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∴

Monday, 16 March 2020

The spontaneously recovered memory and the madeleine

A couple weeks ago I was made aware of something I've been meaning to write about for some time, but have forgotten to until today. That thing is the "forgot-it-all-along" effect. This is an absolutely fascinating topic, and one with personal bearing to me, for obvious reasons.

It's been about 10 months since I published the article "please (don't) hit record" at my main site. In that article, I mentioned the topics of repressed and suppressed memories of sexual abuse, since I initially reported my being a victim of CSAM production as a case of repressed (or suppressed), then spontaneously recovered, memory. In the paragraphs dealing with repressed and suppressed memories, I linked to this study, which demonstrates that spontaneously recovered memories are often as accurate as continuous memories, while induced recovered memories (e.g., memories "recovered" through therapy) tend to be inaccurate. It's already known and accepted that many induced recovered memories actually originate as suggestions accidentally implanted by therapists, with a famous study showing that it's not terribly difficult to suggest a memory which a patient then believes is genuine. This is the generally understood explanation for the daycare sexual abuse panic of the '80s (a panic that, regrettably, may have actually led to a lot of legitimate sexual abuse cases going unnoticed due to being categorised alongside wild and false claims).

However, as I mentioned, a few weeks ago I came across a study with an utterly fascinating claim: that some people who report spontaneously recovering memories of childhood sexual abuse never actually forgot, but simply failed to remember previous instances of remembering it. The paper's introduction has this utterly incredible part:
Partly with the aim of fostering this middle-ground perspective, Schooler and his coworkers (e.g., Schooler, Ambadar, & Bendiksen, 1997; Shobe & Schooler, 2001) described several case studies of individuals who experienced the ‘‘discovery’’ of apparently long-forgotten memories of abuse. Of particular interest in the current context are two cases in which the partners of the women who reported full-blown recovered-memory experiences said that the women had talked about the abuse before they had the memory-recovery experience. In both cases, the women seemed to be surprised to hear that they had talked about the abuse prior to their recovered-memory experiences. Schooler et al. proposed that these cases illustrated a ‘‘forgot it all along’’ (FIA) phenomenon, which at its core entails the underestimation of prior recollections of past events.
The study goes on, using two experiments to measure the ability of certain groups to recall having recalled things. Each experiment had a group of people with spontaneously recovered memories of sexual abuse, a group of people with continuous memories of sexual abuse, and a control group of people who were not abused. The first experiment had the subjects do a word pair recall task (e.g., pairs like hand-PALM are flashed, and then they are shown cues such as hand-P--M only and asked to input the missing two letters), and then asked them later if they believed they had correctly recalled the pairs. The second experiment was a bit more complex: it presented the subjects with cue phrases about common childhood experiences, such as going to the dentist or being home alone, and asked them to, with either a positive or negative framing, give an open-ended autobiographical report about that experience; after the first test, two subsequent tests, each two months apart, asked them to recall the same events, but with the emotional framing changed on half of them, and the third test further asked them to judge how well they had recalled the events on the previous test.

And in both experiments, those who reported recovered CSA memories were more likely than anyone else to say that they had not recalled correctly, even when they did.

Another study revises this theory, using different experiments, more based on contextual information and changes in context, in order to investigate the idea that there is something different about the way information is recalled in a recovered-memory experience that makes one forget prior experiences of recalling the same information. Experiment 1 here uses a cued-recall test similar to the one in Geraerts et al., with each target word being a homograph—for instance, "palm" in the sense of both "hand" and "tree", with the study seeing them used in one context (e.g., "hand-PALM") and the tests having them shown either in the same context or in a different context; participants were dramatically more likely to forget having recalled the target words correctly in the first test if the second text used cues relating to the other context, but an alternative explanation offered is that using the other-context cue on the first test simply makes recall less likely all around. Meanwhile, Experiment 2 manipulates context on both the first and second test, in order to discern between the "forgot-it-all-along" explanation and the alternative explanation, and once again, the participants were more likely to forget having recalled targets correctly if the contexts had been manipulated. Experiment 3, instead of changing between two different meanings of the same word ("palm" as in "tree" and "hand"), changes between contexts but not meanings ("palm" as in "hand" only, but in two different contexts), with cues being whole sentences (e.g., "he swatted the fly using the p*** of his hand" in one context, "the fortune teller traced the lifeline on the p*** of his hand" in another); again, participants were more likely to forget having recalled targets correctly if they had studied with one context and been cued with another. Experiment 4 completely eliminates one potential objection—that subjects, instead of basing their judgements of prior recollection on whether they had remembered the target word in the first test, based their judgements on whether they recalled seeing the first test's cue in the second test—by turning the first test into a free recall test instead of a cued recall test, and yet again, the participants were more likely to forget having recalled targets if the contexts had changed.

So this study identifies a potential mechanism for how the forgot-it-all-along effect could work: for someone remembering a particular experience in a new context, it may simply feel as though this is the first time they had remembered it at all. The authors note that
instances of prior recollection may be difficult to recall as distinct episodes because cues for those prior recollections will also be cues (and perhaps better cues) for memories of the initial event itself; this may limit revival of the memory information for the prior recollection through cue overload, or produce blended ecphoric products in which the information from prior recollections is experienced as part of the recollection of the event itself (indeed, this may be an important part of the way rehearsal works). If cuing conditions selectively favor revival of one or more prior instances of recollection over revival of the event itself, that memory information may be mistaken as a memory of a perceptual experience (i.e., the individual thinks she or he is remembering an actual experience but is really reviving memories of prior recollections of that experience rather than memories of the event itself); in other cases in which cuing conditions selectively favor revival of memories of prior instances of recollection, the individual may mistakenly judge that she or he never experienced the event in question but rather had only thought about or imagined experiencing it.
So what does this all mean? For me, it's a relief. Considering my own recovered-memory experience further, I've realised that I have had prior episodes of recall for years prior to that experience—in 2010 when I was questioning my sexual orientation, in 2012 after watching Alfred's Playhouse for the first time. 2014 was not the first time that I recalled being sexually abused, but rather was a new context for me to consider it in. It's a relief, knowing that I'm not insane, that I'm not making it up, that my brain didn't simply fabricate the whole story. That what I'm telling is the truth, and that my pain has a reason.

And, further, it's simply a fascinating and overlooked development in the area of memory research. That the brain can forget having recalled a piece of information before if it's recalled again in a new context is something that is deeply interesting, and it raises new questions as to how the processes of remembering and forgetting work. It brings to mind Proust's madeleine—one has to wonder whether the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea is truly what brought Aunt Leonie and Combray to the narrator's mind, or if its taste simply provided a new context, one which perhaps prevented his recall of other memories of remembering.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Great Satan

In the late '60s, Richard Nixon developed and implemented the "madman theory" of international relations, based on his observation of Eisenhower's handling of the Korean War, with precedent in Machiavelli's admonition in his Discourses on Livy that "at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness". He would project an image of insanity and instability to scare his adversaries in the Communist Bloc into backing down and avoiding provocation, as when you have an enemy with nuclear weapons and he is angry as hell at you, any wrong move can result in your immediate annihilation. Nixon used this strategy often, but he combined it with the idea that if the Communists would just back down and come to the table he'd calm down himself and cease to lay his twitching finger on the button.

As of the time of my writing this, it has been an hour and a half since Donald Trump announced that the US military has fifty-two Iranian cultural and strategic sites targeted for destruction. The number fifty-two is symbolic: between 4 November 1979, after the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran by a group of pro-Khomeini college students, and 20 January 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration, fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage in said embassy. (There are allegations that the Reagan campaign paid off the Iranian government to keep the hostages until the inauguration in order to damage incumbent Jimmy Carter's reputation before the election. Personally, I believe these allegations, but that is a topic for another time.)

The difference between Trump and Nixon in this regard is that Nixon, as mentioned, would return to a seeming sanity upon the lowering of tensions. Trump has not ceased his threats nor de-escalated them. His primary objective in foreign policy seems to be the constant destabilisation of every territory not under the dominion of the US empire. Far from his promises of isolationism, this is the insanity of the Bush administration on steroids.

It should go without saying that the destruction of cultural sites is a terrorist tactic and a war crime. In fact, it is such a terrorist tactic that it was one of the favourites of DAESH, who became infamous for smashing Buddha statues, destroying Christian icons, burning manuscripts, blowing up mosques, and generally annihilating all beauty and history that stood before them. DAESH, of course, had a Wahhabi fascist agenda that included the wholesale cultural and physical genocide of all religions and ethnicities, including Muslims, that did not agree with their narrow and bloodthirsty interpretation of Islam. This is why they raped, murdered, and enslaved Yezidi and Assyrian people en masse. It should be noted that cultural genocide often precedes or accompanies the physical destruction of people. Lemkin noted in his incomplete "Introduction to the Study of Genocide":
Frazer who is generally considered to be the father of modern anthropology was aware of a sociological fact: that all human beings have so-called derived needs which are just as necessary to their existence as the basic physiological needs. These needs find expression in social institutions or, to use an anthropological term, the culture ethos. If the culture of a group is violently undermined, the group itself disintegrates and its members must either become absorbed in other cultures which is a wasteful and painful process or succumb to personal disorganization and, perhaps, physical destruction. Malinovsky [sic], the founder of the functional school in anthropology, regards culture as having three interdependent dimensions: a material base, social ties, and symbolic acts. He believes that no definite line of demarcation can be drawn between form and function. According to this view it is clear that the destruction of cultural symbols is genocide, because it implies the destruction of their function and thus menaces the existence of the social group which exists by virtue of its common culture.
Have you ever seen Persian architecture? There is almost nothing like it. Its basic principle is the symbolism of humanity entering into communication with Heaven; it accomplishes this by grand symmetries, the use of perfect circles and squares, elaborate mathematical designs, and stunning colours. The Sassanid Empire pioneered the use of immense domes that, after the Muslim conquest, became a defining feature of nearly all Islamic architecture. Various empires designed entire cities around circles and squares, incorporating buildings and gardens in elaborate schemes. The diversity of the architecture is shown in the fact that there are six separate styles of classical Persian architecture, spanning millennia. The buildings in ancient Persepolis influenced architecture throughout the world for centuries, and even today architectural techniques pioneered by Persian and Iranian architects long ago are praised and used widely.

Go and look up photographs of Persian mosques, temples, and palaces. Many of these buildings have withstood Alexander the Great, the Ottomans, the Mongols, and countless other conquerors and wars. Many of them are used today and actively maintained. Others are preserved simply because of their majesty and inestimable cultural value.

Now imagine them annihilated in an instant by American bombs due to the fanatical and sadistic desire of a small cult of warmongers and apocalypticists to see Iran brought to its knees and its people subjugated to their empire. Imagine the ruins of Persepolis blown to dust, the Sheikh Lotfolla Mosque vaporised, the Naghsh-e Jahan Square reduced to a pile of rubble. Imagine the human lives that will undoubtedly be lost in the blasts. All in the name of petty revenge.

This is what is at stake. Look again at the interior of the dome of the Sheikh Lotfolla Mosque. A monument to the glory of God, designed to bring the eye of any human being entering it toward heaven. The windows are precisely designed to bring in light. To walk through the mosque is to symbolically ascend from the darkness and sadness of a fallen world to the light and peace and life of God. The United States government, under the Trump administration, is threatening to destroy this. To do so would be to symbolically annihilate the bridge between humanity and God. I can think of no more appropriate title for anyone who would dream of such an act than "the Great Satan".

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

It's not really an opioid (/medication) epidemic

Here's a common misconception about medication: that the "default" state is necessarily one of not being medicated.

This is a bold claim, as it is common knowledge that medications produce an altered state in people. Surely medication must be an addition, and consequently the default state of a person is one without medication! —Of course most people can get along fine without any medication, but the perceived "balance" is not right. Most people do not have constant unnecessary pain, and most people do not have crippling depression or anxiety.

In these cases it makes a lot more sense to understand illness as a sort of lack, rather than as something that a person has in a positive quantity. People in pain lack the ability to not be in pain. People with depression or anxiety lack energy, lasting happiness, focus, and whatnot. In fact in many cases it's absolutely visceral: people with depression simply do not have the requisite neurotransmitters to feel happy and normal and satisfied.

What does medication do in this instance, then? It restores a balance. The right medication will restore the right balance of neurotransmitters to a depressed person to help ver get on with vis day. An anxiolytic will restore the confidence that an anxious person had lost. A painkiller will restore functionality—and so, so much more—to a person with chronic pain. A stimulant will restore focus and several basic executive functions to someone with ADHD.

So what about this opioid epidemic? The media reports on it constantly, breathlessly, and neither mainstream nor "alternative" outlets have really questioned the basic premises underlying the reporting. And what about the general epidemic of overmedication that we hear about all the time, with SSRI-drugged young zombies only able to care about their phones and legions of Ritalin-addled kids with the souls sucked out of them?

Well, actually investigating the causes tends to paint a different picture.

Personal experience with the medical system is the primary thing making me want to investigate this. I've had chronic pain since I was a kid and I've only ever been prescribed a one-off dose for Tramadol once. I've lived with and around many people who have chronic pain and the stories I've seen and heard play out in real time are in grinding conflict with the story that gets told on cable TV.

The story I see on cable TV goes like this: In the 1990s, Big Pharma sold doctors across the country on the brazen lie that prescription opioids such as OxyContin would not be addictive and have few side effects. Under this belief, doctors began prescribing it in massive amounts, their consciences seemingly clear. Despite this lie being exposed soon after, completely frivolous opioid prescriptions received an uptick sometime in the past 10-odd years, and now patients with no good reason to be taking drugs are not only getting these frivolous prescriptions but, when they run out or want something stronger, taking to the streets to get more and more powerful drugs, drugs which they frequently overdose on and die from.

The stories I know in real life are so different that one is reminded of the "reality is unrealistic" effect. The people I know who have chronic pain are more often than not undermedicated. They have lasting injuries or autoimmune diseases and can barely do normal tasks due to the pain. When they do get prescriptions it's for acute increases in the pain, and after that they get no more. Many of them are actually relieved when they get a visible injury, as it provides a pretext for their regular constant pain to be relieved for a while. When they explain their troubles, hoping to get more treatment, they're branded drug-seekers. They are viewed not as people in pain needing treatment for pain but as people who need to learn to just "accept" what makes their lives impossible and do some yoga to ease it somewhat.

The case is often similar with anxiety. Many anxiolytics, including the benzodiazepines, have various troublesome side effects. Due to these side effects—and do not mistake this, the one they are most afraid of is people getting high—many prescribers opt for more ostensibly "safe" options. When I was in hospital once, dealing with psychomotor agitation, anxiety, and paranoia partly caused by an antipsychotic I was on, I requested anxiolytics. I got another antipsychotic and Benadryl. To be clear, the long-term side effects of benzodiazepine use are quite serious and may include cognitive impairment, paradoxical effects, and similar effects to those of prolonged alcoholism. By contrast, the immediate potential side effects of antipsychotics—which are worsened when you're on more than one at the same time—include akathisia (which I experienced), dystonia (which I also experienced), various neurological problems, and brain damage, frequently including tardive dyskinesia (despite what my prescriber assured me; apparently she had mixed up tardive dyskinesia with tardive psychosis).

The doctors I hear about and have dealt with in all these cases are far from the stereotype of a relentless pill-pusher. (To be sure, those doctors exist, but all the chronic pain sufferers I've known have had very little luck in finding any, even though they're apparently supposed to be everywhere.) Generally speaking they're cautious, for one of two reasons: One, they strongly believe in the latest movement of not prescribing things; they believe that medication should be prescribed with regards to safety first, with effectiveness a secondary concern, and rarely. They try every possible means to treat the patient without medication, their first medication of choice is an antidepressant, and if the patient complains that the antidepressant isn't working, they'll tell the patient ve has to work on accepting the pain, very hesitantly prescribe a medication that works (if the patient is lucky), or label the patient a drug-seeker and refer ver to an addiction clinic. Or two, they're doctors who want to prescribe what they think will be adequate in treating the patient, but they know that they're being monitored at all times, and if the DEA catches wind of that, they'll be hounded and possibly stripped of their licence to practise for being one of those no-good lousy pill-pushers. More often than not they lie between these two extremes.

I want to reiterate: the chronic pain sufferers I've known would rather not be on medication. They would rather just not have the pain at all. Many of them do not like anything about painkillers other than that they reduce the pain. They worry about being labelled as drug-seekers. They live with stigma due to that: to many of them it feels like the default assumption by many doctors today is that the patient is lying about vis pain until proven otherwise, a conundrum if there ever was one as pain cannot be "proven". They don't like using medication, but it helps them do their work and sleep at night. They're not using it to feel high. They're using it to feel normal.

So what to make of the media coverage? I think that the point made in the epidemic narrative that's most worth focusing on is the fact that more and more patients are moving to illegal drugs because they cannot get opioids via legal and safe means. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has pointed out that the sharpest spike in deaths from drug overdoses is with fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, with the second-sharpest being heroin:



Note that while deaths from prescription opioids have been climbing as well, they are not spiking, and they are growing at a rate similar to drugs in general—the line for them is nearly the same shape as that for benzodiazepines.

This is not surprising: fentanyl is an especially powerful drug, and it and its analogues are among the most readily available on the streets. Someone who is not well-versed in the differences between drugs will easily underestimate how powerful fentanyl actually is—100 times as potent as morphine and about 10 times more potent than heroin. Add to that the problem that many other drugs are cut with fentanyl to lower costs: tragically and perhaps most infamously, the acclaimed rapper Lil Peep died in 2017 due to an overdose involving multiple drugs, primarily a dose of Xanax which was later revealed to have been mixed with fentanyl. Part of this is that fentanyl is relatively cheap and easy to manufacture or get a hold of, along with its even more potent analogues such as carfentanil, a single touch of which may be enough to kill someone. I won't get too much into the deep politics of this—that's a subject for another time—but to illustrate, it is believed that carfentanil was one of the subduing agents used in the 2002 Moscow theatre crisis. For those of you who aren't aware, this crisis involved a group of 40 Chechen separatists seizing the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, holding 850 people hostage with guns and explosives, making the demand that Russia withdraw its military from Chechnya within one week. A spetsnaz (special forces) team was dispatched to handle the situation, but due to the theatre's layout, it would've been exceedingly difficult for them to get to the room holding most of the hostages. After 2.5 days and the murder of two female hostages, the spetsnaz unit decided to pump a gas into the theatre to subdue the militants; this ended up killing all 40 militants and up to 204 of the hostages. The identity of the gas has never been officially confirmed or released, but chemical tests from the clothing and urine of three British hostages revealed the presence of two fentanyl derivatives.

And another thing to consider about these deaths is how many of them are actually suicides. Suicides and attempted suicides by overdose are often underreported, as they are lumped in with accidental overdoses. This gets into something that I will discuss later.

Heroin likely experienced the second-steepest uptick for similar reasons: it's an illegal drug staple, providing the gold standard for overdoses, and is as such the traditional second choice for those who ran out of prescription opioids or want to move to something stronger. Heroin is probably the most famous single opioid in existence. And it's also important to note that due to many drugs being cut with fentanyl, as mentioned above, many of the deaths from heroin overlap with those from fentanyl.

Multiple sources, including Vox, have mentioned that it's likely that cutbacks in painkiller prescriptions led to much of the current problems with fentanyl and heroin. This is invariably mentioned only once and as only one possible cause, rather than probably one of the biggest causes. People seek out drugs to feel normal. If you're in pain of some kind, and the pain won't stop on its own, and you no longer have the one thing that makes the pain stop for a while, it's only natural to seek out more of it, even if there is danger in doing so. Much is made of the cases of people who received months-long prescriptions for broken legs and switched to street drugs when those ran out because they got addicted, but it seems unfair to lump these cases in together. Both are suffering, but the root causes of their suffering are different. One got introduced to a problem by an irresponsible doctor; one has had their problem for a long time and is now in another problem because a more "cautious" doctor removed the thing that alleviated their problem. These are not the same.

(This is not to mention the results of the War in Afghanistan, which helped flood the US with heroin, but as I said earlier, the deep politics of this is a subject for another time.)

On that note, another look at the graph: Deaths from overdoses on all drugs are on the rise. I've talked a lot about the pain problem a lot of people have. A 2017 forecast concluded that 650,000 people will die in the US from opioid overdoses over the next decade. According to the CDC, 50,000,000 people—that is 20% of the total population—suffer chronic pain, of which 20,000,000—or 8% of the total population—have pain severe enough that it impairs their daily life and work significantly. That is a pain epidemic. And let's take it further a bit. Let's factor in the growing number of people who feel hopeless and the general anomie: according to NIMH, 6.7% of the population suffers from major depression, with that number jumping to nearly 11% for younger people.

Suddenly it doesn't look like an opioid crisis. The facts of the case are true on their own but the narrative—of evil pharma executives enlisting irresponsible doctors who hand out pills like candy to people who don't really need them and get hooked on them—is completely misleading. Zoom out a lot and it becomes apparent that we have a pain crisis, compounded by an undermedication crisis, a despair crisis, and, to be clear, several cases that fit the traditional narrative. A few decades ago and it would've been a stimulant crisis. To a great extent, many of the underlying causes are the same, but the drug of choice has changed.

Then why does this narrative prevail? I can think of a few reasons: first of all, it sells. People want a compelling story with clear Good Guys and Bad Guys. People hate Big Pharma, so whoever's opposing them gets to be the Good Guy. This kind of story gets engagement, and so media outlets will use it as much as possible.

Second of all, going a bit deeper, it satisfies the liberal thought that more regulation will fix things and the conservative thought that more law and order will fix things. If Big Pharma and their legions of pill-pushing quacks are the villain, then we just need to regulate the industry more, or put more restrictions on prescribing, or put them all in jail. Problem solved.

But being a lefty freak who loves cultural Marxism, my favourite reason is this: it channels attention away from deeper systemic issues. If undermedication and pain are primary factors, then trying to regulate it away will just do more damage, and the whole way we approach medical problems is fucked and we need to reevaluate a whole lot of assumptions about treatment. (The very word "patient" means "that which is acted upon". Think about this.) If despair and anomie are primary factors, then the only thing we can do is question why so many people are in despair and anomie—and then we're well on the way to calling the whole damn system into doubt.

My proposed solution is simple: legalise everything. Make informed consent the only criterion for obtaining any drug. Let people choose how to treat themselves. And build up an infrastructure that can actually handle problems of pain, mental health, and addiction at no cost to the patient. Portugal decriminalised (although not legalised) all drugs in 2001 and has seen dramatic drops in overdoses and addiction. Taking it a step further will also reduce anomie by lessening the control that the state has over people, restoring a degree of trust in government.

(Although that can only go so far. If we want a permanent solution...)

Chronic pain is quiet because people who are in chronic pain make terrible self-advocates.  Not only are you physically crippled, which impairs mental functioning – I have trouble speaking in sentences sometimes – but you walk into any doctors’ office, any specialist, even the guy that is supposed to be responsible for “pain management” knowing that your every move and every word are being judged, because you are guilty until proven innocent.  You are guilty of being a drug addict.

Female?

Young?

Thin?

You are screwed.  Evidently, many of the people that starting obtaining oxycodone for “recreation” were among my same age and gender demographics, and had similar body types (I was taunted for being skinny from age eleven and still am to this day) – you know the story, “it all started with one prescription before you started getting them off the street, spending hours and days at emergency rooms and doctors’ offices feigning pain”, a story that one blows my mind, because I never want to see the inside of another ER or medical office again, so if I am present, which I despise, it is not for a quick buzz.  The story is over, though, as Miss “Victim” of “One Prescription” could not afford a $300/day pill habit forever, and then heroin returned, since it was far cheaper (single pills go for $30), and provided drug addicts a time-trusted, and, evidently, best option for those seeking an opiate high.
Heroin is actually a very poor painkiller.  It gets you high.  I am not interested in a high, and would really like to know what on Earth the fact that some people spend their weekends crushing up the pills that save me from being tortured from my own body and inhaling them or smoking them or whatever, should have any affect on how I – someone that spends weekends working, writing, reading, and once in a blue moon watching a movie or going out to eat – am treated by physicians.
 —Jennifer Lauren Reimer (rest in power), Practice of Madness

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Hallucinatory commitments, charitable mechanisms

The title of this post is an example of loose association. Nothing strictly bonds these things together other than that they are all on my mind at once. So as a relatively high-functioning person with formal thought disorder, I decided that it's as good as any a title for this post, given that it'll deal with all the things I'm alluding to.

The first word is a way of expressing that I am/was hallucinating. Specifically I was hearing the screams of thousands of people, dying, being tortured, being killed, all unjustly. People dying of easily preventable diseases. People murdered by repressive regimes. People starving and drone struck in Yemen. These are things that go on daily.

In an effort to relieve my hallucination and the stress it of course incurred, I made a charitable donation to GiveWell, a group that monitors charities, recommends them based on effectiveness, and—if you give to them directly—reroutes your money to charities it deems most effective at the moment. Hence the "charitable mechanisms": charitable donation as a coping mechanism. (In the vast majority of circumstances I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you give money to a worthy and effective cause whenever you feel guilty, that accumulates into a lot of good done, and remembering that can help you feel less bad about all the oxygen you're breathing.)

And as for "commitments", that refers to something very simple. I opened this blog with a promise, primarily to myself, that I'd write more frequently. I'm not saying much in this post, but it's something. And I hope to continue that.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

An Experiment (Welcome everyone lol)

As an experiment, I am starting this new blog on the first (or maybe second, I can't remember if I used Bravenet first) blogging platform I ever used. My FC2 blog doesn't really have the aesthetics I'm looking for and it has far too much shit that I don't believe anymore in its archives. Speaking of which, it also has a clunky article management system, which I love, but which has been problematic for me in using it.

So as a way to get back into regular writing I'll retire the FC2 blog (for now at least) and write here instead. I might also use my Tumblr more if I remember to do so. Hopefully this blog will contain a nice mix of more laid-back content and effortposts.

Right now I am listening to my friend Madi's album Bliss. It's absolutely fantastic and you should definitely listen to it and probably buy it on Bandcamp or Spotify or iTunes. I might write more stuff about it at some point but for now just know that it's a big and monumental work and you ought to listen to it right now.