation at the hands of Europeans, especially the British. Even in Empire, he dismissed aboriginal populations around the world as backwards until the British arrived.

I do not wish Ferguson ill, even though I do not think highly of him.  But I do hope there are ramifications for his disgraceful behaviour in California this week.

On Hatred and Continuums: DeSean Jackson and GK Chesterton

July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Apparently Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver, DeSean Jackson, said something stupid on satellite radio last week, using homophobic slurs to shut down a caller. He later apologised on Twitter, but followed that up with a stupid comment about himself being the victim of people trying to take him down, though he has since deleted that tweet and replaced it with more apologies.  Big deal, right? Well, sort of. See, Jackson has done a lot of good work in the world on behalf of bullied children, and bullying a belligerent caller makes him, well, a bully and therefore a hypocrite.

But the larger issue is the gay slur. Dan Graziano of ESPN comments that this hardly makes Jackson a homophobe, it just makes him stupid. “Gay” is a multi-faceted term, and is often used as a putdown or a dismissal in much the same way “sucks” is. That doesn’t make it right, however. In fact, it makes it offensive. For sure, Jackson wasn’t thinking of the deeper significance of the slur when he used it, but the very fact that “gay” is used in a negative connotation to note something sucks is problematic. “Gay” is a negative term in this sense, and that, I would argue, connects it to homophobia, even though it might not actually be homophobic. Either way, there is a continuum here.

I read all of this this morning after having read the most recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement I have received, due to the Canada Post strike.  It’s dated 10 June.  Anyway, the feature review is a discussion of two recent works on G.K. Chesterton (it’s behind the Times’ paywall, so I haven’t linked it here). I am no expert on Chesterton, in fact, I have never read him, nor am I all that likely to do so in the future, so take this for what it’s worth.

In discussing Ian Ker’s new biography of Chesterton, G.K. Chesterton: A Biography, reviewer Bernard Manzo discusses the charges of anti-Semitism against Chesterton.  First, let it be clear that Chesterton lived during a time when anti-Semitism was fashionable in the European and North American world. Second, anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism.  Both Ker and Manzo attempt to downplay Chesterton’s anti-Semitism, to qualify it. I’m not so sure.

Both Manzo and Ker point out that Chesterton did not believe Jews to be capable of being Italian, English, French, etc., due to the simple fact that they were Jews, and that “Jews should be represented by Jews and ruled by Jews” and that they should have their own homeland. Indeed, Chesterton argued that all Christians should be Zionist, though, ironically, he also argued that no Christian should be an anti-Semite. Ironic because he was one.

Chesterton also argued that those Jews who lived in other countries should be sent to homelands, not unlike that imagined by Michael Chabon in his novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Or perhaps, more to the point, not unlike the “homelands” for black South Africans during the Apartheid era, or reserves for aboriginals in Canada, or, ghettos for Jews in Nazi Europe. But Ker (and Manzo) think that this could not have been the logical outcome for Chesterton, who was “perfectly sincere” in his suggestion that Jews be excluded from mainstream society.

Both Ker and Manzo play down this anti-Semitism, arguing that it needs to be cast in light of Chesterton’s deep abhorrence of Nazism and its vicious anti-Semitism in the years before his death in 1936. I remain unconvinced. Certainly, Chesterton’s anti-Semitism did not advocate the extreme ends of Hitler and the Nazis. But that doesn’t make it ok. It doesn’t mean that Chesterton was not an anti-Semite. Qualifications such as that made by Ker and Manzo are problematic, in that they simply point to complications  of character.

Certainly, we are complicated creatures, we have internal contradictions and ambiguities, that’s what makes us human. But it should not let Chesterton off the hook anymore than noting that he lived in an era when anti-Semitism was fashionable.  Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has argued that Nazism was the logical outcome of this pan-Atlantic world anti-Semitism (he is less successful in arguing Germans were complicit in the Holocaust). If this is indeed the case, then Chesterton belongs on the continuum of Atlantic world anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And attempts to discount it like those of Ker and Manzo are simply intellectual gymnastics and reek of intellectual dishonesty.

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