Sunday, 31 October 2021

What even is "the culture war" honestly I don't even

[epistemic status: i'm fairly confident i know what i'm talking abt w/r/t anime. prob less w/r/t covid. idefk w/r/t everything else]

[note: contains spoilers for Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, specifically Minagoroshi-hen + everything coming before it. discusses mental illness, transphobia, incest, and rape]

I.

In about the middle of the Higurashi arc Minagoroshi-hen, Keiichi Maebara does something interesting. For the medium in general, for the story, and for the general cultural context it was created in. After Satoko is sent to live with that old bastard Teppei again, and Keiichi has a "flashback" to the way Tatarigoroshi-hen ended, with all the blood and horror and confusion that entailed, he doesn't give up in trying to rescue her peaceably. This isn't the interesting thing; this sort of thing happens all the time in visual novels and anime and whatnot. No, it's the method he uses: after a few false starts with small-scale school protests at the CPS office, he basically starts the local branch of ACORN. And tells Rika about how even a miracle needs a hand.

pictured: Keiichi telling Rika why she needs to get her ass in gear

More specifically, he goes to the village council and, with all his friends in tow, tells them off, in this glorious scene where he invokes the village's far-left anti-government history and yells at them for growing complacent and complicit with the oppression of their own. He explicitly links the righteous cause of the Dam War with the smaller-scale abuse of one of his friends, one of their fellow villagers. Mind you, the Dam War is pretty explicitly based on the Sanrizuka Struggle, and when the quoted rhetoric starts talking about popular democracy v. the sham of capitalist electoral democracy, it shows hard. (One could make a case that the insistence shown throughout on staying within relatively legal means is a reflection of a liberal sentiment on the part of Ryukishi07, and I'd be sympathetic, but at the same time, socialism and communism in Japanese society have often been strongly traditionally interlinked with the ideals of pacifism and respect for rule of law, not least because the most reactionary forces in Japan are so vehemently against that.)

Get this: Keiichi Maebara and co. explicitly resurrect the Onigafuchi Guardians, the left-wing struggle group formed to fight against the construction of the dam, with the intention of rescuing Satoko from what is certainly physical and emotional abuse and what is heavily implied to be sexual prostitution. And despite that focus on avoiding murder and other crimes, they don't hesitate to resort to pretty dirty means, including physical intimidation, storming the offices, and bringing in fuckin' mafia lawyers and well-connected politicians to help. The local weird-cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Ooishi even tells Keiichi he ought to grow up to be a union leader with his ability to rouse the passions of people to create a righteous ruckus. Overall, the aim of actually rescuing Satoko is a success. So what does this have to do with the title of the post?

Our main cast pitch their rescue mission successfully by linking it to a huge hot-button issue in the village, a sore spot whose wounds haven't resolved. They point out that in the course of the Dam War, Satoko's family incurred a brutal level of ostracism for supporting selling out and moving away, and her parents' accidental deaths were frequently rationalised and claimed as deserved consequences for their treachery. This curse extended to all the Houjou family, including Satoko herself as well as her uncle and aunt, the latter of whom also died in circumstances viewed by the villagers as karmic retribution. To Keiichi and friends, maintaining this ostracism is totally contrary to the spirit of social (and to an extent class) solidarity among the people of Hinamizawa that was forged in the Dam War—to them, it's no more than a now-useless relic of the bloodiest period of the fighting. To the contrary, the real principles of the Onigafuchi Guardians would be upheld by changing the analysis: forgiving Satoko of what she had no say in in the first place, understanding her as one of their own, and fighting ruthlessly as one people against anyone who dare harm her or leave her to die.

This is beautiful to me—I'm not ashamed to admit I cry sometimes thinking about it—and it's become sort of an ideal model in my head of what political action could be. There's some embellishment, of course, and it's definitely more relevant to places where a preëxisting solidarity still unites, and especially to smaller-scale communities. And there's the thing about having connexions in the right places, and all of the major characters in the story being written with some degree of Asperger syndrome. But overall, being based on actual struggles, unsuccessful as the big one was, it's a pretty decent way of fitting labour history in an otaku context, and given how many fucking nerds inhabit the left right now (hi), it's kinda important reading in my opinion.

Recapping the sell again: Keiichi, a relative newcomer, busts into the leadership with his more long-rooted friends saying "fuck you, one of our own is hurting, you're wrong about what your own damn struggles mean." He dissects the history and says "you've been going about this all wrong, your fight was actually fantastic, but there's some super fucked-up parts of its legacy." He goes further and says "I know you've all been wanting to reckon with this shit and here I am to give you that chance. Stick to your own damn principles, this is what they actually mean." And he proves it.

In other words, Hinamizawa is reckoning with its own cultural history through a reëxamination and reaffirmation of its own guiding principles. And this reckoning is bound up with examination and action on a pressing concrete concern: a child of the village is being abused and the established authorities are doing nothing. This should be at least somewhat familiar.


II.

A few months ago a prominent or notorious Internet personality was arrested for alleged incest. I trust about 90% of the readers of this blog know exactly who I'm talking about; if by some strange chance you are reading this and you are not aware of whom I am speaking, please, please don't try to find out. This isn't a "tee hee reverse psychology" thing, I'm genuinely asking you to stop and do something else. Skip to another part of this post maybe, or do something else. Don't fuck this up for yourself worse than it already must've been for you to have found this post.

Anyway, the person in question has been known to online audiences for I want to say about 15 years or so. They have had almost every part of their life documented since that time. The circumstances are strange and sordid, but it's fair to say that they're mentally incompetent, have done some awful shit here and there, and have in return basically had almost their entire life defined by this bizarre sadistic interactive reality TV show. Part of the story is that they ended up coming out as transgender several years ago. I don't really know if they're "real" or "faking" or whatever, but the thing is, I do not care, and neither should you, and neither did the millions of people watching Fox News when they appeared on there.

Yeah, the story made it to Fox News. As part of a thing about like, what prisons should trans people go to. As an extension of the whole "what bathrooms should trans people use" debate, of course. But it's incredible to me because I have been online long enough that compressing all that down to "this is a story about what gendered things should trans people use" is utterly bizarre to me. It's genuinely surreal. And I imagine that when something terrible happens involving any other trans person or person read as trans, it's similarly surreal for everyone around them to turn on the television and see their name invoked as a spectre in some cash cow media debate.


III.

I sometimes wonder, when I write, if I am drawing too much inspiration, arguments, observations, etc. from Twitter. If I should look at something else.

And then I read the New York Times and half of it is just arguments about Twitter, and I turn on C-SPAN and all of the senators elected by the states are yelling at each other about something they saw on Twitter, and all of the representatives elected by the people of the US are yelling at each other about something they saw on Facebook.

Two out of three isn't bad, I guess.


IV.

I wrote this post almost a year ago. It comes across as deeply inadequate now, for a few reasons. Mostly because the terrain has shifted in a million weird directions since then, and I did not appreciate the fact that the antimask → antivax shift would also yield a rhetorical shift from proud annoyance to histrionics. The most common antimask argument I hear is no longer that mask mandates are removing a convenient freedom, but that they are a muzzle, a symbol of dehumanisation in an occult ritual, deliberately designed to remove any sensation that we are living, breathing beings with outdoor, intimate lives. "They" hate humanity.

There's something innately compelling about this line of reasoning, in a direction separate to both the previous antimask-er denunciations of "PC-ness" and the promask-er claims of pure scientific rationality. One who subscribes to popular antivax theories lives in an enchanted world, one where an entire pandemic can be spun out of thin air, a spell placed on humanity by the evil sorcerers Fauci and Bill Gates, in order to make people accept a vaccine which is really a gene-altering nanorobotics experiment, one designed to kill off countless millions of people and permanently tag the rest with a cybernetic tracking device, plugging the now-dehumanised slave caste directly into the mind of the AI god that Google and Microsoft have been slowly developing behind the scenes. Nick Land's wet dream and Aleksandr Dugin's worst nightmare; the incarnation of the very Ahriman that so many Anthroposophists have lost astral sleep over for decades.

And the stakes offered aren't nearly as childish as the old 2020-brand stakes. Rather than the untrammelled right to go to stores and blow sputum into employees' and fellow customers' while demanding factory-farmed food and leaded gasoline (and fuck you for having a problem with that, 'cause we got the bomb), what is at risk here is the messy vulnerability of being human itself, the reality that people are imperfect and have emotions and like doing things outside, and sometimes get sick and even die. The technocrats, we are told, wish to arrest the tears flowing from the eyes of a normal, healthy, breathing person upon viewing the dappled but gently fading majesty of a sunset and arrest them in their tracks; such a display of imperfection, of impermanence and softness, with all the implications of a corruptible body with one life to live, is intolerable. And that is why the mouth must be muzzled and the body injected with methanol and formaldehyde masquerading as medicine.

Again, there's something uniquely compelling about this. I had a bad fucking childhood; there is something to be said about the terror of a future of hysterical scolds deciding all of your choices for you and shifting the responsibility to you forever, and the attraction of a free, vulnerable sociality as something which is constantly under threat. The predominant mode of government just being a series of neurotic parents, policing you and shaming you constantly, but never offering any genuine warmth. Only a feigned, cloying echo of care. There is something actually real here—get a job at Amazon or, hell, thousands of workplaces these days and observe how your boss wants you to know you're part of a family, that your soul is to be bared to your coworkers as part of your job. For decades the failure to work properly has been treated as a moral failing; recently it is treated as a psychopathology, one to be alternately therapised and maternally scolded out of the person. And it's no secret, and even a cliché (one I covered in my last piece!), that plenty of "woke" people are just like that for similar reasons that, at some other turn in their lives, they would have become evangelical Christians, scolding others for blasphemy and sexual looseness rather than for perceived infractions in some increasingly-arcane code of gender relations, race relations, and sexualities. The scolding is the point there, not the actual belief system, and it does seem at times that recent American history has been a series of trading one kind of scold for another.

But all of this fantasy and romanticism is merely the dressing over the far more banal evil that is immediate to anyone who leads a life afflicted with even minor discomfort: our bureaucrats are largely simply incompetent and not qualified at pandemic management; the men we are being asked to admire and praise are neither our God-given saviours nor evil geniuses bent on our robotic enslavement, but people responding to perverse incentives and responsible largely for catastrophic mismanagement of what could and should have been a clearer and better-organised response to a pandemic which many watchdogs have been warning about for years; that Bill Gates' much more immediate crimes are patent trolling and lobbying for more stringent international IP law which prevents rather than forces mass vaccination in the Third World. The pharmaceutical companies themselves? Largely motivated by profits. If that happens to coincide with public health, then great, and if it doesn't, oh well.

Of course there are drawbacks to any and all public health measures. There are good reasons to be critical of certain lockdown policies and their implementations; certain evidence suggests that the initial round of lockdowns were highly effective in preserving lives, but that they have been declining in efficacy ever since. The results overall have been rather varied and inconclusive depending on how you define effectiveness, stringency, etc., with theoretical and philosophical arguments underlying a lot of these arguments (e.g., Agamben's rejection of biopolitical domination). One can also acknowledge the range of negative effects they've had: excuses to kick responsibility from the powerful to the powerless, glorification of declines in quality of life, lots of deaths in nursing homes, enrichment of the rich and impoverishment of the poor, and, whether you like it or not, legitimate threats to civil liberties (although, to be fair, both the Trump and Biden administrations have postponed the mandatory rollout of the egregious Real ID Act). Which is, of course, not to say that no action should have been taken, nor that many of these problems could have been anticipated. Much of the pre-vaccine response failed, but there's plenty of public health measures that I do think worked.

Like masks. I don't really think there's much need for mask mandates in highly-vaccinated provinces of the world right now, but almost everything credible I've read from the earliest days of the pandemic not only suggests that they have historically been unreasonably effective, but bears out this effectiveness over and over. That and social distancing have been probably the most uniformly effective aspects of the response from all I've read. I could be wrong, there could be factors I'm not taking into account, but overall that's the picture I'm getting. Asking people to stand a few feet away from each other and wear a facial garment have also been some of the least obtrusive aspects of the pandemic response, especially when compared with stay-at-home orders and whatnot. East Asian and Asian-American communities have been using them for a century with no problem; one of the clearest signs something's wrong in The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is a sick, much less energetic Taniguchi walking to school wearing a mask, which several other students are also wearing, due to an influenza spread at the school. And one of the most striking symbols of the early blunders in the pandemic was, in around January-March, public health officials scolding Asian-Americans for wearing masks. (Forgive me here, I couldn't find an exact headline.)

Which is why it's fucking weird that masks have been, for the last 20 months, the primary culture war symbol of the pandemic, the thing that people latch onto as a signifier rather than as a concrete tool. Granted, vaccines and booster shots and whatnot are slowly filling the role, but "I will not wear a mask" has been the rallying cry for all kinds of discontents ever since the pandemic began, and mask-scolding regardless of situational necessity became the agitated response. If you recall the paragraph about general antimask beliefs earlier, you'll notice the bit about masks as an occult ritual. I'm not throwing that in as a rhetorical flourish; I have heard that exact belief stated seriously in real life, that mask-wearing is an Eyes Wide Shut-type ritual conducted for the benefit of the ruling elite's Satanic territory.

Even the vaccine bio-ID conspiracy theories are more plausible compared to this one, and for good reason: when you get vaccinated, you are being injected with a set of chemicals which many people don't read the full ingredients list of, and of which some assorted lunatics have insisted the full ingredients list is actually secret. Chemophobia is all too common, and since the mRNA technology present in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in the US is relatively new, misconceptions easily arise that they're experimental or untested, or that some sort of spooky secret Ultimate Spider-Man-type transformation is occurring in those who've received it. But masks? Masks are nothing more than pieces of cloth which tend to depress the rate of transmission.

Which is probably why they've achieved such popularity as a culture war device. As of a year ago, mask compliance in the US is generally high enough that scolding the few holdouts is effectively useless and possibly counterproductive, and as mentioned, wearing a bit of cloth over the face is generally unobtrusive enough that there's no strong reason not to wear one. In that case, scolding and deliberate noncompliance are both signals one is sending: scolding others, even in a generalised sense, signals that one is making a great sacrifice which others are disrespecting, while deliberate noncompliance signals that one refuses to make that sacrifice. Either of these make sense with regard to things like lockdowns and work restrictions perhaps, but again I have mostly seen them signalled with regards to masks, which I remind you are a bit of cloth over the face.

At this stage it should be clear that, for one, even necessary and good measures can be promoted for ulterior purposes and profited off of by bad actors, and secondly, in the public discourse, masks do not even function as symbols of themselves, but only as symbols of everything else.


V.

Being transgender, and especially a trans woman, in the present is frequently nightmarish. I am not referring to the near-universal sense that one is, to some extent, living at odds with one's own body. Nor am I referring to the varieties of concrete discrimination that trans people face every single day. This is not to downplay them, for reasons that will become clear relatively soon.

When you are a trans person, you wake up and assume that the newspapers will carry an article about you, in a sense. It will not actually be about you, even if, by a rare chance, your name and photo are in the article. Most of the time, it will just be very vaguely about the category of person you are. And even then, it won't be really about the category of person you are, it will be based on an image that many people, most of whom probably don't even know a member of the category of person you are, have of the category of person you are. And the article will usually be something like this: Is this category of person even real? Why are they demanding so many things? Do they understand that we must slit the wrists of our grand old identity for them to suckle even a crumb of the dignity that rightly flows through our blood?

Many of these arguments are very simple, and I've mentioned them before. Do trans women bathroom? Should trans women prison? How trans woman domestic violence shelter? I don't necessarily begrudge any individual for having anxieties here, to be clear, and I will also not suggest that trans women, or trans people generally, are uniformly harmless as a group, because absolutely no one is uniformly harmless as a group. Actually, what I will say is that something has gone wrong as soon as we start making suggestions about which groups are uniformly harmless or harmful, in part because that shows we've stopped talking about people and started talking about vague extrapolated pictures of people, and if you don't believe me, consider why America is largely divided between white evangelical Christians and everyone else. This is why when the discussion becomes about trans women going to prison it's always about what I was talking about in part II of this post and never about CeCe McDonald, and conversely why when the topic of cis women going to prison comes up at all in mainstream discourse it's never about cis female child rapist Monica Young.

The topic of trans women in women's shelters is an especially strange one, because it always fails to touch on a few things, namely why a trans woman might want to go to a shelter in the first place. It's simply unspoken that a trans woman probably has no good reason for wanting to go to a shelter. That trans women face enormous rates of domestic violence is unremarked upon. Trans women, as people who mostly have an XY chromosome, are cursed to only ever have predatory motives for doing anything. (If I, personally, not speaking for other trans people at all, were ever in a situation where I had to go to a violence shelter, and the one that accepts me is a men's shelter rather than a women's shelter, I'd personally be ok with that; shelter is shelter. There's a lot to be said here about the gender dynamics of this, and I would be a bit uncomfortable with being treated as male socially in what would be a very vulnerable moment for me, but one point I'd like to make is: for one, there's not even enough DV shelters for men around where having to choose between a men's shelter and a women's shelter is a likely scenario for anyone. Oops.)

As others have pointed out before, it's not even like these things are new or specific to trans people. Accusations of sexually predatory nature have been used to horrific effect for centuries on all kinds of enemies; think of the "love jihad" accusations against Muslims in India justifying pogroms under the Hindutva fascist movement, or even more pertinently to this discussion the continuing stereotype of lesbians (and gays!) as being lustful, pedophilic, and prone to sexual harassment. This last point reinforces the unreality of the situation, because in just 10 years the same media institutions that once uniformly portrayed cis lesbian women as predatory gropers have shifted to portraying them as victims of trans women, who are the real predatory gropers here. (And to be clear: it's not like they've even totally stopped portraying cis lesbians as predatory gropers!)

Sympathetic stories are not unheard of, of course. Liberal newspapers and magazines in the US especially have, over the past six or so years, been pretty fond of including positive stories about trans people in their pages. It's not uncommon to see op-eds promoting aspects of trans experience and trans life; even some news articles, like this from the L. A. Times, are written with a pro-trans angle. But many of them are kind of counterproductive; that linked article failed to mention that the fundamental nature of this walkout is a labour dispute, connected with broader struggles over safe workplace environments in the entertainment industry. Most articles I've seen up until a couple days ago, when the trans worker organisers filed labour charges, followed suit, branding them mere self-sacrificial protests against a guy saying some stuff they didn't like. Which, no matter how positively that action is discussed, still feeds into the idea of trans people as being thin-skinned, manipulative, and privileged.

This, then, is the nightmare. Your life is not really lived; the core of your being is a signal, a walking, breathing signal. Seemingly everyone else is constantly having discussions about what kind of person you really are based on a picture that vaguely resembles you in some respects but resembles totally different people in other respects, and they fully intend to act on the results of those discussions. Toward you. Because they—sometimes, often, including your own friends, your own family, the people at whatever clubs or synagogues or churches or mosques you're a part of—are convinced that that picture is what you're like. Or what your trans friends are like. And even a decent number of the people defending you, boosting you, cheering you on in some way are doing so not because they want to support trans people, not even because they want to be the kind of person who supports trans people, but because they want it to be known that they are the kind of person that people know supports trans people. What should be a signal to you that you are safe around someone becomes a signal that that person could turn on you the second they realise you do not live up to their expectations of you. Curiously absent from the ruins made by some of these actions are images, cartoons, preconceptions of what trans people are like. Present in the ruins, and curiously absent from the reasons such ruins have been made, are actual living trans people.

And, to be clear, this is not a judgement of cisgender people. Plenty of cisgender people don't participate in this spectacle, and plenty of them actively resist it and offer support to trans people, and plenty of trans people do participate and become absorbed in the fantastical image of themselves. It's the spectacle itself, and whoever cynically sustains it, that's the problem. (And it's a culture that seeks to locate the blame for rape, no matter what, anywhere other than people, regardless of sexuality or gender or whatever, who commit rape.)

This is not a new story. It is probably a very old one, and you can probably find variants of it over and over since the beginning of class society. Just replace "transgender" and "cisgender" with a new set of actors, and repeat.


VI.

That is to say, the point of all of this is, we are confronted with people who've made it their job to eradicate any traces of humanity from themselves and from the rest of us. That's the point of making all of this into such a huge spectacle, where we argue over symbols and images of people. By arguing in terms of signals and images, we're led into a situation where we think in terms of those, rather than in terms of humanity. Which makes us more pliable, more willing to see our fellow human beings as objects and symbols rather than as living flesh; when we see people that way, it stunts our own capacity for organic resistance.

Furthermore, this view of people as fungible entities is fundamentally more adaptive for AI systems, especially the kinds of AI that surveil us and monitor our every move and track us by superficial traits. What you see as lazy marketing, along the lines of the manufactroversies surrounding Marvel movies and their supposed politics of representational diversity, is really about that; you see ads that push your buttons because the ad servers are tracking you, finding out what makes you happy and what makes you angry, and beaming that directly into your skull, whether you want it or not.

It's no secret that tech companies have been doing this, that they are fundamentally datamining and advertising companies before they are providing a service to ordinary consumers. This video from the artist Richard Serra, from 1973, still applies today:

if you're not paying for it, you're the product

Seriously, watch that. I mean it. It's probably still true for television, but if you mentally substitute "Facebook" (or any number of web companies) for "television" you're dealing with something even more meaningful. You are being trained to submit your life to databases, no microchip necessary, and you are being trained to enjoy it, even to view it as the means you use to access the truth about what's going on. You are reading what you believe to be the damning truth about Zuckerberg and his platform on Zuckerberg's platform. You are reading a blog post that you found on a site probably hosted by Bezos that is mining you for data and custom-serving you inflammatory material that you believe is uncovering the lies about such sites and Bezos and their datamining and inflammatory material.

To be clear, in case you really believe that these people don't have it out for you and ordinary people everywhere, you need to know that Facebook in particular is profiting off of genocide in Burma. This is not a one-off thing; it is pretty much still ongoing, and not totally limited to Facebook. Social media companies routinely censor information from Palestinians or pertinent to Palestinian life and rights. There are countless examples of social media companies enabling discrimination, warfare, and violence, and profiting off of it. 

This is the dehumanising reality we are all trapped in. It threatens the very core of who we are. It is erasing the very definition of sociality, the very bonds between humans as individuals and communities. The leeches who profit off of this destruction of our most basic identity, of our ability to relate to each other face-to-face, rather than through walls of advertising, would love to see nothing more than all of us plugged into their AI-powered databases, and fortunately for them, most of us already are.

Even now, no matter their token efforts to clean up their platforms so respectable people aren't afraid of using them, they nonetheless profit off of antivaccination content, content that influences vulnerable people, undesirables, deplorables, to refuse medicine which saves them from getting a disease that has killed millions so far. A disease that was possibly created in labs funded by these same rich assholes as part of a biological weapons development system. They want people who are rightly sceptical of them and their plans to get sick and die; do you think they're focusing their provaccination efforts among already well-educated elites because those are the people they want to die? No, those are the people who have already been totally indoctrinated and who'll do whatever they say.

As an aside, think about this: Jeffrey Epstein, the prolific child sex trafficker, said that he supported Time's Up, the MeToo organisation. Think about how Asia Argento raped Jimmy Bennett when he was 17 and then paid him hush money to prevent him from coming forward, and how MeToo leaders reacted so differently to his allegations than to her allegations against Harvey Weinstein, in no small part because of the genders of the people involved. Think about how so much shit surrounding Epstein and similar cases has been memory-holed and labelled antisemitic due to its superficial resemblance to medieval blood libel and due to the fact that unsavoury conspiracy theorists have picked up on elements of the story, mixed with ludicrous fantasy and insinuation, for their own purposes. Who does all this serve? You?


VII.

As of the sixth, the World Health Organisation has officially recommended the use of the Mosquirix vaccine, a.k.a. RTS,S, against malaria. It has been tested for decades and has already been used in pilot programmes in Ghana, Malawi, and Kenya. This is great news on its own, but it also paves the way for the even more effective R21/Matrix-M vaccine, which, curiously enough, uses the same adjuvant as the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which is currently undergoing trials and looking exceptionally promising in terms of effectiveness.

This is very big news, for a lot of reasons. First of all, it's stunning that the rush to create a COVID vaccine has stimulated malaria vaccine development in such a way. This is kind of a big moment in medical science we're having; we're watching history be made. And not just in the exceptional circumstances. Malaria is one of humanity's oldest enemies. Billions of people, likely more than are alive today, have died from it. It depresses economic prosperity, burdens healthcare systems in vulnerable countries, and causes cognitive impairment. It has decided the outcomes of wars and the fates of nations.

But this month we became a little closer to eradicating it. Just like what we did with smallpox 41 years ago following one of the largest vaccination campaigns of its time, we'll do the same with malaria over the next dozen or so years. One day, not long from now, we will survey the world and confidently declare that never again will a human being suffer from the destruction wrought by malaria.

Little by little, we can and will climb out of the mud and get just ever so closer to touching the stars. Whether it's diseases like smallpox and malaria or social systems like feudalism and authoritarianism that hold us back or the looming threat of global warming or, one day, the threat of ageing and decay itself, we can cast aside all the things that limit us, that make us suffer, that enrich only a few at the expense of the rest, or in many cases enrich no one at all.

And one of those steps is getting rid of the plague we've been suffering through for the past two years. There's been a lot of false starts, but I think with vaccine technology getting as amazing as it is, and such an incredible, unprecedented global rollout, we're on the cusp of not only getting back to normal, but possibly even paving the way toward a world better-prepared for these sorts of things. If the Build Back Better Act can pass Congress without being significantly whittled down (save for those bits about IRS account monitoring), I think we can even escape it a little better-off too.

I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in May. The FDA is allowing people to get whatever kind of booster shot they want, and I think I'll pick Moderna, barring further personal research, because that seems like it offers the biggest boost in immunity. I think that if you're not already vaccinated, if you get the chance, you really should too. I mean it. Genuinely.

And if you can't figure out what I was trying to do in part VI, then I'm very, very sorry. But thank you anyway, and I hope your continued stay in Hinamizawa turns out well.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Torture Methods (prose poem)

[trigger warning: somewhat graphic descriptions of sexual abuse and torture. seriously, do not read if you are sensitive to these topics. poem is after the break; seriously, do not read on if you are easily triggered by such topics. hopefully this is one of the last things i will ever have to write about this; do not take it as anything other than a self-exorcism of sorts]

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

No, it's you who hurt my feelings

[epistemic status: i'm basing my assumptions on how human psychology in general works on a general assumption that in certain situations others feel the same way i feel]

One of the more interesting phenomena of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has been that of the anti-lockdown protests being largely a conservative phenomenon. Both evolutionary and social psychologists have found that conservatism is correlated with higher levels of disgust and pathogen avoidance (although recent research has also cast doubt on those findings). It's commonly accepted that purity, health, and strength are classically right-wing preoccupations (indeed, if you're a certain sort, seeing the words "purity, health, and strength" together might make you bristle). Which makes the American conservative response to the lockdowns—one of open hostility and defiance—puzzling.

In terms of class, the conservative "rank-and-file" tend to be the small-town middle-class petty-bourgeoisie types. So from a materialist perspective, we might say this: the lockdown violates specific privileges that the petit-bourgeoisie treasures. The haute bourgeoisie has nothing but privilege; indeed, even in a period of intensifying class conflict, economic crisis, and declining profitability, the richest still got richer. Meanwhile, the position of the petit-bourgeoisie is inherently precarious; they have a few privileges that the rest of the population don't enjoy, but they can be lost at any point if a crisis occurs or if a personal calamity strikes. And one of these privileges is the ability to be served what one wants at a minimal cost to oneself. (This explains the whole "Karen" thing that popped up earlier this year: the class mentality of "I'm a respectable member of society, I deserve to get my way, I'm relatively confident that authority figures are going to side with me" is what the meme was initially about, before it branched off to be about a whole bunch of other things)

So, from this perspective, the conservative right mobilising against the lockdowns is actually not that surprising. The American conservative movement will compromise on its values of liberty when issues of security penetrate deeper, and it will eagerly abandon its obsession with cleanliness and order if class privilege is on the line. Marx:

We speak of two interests of the bourgeoisie, for large landed property, despite its feudal coquetry and pride of race, has been rendered thoroughly bourgeois by the development of modern society. Thus the Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church, and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, chapter 3

But there's another psychological dimension to it that I don't feel has been adequately explored from any angle. Look at videos of conservative antimaskers confronting people going about their daily lives—they're not hard to find—and notice some commonalities. 

Notice how other than the invocation of "freedom" (a floating signifier if there ever was one), their attitude towards the possibility of them getting sick by going maskless is at the very least blasé. They take it for granted that COVID-19 is largely a hoax, or at least overhyped, and as such do not consider it a personal threat to themselves. They conceive it only as a potential threat to others, and one that those others are exaggerating in importance anyway. And this is why they react to others wearing masks and urging general mask-wearing in the way they do.

(there's also something to be said here about how contemporary right-wing conspiracy theories insist that, instead of the conspiracy covering up how bad everything actually is, the conspiracy actually wants to cover up how fine and dandy everything is. but)

This sort of thing has been going on within the right wing for years now. If I was Eric Berne, I'd identify it as a psychological game, and I'd title it "Are You Triggered Yet, Libs?" after the ubiquitous utterance many conservatives, right-libertarians, and far-right weirdos make after doing something intended to embarrass people of a liberal or left-wing persuasion. It might be fun here to talk a bit about how there's a sort of culture of cruelty on the right, but actually it wouldn't, because as a left-winger I already know that pretty well, and honestly the left and centre are often pretty cruel in their own ways, and besides it's much more interesting to me to explore why there's a culture of cruelty than simply the fact that there is one.

Ahem. So. "Are You Triggered Yet, Libs?", if we're going the transactional analysis route, involves two or more parties. One being the Conservative, and the other being the Lib. The Conservative says something that seems, to them, to be indisputable truth, but which offends or irritates the Lib in some fashion. For instance, the statement, "There are only two genders." In response, the Lib might get mildly offended or irritated—this is called Triggering. If the Lib is Triggered, the Conservative wins.

This has played out in high profile numerous times over the past several years. Frequently, the people doing the "triggering" are campus conservatives and right-wing politainers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, or Charlie Kirk and his strange little outfit Turning Point USA. Recently, the meaning of the term "triggering" has become a bit stretched in response to demand: for instance, when some Turning Point USA members decided a few years ago to set up a playpen and dress up as babies complete with pacifiers and diapers in order to make fun of the perceived infantile nature of college safe spaces, they were greeted not just by liberals and leftists but by other conservatives and right-wingers with amusement and mockery. The libs were laughing at them for dressing up in diapers in order to prove a very strange point—therefore, the libs laughing at them were actually nervously laughing, and they were triggered! N—nail...nailed it.

Anyway I said that's not the thing that interests me so much. What's the motive here? Obviously the point is to discredit "the left", however broadly defined. The point is to depict the left as overly sensitive, thin-skinned, unable to take fair criticism, looking for things to be offended at, censorious, and weak. These are generally viewed as bad things to be, and obviously there are plenty of right-wing people with these—wait a second. Do you notice something strange about that list of descriptors? Like, obviously they're not specifically political, but that's what's so intriguing. How do these play out in a nonpolitical situation?

Imagine you're at a small party, or some sort of gathering of friends and acquaintances. Conversation is going well. You make a basically innocuous joke about short people, something about how they're always standing on their tiptoes to see things and you have a weird urge to pat them on the head when they do that. All well and good, everyone laughs. Except after the crowd disperses and you go for refreshments, one of the people attending who's about 5'2" walks up to you and says, "Hey, I'm sorry to bother, but that joke kinda hurt my feelings a bit there."

If I were in that situation—figuratively speaking, I have been, and I'd hazard to guess most people have—I'd feel wounded. Probably justifiably so: to be told that upsets my feelings of normality. Up until this point, I'd believed that something like this joke truly would be innocuous, that if it caused any offence, it'd be minor. But now I am forced to confront the fact that I am responsible for a living, breathing person being hurt by what I said, that what fits in my own sense of normality can in fact be harmful to others.

If you're like me, you basically have two options there, and you have conflicting impulses to do either. The first is to say, "I'm sorry, that was wrong of me and I won't do it again." The second is to say, "You're being thin-skinned; it's just a joke, and you're the one with the problem if you're offended." Both of these have their own particular reasons and consequences. If you take the first option, you're restoring a sense of good faith, helping them feel less hurt, but it comes at the cost of binding yourself to limit the way you express yourself in the future and agreeing to change your sense of normality. If you take the second option, you're making it clear to that person that you are not apologetic, potentially compromising your relationships with other people, but you are also defending your own sense of normality, restoring a sense that the order you perceived to be the case is the case.

And here is where I must take a detour into discussion of Virtue. If you've known me for a while, you might know that one of my minor pet obsessions for a while has been The Virtues. This is because I routinely observe people online and afk behaving in very stupid and unpleasant ways that would easily be avoided if more people took the time to become aware of and attempt to cultivate the classical virtues. The ancients of various cultures understood virtue to consist in the moderation between two extremes. Taoism takes moderation as one of its Three Jewels; the temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription "μηδὲν ἄγαν"—nothing in excess; Islam emphasises wasaṭiyyah (وسطية), the Golden Mean; Buddhism emphasises the Middle Way—you get the picture. All extremes are vices, and often people do not realise that the exact opposite of a vice they despise is yet another vice: often it's the case that someone is annoyed with others' licentiousness and self-indulgence, and in reaction becomes insensible, and perhaps someone else is annoyed with that person's insensibility, and resolves to become licentious as a counter. Very worryingly often, someone observes others' vanity and boastfulness, and in turn becomes pusillanimous and overly modest.

So this has strong implications for the subject matter of this post: neither one of the responses I outlined is universally correct in all occasions. Quite often, the person offended is in the right, and you are not, so it's right to simply apologise, take the L, change your habits, and move on. But sometimes the offended is being oversensitive, and in that case it's necessary to gently but firmly inform them of this fact. This is difficult for many people, because it requires discretion, and many people are tired and simply want hard and fast rules to apply in every situation. Discretion might be too much mental work. Left-wing spaces are full of injunctions to simply apologise when someone says they're offended by something you said; this is an overcorrection against the dominant cultural sensibility of general boorishness toward those who have less cultural power. But it's an overcorrection nonetheless. You stumble and offend someone every once in a while, but you simply remember the rule that You Have To Sincerely Apologise If Someone Is Offended and oh shit now you've cultivated obsequiousness. Which is a vice. Congratulations...?

But as much as I'd love to go on a rant about the Unvirtuous Left, this post is about the Unvirtuous Right. And as easy as the typical left response of obsequiousness is, it's not psychologically satisfying in the way the typical right-wing response is. The typical right-wing response is, of course, to apply a hard and fast rule that if someone is offended, it's their fault. And, if you've been paying attention, you'll notice that this is at least equally, if not more, pathological than the converse response.

What's the draw of this response? Simply put, it guards your feelings by creating a justification for your behaviour. If applied universally, it absolves you of ever having to consider the possibility that you did something wrong—if their feelings are only hurt because they can't take a joke, because they're too sensitive, there's no need for me to worry about my sense of right and wrong or my idea of normality. That's kind of liberating in a way. Indeed, it's part of the reason that right-wing commentators have been able to, at least to themselves, paint themselves as "the new punk rock". The classic image of the right-wing was, as Scott Alexander pointed out, Mrs. Grundy. For a while there the primary form of liberalism was tits-'n'-beer liberalism: if you remember the brief early period of "anti-SJW culture" which relied on a general comparison between the woke position and censorious social conservatism, that was effectively the last gasp of that form of cultural liberalism. And that comparison wasn't entirely without merit: the liberal Tipper Gore and the conservative Parents' Television Council both categorised things like "promotion of homosexuality" and "excessive violence" alongside racism and misogyny as societal ills to be avoided. But as liberalism started to absorb its own "woke" critiques, for good and ill, it started to marginalise its tits-'n'-beer variety. So tits-'n'-beer was, somehow, absorbed by the right. Literally:


But, as I mentioned, this creates its own problems. That liberating feeling of never having to adjust your sense of normality in response to claims of offence simultaneously leads to strained relationships with others. And it creates a sort of strange perspective on harm: over time, more and more varieties of interpersonal harm become wrapped up in the "offence" banner. For a lot of people who drift to crude conservatism, they feel like they don't have their lives under control. Take rolling coal, for instance: the impulse behind it is a simple "fuck you" to anyone perceived as trying to control via offence. Even if it's not especially harmful in the context of most vehicles relying on fossil fuels, it's still a pretty easy way to symbolically rub your middle finger in someone's face when you don't really have any other way to exercise personal power.

And that's a pretty compelling feeling. Destroying things and acting ridiculously to "trigger the libs" isn't actually about actually making the liberals angry and afraid, it's about proving to yourself that you don't owe anyone anything. And that's the actual spiritual danger of it: it moves on from being a safeguard against feeling wounded by challenges to your sense of ethical normality to a safeguard against having to confront any ethical challenges whatsoever. (Lest I be accused of being partisan for the left here, I want to emphasise that the categorical left response I mentioned earlier, of apologising at all mentions of offence, is a shortcut to this same safeguard against ethics, since it just shifts the burden of having any ethical positions at all to others.)

So at some point, the actual categories of harm stop being relevant. As I mentioned at the beginning, antimaskers don't seem to regard COVID-19 as a potential threat to themselves. But that's the only threat they'll mention when they're pressed on it. The standard argument I've heard from them is something like "I'll decide for myself what risks I'll take, there's no reason for the government to tell me how I have to keep myself safe." Which is a pretty compelling argument, or would be if there was only incidental danger to others associated with wearing a mask. But that's not the reason why there's a degree of wrongness to going without a mask: the problem is, of course, that other people can be harmed if you don't wear a mask. In discussions I've had with antimaskers, their response to this is simply winding back to the original argument with different phrasing and emphasis, and some claims about how the lethality rate is much lower than claimed.

Why doesn't the danger to others factor in here? There's a category error here, I think. Say I've already been trained on the rule of "claims of offence = other person's problem". If you're telling me, "You're putting other people at risk by going out like normal without a mask," there's a good chance I'm not hearing you as saying "You are very potentially about to spread a crippling disease causing intense pain to anyone you might come in contact with," but as saying "You're hurting my feelings by going without a mask, because masklessness offends me." I've already committed myself to saying, "No, actually it's you who's hurting my feelings by telling me how I have to behave around you." The thought that I could be exposing myself to searing pain and lasting lung and heart problems doesn't factor in, and therefore neither does the thought that I could be exposing other people to this sort of thing. If I'm not actively punching people in the face or killing them, then I'm not hurting them at all, and fuck you for trying to make me feel like I am.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Thoughts before The Intuition of Haruhi Suzumiya

I.

A tweet:

II.

I want to expand on this a bit.

There's a decent hypothesis floating around the Internet that Tanigawa wrote the Haruhi Suzumiya series as an embellished version of his own high school experiences, although written in such a way as to make the characters more archetypal. The setting is somewhat suburban, and the description of the locale is very clearly based on the places he grew up. The events are a mix of simple life and fantasy: what high school kid hasn't mythologised their friendships, imagined that their highs and lows, their triumphs and tragedies have fantastical depth to them?


III.

A lot of attention is paid, especially in the later novels, to the fact that the characters are growing up. Unlike a manga such as Azumanga Daioh, though, which ran in real time, such that someone who began reading it from the beginning as a first-year would effectively graduate alongside the characters, Haruhi Suzumiya is splayed out over now 17 years—Haruhi herself would be 33 this year. Hold that thought in your head.

Much of the series is the dialectic between, on the one hand, Kyon's desire to live normally and not stand out at all, and on the other, Haruhi's desire to live an extraordinary, outstanding life. Of course, to the age range it's targeted at, these are extremely familiar desires; ones that more often than not coexist in the same person.

And one of its greatest strengths is that neither of these desires are ever fully satisfied: Kyon keeps finding himself unwillingly dragged into situations of life and death, where the fate of the world depends on his actions, while Haruhi, oblivious to her own power, is forced to live a relatively normal high school life, and compensates by overloading herself and her club members with (comparatively mundane) excitement.

I suspect this is familiar too. A very (un)lucky few people ever live a truly average life; something always comes up to preempt it, whether it's a death or a birth, a crisis or an adventure. And yet everyone is deeply familiar with the experience of having their grander dreams and stranger schemes foiled and trampled into the dust. That's the way we all go.

Further, the emphasis on the passage of time complicates this. The characters start to look back on their old activities, all the adventures and pain and joy they had just a year ago, and realise they can't recreate that. It's in the past, whether they like it or not, and the "feel" of it can't be created anew. And meanwhile, a brand new cast of characters show up, and several new kinds of situations occur, and the mixture of these with the existing cast and their memories introduces us to ever-larger and more complex dramas. Everything is changing. Slowly, but nonetheless.


IV.

At this point it should be obvious that the series is trying to speak to its readers. One might look at it and extract a sort of trite moral about the necessity and beneficence of change, but considering the utterly strange and alien nature of several of the new characters, as well as the fact that Sasaki, who is practically a second centre of gravity for the last couple of novels, is someone from both Kyon's and Haruhi's pasts, this seems unlikely.

(Quick spoiler warning for the last uhhh three Haruhi Suzumiya novels here, also later for The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya)

The new characters are immediately established as a threat to the SOS Brigade. They have a cohesive agenda, and from the perspective of the main protagonists, it's malevolent. Yet it's very interesting how they're written: their motives are simultaneously incomprehensibly other and (yet) thoroughly understandable. Just as Koizumi, Mikuru, and Yuki are dedicated to the preservation of the world by keeping Haruhi entertained, so Kyouko, Fujiwara, and Kuyou are dedicated to the preservation of the world by sacrificing Haruhi and transferring her powers to Sasaki.

And yet it's their erratic behaviour, willingness to sacrifice, and general hostility toward the SOS Brigade that cements them as a threat. Kuyou in particular is characterised as a person who, like Yuki, is basically alien, yet her relationship with humanity is so fundamentally other, even in comparison to Yuki's, that she takes on eldritch qualities.

At the same time they're dealing with these newcomers, the SOS Brigade is struggling with trying to recruit new members to carry it on, as Haruhi realises their graduation is coming sooner than they thought. The pressures introduced by these new forces make Kyon debate whether to reveal to Haruhi that he's "John Smith".

Importantly, the mantra of "three years ago" changes to "four years ago".

Why is this so important? "Three years ago" signifies the beginning of the story temporally, and the beginning of the world of the series spatially. The time loop created in "Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody" effectively creates the world. It signifies many things, and is used both casually and impactfully throughout the series. In the first place, it's literally the first major event in the series' timeline. Again, it's a reference to the passing of time, and has some universal connotations: how many people, especially young people, are in situations where they can recall that they can trace much of their present lives to a handful of seemingly insignificant events from a few years ago?


V.

But one of the most important things it signifies, albeit indirectly, is the message Haruhi was trying to send that Tanabata night:


"I am here." If Haruhi Suzumiya revolves plotwise around the fantastic results of that message, then it thematically revolves around that message itself.

When you stop to consider it, Haruhi is at her core a very lonely person. At a young age, she came to see her total insignificance in the world, how in a huge crowd, she was indistinguishable. How in a country of millions, a planet of billions, a universe teeming with life, she was nothing more than a short-lived speck. Her whole life has been an attempt to fight off the implications of this existence, to give herself a role in such a petrifying life. If she comes across as narcissistic, it's because she kind of is. She's utterly terrified by the possibility she will die without recognition, and she ruthlessly dedicates every second of her life to staving this off. Outwardly, she's larger than life; inwardly, she's small and terrified of the fact she was born at all.

Speaking of which, do you ever notice how there are never any depicted parents, and extremely few adults in general, throughout this series? If there wasn't occasional reference to them, you'd be justified in thinking that this is a world where children just pop into being of their own volition. This is one of the things that's most attractive about it, to me at least: more fundamental than Haruhi's powers, more basic than the presence of the paranormal and the necessary masquerade disguising it, the core law of this series is individuation. Every single aspect of this series is dedicated to who the characters are in and for themselves, and for their chosen relationships. It avoids preëstablished necessity as often as possible; the necessity of the series is almost entirely determined by the characters' own selves and actions.

Underneath it all, underneath all the enjoyment and excitement, the characters feel real pain. Their interpersonal relationships are often strained, and it's not uncommon for them to overstep each other's bounds. That one scene in The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya is a perfect example of this: Haruhi's actions toward Mikuru are obviously hurtful and indefensible, but Kyon's reaction, though emotionally justified, is unwise and just creates more potential trouble. As the series goes on, things that were played for laughs in earlier instalments—things like Haruhi's harassment of Mikuru, Yuki's detachment from humanity, Kyon's moral and personal struggle with his role in Haruhi's entourage—all get treated more seriously. The hurt that they feel is made more concrete.

And yet, the series insists, this does not negate the enjoyment. Just as the joy doesn't negate the pain, the pain doesn't negate the joy; to pull them apart would butcher the essence. And it's illustrated in one of the most incredible scenes in film that I can remember:


This is the ultimate message of the series; this is what it's trying to tell its readers. Read between the lines here.

Back in that world you rejected, Haruhi is just some stuck-up girl. And Miss Asahina is just some cutesy moe character. Koizumi is just a normal high schooler. And Nagato is just a super-shy bookworm. Well, most of the time, anyway. But if she heard some stupid joke, I bet she'd laugh. And then she'd blush. And as she got older, her heart would open up a little more every day. You never know. She might've been like that. But you had to go and throw away a normal life by hitting that button. Why is that?

Why is that? Because in the context of the show, this isn't a normal life; it's a parody of normality. It's a frozen world where everyone is reduced to one thing, where the possibility of conflict is practically nonexistent. And without conflict, there is no growth. It's a dead world. What's special about the world that Kyon chose to return to is that it's real. Kyon isn't—you aren't facing agony and hardship because your world is filled with aliens, espers, and time travellers; you're facing agony precisely because your life isn't normal, because no one's life ever is. And yet, paradoxically, it's also the banality of it that drives many people figuratively—and Kyon literally—to try to create worlds where everything is "normal", to try to eliminate conflict from their lives, to embrace stasis and what is often called "peace".


VI.

This is what the series is saying: this is impossible. More of an anomaly than time travel, more of a fantasy than ESP, more of a futility than humanoid aliens. And you might ask, then why is it that The Disappearance leads us to grieve over the alternate Yuki? Why is "Yasashii Boukyaku" written to reduce people to tears? And it's very simple: it's about change and loss in general. The film wants you to think very carefully about this, and process your feelings fully. It's saying that trying to impose this stasis is perverse, but it's also perverse to take the fact of constant change as a reason not to care. That's the mistake Yuki sees herself making: when she resets the world, she doesn't make the choice for herself, she offloads it onto Kyon. She's been taking a passive attitude to the world around her, accepting her "role" as an all-powerful cleanup hitter, only being involved to the bare minimum of what's needed of her. This is safe for her, but even then it's exhausting. It's only after Kyon decides once and for all that he wants the "old" world back that both of them understand that this is a destructive way of being.

And so the series encourages them, and us, to grieve. Not for the loss of stasis, but that stasis never truly existed in the first place. It at once affirms that it is right to feel sad that everything must plod on in the storm of history, and denies that this is a reason to give up and sink back. I promised myself that I wasn't going to say these words, but: mono no aware.

So Haruhi Suzumiya is about you, as you experience it. The memories that the characters make, which become their driving force throughout, are meant as parallel to the memories you make as you live in the world. Their games are supposed to be your games; their pain and joy are supposed to be yours; the terror they feel at their existence is supposed to be your terror. It's meant, in a way, to be something you look back on fondly, because its whole story is something the creator and the characters are to look back on fondly.

There's something nostalgic about the whole series, and much has been written of the idea of toxic nostalgia in the present day. People are always pining for a bygone past and the idylls of their childhoods. Sometimes this can be dangerous; the return to an idealised past is the hallmark of reaction, and many people use the fact they'll never recover their allegedly happiest days as a reason to give up and retreat. Nagaru Tanigawa has written something opposite to that: in the series, it's the memories the characters make and cherish that give them the reason to keep going on, and in the real world, it hopes that your memories of it help give you a reason to go forward.


It fell from the sky
with all the wishes still on it.
Maybe they were just a bit too heavy for a single star?

As I thought, something's wrong;
the you in my heart has vanished.
Can I even say that I really remember?

STOP!

The past is one's own;
naturally, I wouldn't want to trade mine away to anyone.

That's because...

It was a birthday to us—
the time our meeting was born
was when we had our first dream.
"What should we do?" and worrying about it.
Even though now we can laugh thinking back on it,
why am I crying over it?

Harmony for you, harmony once more.
Let's just dream our dreams together.

I'll do it somehow, facing forward—
hey! The clues behind you are escaping!
So catch 'em right away! I'm connected to you!
That incident is your footprints...

...I've already forgotten it. I'll search for you!

Monday, 13 July 2020

Mask

"See? I'm fine." He moved to pull the mask from his face, and someone yawned with a bored expression on her face. She didn't particularly care that some rich political fuck was demonstrating his narcissistic delusion that he was immune to the virus through force of will, and neither did a lot of the other people attending the assembly that day. No one really gave a shit, other than that it was an interesting spectacle. Same as all politics. Same as everything involving the rich.

He grabbed the flaps of the mask, the little loops that went around his ears, and removed them. The mask didn't fall off. The mask stayed on. Someone must have put an adhesive on it as a prank. All right, several people in the audience thought, this is getting interesting.

He pulled at it further, and said, "You see, this is supposed to happen." Bewilderment. He was supposed to receive this prank mask? The contours of the game had changed. Instead of some depressed insomniac staffer who'd be fired and probably beaten by cops later that day and evicted later that week gluing his mask to his face as a last act of pathetic resistance against forces she had no hope of fighting against, was he somehow in league with some idiot frat boy nephew of one of his campaign donors to play this as a prank on the voting public at large? Likelier reality is that he was trying to play this off that way so that even though the liberal stations would devote several hours to him gluing the mask to his face by accident now the conservative stations would be able to devote several more hours to explaining to them how he was actually pulling a pretty king move by pranking them all into thinking he's developed brain damage or something. Pretty great, huh?

He pulled at it more, and a couple grunts came out of his throat. He grabbed the loops a little harder and pulled harder. Several people at this point noticed tears coming out of his eyes. A couple people in attendance laughed, because he was known for laughing at other people in situations like this where they were crying because something abjectly humiliating had happened to them in the public eye. Several more people in attendance became uncomfortable, because really, what the fuck was going on? No one had any idea what to make of it. The laughter that remained grew less and less sure of itself. Some of the people remaining silent laughed themselves, involuntarily, not because they found the situation funny but because they were watching a 67-year-old man known for boasting of his sexual and physical prowess struggling to remove a simple surgical mask from his face and that was honestly kinda sad.

He yanked harder and gave a guttural shriek that reverberated throughout the auditorium. Some blood dripped from his cheek. The discomfort gave way to concern. No one but him screamed, but various people stifled the urge to. He pulled further, some sort of wet sticky ripping sound coming through the mic, squeezing its way out of the PA system. Was this supposed to happen?

The mask came off. He held it in front of his face and lowered it. The first thing people noticed was the worms. Thousands of them, in various colours, all wriggling from his lower face. Some looked more like snakes than insects. And they didn't appear to be an infestation or anything. They looked like a natural part of his face, just waiting to emerge from beneath his first layer of skin.

Still, no one screamed. Not even when he opened his mouth to say, "As I told you, I'm fine," and a combination of blood and what looked like green-tinted vomit leaked out of what appeared, at one time, to be his mouth, which was now oddly triangular in shape. Not even when his obvious cough—still hadn't quite beaten the virus—produced globs of shit that crawled away with legs that appeared and disappeared seemingly at random.

Was this the ultimate result of the virus...? the girl who had yawned wondered, now gazing with an interested expression on her face. I'd heard some crazy shit about it, some shit about mutations, but y'know, that was all things insane people said. Is this what its final stage looks like?

"I heard that," he said, glancing at her momentarily. "No, I'm not telepathic, I just have better hearing than your average American. Part of what makes me so fit." He said that with a chill in his voice. "You were talking to yourself a bit there. You're a leftist, right? Leftists are crazy like that."

The girl blushed slightly, but imperceptibly, even to him.

"Nah, I'm just an honest politician. All the people in Albany are liars and crooks, just like in Washington. No one gives a crap about the average American, but I do. I give a crap about you to let you know what we're like, you see. This is just what happens after a while in business, y'see? You do enough coke, you pay the right guys to bomb a couple countries, you fuck a couple 11-year-olds just for the thrill. Come on, haven't we all done that?"

Most people stayed silent. This one construction middle manager identifiable by his "Construction Workers 4 Branton" shirt got up and said, "I mean, who among us hasn't done something a little wrong in order to blow off some steam?" to which one lady and a guy several seats away from her wanted to shout "What the fuck, not me" but were too utterly shocked to ultimately do so.

"Look," he said, "you spend enough time in power and money, no matter what, this happens. The rich and famous, y'know, they have this kind of bacteria, I dunno what the hell, but suddenly after attending the same dinner parties and orgies and wine and cheese get-togethers you contract it or something, and then it's all the pressure that causes it to, what's the word? Metastatise, or something like that. It metastasises and you get this, after that weird combo feeling, where you're on top of the world but you also wanna ralph, this sort of change in your body. Makes you feel numb as hell and your emotions more intense all at the same time."

A middle-aged lady stood up. "Even President Jacobs?"

"Oh believe me, even Jacobs. Might've infected him myself back in twenty-thirteen. Back when he was just a governor of this fine state, which he totally wrecked and drove into the ground, by the way. Really, everyone you see in power. Doesn't matter what they claim to believe or anything. Really, these little wormy things—my doctor tells me they secrete some kind of hormone or whatever that they haven't ever seen before. It creates a sixth basic emotion. That's what all the Democrats and Republicans really believe in."

At this point the girl who yawned and her friend the row behind her began exchanging confused text messages, so as not to be overheard. The friend had wanted to ask what this emotion felt like, but the girl replied, "i don't think that wd work lol / he's basically saying its totally out of the realm of normal experience / like how do u communicate what the color green looks like / u cant / same w emotion / if someone cant feel sadness howre u ever gna explain to them how it feels[,]" to which the friend replied, "Yeah you're right / Honestly tho this is so weird / Like how we're able to have this convo just kinda talking almost normally even tho whatever the fuck is happening."

He concluded his speech, "Really, you're not gonna get anything different out of any other politician. Same shit, different day. But I'm not gonna lie to you. I can fix the economy, easy. I can get rid of the immigrants, no problem. They're all gonna lie and say they can't. They're gonna lie and say that illegal aliens matter more than our own citizens, that moochers matter more than hard-working Americans. But how can you trust them on that, when they won't even admit to the face worms or the prostitutes? You can trust me, I'm the only one being honest about that, and that's a biggie, so you gotta trust me to be honest about the other things."

The girl and her friend went home. She considered that she'd rather have a liar who can implement good policies than a marginally honest politician with shit ideas. They replied that this was the kind of choice that an abusive partner forces a victim to take, that the only rational response was to burn their whole shit down. She thought maybe yeah, but it'd probably cause needless suffering. But maybe as a last resort.

Fifteen years later, the girl texted her friend again. They didn't respond; they had died years prior from dehydration. Lived in one of the dry states. The girl knew that. The world population had been drastically reduced by war, famine, plague, flooding, and fire, and still, they had died due to health care and water rationing. The government scientists, which had half the planet under military occupation, concurred that the current population was still above the optimal amount, which they determined as around 500,000,000, for the world to keep existing with enough labour to keep the economy going without unnecessarily burdening it, and recommended sterilisation of the lazy and infirm in order to ensure optimal performance. President Branton, and all others like him, were exempt.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

What can we learn about coronavirus from other cultures?

Currently the world is stricken by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been wreaking havoc, causing schools to shut down, precipitating mass layoffs at various workplaces, and stymieing the efforts of Western politicians to deal with it and its consequences. It has affected millions on a personal level, even if not by direct contact with it: the other week, I was scheduled to ship up to Boston to see my boyfriend again, but the day before I was to head off, his school changed its policy on visitations and barred all external visitors for fear of the virus. At the same time, multiple states have only just now started to implement executive orders and other laws meant to curb the virus by enforcing limited social engagement, which has been shown to be a major risk factor in its spread.

Italy has been dealing with hundreds of deaths a day, adding up to a total of thousands, which is ever-increasing. The strain put on the medical system in some of the central regions is such that it has only exacerbated the spread of the virus, and doctors and nurses are working overtime trying to process the influx of new patients. Due to the crowded conditions of the hospitals and limited resources, doctors have often been forced to choose between who gets treatment, weighing multiple lives against each other—the beloved grandfather of advanced age or the young man who shows promise in his career? These are choices that no one ever wants to make even once in their lives, and yet Italian professionals have been forced to make them every day.

The American response to the virus and its economic consequences has been incoherent and disorganised. First it was denied as a major problem, then recognised and practically ignored, then recognised as a serious threat, and only now are lawmakers and administrators scrambling both to implement policy and to find someone to blame—usually China, for lying about it, evidently equivocating between the fact that Wuhan initially lied to the Chinese central government about the virus and the falsehood that the Chinese central government falsified information about it. In the United States so far, most of the response has been on a local and state level, as is to be expected in a federal system, with some states (such as New York) often being singled out as models for others, including the federal government, to follow.

The federal response has been underwhelming. Test kits were delayed and delayed until now, nearing the end of March, when the White House says 27 million of them will be sent out. Treatment appears to be underfunded and, as usual, fiscal conservatives have been urging the populace to respond to the virus by simply pulling up their bootstraps and taking responsibility for their own health, ignoring, as they do, that a public crisis cannot generally be solved by uncoordinated individual action. The government has strongly recommended that individuals wash their hands often and practise social distancing and, in the case of symptoms, self-quarantine, which is likely the best advice for this pandemic (or any similar pandemic).

Meanwhile, the social and economic repercussions of the virus are beginning to manifest. Various celebrities have complained of boredom from the isolation, while self-described NEETs and hikikomori have had no trouble adjusting to the changes (given that they already spend most of their time indoors and avoiding others), and many people are taking up hobbies or enjoying video games such as the new Animal Crossing or taking advantage of the proliferation of streaming services to watch movies and television for days. On the economic side, an already-looming crisis and recession is being exacerbated by the effects of the virus, including reduction of hours, in some places 20% of the workforce being laid off in a short time, and increases of unemployment filings from a few hundred per day to several thousands, as well as the terrifying phenomenon of some workers (even those in nonessential jobs!) being forced to continue working as normal despite the risk and often in spite of manifest illness. (From a proper economic standpoint this will absolutely cause an immense downturn, as the reduction in labour necessitates a reduction in value, and thus in profits.)

As for solutions to these economic problems, a number of proposals have been raised, from the aforementioned bootstrapping to the creation of jobs that do not necessitate travel or group contact to emergency basic income. At first, the last of these was dismissed as somewhat of a fringe idea, a hobbyhorse of particular people who see the crisis as a way to enact it. But it's gained traction, and at first Mitt Romney (of all people) was proposing a thousand dollars a month, and now the Trump administration is proposing a basic income that effectively excludes most of those who need it most and is at best a glorified tax rebate. This was answered in a brilliant proposal by Representative Rashida Tlaib, who has introduced a bill into the House that replaces the administration plan with one that makes its basic income truly universal by ensuring every adult receives a special debit card preloaded with $2,000.00 and refilled with an additional $1,000.00 each month, to be financed by the ingenious mechanism of directing the U.S. Mint to press two platinum coins, each worth one trillion dollars, and having the Federal Reserve buy these coins at face value, to be owned by it permanently, thus getting around complicated issues of debt and inflation. Still, whether this proposal will be adopted or not is still to be seen, and the usual suspects are likely to attempt to stall it at every opportunity.

Meanwhile the East Asian states, including China, as well as states such as Cuba, have managed to largely contain the virus already, implementing vital policies early, treating it with the appropriate level of seriousness, and avoiding further time- and cost-intensive emergency measures by engaging in preventative measures. Indeed, in order to demonstrate how seriously they have taken it, China ordered two new hospitals to be built in Wuhan in order to treat those infected, which were constructed and finished in just over a week. Which raises a serious question: why is this necessary attitude seemingly so lacking or late in the West?

On these occasions it may be helpful to consider the example of groups like the Dabaraeans, or in their dialect 𐡣𐡰𐡡𐡴𐡩𐡠, Daʿbaraya, a small religious group in West Asia whose central belief is that everything has already happened, and as such we are living in the past, ever-waiting to live in the glorious present. The present is held to be a time without time, in which an individual lives for the sake of living, unconcerned by trivial things and free of all worry. The past, meanwhile, is understood as a time for preparing, into which one is born with 𐡠𐡣𐡴𐡠, idara, unfinished business, which must be attended to if one is to live in the present. A form of metempsychosis, or eternal recurrence, is upheld by this school, in which one who dies with idara must relive their life in a similar but not identical form, with only the business that one left unfinished at one's death, and if it is finished by one's death, one's life recurs again, but in the present.

The Dabaraeans' ritual customs are distinctive. Their most holy day is 𐡩𐡥𐡬𐡠 𐡢𐡬𐡴𐡶𐡠, Yuma Gamerta, which is similar to the Jewish Yom Kippur; the primary difference lies in that in addition to repentance and forgiveness, the whole community unites in order to do work for one another, that everyone has less idara at the end of the day. Lesser feasts are also celebrated; fasting is usually not practised strictly, as it is considered paramount to be of strong mind and body in order to complete one's business. Special homes are constructed for the elderly and the sick, as well as those who are otherwise burdened, and it is considered a 𐡧𐡥𐡴𐡳𐡮, a ḥorqan (that is, in Jewish parlance, a mitzvah), to work at these homes, in order to help the burdened to rid themselves of idara sooner.

One is initiated into the Dabaraean religion by means of a special ceremony. The neophyte, usually at the age of 11, is brought before the local elders, at least one of whom must have rid themself of idara. The neophyte is given unleavened bread, made from only flour, salt, and water, and told to eat: "This is your idara. Every crumb must be finished, or your past will hold you for as long as you live." The neophyte is then baptised in a river and told, "This water has flowed, and now [idyom, "the relative present"] you have tasted Now [ideya, "the absolute present"]." Thus the neophyte becomes an initiate, and is told to hereafter meditate on the name of 𐡴𐡡𐡥𐡮𐡠 𐡣𐡠𐡣𐡩𐡠, Rabbuna d-Ideya, the Master of the Present, the highest title of God.

The Dabaraean origin myth is striking in its beauty. It is held that Rabbuna d-Ideya once lived in the past, and that He, too, was bound by idara. However, with a single stroke, He dissipated it all, by "throwing" creation into being, reflecting the content of His own self. But because it reflected this content, the possibility of idara also manifested in creation. The first three recurrences of the world were wholly present, with the First Human content with existence. Yet in the fourth, the First Human started to long for something new, something they could not yet define, and was split in twain, becoming the First Man and the First Woman. They populated the world, and the two subsequent recurrences repeated the struggles of their descendants, none of them ever attaining the present, none of them completing their idara. But in the seventh recurrence, the angel Uriel appeared before the people and told them that six recurrences had gone before them, and soon would come the great 𐡪𐡥𐡶𐡴𐡠 (Kawitra), or Noon, a twelfth recurrence after which all could find a way to finish their idara. It is held that we are living in the 𐡡𐡶𐡴𐡪𐡥𐡶𐡴𐡠 (Barkawitra), or Afternoon, in which each of us has the capacity to awaken to the present. One day, it is written, the last person left in the past will finish their idara, and the past will finally dissolve, leaving the present the only reality.

The religion of the Dabaraeans seems to have originated in the 2nd century B.C., amidst the turbulence of the Hellenistic world, but how precisely it formed is a matter of debate. What is certain is that it has a long and troubled history: it was regarded as a foreign cult by the Greeks and Romans, but thought too Greek and Roman by the Jews and Zoroastrians; when Christianity arose, it was deemed a variant of the Gnostic heresy and denounced by all quarters; by the Manichaeans, it was seen as a strange and confused variant of their own religion; with the ascendancy of Islam, it was alternately protected as a Sabian subgroup and suppressed as a heresy. It is alleged, though they did not and do not proselytise, that certain orders of Crusaders became acquainted with the religion in their conquests and converted in secret, influencing European history and philosophy, with John Philoponus and Henry of Ghent often rumoured to be "crypto-Dabaraeans". Some esoteric scholars even suggest that an Aoristic Order, derived from the Dabaraean doctrine, quietly emerged in the 12th century, concealed for nearly a millennium, and has influenced the course of world history since then, particularly via influence on certain modern theories of physics and counting members such as the writers of fantastical fiction Jorge Luis Borges and H. G. Wells. This theory has, of course, filtered into the lunatic fringe, as they are often mixed up with alleged conspiratorial organisations such as the Illuminati or the Committee of Three Hundred, accused of wishing to "immanentise the eschaton", which would hardly be appropriate, since the eschaton for the Dabaraeans is already immanent; it is simply that we are not immanent. In any case, save for various coincidental ideas and marks such as the "Alpha and Omega" device or the alleged slogans iucunda memoria est praeteritorum malorum, lifted from Cicero, and vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit, from the Oracle at Delphi (whom, coincidentally, the Dabaraeans view as a prophet, in the same way Christians viewed the Sibyls as truly inspired).

Perhaps the thing we can best learn from these devout and industrious people is that we must ensure that what needs to be taken care of is done, and only then can we enjoy the bounty that has been set out for us. To paraphrase one of their parables: if one sets a banquet, but the food is undercooked and the table cluttered and dirty, then one cannot enjoy it much at all. One must cook thoroughly, with not a bit left cold, and one must clean deeply, with not a spot left untouched, before the pleasures of the banquet can be enjoyed. I might say that the leaders both great and small of this country could stand to learn from this, but to do so would be to dilute a truth that speaks to something higher. For I have seen the glory of the unmanifest Present, and I have much work to do. And it may be true that part of that work has to do with this pandemic, but simply opining about it lets my tasks pile up, waiting to be dealt with. And perhaps you, too, dearest reader, could stand to finish the business you've been putting off, perhaps by playing idle games or by working jobs and projects that do not express your innermost urge or by denying your heart to the satisfaction of others. Perhaps it is time to deal with your idara before you curse your fate. Α∴Ω∴