“We” didn’t miss anything

This week, The New York Times made a podcast called “The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, and How We Missed It”. Esquire’s Charles P Pierce is not amused: who, exactly, does the NYT mean by “we”?

To take the simplest argument first, “we,” of course, did no such thing, unless “we” is a very limited—and very white—plural pronoun. The violence on the right certainly made itself obvious in Oklahoma City, and at the Atlanta Olympics, and at various gay bars and women’s health clinics, and in Barrett Slepian’s kitchen, and in the hills of North Carolina, where Eric Rudolph stayed on the lam for five years and in which he had stashed 250 pounds of explosives for future escapades.

Pierce – rightly, I think – argues that the problem isn’t that these things aren’t noticed, or flagged up. It’s that the people who warn about them are ignored by a largely urban, white, straight media class.

One of the best examples of that is the rise of the hard right in online spaces, where women and minorities have been yelling about the problems for many years now. Because the abuse didn’t affect people who weren’t women or minorities, media didn’t give a shit. This has been going on for a long time, and its reach is enormous.

Here’s Matt Miller, also in Esquire, on how online trolls have poisoned Star Wars fandom.

These “trolls” are the anonymous, despicable beating heart of America. They are holding up a mirror to our society. They are insuring that the worst of us have a voice to incite real change. They elected an amoral, racist golden toilet for a president. And that same sickness has bled into something once as harmless as a children’s space movie.

Something that’d be funny if it weren’t so serious is the way anti-trans people so frequently follow the same script: starting off by being hateful towards us before – surprise! – being hateful to other groups too. So the anti-trans legislators in the US start with us and then target cisgender women and trans men’s reproductive freedom. Anti-trans cultural commentators turn out to be misogynist. Anti-trans voices variously include domestic abusers, racists and anti-Semites.

It’s become a bleak running joke in some trans circles when yet another vicious bigot turns out to be viciously bigoted against more than one minority. That’s the thing about bigotries. They tend to travel together.

I wrote about neo-Nazi ideology yesterday, and that’s a good example of the kind of thing that gets completely ignored until it explodes into real-world violence. It’s of particular interest to me because neo-nazis online are very specifically and openly attempting to groom “gender critical” – ie anti-trans – women because they believe these women are very close to being “red pilled” and becoming “tradwives”.

Red pilling, if you’re not down with idiots, is an idea from the film The Matrix: if you take the red pill you will see the world as it really is. The fact that The Matrix was directed by two trans women, the red pill is based on estrogen tablets and the whole sodding film is quite probably a trans allegory escapes these dolts, because neo-Nazis aren’t very clever.

And “tradwife”? A tradwife is a woman who rejects feminism and embodies “wifely” qualities of submission, chastity and domestic servitude.

The idea that any self-respecting feminist would be in cahoots with these woman-hating tools is mind-boggling, and yet here we are.

Again and again the most vocal anti-trans voices echo the tropes of the religious right and the alt-right, shaming women for supposedly inappropriate behaviour. reinforcing the biological essentialism that feminism fought so hard against and supporting serial abusers of women because their enemy’s enemy is their friend. To see feminist groups in open alliance with evangelical, anti-women groups is quite something to behold.

This isn’t just happening in anti-trans circles. Neo-nazis have deliberately targeted anywhere they think they can find vulnerable, angry people: not just forums of angry women but for young, angry men who can’t get laid, forums for people with mental health issues, forums where people are lost and desperately need somebody coming along to take them under their wing.

The problem with hate is not that nobody’s talking about it. It’s that by and large, the media isn’t listening to the people who are desperately trying to sound the alarm: women, ethnic minorities, LGBTI people, disabled people. And when rhetoric becomes reality, when online radicalisation makes a Christian shoot up a synagogue or a straight guy shoot up a gay bar or an “incel” drive a truck into a crowd of shoppers, they wail “how did this happen? How did we miss this?”

You missed it because you weren’t listening.

Local journalism isn’t working

We’ve known for some time that local journalism is in crisis, partly because people don’t want to pay for news and largely because media owners are trying to extract as much money as possible from their titles, accelerating their inevitable closure by sacrificing quality.

This is a problem because local journalism is about the only thing that can hold local councils to account. The nationals simply aren’t interested, even when they do local sites: for example Trinity Mirror’s Glasgow Live is very good at telling you if there’s a crash on the M8, but much of what it produces is rewritten press releases from property developers and restaurants.

In an attempt to address that, the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporters funds local journalism specifically to cover local politics. In Glasgow and its surrounding areas, the money goes to the publishers of the Herald and the Evening Times.

Let’s see how that’s going, shall we? In a piece promoted with the exciting news that Glasgow will get a new tree-lined avenue, The Evening Times reports on a new, sizeable development that’s just been given planning permission.

Get Living have approval for the development on derelict land to the east of High Street close to the train station, in a historic part of Glasgow.

It will create a new city centre residential community with a new public square.

Work will also involve a new tree lined avenue through the development connecting the Merchant City out towards the east end.

Exciting! And yet, as the excellent A Thousand Flowers blog points out, not so excellent. The development deals a fatal blow to the Crossrail project, which hoped to solve significant problems with Glasgow’s public transport.

…any future proposals to develop Crossrail have today been dealt a fatal blow after Glasgow City Council approved a major mixed-use development on the “High street curve” site that would be vital for creating the link. The £200m high rise plans – from Get Living Group (Glasgow) Limited – are for 727 build-to-rent homes, 99 student studios and more than 3,000 square metres of retail, leisure and business space on a former goods yard site.

The blog also points out the shady financial status of the developer, whose Glaswegian-sounding company is registered in one tax haven and has a parent company registered in another tax haven.

Still, a development of this size will include affordable housing, won’t it?

Won’t it?

Unsurprisingly, the Section 75 planning agreement between Get Living Group and the council makes no reference to affordable housing provision nor rent levels in the flats being developed. Get Living Group currently operate two similar build-to-rent schemes in London where flats are on offer for between £1,650 and £3,856 per calendar month, which provides an indication of the market segment that they will be aiming for.

This story represents a failure on multiple levels, and it’s exactly the sort of thing we need local journalism to report on. But what we’re getting isn’t journalism. It’s churnalism.

Update, 12 Dec: The ET has returned to the story, quoting one MP’s criticisms. Credit where credit’s due – but the time to question planning is before the applications are approved, not afterwards.

There’s something rotten in Auchtermuchty

This, from the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, is really alarming: the UK government is running a “psyops” propaganda programme from a mill just outside Auchtermuchty. The stated aim is to fight terrorism and Russian political interference, but it appears to be fighting the UK government’s local political enemies too.

On the surface, the cryptically named Institute for Statecraft is a small charity operating from an old Victorian mill in Fife.

But explosive leaked documents passed to the Sunday Mail reveal the organisation’s Integrity Initiative is funded with £2million of Foreign Office cash and run by military intelligence specialists.

The “think tank” is supposed to counter Russian online propaganda by forming “clusters” of friendly journalists and “key influencers” throughout Europe who use social media to hit back against disinformation.

But our investigation has found worrying evidence the shadowy programme’s official Twitter account has been used to attack Corbyn, the Labour Party and their officials.

…David Miller, a professor of political sociology in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, added: “It’s extraordinary that the Foreign Office would be funding a Scottish charity to counter Russian propaganda which ends up attacking Her Majesty’s opposition and soft-pedalling far-right politicians in the Ukraine.

Update: on social media, allegations are flying that the newspaper has been hoodwinked by shady propagandists. More will no doubt follow…

“The men seem strangely cured, not like medicine but like meat”

I’m a big fan of Laurie Penny, and this piece about a cruise with cryptocurrency speculators is incredible. It’s not a tech story but a human interest one, and it reminds me very much of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (posted here under a different title, “Shipping Out: On The (Nearly Lethal) Comforts Of A Luxury Cruise [pdf document]).

The whole thing is incredibly quotable but I particularly liked this bit:

John McAfee has never been convicted of rape and murder, but—crucially—not in the same way that you or I have never been convicted of rape or murder.

It’s a long read but it’s well worth settling down on the sofa with.

Comforting the comfortable, afflicting the afflicted

I’ve had the misfortune to share airtime with writers from Spiked magazine on a few occasions now. I’m not a fan: the magazine is reliably on the wrong side of any issue you care to think of, rushing to the defence of the world’s worst people. I fear that giving them airtime helps legitimise often appalling views, and I now refuse to go on a programme if they’re part of the so-called debate.

It’s the kind of publication that regularly churns out nonsense of the “surely the real racists here are the people calling racists racists?” variety.

Spiked writers variously argue that climate change is scaremongering, that feminism has gone too far, that women being abused on the internet need to grow a thicker skin, that trans people are dangerous to society and that Tommy Robinson is a true hero. It appears to have a very similar agenda to thinktanks such as the Taxpayer’s Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs, organisations with opaque funding  pushing what can best be described as a hard-right agenda.

They remind me of the Sirius Corporation imagined by the late Douglas Adams: “a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.”

If like me you’ve ever wondered how a publication that began as Living Marxism became a mouthpiece and apologist for the hard right, a friend of climate change deniers and an enemy of equality, the answer appears to be simple.

Money.

Lots and lots of money.

I’ve always thought Spiked was a shill for somebody, but I didn’t know who that somebody was. Enter George Monbiot, who Spiked really, really hates. Writing in The Guardian, he notes that Spiked has received at least $300,000 from the Koch brothers. As he explains, the Koch brothers are:

…co-owners of Koch Industries, a vast private conglomerate of oil pipelines and refineries, chemicals, timber and paper companies, commodity trading firms and cattle ranches. If their two fortunes were rolled into one, Charles David Koch, with $120bn, would be the richest man on Earth.

If you were making a story about corporate villainy, it’d be hard to invent a better pair of bad guys. And these particular guys are using their money to try and change the world through a three-stage model of social change.

Universities would produce “the intellectual raw materials”. Thinktanks would transform them into “a more practical or usable form”. Then “citizen activist” groups would “press for the implementation of policy change”… They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, thinktanks, journals and movements.

Spiked’s editorial stance fits very well inside that: it fights for the implementation of policy change, change that just happens to be entirely in line with the objectives of its funders. Again and again it supports policies that would benefit rich industrialists and rails against policies that might inhibit their ability to make enormous sums of money.

Monbiot:

Above all, its positions are justified with the claim to support free speech. But the freedom all seems to tend in one direction: freedom to lambast vulnerable people.

And its political stance is consistent with that: if it’s good for vulnerable people, then Spiked is against it.

$300K is the figure Spiked has admitted to, but dark money gets its name because it’s hard to trace: it’s highly likely that there are other sums from other organisations that just happen to share the same agenda.

This isn’t just about a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. It’s about the growing use of dark money to pervert media and politics. Dark money appears to be helping fund Spiked, and it appears to be funding the parade of think tanks that get so much airtime. It funds far-right rabble-rousers and social media astroturfing. Enormous sums of money are being spent to advance the interest of a tiny group of exceptionally wealthy people.

As Monbiot puts it:

Dark money is among the greatest current threats to democracy. It means money spent below the public radar, that seeks to change political outcomes. It enables very rich people and corporations to influence politics without showing their hands.

As Finley Peter Dunne famously said, journalism’s job is “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. Dark money turns that on its head.

That’s not to say journalism shouldn’t have a viewpoint. I like John Harris’s argument:

Even partisan commentary can be rooted in the principles of good journalism, so long as it does not ignore uncomfortable facts, blindly offer support to parties or leaders, or distort actuality to score political points.

But that’s exactly what dark money wants to pollute. As soon as you accept dark money, all of your output becomes suspect.

This is important, and incredibly dangerous. We call the media “the fourth estate” after Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in 1787 that “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

In a civilised society the media is there to hold power accountable, not to act as its apologist or its cheerleader.

Oh lord, save me from sniggering bigotry

Imagine this.

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for black men to marry white women, then it should be OK for me to marry my pet pig,” he chuckles. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

No? Let’s try this one.

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for lesbian women to marry, then it should be OK for me to marry my dog,” he sniggers. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

No?

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for disabled people to get special parking spaces, then it should be OK for me to identify as disabled,” he snorts. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

Still not with me?

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for trans people to change their legal genders, then it should be OK for me to change my legal date of birth,” he snorts. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

That one happened.

The guy’s intent doesn’t matter; it’s irrelevant whether he genuinely feels hard done by or if he’s using this to promote something. There is no substantive difference between the coverage of this story and repeating the “I identify as an attack helicopter” abuse trans people get on social media. It reinforces the trope that trans people are tricksters or mentally ill, that legal gender is something people change on a whim.

Meanwhile in news you probably didn’t see today, Reuters reports that UK doctors push one in five trans people to discredited “pray the gay away” conversion therapy and that LGBT patients experience “shockingly high levels of hostility and unfair treatment” in their dealings with healthcare professionals.

That’s trans folks’ light-hearted story of the week, and every week.

Not so hidden agendas

When is “random person has an opinion” news? When it’s a “concerned parent”. This is from yesterday’s Scottish Daily Mail.

 

The text describes how a “father-of-two” criticised the First Minister. “Edinburgh parent Richard Lucas…”

Now, Mr Lucas is indeed a parent. But he also has another role. He’s the head of the ultra-right wing Scottish Family Party. He left UKIP to create the party in order to “fill the void” left by the abandonment of “Judeo-Christian-inspired values of traditional Western civilisation”.

Their (or more likely, his: we’re not talking a mass movement here. The party has fewer than 2,000 Facebook followers) policies include getting gay people counselling to stop them being gay, to stop golf clubs being forced to admit women and to battle the evils of “feminist orthodoxy” and human rights. The party hates trans people and gay people and feminists and immigrants and women’s reproductive freedom and all the other right wing hate figures and argues that right-wing bigots should be legally allowed to beat their children and discriminate against anyone they disapprove of.

In other words, he’s a fruitcake who should be fired into the sun, the kind of arsehole who finds a home writing columns for the Glasgow Herald.

Or if you prefer pictures:

None of that, as you can see, made it into the Mail article. He’s just a reasonable parent with no particular axe to grind.

This is despicable journalism, and there’s a lot of it around. All too often people who run pressure groups are allowed to present themselves as ordinary people, and the journalists either don’t bother to find out who they are – which is shoddy journalism – or they know and keep it from their readers, in which case they’re no longer journalists but propagandists.

It happens on radio too, phone-ins populated by ordinary people who forget to mention that they’re councillors or candidates or head of fundraising for political parties or pressure groups. And you get it on shows such as Question Time, where representatives from “think tanks”, aka pressure groups with shadowy funding, advance the agendas of their paymasters.

This simply isn’t good enough. It’s poisoning the well of genuine debate and in many cases it’s giving bigots a platform they would be denied if their true affiliations were made clear.

Time for our next caller. Adolf is a painter from Braunau Am Inn, and he’s got some interesting views on the subject of immigration.

The threat of white nationalism, and what law enforcement isn’t doing about it

We haven’t quite reached this stage, thank God. In the US, Nazis like these yahoos in Georgia are still a fringe group. Neo-Nazis are much more subtle, and much more dangerous.

The New York Times has brought forward its planned cover story for next week to coincide with the US midterm elections. It’s a horrific story about the rise of neo-fascism and the real threat posed by white nationalism.

White supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist.

And yet as the NYT details, it’s been almost entirely ignored by law enforcement.

Data compiled by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database shows that the number of terror-related incidents has more than tripled in the United States since 2013, and the number of those killed has quadrupled. In 2017, there were 65 incidents totaling 95 deaths. In a recent analysis of the data by the news site Quartz, roughly 60 percent of those incidents were driven by racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, antigovernment or other right-wing ideologies. Left-wing ideologies, like radical environmentalism, were responsible for 11 attacks. Muslim extremists committed just seven attacks.

Meanwhile the US President vilifies muslims and describes white supremacists as “good people”. But this isn’t just a problem with the current administration. As the NYT notes, it goes back decades and its anti-semitism goes back further still. It’s just that a toxic mix of right-wing politics, shockingly negligent journalism and institutional incompetence has created the perfect storm for it to flourish. Some 22 million Americans currently believe that neo-Nazi or white supremacist views are perfectly acceptable. And there are multiple credible reports of white supremacist groups deliberately targeting law enforcement jobs, moving what’s already a largely conservative workforce much further to the right.

As I’ve written many times before, social media has played a significant role in normalising and spreading neo-Nazi propaganda. The NYT again:

alt-right memes, while dripping in irony, were also, in essence, hate speech, part of a propaganda war arguably intended to spread terror just as much as any ISIS execution video.

The so-called debates we see, the platforming of the likes of Steve Bannon or various alt-right “shitlord” trolls, are playing into their hands. They’re amplifiers, enabling extremists to reach enormous audiences. What liberal media types (yes, people like me) seem unable to understand is that they’re being played. The alt-right aren’t interested in debate. For them, there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

We’re living in very frightening times, I think, and things are going to get worse before they get better.

 

Bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity

One big upside of being part of a demonised minority: it saves you a fortune.

I cancelled my decades-long subscription to Private Eye yesterday: the current issue has three news stories about trans things in which it unquestioningly parroted anti-trans bullshit, picked on a trans charity and an LGBT charity and vilified a young trans woman who’s endured unspeakable abuse from anti-trans bigots both online and in real life.

I’ve also cancelled my subscription to the Guardian, a paper I’ve bought since my teens, after days of intense coverage about the GRA reform consultation in which it didn’t feature a single voice in favour of trans people, let alone the voices of any actual trans people. Its editorial about the GRA reforms this week reads like a crib sheet of Christian Right anti-LGBT “talking points”. It and the Observer have repeatedly run open letters from anti-trans activists but ignore open letters that support trans people and that call out the open hostility of too much media coverage.

I no longer buy the Sunday Times any more (another paper I bought for a couple of decades) because it’s even worse than the Daily Mail in its coverage of trans issues: when your reports are being hailed with joy by right-wing US evangelicals on social media (and in many cases, apparently dictated by them) you’ve taken a terrible wrong turn somewhere. Neither the Spectator nor the New Statesman feature in my “buy to read on the bus” list any more for similar reasons. I no longer pay to access Glasgow’s Herald since its editorial swing to tired, right-wing “let’s trigger the snowflakes” clickbait.

Supportive advert in Metro UK

Trans allies generally don’t make it into the newspapers unless they pay for advertising, as they did with this Metro UK advert. Unlike the anti-trans activists, their open letters don’t get published.

This isn’t silencing debate, or refusing to hear different opinions.

It’s refusing to pay for bullshit.

Bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity. There’s tons of it online, completely free. I don’t need to pay to have someone put it through my letterbox too.

Refusing to pay is not the same as refusing to listen to differing opinions. It’s just refusing to support low quality content.

For many years I’ve paid to read The Guardian and The Observer, even though various news apps I use enable me to read their articles (legally) for free and often without ads. I paid because I believe that good journalism is something worth paying for. But recently, there has been an influx of journalism that is not good, and which is not worth paying for.

I’m not refusing to read Guardian articles. I’m just not willing to pay to read them any more.

I’m under no illusion that me cancelling anything makes the slightest difference to the organisations running biased and sometimes blatantly malicious content. Although you’ve got to wonder at the wisdom of alienating any customers when like The Guardian, you’re begging every website visitor to throw you some coins to try and stay in business. But generally speaking these businesses don’t need my money.

Others do, though. And what I can do – what I do do, and what I’d hope other LGBT people and their allies also do – is use the money I’d normally spend to do something positive: to help crowdfund or otherwise donate to content that isn’t hateful, to buy books by people who know what they’re talking about but who don’t get columns in newspapers, to donate to valuable charities that Private Eye calls activists while it approvingly quotes groups affiliated with the anti-abortion, anti-LGBT Christian Right.

You don’t even need to spend money. You can refuse to click on obvious hate-clickbait. You can point your browser (with ad-block disabled) to sites that don’t publish hateful content. You can signal boost positive voices on your social media.

None of these things will harm your bank balance, and none of them will harm your mental health either.

Simplicity is good

The image is from an excellent blog post by Shane O’Leary, which you can read here.

[Update: My friend Chris Phin, who is an editor and therefore always right, has pointed out that I am of course describing practical writing here, not writing as an art form in its own right. I’d better clarify that before I get picketed by poets.]

Most writing exists for a reason, and that reason is usually to share information. The information might be a warning, or it might be advice, or it might be how to do something. The writer’s job is to share that information in the right way. The right way is usually to simplify it, simplify it, and then simplify some more.

Sometimes we get it wrong by accident. If you’re immersed in a particular world you may have a knowledge and a vocabulary that people outside that world don’t. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using jargon or relying on concepts that you understand but that your readers might not. It’s an honest mistake and we all do it.

Sometimes, though, it’s deliberate. It’s the writer deciding that the message they really need to communicate is “I am clever!” or “I have read a book!”

And that’s where terrible writing comes from.

I recently read a live review that said:

They have appeal and they appeal to us. Through the sociologically objective to the psychological subjectivism of introspection: Moving from the political protest to mind games of the self.

That’s not writing. That’s not even typing.

Writing is usually there to do a job, to answer a question: how do I make this work? What did the government decide today? What do you think about this topic? Should you see this band if they’re playing near you?

Answering those questions doesn’t mean you must write in a boring way. But it does mean that you must answer the question you were asked, not the question you wish you had been asked. For example, a live review is supposed to answer the question “what was the gig like?” and perhaps tell you if you should get tickets for the next date.

Good writing needn’t be dull writing. Here’s the late Douglas Adams describing spaceships.

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way bricks don’t.

That’s very simple writing, but it’s doing a ton of work. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a very effective description. These aren’t the sleek, silvery spaceships of most speculative fiction. These are bricks. Awful ships. Tedious ships. Ugly, utilitarian, unloveable ships. These are the sort of ships you get when you’re English, in England, in the 1980s. The kind of spaceships your local council would commission. Spaceships that probably close for no reason every third Wednesday. Spaceships full of traffic cones and No Ball Games signs.

All that in just 13 words.

And of course, there’s the famous probably-not-by-Hemingway six word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

These are from fiction, of course. There isn’t as much room for humour or imagination in more everyday kinds of writing. But you can still say an awful lot without very many words. For example:

Signs are a great example, because their job is to impart information in the simplest possible way. This sign doesn’t have time for big words and lyrical flourishes. What is dangerous, and why should you keep out? We don’t have time for that! There is danger! You must keep out!

Alliterate by all means. Sprinkle metaphors like malt vinegar on the crinkle-cut chips that comprise your copy. Demonstrate your vocabulary with sesquipedalian style. But never forget that your words are there to do a job, and if they don’t do that job then you’re wasting everybody’s time.

As the Swedish popsters Roxette once put it: don’t bore us, get to the chorus!