Category Archives: power

Something fishy in the lake: of politics and power

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

The old saw goes ‘give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you have fed him for life.’

The saw may help some hearts soar, but it makes mine sore.  It pisses meoff . It pissed me off when it was the basis of an Oxfam advertising campaign back in 1996/7, and it pissed me off still, two decades on, when I saw it in a discussion of empowerment.

Simply this – the man may well have known how to fish all along.  The problem might be that his fishing rod keeps getting stolen, or broken, or, worse, the lake is being over-fished by factory ships dragnetting and driftnetting and hoovering up every last scrap of protein and selling it to fat rich urbanites elsewhere.  And so the focus on teaching a man to fish enables us to feel both virtuous and competent (we know how to fish) without ever addressing the power relationships from which we very probably benefit (we’re not the ones worried about not being able to eat in this story).  And it is therefore our job to teach those to fish if they didn’t know how (for whatever reason), to help people sustain their ability to make a livelihood once they have the knowledge, but most of all ask the question – who has been fucking with the lake, and how do we stop them continuing to fuck with the lake ‘going forward’ as the bureaucrats and politicians like to say…

So, from now on, whenever someone uses that image, I will stick up my hand and politely ask two rude questions: so, in this analogy, who owns the lake? What is to stop them from strip-mining it?”


Generosity and conviviality in the age of algorithmic oppression: #Manchester #odmnoble

algorithms of oppressionThis was a superb event. A diverse audience of somewhere between 80 and 90 attended a truly excellent event on ‘algorithms of oppression’ yesterday in Manchester. The event, hosted by Open Data Manchester  with the support of The Federation and Manchester School of Art, was centred on a lecture and q and a with Dr Safiya Noble   of USC Annenberg. This blogpost is an attempt to appreciate the richness, breadth and generosity of her talk, and also provide links and ‘bookmarks’. It can’t be a blow-by-blow account, but the event WAS live streamed and the organisers hope to get it up on a video sharing platform soon enough. Comments on the blog welcome, especially if I have mangled something, their are tpyos and that sort of thing…  Stuff in [square brackets] is me editorialising/suggesting additional lines of enquiry/books – I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that Noble has arcane and weird taste in anecdotes.

The event began with generous amounts of alcohol, fruit (grapes! Nom nom. Apples! Nom nom nom) and nibbles, with time for people to catch up with old friends and make new ones.  Julian Tait of Open Data Manchester opened proceedings explaining that ODM, which has been going for about 8 years is a community-led organisation that tries to take a critical look at (open) data and what it might mean for democracy, participation, sustainability and all those Good Things.  (The tagline says it best – Supporting responsible and intelligent data practice in Greater Manchester and beyond). They have a bunch of events coming up, including the brilliantly named ‘Joy Diversion’  (scroll to the bottom) and he then asked if anyone else had events. There was on – this Thursday, 10 May Meet Amazing Data Women, open to anyone who identifies as a women.

A representative of the host building, The Federation gave a short talk, mentioning that it’s a newish community led business with free desk space for tech  businesses that are trying to do useful things around sustainability.  They also have events coming up, including something on May 30 on technology and slavery, with Mary Mazzio, the director of the documentary ‘I am Jane Doe’, and the launch of a report about images and disinformation/misinformation and the recent UK and French elections on June 5.

Then it was on to the main event. Professor Farida Vis, from Manchester School of Art, introduced the speaker Dr Safiya Noble.   She is (not yet) well-known to British audiences I suspect, but if tonight is anything to go by a) she should be and b) she will be. FT  readers may have read the article about her typing in ‘black girls’ to google while looking for things to take her niece to in New York and the results being, well, NSFW [that’s ‘not safe for work’, for any of reader who isn’t quite as down wiv da yoof as the 47 year old middle-class blogger who has to be told off by his wife for quoting The Wire as if it gives him urban(e) cred. Truedat.]

Noble works on the ways in which information technology, while seeming ‘neutral’ [the best trick the devil ever played…] actually perpetuates (intensifies) pre-existing prejudices. She’s been working on this for years and she knows a hell of a lot, but wears it lightly.  Noble has an engaging and charismatic stage presence. She clearly knows her stuff, knows why it matters and is keen to communicate it, but also to engage with questions and critiques.  She began with an anecdote about her new book.  When she first got the contract with NYU Press  her editor there (whom she praised – Noble is generous at giving ‘shout outs’ to colleagues) said that there was no way the word algorithm could be in the title – “nobody except you nerds knows what an algorithm is.”  Well, now, with bots crawling all over our minds like spiders hatching from an egg sac in a wound, everyone knows differently.  Noble said that even her father-in-law is saying “what’s up with those algorithms?” Noble then pointed out that while her research – and her talk – would be about the USA, what she is studying [warning about] is happening globally, at different speeds in different ways.

This of course is part of a broader ‘techlash’ – a backlash against the utopian promises and hype [see Gartner Hype Cycles for more on this].  As a Wired article Noble referenced put it “2017 was the year we fell out of love with algorithms.”

The next thing that happened was a recurring theme: Noble enthusiastically cited the work of another academic (in this case Wendy Chun, and her 2006 book “Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fibre Optics“.  Two things here – firstly this is a super-helpful habit, sharing your overview of an issue and its back history. Secondly , she wasn’t citing other scholars merely to say their work was incomplete and she had the missing pieces of the puzzle. This wasn’t an alpha (male) academic exercise in the swinging of, er, citations, of the type that those of us privileged to live in the ivory tower so often encounter.

[Btw- strangely many of the authors working on digital oppressions  are African-American or BME. Very odd that that African Americans might have the most acute and penetrating perceptions about the ways that power works. It’s almost as if they have been on the pointy end of oppression for centuries. But anyway…]

She also mentioned Ann Everett, but I can’t read my scrawl to get the context.  [Ah, the irony – google helps out-  In Digital Diaspora; A Race for Cyberspace – “Deftly interweaving history, culture, and critical theory, Anna Everett traces the rise of black participation in cyberspace, particularly during the early years of the Internet”.  Noble had by this point already reminded us just how revolutionary and useful Google was when it arrived in 2000, making it actually possible to find stuff…]

Anyway, Noble’s thesis, in her book – omfg I haven’t linked to her book yet-  is that black bodies are ‘data disposable’ , upon which technology is practiced and perfected  [And for those of you who think ‘conspiracy theory’/chip on shoulder, why don’t you check out the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male  [the clue is in the name] and how the pill was tested on Puerto Ricans. To back this up she introduced Vilna Bashi Treitler and a book called The Ethnicity Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, which says that there is a ‘core binary spectrum’ (white and non-white), with immigrants striving to become white (think the Irish and Italians)  [the same thing happened in Australia, – whiteness is such a freaking fiction].

Noble mentioned a backlash against talking about race since the 1990s, with the rise of so-called ‘colour-blind ideology’, a favoured phrase of venture capitalists looking to fund projects. It has the odd effect of rendering white and Asian men invisible [so ‘normal’ as to be unseeable]

Two more academics working on this got a shout out – Michael Brown [can’t find – perhaps a reference to Ferguson victim?] and Helen A. Neville.

In the one moment that, for me, was questionable Noble pointed out that the rise of ‘computer knows best’ ideology grew in the 1960s at the same time as Civil Rights legislation was being passed and participation in decision-making became at least thinkable for minorities [that said, the use of technology to deskill and suppress workers power is indisputable – see David Noble Forces of Production  I just think this was a slightly long bow to draw…]

What we are seeing now is analogous to ‘redlining’ (where banks refused loans to entire categories of people – a practice now outlawed).  Profiles of individuals are being built on a mass level – what does it mean to have a data profile about you that you can’t intervene on?  For Noble, AI is going to be a massive Human Rights issue in the 21st century, and it is one we don’t have the legal/political frameworks for yet.

More fellow academics and thinkers then got a shout out

[Noble says that this list is just ‘scratching the surface’, and that we need to mainstream the discussion of tech ethics)

Noble told an amusing story about having been on twitter for so long that she actually has the @safiya handle but can’t use it because it gets flooded with mis-tagging  (the same thing happens to a guy called @johnlewis, who has great fun with people’s mis-tagging while looking for the store).

Searching questions
Moving on to the question of how trusted search engines are, Noble pointed to a 2012  Pew Centre study which showed that most Americans are satisfied with search engines, most use Google (thus, Noble says, that’s what she studies!, and most use it often.  Search engines are therefore seen as a ‘trusted public good’, the people’s portal.  The cost of this is that we’ve lost the art of/respect for content curated by an expert.

Noble then shared the experience by which she might be known to a general UK audience – she googled ‘black girls’ (having been told by a colleague not to do it from a university computer.  And sure enough, it was pages and pages of porn.  Noble wrote an article on this for Bitch magazine, published in Spring 2012. By autumn Google had suppressed the porn in the search results [a pattern that would continue  – individual problems dealt with on an ad hoc reactive basis]

Noble then asked if anyone had heard of a UK band called Black Girls, which still appears in the searches. One of the 90ish present had, leading Noble to observethe band was better at search engine optimisation than it was at music distribution…

Next up Noble gave a shout out to an online collection of Jim Crow memorabilia at, before going on to recount how, in 2015,  DeRay Mckesson  (with leverage acquired from having been followed by Beyonce) showed that when you googled the ‘n-word’house Google Maps took you to the White House.

Again, Google’s response was to talk about ‘glitches’ (in otherwise perfect systems.

Another example – the following year chap called Kabir Ali was livestreamed by his friends googling ‘three black teenages’ and ‘three white teenagers’.  The former gave mugshots, the latter healthy non-threatening sportsballing folks

[This stuff matters. Somewhere (Malcolm Gladwell?) there’s an anecdote about someone regularly doing the Implicit Association Test, which furtles out the links you make ‘unintentionally’ and not being able to figure out why his results were improving –then realised he was watching the Olympics, where black athletes were doing well/being praised]

Anyway, the following day, it was tweaked.

Next up – googling “unprofessional hairstyles for work” came up with lots of black women, while “”professional hairstyles for work” came up with white women with pony tails.

See also Jessica Davis and Oscar Gandy 1999 Racial identity and media orientation: Exploring the Nature of Constraint. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, (3), pp.367-397.

[I mentioned this to the brilliant Sarah Irving and she mentioned the ‘if anyone needs to know that orientalism is still a thing, google ‘sheikh’ – still loads of images of kidnappy/rapey men on camels and their insatiable appetites for white flesh]

So beyond being offensive and demoralising, what are the broader political implications, if any?  Noble pointed to a 2013 study that showed that the types of results which came up on the first page when someone googled a candidate could influence who people would vote for, and that search engines need to be regulated. [I haven’t got this totally]  This is the article I think – Viability, Information Seeking and Vote Choice.  (Of course, googlebombing is nowt new – see what Dan Savage did to Senator Santorum, way back in the day).

Skip forward- after the 2016 Presidential Election, if you googled ‘final election result’ in the US you got taken to a lying site, that said Trump won not only the Electoral College vote, but ALSO the popular vote.

Further links

Neoliberal co-optation

So, the response has been predictable, and probably effective.  Google has come up with ‘Black Girls Code’ – in this narrative the main problem is not structural racism but that 5 year old black girls haven’t been getting involved enough… Noble cited Heather Hiles as noting that less than one per cent of venture capital goes into projects led by black women.

Noble then moved on to the deeper question of who makes the tech, and what damage is done in the making  of it (the subject of her next work – following the production and value chains).  All these techs are “resting precariously on extraction in the Global South” with enormous amounts of hidden labour [and ecosystem devastation] “in I-phone 12 or whatever we’re going to be on in a week” – all part of the (story of) infinite linear progress of technology [ah, the hedonic treadmill, donchajustlove it]

This sense of technology as our (submissive because female) friend is there in the new personal digital assistants such as Microsoft’s Ms Dewey, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.  Noble mentioned that a few weeks ago she was talking with robotics professors at Stanford who had not thought through the implications of children learning to bark commands at women’s voices…

[There’s a great Onion story “Congress Demands to Know How Facebook Got people to Give Up their Civil Liberties without a Fight” in which they quiz Mark Zuckerberg on how he convinced people to let bugs/spies into their houses in a way the FBI could only dream of. ]

Other problems include so-called “predictive policing” and embodied software (Robocop Lives!!) Simone Browne and racialized policing.  A concrete (in every sense) example – in Champagne Illinois there are [were?], in the poor neighbourhoods, virtually no sidewalks.  So, what do kids do? They walk in the street. And what do the cops do? Write them up for jaywalking.  As the Violent Femmes once sang ‘this will go down on your permanent record’….   [A neat example of how, as per critical realism, we have to think about material constraints, not just ideologies and ‘rules’ – see Sorrell, 2018:  “Explaining sociotechnical transitions: A critical realist perspective]

Final example – even videos of atrocities (Eric Garner dying, saying ‘I can’t breath’) attract advertising revenues because, well – lots of people watch them.  [We monetise our own catastrophes, whether we like it or not…]

What is to be done?

This was the last, and by far the briefest, section of Noble’s talk. She had five suggestions

  • Build repositories and platforms that belong to the public. (Noble noted that the convergence of states and multinational companies made it hard to imagine platforms that were not based on advertising revenues)
  • Resist colorblind/racist/sexist technology development (sex dolls got a mention)
  • Decrease technology over-development and e-waste
  • More info and research visualisation for the public
  • Never give up


Noble closed by observing that the prediction is that by 2030 1% of the population will own 2/3rds of the world’s wealth. There will be intensified datafication, more devices, with more promises of seamless and frictionless liberty.  But we can’t eat the digital. We can’t make an iPhone sandwich….


Question and Answer

There was time for some questions.  What was interesting here – besides the info itself – was that Noble gave quick and detailed answers, without waffle or using the Q and A as a chance for a thinly-veiled continuation of her lecture (we’ve all seen that happen, right?)

Please do NOT take anything I’ve ascribed to Noble as gospel. I may have got stuff wrong. I don’t do shorthand.  Check the recording!

Question 1: Is Capitalism an algorithm of oppression?

Noble: Yes, of course… goes on to point to the racialized element of this.  2008 financial crisis as the biggest wipe out of black wealth since the Reconstruction [e.g. here and here]

Cites Cathy O’Neil Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

Question 2 Audre Lorde said that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.  Does this mean that we should be encouraging people to ‘disconnect.?

Noble:  No. It’s cute to tell people to delete facebook, but we need collective solutions, not individual ones. If I stop paying my rent, I’m not taking down capitalism.We need to strengthen our position in the situation we are in.  For example “fair sourcing”, and design where nobody dies [a challenge she put to comp sci students who had to take her class recently.  We need a more powerful public response.  We used to have 80% unionisation after world war two.  Need that back.  That’s not easy.  In retrospect everyone was at the 1963 March on Washington, but  of course it was no more than 10 percent making the change at the time. We need to find that 10% again

[And keep them for the long haul.  Best book on the Civil Rights Struggle I ever read was ‘And We are Not Saved’ by Debbie Louis. Extraordinary.]

[I asked that question.  What I MEANT to say was ‘in your opinion, are there inherent properties within the technology that mean it will never be effective as a weapon of liberation. If so, what then?’ but I bollocksed it up.  I am sure there is a broader lesson in this – perhaps something about about letting smarter-than-me black women speak for themselves and staying out of the way, but I can’t quite see what it is….]

Question 3:  (from a biracial woman).  Was searching for home insurance with a white friend. They have same financial profile, and asked for two quotes on the same house.  Guess who was quoted the cheaper premium…

[At which point TV Smith’s ‘It’s expensive being poor’ sprang to mind.]

Noble:  That’s what we call code data discrimination, which we can’t see.  We have to have public policy on this.  And most discrimination laws are about proving intent – we should be looking at outputs and impacts.  There is this very powerful ‘tech is neutral’ idea which we have to contest.

Noble then gave the example of a (black?) guy who was the son of a financial planner, and a financial planner himself i.e. ‘responsible adult’ had his Amex card declined. Eventually, after multiple calls it emerged he’d once bought something in a Walmart in the Wrong Part of Town and the algorithm had ‘decided’ he was credit risk.

Question 4: to what extent are Silicon Valley executives oblivious to the problem?

Noble: They’re largely underprepared. If you’re designing tech for society and you don’t know anything about society, you’re underprepared.  The kind of people who end up in Silicon Valley mostly went to the top five universities and will have been able to transfer out of their humanities components early. For some the last humanities course they took will have been high school English.  But even if by some miracle they’d taken ethnic/women’s studies, that wouldn’t necessarily help, since they are coding/designing within a set of institutions/beliefs/paradigms [my paraphrase/word salad].

And there is defensiveness/hostility in some companies about all of this.

Question 5:  How much of this is unconscious bias?

Noble: I don’t like that phrase. UB let’s everyone off the hook.  Get’s us back into intent questions, where we need to look at outputs and impacts, and then use public policy, HR policies, hiring etc.

What kind of world do we want? One were people can’t afford to eat?  How do we do things differently.

Question 6: Thanks for opening my eyes about search engine bias: beyond moderation of search engines, what?

Noble: we must separate advertising content from knowledge. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, fine, but if, as Dylan Roof (the 19 year old who murdered 9 black churchgoers in Virginia), well, he was doing ‘sense-making’ on Travyon Martin (murdered by George Zimmerman) and was led to lots of white supremacist sites.  There’s a chapter in the book on this.

We need to demarcate better, and realise that google should not be a ‘trusted public good’.


Further reading [my suggestions’


What I would have done differently

I have been to (and blogged) about some truly appalling events.  This, mercifully was not one of them.  Huzzah! Still, it’s usually possible to offer unsolicited advice. So here goes:

One of the (largely) false promises of social media is that it will decrease our sense of loneliness/anomie. When we organise “meatspace” events, we should take actions that reduce that loneliness. I would have had people turn to someone they don’t know at the outset and introduce themselves for a couple of minutes. Who are they? Why did they come? What are they hoping to get.  No wider feedback, just that. (It works- see here).

I would have challenged Noble to talk slightly less about the problems (though it was incredibly eye opening) and at greater length about the ‘solutions’ and how they might be implemented, and by who.

During Q and A mostly men’s hands (about 4 to 2, when actual gender balance in room was roughly 55/45 male to female).  (Fwiw, I think meetings are institutionally sexist). Have people turn to the person next to them to compare notes, and get help honing their question. Then ask for a show of hands and pick male and female hands-  or on other metrics- an obvious one in this case would be race)
Upcoming events

Sat May 19 Joy Diversion

“Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.”


Events, dear boy, events – of oil slicks, rich people and creeping

Musing #1 on Molotch, H. 1970. Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America. Sociological Inquiry, 40, 131-144.

In January 1969 the first big Oil Slick That Mattered washed up on the beaches of rich people in California. Sure, there had been the Torrey Canyon in 1967, where someone took an ill-advised shortcut and hit a reef. Cornwall copped it, and hands were wrung. (1)

Photo from here.  Turns out, still having health impacts…whodathunkit

But Santa Barbara was different – bigger, more ‘photogenic’ and happening in a place where there were lots of powerful, plugged-in folks who (thought that they) had hands that could pull on the levers of power. They got an education, and this magnificent article, explains how.


Being powerful locally, it turns out, doesn’t give you ‘juice’ nationally. The local yokels should have suspected this when, the year before, they were unable to stop the federal government granting oil leases on seabed that was patently unsuitable (no bedrock, porous as heck). Once the worst happened , sure, there were rallies, marches, lobbying, court cases, and so forth, but over the following months, the good burghers came to realise that access to power-makers doesn’t equal influence (a lesson environmental campaigners should note, but don’t).

There are several points at which Molotch (who is still around and has had a stellar career with a whole bunch of contributions) seems to quite enjoy watching and recounting this dawning realisation. The clearest is near the end of the article (which you should defo read)

Similarly a well-to-dow widow, during a legal proceeding in Federal District Court, in which Santa Barbara was once again “losing,” whispered in the author’s ear:

“Now I understand why those young people at the University go around throwing things… The individual has no rights at all.” (2)

(Molotch, 1970:141)

Molotch was writing before Downs’ seminal ‘Up and Down with Ecology- the ‘issue-attention cycle‘, and doesn’t address the inevitable decline in attention/agitation (though Molotch clearly knew that was coming

It’s a great essay, that stands up as fresh and important today, half a century and so many Big Spills later…

I’ll write at least once more on it, and there is a 1975 piece Molotch co-authored on the national (press) coverage the spill that is also going to get read, but probably not until #afterSubmission.

Meanwhile, those events


Molotch uses Daniel Boorstin‘s then-relatively-recent concept of the Pseudo Event to great effect, (“A pseudo-event occurs when men arrange conditions to simulate a certain kind of event, such that certain prearranged consequences follow as though the actual event had taken place” (p.139)) describing local participation in decision making especially, but also President Nixon’s carefully stage-managed ‘inspection’ flight.

Creeping Events

Molotch then introduces what he calls ‘creeping events’.
“A creeping event is, in a sense, the opposite of a pseudo-event. It occurs when something is actually taking place, but when the manifest signs of the event are arranged to occur at an inconspicuously gradual and piece-meal pace, thus eliminating some of the consequences which would otherwise follow from the event if it were to be perceived all-at-once to be occurring.” (p.139)

This is analogous to the fable of the boiling frog – you get used to anything. Right now we are seeing it with the slow normalisation of pervasive scanning of the population (jay walkers?!).

An historical aside- shortly after  Molotch was writing this there was another famous CREEP going on – the Committee for the  Re-Election the President. But that’s all watergate under the bridge now…

Focussing Events

Later on, in 1984, when John Kingdon was first launching what has come to be called the Multiple Streams Approach, he said that for a policy window (within which major change might be possible) to open, one of the necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions was a ‘focussing event’ – something loud, unexpected/influential.

So, really, creeping events are efforts to avoid the coming of focussing events (Molotch quotes an internal Interior Department memo about the policy of refusing public hearings before oil drilling – “We preferred not to stir up the natives any more than possible.” ((p. 139)

I’ll write something else about this great paper – there is a Monty Python connection worth flagging. In the meantime, around the park and in front of the thesis….


(1) Two ironies. One, the Torrey Canyon was named for a geographical feature in … California and Two, the same company that owned it, Union Oil, was also responsible for the oil well that went splat in SB. Oh, those scamps.

(2) I wonder if she sustained view that after the Bank of America went up

How to lose, for sure. Aka “the information deficit model is killing us.” #vasectomy

We are losing.  All we need to do to keep losing is to keep on doing what we are doing.  Simples.

Reflecting on the mirror-image of master and slave

We can see it in our opponents. And if we denounce them for their condescension and silence, well,  our tribe rewards us for seeing it and saying it.  What’s that Buffalo Springfield lyric

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say “hooray for our side

What we see in our opponents is the top-down model, the assumption that what people lack is information, and that they – our lords and masters – have that information, which they will nobly inject into our heads.

And what that achieves, of course, is the shutting down of debate. Our opponents do it deliberately, because it suits their political needs;  prevent awkward questions,  remind everyone (including themselves) who is the boss, remind everyone who it is who – quite literally – sets the agenda.

We see it in those people, and we rightly condemn them for sharp practice, for wilfully blind, wilfully deafening devices.

And then we turn right around and do EXACTLY THE SAME THINGS ourselves. We let our own lords and masters, who run unions and campaigning groups,  do the exactly the same thing. And we lack the courage, patience, clarity, persistence to do anything about it. Well, actually, I lack the cpcp. Maybe you don’t.

Two examples.

First:  The strike I’ve been part of. The energy on the picket lines, the humour, the talent, the connections? All pissed against the wall by specialists without spirit, unimaginative technocrats who sit us in rows, take no interest in building our bonding capital, our capacity to act as networks. Not leaders then, but shepherds.

And we take it.

Second: A room full of people, some of whom have mingled. The meeting leader calls the meeting to start. he announces that there will be five consecutive films, totalling fifty minutes. Then there will be a panel discussion, mostly of men. Then he starts showing the films. No effort to get us to meet a stranger (so why is it called a meeting, ffs?) No breaks between films to discuss. Just us sat in rows watching and listening.

And we take it.

Nobody complains, nobody protests. That’s just the way we do things… I invoke the law of two feet. Of course I do. I always do. Too heart-sick, too tired now.

Same behaviour, different motives. But same consequences

But although the behaviour is the same, I suspect the underlying motivation is different. Unlike our lords and masters, there is no deliberate attempt to shut down debate. Sometimes, yes, there are egomaniacs who just want to be the centre of attention- cynosures (the word I learnt last week).

But I suspect that that’s not what was going on in the two examples above. It’s just that organisers don’t know any better, or dare not innovate (nobody ever got fired for buying IBM).

But then, the followers don’t demand more. And in the absence of demand, then I guess you’re a fool to expect innovation (which is risky) or hopeful monsters that might survive.

We are losing. We will continue to lose. We will continue to be atomised, demoralised, prey to incompetents, Judas Goats and egomaniacs, until we insist on better institutions (both in the ‘cultural norms’ AND the ‘real existing organisations). sense. Which means, since this will not happen, that we will continue to lose.

Blathering about my bloody sterilisation for the hundredth time

In December 2004 I had a vasectomy, so that I wouldn’t have to explain to a child of mine how we fucked it up for them, how we were handing on a planet stripped bare of its extraordinary diversity, a semi-inhabitable slagheap.

People used to think I was a whackjob for believing that. I don’t get that quite so much these days. We can see the future from where we stand (or sit, in rows). If we choose to see it. Most of us, understandably, choose to listen instead to soothing blandishments.

Holy Moses or “There’s never an irony policeman when you need one”

We watched the documentary. Excellent if problematic, it was basically a morality play: a bunch of old white powerful men in a self-designed and policed echo chamber are eventually brought low by a scrappy band of diverse (gasp) women. And so immediately after the film there was to be a discussion. And a bunch of old white powerful men sat around and started to talk among themselves about their memories, while (BME) women watched on from the back of the room.

Reader, I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.

There really never is an irony policeman around when you need one.

The documentary was Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a skilfully made but partial hagiography of Jane “The Death and Life of American Cities” Jacobs, and the battles she fought – and won – with the infamous Robert ‘The Power Broker’ Moses. Moses was drunk on the sort of power that being part of the winning side in an World War gives you (planes, tanks and atomic weapons). Moses then planned to redesign New York City to his own particular purposes. Not captured in the film (one of its silences) was just how fantastically racist (even “by the standards of his day”) Moses was. This would have complicated the straightforward (largely white) narrative that got told. So be it. Anyway, Jacobs, a journalist and all-round good egg, fought Moses over his plans to drive a road through Washington Park in 1954. Then, a few years later, Moses had a hard-on for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs and co beat him again.

The documentary then took a good turn – looking at the Chinese government’s falling-in-love with Moses’ technocratic dreams. It didn’t have time to explore the new resistance (e.g. the Shanghai maglev doesn’t make it from the airport to the city centre). There are other problems of course.

For a film that celebrates “diversity” it didn’t have that many non-white faces (though to be fair, it did have some). It didn’t historicise- would it have killed them to say who Moses’ hero was – Haussmann of Paris (instead we got heaps of Le Corbusier. Interesting, but, meh). It could have further contextualised Moses’ will to power (he was both a regime and a Nietzsche actor) by better referencing the chaos of the Depression and the “successes” of US planning and power during the war, and put it alongside the white heat of 1950s ‘successes’ (DDT, the space programme, blah blah), and also pointed to the collapse of that faith not just with Jacobs, but also the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. But to be fair, this was a documentary that needed to have a Bad Guy and a Good Guy (well, gal). It wasn’t, after all, an Adam Curtis documentary. My rule of thumb of a documentary – do I feel I know enough, but do I still want to know more? The answer in this case is an emphatic yes.

Meanwhile, Jacobs instantly puts me in mind of Rachel ‘Silent Spring’ Carson (mentioned by one interviewee) and more latterly Elinor Ostrom. Moses harks back to Haussmann but also to a near contemporary, Robert McNamara, an equally ‘modernist’ figure who prosecuted the Vietnam War (3 million dead at the time, more since from land mines and defoliants etc) with the same gusto and the same playbook as Moses did the enemy ghettos of New York.

Back to the ‘discussion’. Would it really have killed any of the initial speakers to look around the room and say ‘hey, if we’re gonna have a discussion about diversity, it would help if we were all in a big circle. You don’t have to say anything if you join the circle, and you don’t have to move to be in the circle if you don’t want, but we can hardly honour Jacobs and the documentary-maker’s capital M Message about inclucivity if we don’t at least try to reshape the space for conviviality in the Illich sense, rather than a Powerful White Men get to Express-their-opinions-Way.’

Didn’t happen, at least while I was there: I then invoked the law of two feet. Also, I have a thesis to finish.

Nice power/authority distinction

I have been – by wiser heads than mine – warned off trying to bite off much more for The Thesis, and we all agree with the imperative to Get The Damned Thing Finished.  So, am not going to open up the box marked “power” more than a little peek…  That’s for a mythical post-doc…

Meanwhile, Gerard Henderson (I’m not really a fan, but “stopped clocks” and all that) had this to say this morning about the Barnaby Joyce fiasco (the latest one, I mean) on ABC’s Insiders this morning (18 February 2018)

“As we know in politics, politicians often think they have power.  They don’t really have power, they have legitimate authority. They may make powerful decisions, but what they have is authority. Once you lose your authority, once you’re de-authorised, like Barnaby Joyce is, it’s very difficult to hang on….”

Reminds me of Somerset Maugham‘s observation in Then and Now (his imagining of Machiavelli past his prime) about the thing politicians not being able to survive being ridicule/mockery….

Men critique things of me: of Winterson and Solnit in #Manchester #activism

aka some cishet white guy’s uninvited commentary on two feminist literary icons. But it’s his website and he can say what he likes. Nobody is forcing you to read it, ‘kay?

Rebecca Solnit will be known to the casual reader as the woman who wrote the (fantastic) ‘Men Explain Things To Me’. Last night she was ‘in conversation’ with Jeanette (Oranges are not the only fruit, Sexing the Cherry, Why be happy when you can be normal) Winterson as part of the Manchester Literature Festival.  A capacity crowd (female to male ratio 3:1ish) filled the Martin Harris  auditorium at the University of Manchester.

After a brief welcome, and announcement that Manchester is now a UNESCO city of literature, it was on with the program itself.

Solnit read from the lead essay in her new book The Mother of All Questions which  contains essays about the powerlessness of silences, men in/and feminism, the perniciousness of rape culture.

As ever with Solnit, the questions are apt, the prose measured, incisive.  She pointed out that the standard importance of happiness, and the standard belief that ‘ducks in a row’ (spouse, security, possessions) doesn’t in fact guarantee this ‘happiness’, and gave the example of a successful friend who despite a seventy-year marriage and all the other accoutrements that should lead to ‘happiness’ is despondent because her compassion makes her think of t’other species, t’other generations

Winterson kicked off the discussion with a question about the longest essay, ‘A short history of silence’.

Solnit says she quoted bell hooks on patriarchy begins with men’s silencing of other men, and that growing up in San Francisco during the 70s meant she could learn from queer men parodying and undermining traditional (heterosexual) masculinity.

At this point, I forget the context, she also uttered one of her axioms – “everyone has the right to be an asshole” (regardless of race, gender, class).
Winterson pressed on – the need of  (#notall) men to control women. Solnit concurred, pointing out that Weinstein could easily have bought sex if that was what he had wanted.

She also pointed to what she called ‘annihilatory acts’ (as in, actresses having their careers destroyed by Weinstein’s behaviour).  She then riffed on a 2007 article of here in which a guy who had directed straight porn returned to the industry and started directing gay porn, realising that there were ‘no humiliation scenes’.

She made the point that there are “a tonne of leftwing men” with deeply problematic behaviour, and that this is a really interesting moment, one of those ‘seismic lurches’ in the same way that Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony about Clarence Thomas was (‘before we had hashtags, we had bumper stickers, like ‘I believe you Anita’).

She made reference to the 2014 Isla Vista killings by a young man whose sense of entitlement crashed up against, well, reality, and pointed out that the woman who created the #yesallwomen hashtag, a young Muslim woman, had been hounded off the internet for six months

Winterson then, oddly imo, asked Solnit what she thought Weinstein would do next. Solnit labelled him a serial rapist, with crimes dating back forty years, and said she thought he’d probably been lying to himself and would continue to do so, that she expected nothing of him but that we should expect of ourselves the important work of liberation.

In the context of the Bechdel Test, Winterson introduced a Star Wars statistic of Solnit’s that clearly enraptured her.  If you take the original trilogy (and let’s pretend the Phantom Menace never happened, okay?) Three hundred and eighty six minutes and if you take out Princess Leia, (who never talks to anyone who isn’t a male), then there are only 63 seconds of females talking across the three films.

Winterson noted that for ages we imbibed this stuff and thought it normal. Solnit mentioned that women have had to be hermaphroditic in their reading, in order to be Odysseus rather than Penelope, and mentioning Hong Kong action films, where women get to kick ass, as liberatory zones.

On the subject of ‘Men explain Lolita to me’ – Winterson recalled that Martin Amis had said to her that she simply “did not understand her (the character Lolita’s power”.  Solnit was scathing about male critics and their ability to not see that this is a book about a young girl trapped and serially abused, trying to get away. She invoked James Baldwin “it is innocence which constitutes the crime” and argued that what was shocking in the Weinstein revelations is that men have been shocked by the breadth of sexual harassment and abuse.

Conversation then turned to the essay “Men explain things to me”.  Solnit pointed out that women being silenced can have potentially fatal consequences (women being ignored when trying to report ‘my (ex)husband is trying to kill me’ etc) and moved on to think of Sylvia Plath being born now rather than fifty years ago being ‘free to sleep under the stars’ (i.e., as they said, Virginia Woolf’s thought experiment of Shakespeare’s Sister).

Nonetheless, things are improving for (some) women, in the West, and Solnit argues that the genie is out of the bottle and won’t be forced back in. Citing marriage equality, she cited the observations of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that in until 1991 husbands in Louisiana could dispose of joint property as they saw fit under its ‘Head and Master’ law.

Q and A

There was only time for three questions (since we started late). Mercifully none were the sorts of chest-beaty ‘look at me’ stuff that can happen at these events and I am sure this had nothing to do at all with the fact that the questions all came from women).
First question:  Under Trump we may not be able to do just maintenance work but need to do recovery work. How can we be resilient?

The answer wasn’t so hot, imo.  Civil Rights gains rolled back by Republicans [aka the new Jim Crow]. Don’t be dismayed, activism isn’t just boredom and nastiness, can be fun/meet great people [yeah, I used to believe that].  Berlin wall, Apartheid ending.  Solnit also noted that good work is one of the best things you can have, noting that she had the privilege of getting to write for a living.

Second question: in wake of #metoo Social media – good or bad?

Solnit also in my opinion flubbed this one. Wondered if any quantitative work comparing snark/death threats and opportunities for co-ordination/mutual support. Facebook and Twitter not going answer.  Attention span is disrupted when everyone is checking phone every five minutes. What would search engines look like if designed by someone other than ruthless white male libertarians chasing advertising dollars?

Richard Flanagan article as crucial here

Also the amazing Zeynep Tufekci and her recent “Fighting Surveillance Authoritarianism, One Pull-up At a Time”

Third question: How can we shift blame to perpetrators? What can men do?

Solnit didn’t mention the French hashtag ‘name your pig’.  She expressed surprise at men pledging ‘I will no longer laugh at misogynist jokes, I will no longer stand by while…’ .  “I can’t believe your admitting that you’ve been doing that until now.”

My friend was seething, judging that Solnit had in fact not answered the first question, and that anyone who thinks feminism has made major advances is living in a (rich and white) bubble and that – in response to the second question you do not ‘give a voice’ but in fact stop silencing or colluding in the silencing of


So what?

Both lovely stylists, if you like that sort of thing.  But (and this is where I stick my big fat mouth and head above the parapet) it all seemed to me a little bit self-regarding and self-satisfied, with serious questions about the viability of ‘blockadia’ (to use Naomi Klien’s term) left not merely unanswered but in fact unasked.

If the radicals are so right (and I think they are) and it is shocking that men are shocked by the scale of sexual harassment (and yes it is shocking) then doesn’t that mean that social movements are doing something wrong/could be doing better?  (And a shout out to Everyday Sexism here – I think it is a great project).   Perhaps all this is answered in the book, but it wasn’t answered on the night, and my experience of a big fat long book of Solnit’s – A Paradise Built in Hell – was that there was some lovely rhetoric and powerful denunciations of patriarchy/bureaucracy etc, but not so much on how to sustain moments of passion and the liberatory moments, how to escape the sclerosis of the “system.”

Verdict –

  • Someone whose opinion on these matters I respect v. much and counts for more than mine decided to stay home under the cat.  Missed little, I think.
  • Glad I got a freebie, 8 quid seems a bit steep for an hour, tbh.  Maybe I am cheap…
  • Will defo read this collection of essays, once I can get a copy from a library or buy a year from now for £1.99 in an Oxfam in Chorlton. Will probably like various essays and even stick post-it notes in here and there, while being irritated by the wordiness and lack of concrete critiques of the good guys.