The march of idiocy


I wrote about the horrors of unvaccinated children the other day. This is a great example of the problem.

The article is about Shanelle Cartwright, the wife of an Australian rugby player. Over 400-odd words it regurgitates nonsense she posted on social media, describing her refusal  to vaccinate her kids as a “controversial decision”.

It’s not a controversial decision. It’s a dangerous decision that could threaten the lives of other people’s children.

This happens constantly in media, in all kinds of subjects: someone refusing to accept settled science is portrayed as part of a debate where both sides have equal value. But they don’t. The Earth is not flat. We landed on the moon. The Holocaust happened. Climate change is real. Barack Obama wasn’t born in Kenya. Vaccination saves lives.

A recent study found that nearly 10% of Americans think vaccines are unsafe. That doesn’t mean that nearly 10% of Americans know more than science. It means that nearly 10% of Americans are idiots.

I briefly subscribed to a Reddit section about stupid people on Facebook. I had to unsubscribe again because the sheer, grinding, unrelenting idiocy of it was making me fear for humanity. It’s just wall to wall insanity: nurses claiming that the sun can’t damage your skin, people telling cancer patients to forget chemo and cut down on sugar instead, people sharing graphics showing that vaccinations include a range of lethal chemicals including dihydroxen monoxide.

Dihydrogen Monoxide is better known as H2O.

I wish I was making this up.

Never mind asking whether these people should be given a platform. I don’t think they should be given cutlery.

It’s really very simple: idiots shouldn’t be given a platform to spout idiocy unless you make it really, really clear that they have no idea what they’re talking about. We generally don’t give column inches or air time to people who believe that the world is flat, because it isn’t. But with vaccination, climate change and other hot-button topics, we repeatedly give idiots a megaphone. And every time we do, we legitimise their bullshit and the world gets a little more stupid.

For frack’s sake

The Times, on Twitter:

Almost 50 geoscientists have urged the government to commission an urgent review of the fracking earthquake limit, which they suggest should be raised to allow the industry to expand

Sam Knight, a writer, also on Twitter:

Of the 48 people that signed the letter, I could not confidently identify 9. I think one works for BP and another works for Shell. Many are not experts in any recognisable way. But it doesn’t really matter. Because, of the remaining 39, all have links to gas and oil companies.

…Several signatories openly brag about their industry funded research. Many used to work for oil and gas companies. Quite a few still work for those companies. And others are not even practising scientists, but directors of a business in the energy sector.

This isn’t just yet another example of how The Times and its sister titles often publish advocacy and rarely bother to check credentials. It’s part of a wider problem where supposedly independent experts are nothing of the sort.

The Taxpayer’s Alliance is a good example. It keeps its funding secret because it doesn’t represent the ordinary working stiffs it claims to; it’s an advocacy group for the super-rich, who fund it out of their very deep pockets.

Whether it’s the super-rich pretending to be ordinary people, religious fundamentalists claiming to be ordinary parents or anybody else with an agenda pretending they don’t, every time they’re given a platform the platform provider is failing its viewers, its listeners or its readers.

Murderous delusions

Image from Reddit. Creator unknown.

On Friday, hundreds of US parents protested against the vaccination of children. I liked the Huffington Post headline: Parents Protest For Kids’ Right To Suffer From Preventable Illness. 

The protest was in Washington State, which is currently in the middle of a measles epidemic. The parents are trying to stop a bill that would remove personal or philosophical exemptions for child vaccination. It’s an attempt to stop a dangerous trend: the WHO describes the anti-vaccination movement as one of the top threats to global health in 2019.

The anti-vax movement is profoundly anti-scientific, and repeats the non-existent link between autism and vaccination popularised by the thoroughly discredited charlatan Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield, sadly, is still peddling his nonsense and thousands of parents believe it.

It’s important to stress here that vaccines are among the most studied medicines in human history. There is no link between vaccination and autism. None.

The parents who campaign against keeping children alive aren’t malicious. But they’ve fallen victim to the same thing that drives climate change denial or flat-Earthism: I can’t see it, therefore it can’t exist.

It also ties in with anti-government, anti-expert sentiment. How dare you tell me what I need to do to protect my children?

This isn’t a movement of stupid people, or uneducated people, although some anti-vax posters on social media might persuade you otherwise. The demographics skew heavily in favour of reasonably affluent, reasonably well-educated middle-class white women.

It’s cruelly ironic that vaccines have fallen victim to their own success: we no longer see the victims of the diseases they eliminate. My generation and the generations after me haven’t grown up around children whose limbs have been destroyed by polio. We haven’t seen people’s faces scarred and distorted by smallpox. We don’t know of brothers or sisters who died from whooping cough.

If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

The parents’ murderous delusion could kill not just their own children, but other people’s children too. Some children don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to be vaccinated or not: they’re too young, or they don’t have access to health care, or they have medical conditions that would make vaccination unsafe, or they’re still in the womb. With a successful vaccination programme those children are protected: herd immunity means that it’s effectively impossible for dangerous diseases to exist in a community, so the likelihood of these children being exposed is near zero.

That only works if most children get vaccinated, though. When the numbers fall even a little bit, below 90 to 95%, herd immunity disappears and preventable, deadly diseases recur. That’s exactly what’s happening now. For example, in Clark County – part of the same state where the anti-vaxxers were protesting – just 78% of nursery school children have had the full slate of vaccination. 43 of those unvaccinated children have contracted measles. In the US alone, more than 9 million children are currently at risk of contracting measles as a result of under-vaccination.

This isn’t an argument to be won on facts, on debating whether or not vaccines are safe. The anti-vaxxers have seen the evidence and simply choose not to believe it. The only way to change these people’s minds appears to be to show them the horrific consequences of the diseases the vaccines prevent, and the danger they’re putting so many children in.

Drill: the presumption of guilt

Drill musicians Reds, K Trap and Mischief. Image from YouTube.

As long as people have made music, other people have tried to censor it. The famously miserable song Gloomy Sunday, originally published in 1933, was banned by the BBC until 2002. George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows was banned in 1940 for its supposedly smutty lyrics. More recently, bands were banned from airplay during the Gulf War for having the wrong name, such as Massive Attack. And of course there have been attempts to ban entire genres of music such as heavy metal and gangsta rap.

It’s easy to laugh at this stuff, but sometimes it’s deadly serious. Take the case of drill music, a genre so subversive it can land you in prison for performing it. Guess which repressive regime that happens in?

England.

Writing in The Observer, Kenan Malik describes the case of two drill musicians, Skengdo and AM from the Brixton group 410. Last month they were given nine-month suspended sentences for performing a song.

The case is deeply disturbing, because while the police claim that drill incites violence the two musicians have not been charged under the pertinent legislation. The instrument used against them was a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO), the latest incarnation of the infamous anti-social behaviour order (ASBO).

As Malik writes:

Skengdo and AM were served with an injunction without having been convicted of a crime. Breaking the injunction is a criminal offence. They’ve been criminalised for making violent music without having been convicted of any offence of violence.

I don’t understand drill music; it’s not really aimed at the oh-so-lucrative white middle-class middle-aged trans demographic. It may well glamourise violence, and it may well be linked with gang activity. But the law exists to protect all of us, and part of that protection means that we should not be criminalised without due process.

Index on Censorship is no fan of drill music, but it points out that this is hardly the first time minorities have used music to describe their lives.

Drill is less about inspiring violence and more about providing a narrative of lives defined by violence. They are telling the stories of their lives, minus the sugar-coating, just as other writers, poets and musicians have done before them.

They continue:

The right to freedom of expression is considered by many to be a cornerstone of a modern democratic society. Countries that fail to adequately protect this hallowed right – routinely censoring journalists, writers and musicians whose speech challenges and offends those in power – are rightly regarded by the West to be the worst examples of dictatorial, autocratic regimes.

Free expression is not the same thing as freedom from consequences. But there appears to be a curious double standard here.

The press’s free-speech brigade are quick to defend the speech of racist populists such as Tommy Robinson, of alt-right dog whistling and of all kinds of repellent individuals. Freedom of speech, after all, means freedom of speech for views many people will find repellent. And yet the Spectator and Spiked and all the other Voltaire-misquoting defenders of offensive expression have been completely silent about the censorship and criminalisation of drill musicians.

It’s strange, isn’t it? They defend the speech of the white Tommy Robinson, of the white Count Dankula, of the white Milo, of various other white alt-right types – sometimes even the speech of white people who are actual neo-Nazis. And yet they’re completely silent about the ongoing censorship and criminalisation of black musicians. I wonder what the difference could be?

MAGA: Make Auschwitz Great Again

Dachau. Image by Nonethelesser, Wikimedia.org

You don’t need me to tell you about the horrors of the Holocaust, of the brutally efficient attempts to wipe out Jewish people, Roma and LGBT people. But somebody clearly needs to tell the yahoos of Turning Point, the Trump-aligned, MAGA hat-wearing political group that’s just set up shop in the UK with the endorsement of Nigel Farage.

There are tons of reasons to detest and refuse to give a platform to these arseholes, who illustrate the paradox of tolerance: if you refuse to silence the intolerant, eventually they will come to silence you. But even by their despicable standards, this is disgusting. Speaking in London, Candace Owens of Turning Point spoke favourably about Hitler:

But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize.

Hitler just wanted to Make Germany Great Again. To Owens, taking his “dreams” global is “not nationalism”. She adds: “I don’t really have an issue with nationalism. I really don’t.”

Owens is not some random who grabbed a mic. She’s Turning Point’s communications director, so presumably she’s articulating the organisation’s policy here. She doesn’t really have an issue with genocide as long as it’s local.

This is Holocaust denial in a nice dress, Holocaust denial with millionaire backing, the kind of Holocaust denial that gets invited to dinner parties and to share its “controversial views” as part of a “debate”.

To go online at the moment is to feel the dread hand of history repeating. Anti-semitism is once again widespread. Racism and bigotry is vocal and unafraid and raising huge sums via crowdfunding. Views that used to be the preserve of the National Front are given airtime, unchallenged, on our national broadcaster. And organisations such as Turning Point run “professor watchlists” of people they consider ideologically impure and consider themselves to be fighting a new world war.

We say “never forget” and “never again” not just because the Holocaust was a horror it’s hard to contemplate without going mad, but because the Nazis didn’t begin with the camps. Germany went from one of the world’s most progressive countries to Hell on Earth in an incredibly, terrifyingly short period of time. They didn’t ride to power promising to murder Jews. They promised to make Germany great again.

The “Leopards Eating Your Face” party

There’s a well-known gag on Twitter: “I can’t believe leopards are eating my face!” says woman who voted for the “Leopards Eating Your Face Party”.

In the US and increasingly in the UK, self-described “radical feminists” who hate trans people are linking arms with virulently anti-women, anti-abortion, anti-LGBT groups such as the Heritage Foundation, convinced that these leopards will only eat other people’s faces.

These leopards are behind much of the anti-trans legislation US republicans are trying to force through, much of which just so happens to restrict cisgender women’s reproductive rights. And again and again it does something we thought we’d left in the distant past: making legislation that reduces women to their reproductive function.

Here’s the latest bit of anti-trans tomfoolery from Utah. The anti-trans HB.153 bill – which aims to prevent trans people changing their birth certificates, and which is supported by anti-trans “radical feminists” – defines “female” like this:

I use the “for fuck’s sake” image too often on this blog, but:

That’s a definition of an ovipositor, the external organ some animals have for laying eggs, so well done, Utah: you’ve created a definition of female that doesn’t include women. It’d be funny if it weren’t so serious: the legislations here are attempting to define women as baby-makers without any understanding of how babies are made.

But it’s not funny, it’s serious. The bill’s definition also excludes intersex people, survivors of ovarian cancer, women who’ve had surgery to remove ovarian cysts, women who’ve had hysterectomies with oophorectomy… you get the idea.

It’s perhaps not surprising to see such bone-headed ignorance in a badly-drafted bill presented by two middle-aged conservative Mormon men. But bone-headed, regressive ignorance is the new normal. This particular bill looks set to be defeated, but there are bills like it all over the US in which women are defined as baby-making machines, their worth based solely on their reproductive abilities.

Time for this cartoon again:

Pick-up artists, misogyny and the alt-right

One of the more odious groups of people to crawl out of the internet are the pick-up artists (PUAs), who treat women as commodities and whose tactics are thoroughly awful. There has been plenty of (rightful) condemnation of these clowns, most recently over the BBC Social investigation of repellent Scots PUA A-Game, although it’s worth remembering that a lot of men’s magazines and websites praised the early PUAs.

If you’re not immersed in internet culture you might not be aware of the strong links between PUAs, the furious, violent culture of so-called Incel young men and the neo-Nazism of the alt-right. It’s all connected in what some people call the “Manosphere”, the various sites and forums centred on so-called men’s rights activism.

This webcomic, by Charis JB for The Nib, does a good job of explaining it all. Including the murderous consequences.

The snowflake generation

The world is full of snowflakes, we’re told. Thin-skinned, easily triggered and constantly seeking innocuous things to be outraged about, they’re the enemies of intelligent discourse. “Don’t like that thing because it’s baaaaaad!” they bleat, immediately leaping to the worst possible take on whatever it is they’re manufacturing outrage about today.

No, not millennials. Middle-aged straight white media guys.

Today’s gammon with attitude is fake-photo publisher and dead-children’s-phone-hacker Piers Morgan, who appears to have exhausted his outrage over vegans being able to buy tasty food in shops. Today he’s railing against Gillette over an advert that isn’t being broadcast here; in order to be outraged about it, he’s had to actively seek it out in order to upset himself. It’s quite a good ad, incidentally, but it dares suggest that old-fashioned masculine stereotypes aren’t brilliant. Cue well-paid outrage from well-paid stereotype peddlers.

The profile of people like Morgan – or rather, Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan; he doesn’t like people using his full name because it somewhat undermines his man of the people schtick – demonstrates that punditry is the very opposite of a meritocracy. “The thing you think is good is bad” is the laziest possible take on anything, and it’s something most of us grow out of in the playground: the charm of hearing “it/she/he/they is/are shite” as a nuanced critique of your favourite film, artist or band palls somewhat after the age of seven or so.

I took my kids to the zoo a while back, and one of the unexpected delights was the sight of an angry monkey furiously masturbating at the visitors, much to the delight of sniggering schoolkids. Morgan should be worried. If it works out how to use Twitter, it could be coming for his job.

Why are LGBT people so sad?

Stonewall Scotland has published a worrying report: half of LGBT people have experienced depression in the last year, rising to 72% among trans people. More than half of trans people have thought about taking their life in the last 12 months.

Here’s the thing, though. LGBT people are not more prone to depression or suicidal ideation if they are in a supportive environment. In those environments, rates of depression and suicidal ideation pretty much revert to the same as non-LGBT people.

The difference is largely environmental. If your everyday environment is abusive and unaccepting, it of course has a direct effect on your mental health.

It’s not the only factor – trans people are currently treated under the auspices of mental health provision, which means we’re in a desperately unfunded part of a desperately underfunded part of a desperately underfunded NHS, a world where mental health counselling has a waiting list of more than a year – but it’s a significant factor. The newspapers that concentrate on the invented “dangers” of trans people in hospitals while ignoring a very real mental health crisis are part of the problem.

New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… stochastic terrorism

Do you know what stochastic terrorism is? It’s a fairly obscure term, and it describes making the bullets for other people to fire.

Stochastic terrorism is when you demonise a particular group of people and violence ensues. You aren’t directly responsible for the violence, because you’re not the one actually perpetrating it. But you made it happen.

We know the power of words. Hate speech is the precursor to hate crime, from Nazi Germany to the genocide against the Tutsi of Rwanda. In that latter example, Tutsi men, women and children became “cochroaches” to eradicate (a slur recently revived by loathsome troll Katie Hopkins to talk about immigrants to England; that was part of a climate that’s seen a surge in anti-immigrant violence in the UK).

If you demonise Catholics, anti-Catholic violence will follow. It’s the same with immigrants, Poles, muslims, LGBTQ people.

Writing in the Media Matters blog, Brynn Tannehill accuses right-wing media of a form of stochastic terrorism against trans people, with multiple examples.

The conservative tabloid the Daily Mail in the U.K. recently introduced a new line of attack against transgender youth based on an anonymous “whistleblower” teacher who claimed that older transgender students at an unnamed British school “groomed” young autistic students to trick them into believing they are transgender. This narrative of contagion, “grooming,” and recruitment is exactly the same approach used for decades to stir up suspicion and hatred of gay men. For instance, Helen Joyce, the finance editor at The Economist, recently wrote an article at Quillette baselessly asserting that the transgender movement has advanced the interests of pedophiles.

These messages trickle down to the base. Stories of communities banding together to abuse and discriminate against transgender children have been in the media for years. Last year, parents in Achille, OK,communicating in a Facebook group for students’ parents suggested telling their children to beat a 12-year-old transgender girl and threatened to castrate her. As a result, the girl’s family made plans to leave town.

Transgender students are being physically assaulted in school for their gender identity as well. The FBI reported that in 2017, anti-LGBTQ hate crimes rose for the third consecutive year.

In 2012, legal scholar Tobias Wolff predicted in his paper “Civil Rights Reform and the Body” that transgender people would become a target and that many of the attacks would center on fear and disgust directed at transgender bodies. He correctly noted that this directed angst would manifest itself as labeling transgender people as sexual predators.

Wolff also drew direct parallels to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when fear of Black bodies was channeled into calls to protect white women and children from sexual predation at swimming pools. Violence directed at Black people during that period was undeniably a direct result of this stochastic terrorism and prejudice. Today, we are seeing the same tactics toward transgender people, used to similar effect, and they are protected by the same case law.

The people who write these snide, malicious little articles are the worst kind of coward: the kind who stands behind the bully, telling them who to hit.