Stalin was an editor. Before ascending up the ranks of Soviet politics, he edited Pravda, the Bolshevik daily. He never lost the habit. As de-facto leader of the Soviet Union, he would run through speeches and official party documents with his blue pencil (the traditional colour of an editor’s pencil, in the days when these things were done by hand), editing “virtually every internal document of importance,” according to Holly Case in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “For Stalin, editing was a passion that extended well beyond the realm of published texts.” Nor was he dogmatic: “Editing a biologist’s speech for an international conference in 1948, Stalin … crossed out an entire page on how science is ‘class-oriented by its very nature’ and wrote in the margin ‘Ha-ha-ha!!! And what about mathematics? And what about Darwinism?’” At least as an editor, Stalin knew that less was more.
In Chronicle, Case makes the point that editing is the supreme and invisible power: the power to alter without censure, the power to amend and change meaning, the power to decide, ultimately, what is published and what is not. We try to print what we think will interest readers. But ultimately, editors cannot help imposing their own perspectives – of what’s interesting, relevant, right, and wrong. This edition of ISIS is unusual for the clustering of articles around two related themes: gender and LGBTQ politics. We’re not quite sure how this came about. We solicited articles on university politics, on mental health, on other themes as well as feminism. Yet the overwhelming majority of final submissions talked about gender or sexuality. We hope this reflects the zeitgeist. But maybe there’s a little bit of Stalinism too. It is right that a university magazine should reflect the themes of its time. Delve into the ISIS archives, and you find that each edition is strikingly, unconsciously characteristic of its era – the 1968 edition had a whole pull-out section on ‘student power’. With this in mind, when we picked up our blue pencils, we selected those articles we thought said something about our lives as students in the 2010s. And yet there is an old problem, beneath this, that some voices are louder than others. Some speak and some are spoken of. In this issue, we have tried to include articles in which people’s words are not mediated by writers or editors. Jackson Katz talks about campaigning against gender violence; Rosie Boycott about founding Spare Rib. Students from mainland China discuss the culture shock of arriving in Oxford; the blogger Ragini Nag Rao discusses queerness and postcolonial identity. But ultimately, editors are as much part of the problem as resolvers of it. Those who wield the blue pencils tend to do the same courses, come from the same colleges, and all too often were educated at the same schools. It is a problem for Oxford student societies in general and ISIS in particular. “Under Stalinism, anyone could speak or write, but since Stalin was the supreme gatekeeper of the censorship hierarchy and the gulag system, the power to edit was power itself.” So we end, not on a call to arms, but a call to blue pencils. Write for ISIS. Edit ISIS. We’re a silly little student magazine, as the English Defence League put it last term, but one with a long history. The magazine is a platform. Use it. Especially and particularly if you feel your perspective is in some way marginalised. Because the rest of us would only benefit from reading. Daisy & Violet
The Legacy of the Zapatistas Qwertifying Mandarin Cats and Suffrage Talking About Madness Sit Down and Pay Attention
6 9 11 12 14
Evy Cavalla Helen O’Horan Olivia Arigho Stiles Nathalie Wright Miriam Gordis
An Interview with Mary–Kay Wilmers This is Our Culture Stop Press Nellie Bly The Creativity of Book Burning
17 20 22 25 27
Peter Huhne Philip Bell Alexander Woolley Nathan Ellis Charlotte Sykes
Dervla Murphy The Masked Man’s a Fag In the Dark in North Korea How to Survive a Year in Russia Robo Sapiens Topsy the Elephant A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Deep Web A Short, Direct Road
30 32 34 36 37 40 42 43
Valentine Reside Efraim Carlebach Henry Van Oosterom Aurora Dawson Matthew Broomfield Jack Owen Charlotte Sykes Peter Endicott
Peter Tatchell Interviewing Jackson Katz Post-Marriage Both Timid and Tough A Roundtable Discussion on Feminism Who’s the Fairest of Them All? Ragini Nag Rao Moving Out West
46 48 51 55 57 61 63 66
Peter Huhne Isabelle Gerretsen Ed Siddons Beth Timmins Charlotte Sykes Sophie McManus Bethany Rose Lamont Peter Endicott & Violet Brand
THE LEGACY OF THE ZAPATISTAS: TOURISM & CONFLICT
panish conquistadors built the southern Mexican town of San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1528 as a military fort. Its colonnaded streets and landscaped plazas were once the preserve of rich Spaniards, while the high city gates served to keep out the indigenous Tzotzil and Tzeltal tribes from the surrounding hillsides. Today, members of these Mayan tribes sell woven blouses along San Cristóbal’s cobblestone streets; they attract a steady flow of cash and tourists, but are among the poorest communities in Mexico’s poorest state, Chiapas. Along the main street, Real de Guadalupe, the usual tourist fare is sold: Huarache sandals, Mayan-style woven blouses—but also, incongruous postcards depicting balaclava-clad guerrilla fighters. Alongside scaled-down portraits of Frida Kahlo and photographs of San Cristóbal’s ornate churches, these unsettling postcards depict young men dressed in camouflage with bullets strung loosely around their necks. The postcards bear the legend: Zapatistas, 1994. The Zapatistas launched an insurgency in 1994 in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which looked set to allow cheap food from the US to undercut crops produced by Mexican farmers, widening the existing gulf between Mexico’s rich and poor and disproportionately affecting indigenous communities. On 1st January 1994, the Zapatistas seized towns and cities in Chiapas and freed every prisoner in the San Cristóbal jail. The Zapatistas were mainly indigenous Mayan Indians. They demanded autonomy and full recognition of indigenous people’s civil rights in the Mexican constitution. Led by Subcomandante Marcos—compared incessantly
to Che Guevara by the media—the Zapatista Army of National Liberation drew on neo-Marxist feeling that had been brewing in the rugged terrain surrounding San Cristóbal since the 1970s. Marcos rejected the title of leader, insisting that his black mask served as a mirror. He held that the true leader of a popular movement could only be the people themselves. The eyes that stare out from the postcards on Real de Guadalupe are defiant; the disparity between the intentions of the Zapatistas’ Far Left cause and the subsequent commercialisation of it (through postcards and knitted dolls) amounts to a black irony.
Marcos rejected the title of leader, insisting that his black mask served as a mirror Travellers attracted by the town’s turbulent political history—‘Zapatourists’—are brought in by the busload on roads built by the Mexican government to crush the 1994 uprising. While Zapatismo aimed to curb globalisation, it in fact prompted an influx of expats, who have set up Spanish wine bars and French bistros along the Real de Guadelupe. Dreadlocked European backpackers tread the familiar path of dinner, bar, club, and finish up in Café Revolución on the town’s north west side. Revolución is a packed salsa bar with live music and generous tequila shots. Students from Mexico City collect in the smoking area fervently discussing politics, as Daddy Yankee’s ‘Gasolina’ is pumped out in the upstairs bar. The name ‘Revolución’ captures the imagination but also serves as a reminder of Marcos’s failures.
IN THE COLONNADED STREETS OF SOUTHERN MEXICO Evy Cavalla The Mexican army responded quickly and brutally to the uprising, killing at least 146 insurgents in bomb attacks. After two weeks of conflict, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari declared a ceasefire. In the subsequent negotiations, indigenous communities reclaimed tracts of fertile land for subsistence cooperatives, 38 indigenous municipalities were given their autonomy, and independently-run schools were established for Indian children. It quickly became clear that the movement would neither launch a revolution nor stop NAFTA’s ratification. The huge economic benefits of NAFTA for all countries involved meant that the Zapatista movement was unable to derail its ratification: it has been in place since 1994 and tribes in southern Mexico have suffered as a result of US imports.
Cooperation between state and tribe is dogged by rancour, backlash and contradiction. Since the uprising, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which still exists, has garnered support via the internet from organisations as far-flung as the Edinburgh Chiapas Solidarity group, which produces ‘Zapatista coffee’ to raise awareness for the Zapatista cause, and Palestine. Support from afar is welcomed by the Zapatistas, who subscribe to an ideology of ‘alterglobalisation’, which calls for positive international cooperation but rejects the elements of globalisation that compromise small communities and ravage the environment.
Deforestation continues in southern Mexico, ruining hillsides where Mayan Indians live. Financially, indigenous communities in Mexico have not seen a marked improvement since 1994, but the Zapatista movement did manage to shake investor confidence in Mexico’s economy. The uprising did not result in the redistribution of wealth, but it did make rich Mexicans slightly poorer. It contributed to the downfall of President Salinas and it heightened awareness of Mexico’s indigenous culture. Zapatismo is not yet finished. However, the movement has become stuck somewhere between its two primary goals, economic improvement and cultural autonomy. ‘Zapatourists’ have improved the Chiapas economy, but the indigenous population remains poor and largely powerless. The Mexican government is nominally committed to the preservation of indigenous cultures in the South, but cooperation between state and tribe is dogged by rancour, backlash and contradiction. Along with foreign tourists, Mexican sociology and anthropology students inundate San Cristóbal’s bars. They are sent by universities to Mexico’s southernmost parts in order to observe indigenous communities and understand the customs unique to each tribe. They follow a long tradition of San Cristóbal anthropologists: most notable among them is Frans Blom, a Danish anthropologist, who lived in a large house on the outskirts of San Cristóbal in the early 20th century.
Blom’s house is now a museum whose hallways display notebooks filled with diagrams and recollections of time spent among tribes in the hillsides around San Cristóbal. The notebooks make for fascinating and uncomfortable reading. In an age where the line between one society and the next is blurred by shared cultural reference and multiculturalism—as in San Cristóbal— the careful cataloguing of a tribe’s ‘otherness’ seems to preclude entirely the notion of mutual human understanding.
Travellers attracted by the town’s turbulent political history— ‘Zapatourists’—are brought in by the busload on roads built by the Mexican government to crush the 1994 uprising
terglobalisation, but, in extremis, leads to the kind of cultural disenfranchisement that Zapatismo wanted to guard tribes against. Alterglobalisation is an attractive idea: it evokes a global village, a huge society which preserves cultural identity while promoting cultural exchange. Trade supports communities, providing financial security without exploitation. Zapatismo aspired to these ideals, but the legacy it leaves is largely symbolic. NAFTA was not overthrown, and Mayan tribes today are not prosperous or autonomous. Zapatismo’s failure proves just how difficult it is to find a balance between cooperation and homogenisation, between small communities and titanic market forces. While people buy coffee to support the Zapatistas in far-off Edinburgh, Mexican teenagers are dancing to One Direction videos in their bedrooms. p
In Mexico, I sat one evening in the courtyard of Na Bolom on the Isla Mujeres and a girl wearing a One Direction necklace approached me and asked me if I was English. Having seen music videos that featured the band, her dream was to go to England. I had come to learn about her country, she had gathered information about mine, and was using me to learn more. This kind of cultural exchange is advocated by proponents of al-
QWERTIFYING MANDARIN East Asian languages from computer to touchscreen
eperate. Separate. Seperate. Separate. The difference isn’t easy to spot without that perennially helpful squiggly red line. Not content with shortening our attention spans, eroding our etiquette, fuelling our narcissism and destroying our eyesight, technology also renders us incapable of independently producing written English—or so the naysayers claim. However happily plugged in you are, though, it’s hard to deny that technology is undermining established forms of written language. Even harder is predicting how this will shape the way we interact with computers in the future. A regulated publishing industry may have preserved customary patterns of spelling and punctuation from earlier forms of spoken English, but technology, in its pursuit of greater efficiency, has shown less mercy for tradition. Contemporary written English possesses a discernible oral quality, since we increasingly write language in situations where previously it would have been spoken.
This trend has an especial impact on non-phonetic written languages. Chinese characters are a case in point. Whilst Roman letters primarily represent sounds, Chinese characters were designed to primarily represent meaning. Two literate people from distant Chinese provinces, unable to speak in a common tongue, may be perfectly able to communicate through the written word. The system’s reach extends throughout the Asia-Pacific region—Japanese tourists shuffling through the streets of Taipei clutch pens and notepads, scribbling characters common to their two linguistically divergent populations in order to communicate. Similarly, though a thick accent may render a Liverpudlian waiter’s suggestions to a travelling Texan incomprehensible, a menu written in their shared standard language poses little difficulty. Chinese characters bridge much of the vastly diverse language spectrum of East Asia, yet the region’s
technophobes foresee the extinction of this shared written language. This is because technology poses a serious problem to speakers of character-based languages: the risk of forgetting how to physically write characters, for want of practice.
General literacy requires knowledge of around 2,500 characters in Japan Whilst alphabet-based systems are usually inputted directly into computers (press the “B” key and a Roman “B” appears), character-based systems tend to be reproduced by searching a comprehensive database onscreen for the character desired. General literacy requires knowledge of around 2,500 characters in Japan, or 3,500 in China; the most comprehensive dictionaries list at least 20 times this amount. The sheer volume of characters available to choose from necessitates a filter
(one couldn’t have 3,500 keys on a keyboard). Typically a user will type a few words phonetically using an approximate alphabet (often Roman due to the availability of QWERTY keyboards), and select the desired characters from a list of homonyms. This stage involves a linguistic distinction—users must work through the filter of a specific spoken language, which varies from region to region. As users need only recognise the right characters, not produce them, character literacy in the region once appeared doomed to become a merely passive or academic process. It even seemed possible that traditional characters would be abandoned entirely in favour of a more technology-friendly writing system. Since the advent of touch-screen devices, writing characters directly onto the screen has become a workable alternative. Systems that use handwriting recognition as a filter are now readily available—most of them learn to recognise a user’s
handwriting over time, fine-tuning the filter’s efficiency. Commonly-used shorthand forms are also often picked up; the next step is a programme which can learn a user’s own personal shorthand. Such a system encourages people to develop thorough knowledge of their language of choice, rather than forcing an unwieldy universal standard on consumers from vastly different linguistic backgrounds and environments. Interestingly, Japanese speakers continue to prefer alphabet-based input systems, most likely because their language is naturally further removed from the Chinese characters peppered through its written form. Yet the flexibility offered by touch-screen interfaces has helped the spread of a non-Roman input system, similar in appearance to the keys on old ‘brick’ mobile phones. This method is based on the Japanese phonetic alphabet, and fits the language more intuitively than processes reliant on Roman type.
Text input technology, which once seemed likely to hasten global homogenization, is being adapted to support the diversity of these language groups. It is being developed to fit the variability of analogue – human nature – a variability which is perhaps no more apparent than in the idiosyncrasies of our natural languages. This development threatens a lot of widely-held assumptions about the modern era. Importantly for many native English speakers, it may begin to mean isolation for those who remain monolingual. On a more tangible level, it will probably lead to more intuitive ways of linking people with computers. Updated keyboard-based input systems such as SwiftKey and Swype offer a glimpse of what may be to come. In the near future, users may even look back and wonder at how we once used to hunch over our smartphones, poking at tiny keys on imaginary typewriters in an attempt to force our fluid analogue lives into a fixed digital world. n
Cats AND Suffrage Olivia Arigho Stiles
ropaganda from the British women’s suffrage movement is littered with cat imagery. Posters depict a cat dressed in a shawl emblazoned with the suffragette colours – purple symbolising dignity, white purity, green hope – with a stocky paw placed firmly on a placard that reads: “We demand the vote.” The cat sports an elaborate feathered hat.
women as cats in their propaganda in order to belittle universal suffrage campaigners for their lack of femininity, petty domesticity and frivolity.
maternal power and innate worth. To us this seems paradoxical: why would the suffragettes seek to emphasise women’s difference and maternal nature?
An Urbane Tabby cat with a placard stares defiantly out of the poster
The suffragettes appropriated feline imagery in reaction to the Cat and Mouse Act, the 1913 law which dictated that hunger strikers be reimprisoned on recovery. The act’s nickname alluded to a cat’s habit of torturing its prey before killing it – the government being the cat, and the woman the mouse. When a suffragette was imprisoned she would go on hunger strike, and the authorities would wait until she was too weak to do any public harm before releasing her. Once released, she would begin to eat again, and be rearrested as soon as possible.
The suffragettes countered by emphasising the cat’s connotations of independence, tenacity and ferocity. One poster from the period contains a four line poem:
The paradox stems from a disjunction between contemporary feminism and its turn-of-the-century counterpart. Suffragettes and anti-suffragettes shared the view that there were essential differences between men and women. But where suffragettes thought that women were a necessary counterbalance in male-dominated spheres, their opponents did not.
The suffragettes saw that the idea had power, and decided to hijack the cat imagery for their own cause. But, in a semantic game of cat and mouse, the anti-suffrage movement in turn began to use cats against the suffragettes. The antis featured
I’m a catty Suffragette I scratch and fight the P’lice As long as they withold [sic] the vote My warfare will not cease. An urbane tabby cat with a placard proclaiming “Votes for Women” stares defiantly out of the poster. The poem underlines the suffragette’s ironic reclamation of the cat as a symbol of feminine power.
Contemporary feminism is more inclined to view gender difference as a social construct. And so, the images that arose from both campaigns seem ambiguous to us today; the distinction between the misogynistic barbs of the anti-suffragists and the suffragettes’ fightbacks in response is difficult to discern. What we are left in no doubt of is the power and importance of the image of the cat. =
Confusingly, the suffragettes also chose to exploit the cat’s traditional links with the home to advance their campaign, using cat imagery to evoke a sense of women’s dignity,
What we talk about when we talk about madness Nathalie Wright
hat does it mean to be mad? The term negates a person’s basic humanity and labels them as other, uncontrollable, or dangerous. Images of Victorian institutions filled with ‘hysterical’ women can be written off as an archaism, but the word ‘mad’ is still used to describe people who are violently angry, suggesting that those in distress are dangerous. But what of modern madness? What is the relationship between scientifically sanctioned labels today, such as schizophrenia and ADHD, and structures of power within society?
Modern diagnoses seem, at first glance, different. They are identified by scientists and doctors who have disinterestedly investigated illnesses of the human mind, their causes, effects and cures. Yet in the healthcare professions, the nomenclature of ‘mental illness’ is highly contested. It is an illusion to say that labels we are all familiar with—schizophrenia ADHD, depression—are perfectly sealed off in neat ontological boxes.
In fact, there is a seemingly insurmountable split between psychiatrists and psychologists on the most fundamental aspects of severe distress. ‘Mental illness’ is not a neutral phrase; some psychologists would see it not only as an unhelpful metaphor (in suggesting that ‘mental illnesses’ are analogous to biological illnesses like cancer), but as misleading and dangerous. Those who adhere to a ‘medical model’ of ‘mental illness’ (predominantly psychiatrists and other doctors) are opposed to those who see hallucinations and delusions as understandable reactions to extremely stressful lives (predominantly psychologists).
There is a seemingly insur m ountable split bet ween psychiat r ist s and psychologist s on t he most f undam ental aspect s of severe dist ress. Since Foucault’s Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (translated and abridged in English as Madness and Civilisation) the potential of interrogating the history of madness has been widely recognised. Foucault suggests that those with power act in a way that legitimizes their own knowledge (and practice), whilst discrediting other knowledge which may challenge their dominance, and hence categories are set up and maintained as a function of power. According to those who argue against the medical model, sanitised Latin-or-Greek-derived medical acronyms are just as much the result of ideology and politics. They argue that the danger with the medical model is that it writes off someone’s case as hopeless, and “gives politicians a perfect excuse for doing nothing” to fund programmes to improve the quality of life of those
Nathalie Wright designated ‘mentally ill’—children, adolescents and their families. This is the outlook of John Read, Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool, and the author of several books criticising the medical model. Models of Madness, first published in 2004, looks at the history of the term ‘schizophrenia’ and comes to the conclusion that the diagnosis “has no predictive validity”: the term is effectively scientifically meaningless. The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ website says something similar: “We still use the word ‘schizophrenia’ because a better one has not been agreed for the pattern of symptoms and behaviours described here.” I asked Read if he thought there were any benefits to the medical model. He spoke of “the illusion of an explanation”: if you go to the doctor explaining that you have paranoid delusions, the doctor tells you that you have schizophrenia and that the schizophrenia is causing you to hear voices. Yet ‘schizophrenia’ as an explanation is really just a word, and a word with a great deal of stigma attached. It implies that the patient cannot control their actions, and it creates a link with violence (partly due to portrayals in the media) which is scientifically unfounded. According to Read, the only diagnoses which have been linked to increased violence are drug and alcohol related problems. But this raises the question: if a medical-type diagnosis is taken away, are you blaming the patient for the distress they feel, or trivialising their experience? Don’t some people find labels useful in dealing with day-to-day life and accepting that certain things will be more difficult for them than others? Read replies that his approach takes the patient’s unique experiences, and their own feelings about those experiences, more seriously. Further, the alternative to holding someone to account for their own behaviour—
providing them with a diagnosis which says they are not responsible—does not work. Read asserts that assuming people are responsible for their actions is “an absolute requisite for normal human interaction”. In seeing someone as a passive receptacle of an outside agency, such as ‘schizophrenia’, we haven’t progressed far from idea of demon possession. This, coupled with perceptions of dangerousness, “is one of the worst combinations you can have. You’re unpredictable and you’re not responsible for your actions. That renders you absolutely terrifying.” Read is also keen to point to the financial relationship between psychiatry, a profession of medically trained doctors who deal with issues of the mind, and drugs companies: “In America, you have whole schools of pharmacology and chairs or professorships funded by drugs companies... we have to embarrass psychiatry about the extent to which it has allowed the profit-making motivations of drugs companies to dominate its research.” Further evidence for this isn’t hard to come by. Look up the ADHD Institute on Google, for example, and you find that it is funded by a biopharmaceutical company. 69% of the committee members of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association that provides the standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders, report ties to the pharmaceutical industry. The manual is used by clinicians, researchers, policy makers, health insurance companies and the legal system.
account the features of a person’s life. However, in practice, things aren’t so simple. Cognitive based therapy is the kind of talking therapy most often offered on the NHS, and one which has in recent years received a lot of funding. However, its effectiveness is evaluated by randomised controlled trials, which involves using a medical model with the same protocol as medical diagnosis. This, combined with the ‘manualisation’ of such therapy means that there are mixed messages in the psychology profession about what is the best way to treat those who are distressed and how such distress should be categorised. Fifty million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued in the UK last year, up 7.5% from the year before, and the highest number ever recorded. In Blackpool, described by the Office for National Statistics as Britain’s ‘most deprived seaside town’, approximately one in six adults is prescribed anti-depressants. We might then make a link with poverty and ‘mental illness’, and see the growing disparity between rich and poor as a contributing factor. However, what are we to make of the fact that the prescription rates in some of the poorest parts of London are less than a third of what they are in Liverpool? Clearly there are many intertwined issues here of commercial pressures, social inequality, scientific ideology and, in the middle, patients trusting their wellbeing to professions which struggle to define the terms of their own study. p
Thus we have a basic conflict between the ideology behind psychiatry, which treats people according to a pre-defined (and drug company affiliated) classification model, and psychology, which uses an ideographic formulation (or a ‘psycho-social’ approach), taking into
Si t Dow n a n d Pay At tenti o n H o me le ssness in B e r ke ley
or those who are unfamiliar with Berkeley, California, the city can be summed up by the typical bumper sticker on the car parked up the street: “If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention”. An anachronistic centre of agitation, Berkeley, home to the prestigious university, is famously the most left-wing city in America. In 2012, a Sit-Lie Ordinance was put forward as part of California’s November election ballot. This is
legislation that restricts “the act of sitting or lying on the surface of streets and sidewalks in the downtown area” as defined by the city of Denver, which implemented one in 2005. Similar municipal ordinances have been passed from Phoenix in Arizona to Seattle in Washington (the first town to pass such a law, back in 1993). People in Denver and San Francisco have questioned the effectiveness of the laws, but Berkeley voters characteristically made good on their doubts and
voted down the ordinance: a final attempt to uphold the fading ‘Summer of Love’ ethos. In Telegraph Avenue, the street people - a mishmash of the mentally ill homeless, long-time drug and jewellery vendors, and young itinerants with their dogs and their guitars - still gather outside the street’s famous bookstores, soliciting cash or food and smoking vaporizers. Here in 1969, Berkeley went to battle for the rights of the homeless to use
Miriam Gordis People’s Park, provoked by the university’s decision to build a sports field over it. It became a space for mass demonstrations, as well as a location for the homeless and hippies to camp out. Then the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, sent in the National Guard armed with teargas and rifles. The incident became known as the war of Bloody Thursday, and garnered international attention: John Lennon sent an insipid message to the protesters, quoting a Beatles song and advising them not to anger the cops. People’s Park is still a campsite; it is also still a battleground. Before the November 2012 ballot, students at Berkeley Law School published a report about Sit-Lie ordinances across the nation. They found no evidence that the two major claims made by supporters of the ordinance were true: cities that have passed Sit-Lie ordinances have seen no direct economic benefit, and Berkeley businesses have not suffered because of the homeless presence. This research was probably what swung the Berkeley vote against Sit-Lie.
Pe op l e’s Pa rk is s till a cam p s ite ; it is a l s o still a b attl e g ro u n d . Homelessness is a complex social, political, and economic problem and the Sit-Lie model looks a lot
like sweeping the problem under the rug, or on to the next town, and hoping it will disappear. Indeed, during Berkeley City Council meetings, the state of Nevada once admitted to bussing its homeless into California. Over the past ten years, Berkeley has become wealthier and more homogeneous. The city may have voted down Sit-Lie, but in general its residents are much less keen to defend street people than they were in ‘69. In a series of Berkeley City Council meetings about the Compassionate Sidewalks Act (an act passed without vote in April 2013 which aims to shift focus to the needs of the homeless) representatives of anti-homeless organisations effusively praised the Phoenix solution for dealing with the homeless problem. In Phoenix, the edict is simple: forbid soliciting and forbid sleeping on the street, by sending the homeless to jail, to designated parking lots, or out of town altogether. If even Berkeley residents are praising Phoenix-style ‘solutions’ to homelessness, it would seem that it is time for the street people, like the hippies of the Summer of Love, to move on. Homelessness is a hot-button issue in the United Kingdom, as in Berkeley. According to a report by Oxford Homeless Pathways, homelessness in the UK has risen by 25% in the past year; Oxford has one of the highest homelessness rates in
the UK, excluding central London. Like Berkeley, it is a liberal student town that attracts homeless people; unlike Berkeley, Oxford only gives long-term aid only to those who have a ‘reasonable’ connection to Oxford, not transients or newcomers.
If ever yone is f ree to pursue t heir own happiness, do we have a r ight to enforce our own lifest yle onto ot hers? In Berkeley’s case, civil rights feature prominently in the debate, at least among those remaining sympathetic to street people’s rights. If everyone is free to pursue their own happiness, do we have a right to enforce our own lifestyle onto others? But the space in which to advocate those views is narrowing. In 2011, the university bulldozed the west end of People’s Park, tearing up the Council Grove where early meetings were held in the 60s, in order to build a $15 million aquatic complex. Has the protest space become old-fashioned and irrelevant, as the university’s administrators argue? In the words of Berkeley resident and immortal protestor Abbie Hoffman, “Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit.” n
An Interview with Mary-Kay Wilmers
A n I nter v i ew with Ma ry - Kay Wilme rs The e d itor of t h e London Review of Books Peter Huhne
like people for their sentences,” says Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books. It is a revealing statement. Wilmers has run the LRB, a journal which is aware of its own influence on literary and intellectual thought, since 1992. Many academics write for the paper (she describes the contributors’ page as full of “X teaches at, Y teaches at; try and think of variants and it’s quite hard”) but they are in thrall to her, rather than the other way round. “Academics are stuck in this kind of RAE or whatever it is. The research assessment exercise. They’ve been encouraged to narrow their focus so they don’t write general pieces. You don’t get people like Bernard Williams writing not strictly philosophical pieces now.” At a time
when academics are constrained to fulfil the agendas of the universities, Wilmers has never shifted the LRB’s agenda: to produce good writing.
“Th e re a re ve ry few people who a re n’t e d ite d . Fra n k Ker m ode, h e wa sn’t e d ited.” Is it the influence of literary theory which has led to academics’ lack of clarity? “I don’t think that helped. I think theory in its day was interesting, but I don’t think that it’s left a very helpful residue. Then there’s the consciously anti-theory which doesn’t quite work either, all the warm humanity stuff, that’s not so great. It’s either the abstruse or the
incredibly obvious.” Wilmers is as willing to edit academics as she is newspaper critics: “There are very few people who aren’t edited. Frank Kermode, he wasn’t edited.” The LRB was founded in the wake of the 1978-79 Times Literary Supplement industrial dispute, which temporarily closed down the journal. But Wilmers suggests the LRB attempted to do more than just fill the TLS’s space: “The TLS is a sort of journal of record and has to review things for reasons other than their own sense of what’s interesting. We do much more of what we think is interesting.” The LRB is different to the TLS, for which she worked for five years, for another reason: about half the former’s content is political, and
An Interview with Mary-Kay Wilmers many of the book reviews are not even literary. Wilmers insists this is more a reflection of the market than of her own agenda: “There are very few literary books either academic or general, I mean you really have to look quite far.” I suspect, though, that this might be more to do with Wilmers’s interests than she lets on. The LRB is explicitly political, and has enjoyed considerable political controversy since its inception, particularly over Mary Beard’s comments following the 9/11 attacks. Much of the media reported Beard as having written: “America had it coming.” Wilmers corrects me, “‘People will say America had it coming’ - well people did say it.” She says she doesn’t regret publishing the remarks, even though many people reportedly cancelled their subscriptions, “People always say that, but it’s a faff.” It is an amusing response, and it suggests someone who knows what she is about, and has spent a career deflecting hysterical media storms. It would be quite hard to imagine someone like Peter Stothard (editor of the TLS) being so resolutely impervious to bad media attention. Wilmers’s politics are on the left, outside the political mainstream. A piece she published in 2006 about the Israel lobby caused almost as much outrage as Beard’s line, with Daniel Johnson calling it “overtly or covertly anti-Semitic propaganda”. But the opinion of someone like Daniel Johnson is hardly going to sway Wilmers. Part of forming political opinions has to do with choosing your influences, and Wilmers knows whom to trust and whom to scorn. “I’ve learned more over the years, I learned a lot from Edward Said, and I learned a lot from people I met as a result of knowing him. I’m just horrified by what Israel does but so are a lot of people. It’s controversial but not in my eyes.”
But isn’t this certainty (she has described herself elsewhere as ‘unambiguously’ anti-Israel) rather difficult when it comes to a question as sensitive as the Jewish State? “If I wasn’t Jewish I would find it difficult because you tend to look at criticism of Israel slightly apprehensively even now. In that sense it’s complicated but not in any other.”
Th e LRB is exp l icit ly p o litic a l, a n d h a s enjoyed c o n sid e ra b le c o ntroversy since its in c e ptio n , p a r t icular ly ove r Ma ry Be a rd ’s com ment s fo llowin g 9/11. Wilmers has been interested in politics for some time; it was she who published Eva Figes’s *Patriarchal Attitudes* when she worked at Faber - a book she describes as “liberating”. I ask her whether she was already a feminist at that point. “If you were a woman with a job, certainly in those days that practically made you a feminist. But I’m not sure what the definition is – what is the definition? What did you mean by that? Are you about to approach the subject of how we don’t have many female contributors?” “It was going to come up,” I reply, rather embarrassed, “How did you know?” “I saw it inching along.” She gets this a lot, and with good reason. Women are strikingly absent from the contributors’ page, even by the standards of Fleet Street. According to the *Guardian*’s John Dugdale, only 9.5% of reviews in the *LRB* are by women, which puts them even lower than the *Daily Mail* (at 13% of book reviews). Not only this, but only 8.7% of the *authors* reviewed are women, easily worse than the *New Statesman*, the next lowest national publication in that cate-
gory, with 26.1%. Wilmers notes, however, that The Guardian’s survey only looks at two issues compared with four for the national papers, and that, in a more comprehensive survey by Vida (an organisation which looks at the representation of female writers), the LRB does better than The New York Review. This ratio of women, roughly 23-77, is still shocking by anyone’s standards, but particularly so given the LRB’s putatively left wing reputation. So why is this? “Because that’s how it pans out, we don’t do positive discrimination. There’s no place where people don’t say: ‘Why aren’t there more women?’ Why aren’t there more women MPs, or women on the board, or chairmen of the board, it’s all: ‘Why aren’t there?’ So the LRB is the same. As I see it, [women] often don’t write their pieces, there are many more pieces commissioned from women than arrive, and my view of that is that men tend to say: ‘Oh fuck it, I’ll write my piece anyway whatever else I’m supposed to be doing,’ whereas for women: ‘Oh there’s the children or the cooking’.’’ This seems a curious response. Sure, there are few women in many lines of work but, in the case of MPs for instance, some of the parties have tried all-women shortlists and it has worked. Wilmers goes on: “It makes no difference to people that the editor’s a woman, the deputy editor’s a woman.” Nevertheless, it seems odd that she doesn’t believe that she has a duty to help other women achieve the success she has enjoyed. Some have suggested that Wilmers’s politics have got in the way of her otherwise sound editorial judgment. In 2002, she told David Marquand that she couldn’t square it with her conscience to publish a piece with the sentence, “Blair’s handling of the post-11th September crisis was impeccable.” Marquand called the move “outrageous”, but Wilmers has no regrets: “He was already on the way to the
Peter Huhne Iraq war at that moment. To call anything impeccable is a bit asking for trouble. I found the media response incredibly misogynistic. The Independent: ‘Editor values her own opinion above that of...’ can you imagine anyone saying that of Charles Moore ? Or Rusbridger , or anyone?”
Part o f form in g p olitic a l o p in ion s h a s to d o with c ho o s in g yo u r inf l u e n c e s, a n d Wi lm e rs k n ows wh om to tru st a n d wh o m to s c orn .
Even she was not totally opposed to Blair at the beginning of his career. “I liked him because I liked his sentences. I remember arguing with someone saying, ‘Yes but he speaks like a human being, not like a politician.’ I ask whether this means that she doesn’t like political rhetoric. “I don’t know, if it was Edmund Burke I might. You wouldn’t call it rhetoric would you?” No, I suppose I wouldn’t. This is one in a long line of quite amusing, lightly dismissive responses, and Wilmers seems to be testing me in some tenuous way. I confuse the LRB film critic, Michael Wood, with the English his-
torian, for instance, and I’m quite embarrassed about it. “It’s funny because you know so much but you got that wrong,” she notes, distantly. Is this a compliment? It seems quite withering. And yet I find it impossible not to find this intelligent, drily amusing person somehow very charming. Perhaps it is her conversational manner, her constant requests for my opinion and her refusal to remain silent when I’ve got something wrong, that makes her seem not at all didactic or dictatorial. Perhaps it’s this approach that makes the LRB so good, and its editor celebrated much more than she is criticised. =
THIS IS OUR CULTURE
Beer in hand, a grandfather shows a grandson his cultural heritage in Lanark Way, off the Shankill Road. This street in West Belfast is the archetypal Loyalist and Protestant part of the city; it had a bloody time of it during the Troubles. The fish and chip shop on the Shankill is called “Salt and battered”: a joke that is close to home.
The Eleventh Night bonfire is part of the annual Twelfth celebrations, held each July by Northern Irish Protestant Loyalists in memory of (Protestant) William of Orange’s victory over (Catholic) King James II at the Battle of Boyne in 1690. Seamus Heaney wrote of the run-up to the Twelfth in 1966: “For weeks now, in districts adjoining Sandy Row and the Shankill, children have been collecting scrap, old tyres, old boxes, anything that burns, and at the ends of streets piles of unlikely fuel are accumulating.” These builders in Lanark Way are happy for me to take photos, “as long as [you’re] not from the Andy’s Town news,” one jokes, Andersonstown being a Nationalist part of West Belfast - and on the provision that I lend a hand in the building.
In Sandy Row, the Protestant enclave where some of the first sectarian violence took place in the mid-nineteenth century, two days before the Twelfth, these children are at the fully-built bonfire with their families in anticipation of the event.
As the bonfire in Lanark Way is lit a cheer goes up. Among the crowds of families you can hear Scottish and English accents. The rhythmic singing gets louder and a strange tension grows. The flames creep down the rafters of wood and the tension lifts as the fire roars.
On the Eleventh, families are brought together for an evening during which they revel in their shared religion and the fact that they came to Northern Ireland from the mainland. Walking around Belfast you would think that Loyalists were the stigmatised few; they are desperate to display their cultural identity. The Twelfth bonfire is a creative and social event, but at its root is the enduring problem of alienated Protestants and anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland. Seamus Heaney noted: “They [Belfast Nationalists] console themselves with the fact that this annual belligerence is a sign of their own power; when they see Unionist politicians consorting with the Orange Order, they are happy simply to constitute a threat to the status quo. ‘We’ll outbreed you in the end.’”
As the heat becomes unbearable tired mothers and fathers shepherd their children away.
Republic of Ireland flags burn on top of the Lanark Road bonfire and the crowd cheer. Ironically, some of the wood is painted blue, red and white (the colours of the Union Jack) and so they are burning the colours of the Union alongside the colours of the Republic. Earlier in the week a defaced statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on the bonfire, but was later returned to a local Friar to avoid further offence.
STOP PRESS Slowing down the pace of journalism
ournalism takes time. Fortunately or unfortunately, it does not take time to produce 140 characters and fling them into the Twittersphere. News can be published to the entire world within seconds – we are no longer constrained by the speed of the printing press.
The lack of print deadlines and the ensuing race to put things online as quickly as possible can cause serious errors. A case in point is the retrial of Amanda Knox, who was firstly pronounced guilty of slander, and then acquitted of murder. In the intervening minutes between the first and second judgements, the Mail, the Guardian, the Sun and Sky News all published stories online about the ‘fact’ that Knox had been found guilty of murder. The situation proved most embarrassing for the Mail, whose article included a large number of quotes and incidental details – none of which could have been genuine.
Blunders like this are not unique to modern or online journalism. One of the most famous newspaper mistakes in history is the Chicago Tribune’s headline on the day of the US Presidential election in 1948, “Dewey defeats Truman”. A printers’ strike had forced the paper to go to press hours earlier than normal, when the voting stations were still open, so the editor gambled on the gut instinct of the Tribune’s Washington correspondent. The embarrassment was immortalised when the newly-elected President Truman was photographed, smiling gleefully, with a copy of the first edition.
The other nice thing about print is serendipity A sub-editor at the Mirror explained to ISIS how things have changed over the past decade, “There is now much more pressure to get stories out more quickly. Not only are there
deadlines for the newspaper itself, each publication will now have websites, Twitter accounts, APP editions, text alerts systems… [each] hungry to publish the story. There are dangers with this demand for instant news, in that there is less time to verify the information and check the legal implications.” Other journalists are more upbeat about the situation. “There is still just as much focus on accuracy and attention to detail as there has ever been,” a trainee reporter at the Telegraph tells ISIS. “Major news organisations don’t sacrifice accuracy in the name of speed. With the myriad news sources online – some more reliable than others – there is even more pressure on the major news organisations to filter through the rumour and gossip, and to publish only what is accurate.” Particular parts of newspapers reject the present haste to produce content. The obituary columns
remain firmly attached to doing things slowly and it is quite normal to notice a significant difference in time between a person’s death and their being remembered in print, presumably to allow for writers to carefully consider the entirety of their life. The scope of obituary articles is measured in decades, not seconds.
“Slow journalism is related to slow travel, and slow food... It’s taking time to do something of quality” Obituary columns are not alone in refusing to rush out articles. In fact one magazine, Delayed Gratification, prides itself on being the “last to breaking news”. Each issue features articles on the events of three to six months earlier. The business team behind Delayed
Gratification goes by the name ‘The Slow Journalism Company’. When I met Rob Orchard, one of the editorial directors of the publication, he explained the idea behind the magazine: “Slow journalism is related to slow travel, and slow food,” he begins. “It’s taking time to do something of quality, and in that it’s defining itself against a lot of what journalism these days has become. [Modern journalism] is driven by Twitter and by the speed and the algorithms of online news, with journalists writing to impossibly tight deadlines, which mean that they don’t have time to do what you want journalists to do, which is to canvass opinion – canvass expert opinion – sift through evidence, [and] give context.”
the occasional article, but no original content. This is not just a way of getting people to buy the magazine – Orchard has serious doubts about the internet’s ability to host longform articles. It is easy enough to put them up on a website, but much more difficult to have the patience to read them. As he points out, “The nice thing about print is that it’s contained. If you’re reading a story online, you start reading the story and there’s a link to another story, and you click out of the story to go and see something, and your eyes are attracted by a video, and you look at the video, and another video is suggested to you, and suddenly you find yourself checking your email, and you’ve got a Facebook update.”
For Delayed Gratification, the focus is on producing a magazine. Virtually none of Delayed Gratification’s output is published online. Their minimalist website features are a few tantalising infographics, and
“The other nice thing about print is serendipity, so you’ve got a magazine like this and you skip from a story about a radio DJ in Oman to something about gun deaths in America,” he adds, flicking through
Slowing Down the News
his copy of Delayed Gratification. “You’re being introduced to things you didn’t know you wanted to read.” It’s an unusual point of view. In a 2010 Scientific American article, the inventor of the internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, described it as a “communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation”. The internet makes it easier to stumble across unexpected information. But Orchard is very much of the view that the internet can hamper one’s interests just as much as expand them. “Because of the algorithms that govern the internet and your searches of the internet, your preferences and so on are being fed into the information that you’re being provided with,” he argues. Gone is the experience of browsing and stumbling across books or films or music on the window displays, or on the shelves that happen to stand nearby. The replacement is adverts for products that are very like the ones you already have in your ‘basket’.
“There’re a lot of apps where you put in your news preferences and it will feed you a diet culled from different news sites, and it will be quite difficult then to get out of that ghetto of your news sites,” Orchard adds, a little histrionically. Delayed Gratification focuses on covering unusual stories you would not otherwise go out of your way to find. A recent feature entitled “The Butterfly Effect” relates how the Royal Navy’s 1854 medical examination of a boy called John Fisher, and his naked leap-frogging of a chair, led to the arrest of Murugasan Natarajan for garlic smuggling in December 2012. The intermediate stages include the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Treaty of Rome and the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Online an article like this would feature links to other EU stories, agricultural stories and maybe some from-the-archive stories. In print the surrounding articles are about a Nobel prize-winning physicist and a Japanese soldier who did not give up fighting World War II until the 70s.
Delayed Gratification is not just esoteric but openly nostalgic. Issue Nine’s inside front cover lambasts the “wily charms of the digital world with its tweets, feeds, blogs and apps”. One of the longer articles within focuses on the political clout of a radio station in Oman, described longingly as “an old fashioned medium”. “There is an element of nostalgia to it,” Orchard admits, “I suppose for the times when newspapers were seriously well funded and actually had the money to invest in long term investigations and do really deep work... But I actually also think that it [Delayed Gratification]’s quite a modern thing. We live in this digital world, and of course a huge amount of the information that we take on board is [digital]. But this is not nourishing enough on its own, so here is a complement, here is something to run alongside it, and here’s, to a certain extent, an antidote.” ISIS might not have the funding or the reach of Delayed Gratification, but we too are working on remembering how to do things slowly. n
NELLIE BLY The life and times of a pioneering American journalist Nathan Ellis
ellie Bly is a pretty amazing woman. In her life, she pioneered investigative journalism by committing herself to a mental asylum, was the first female reporter on the Eastern Front in the First World War, circled the globe faster than anyone ever had – oh, and she designed and manufactured the first steel barrel produced in the United States. And she’s such an extraordinary person that that last one is only a bit of a curveball. Yet the majority of people won’t ever have heard her name. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran to a wealthy mill owner in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania, a village named after her family. As a child
she was known as Pink, on account of her bright clothes which marked her out against the grey calico and dull brown of the other children. Her early life was marred by her father dying without leaving a will – there were 15 children by two wives, with little money to go around – and her mother’s subsequent divorce from a violent stepfather. The money ran out before she could finish her education; she was left with little other than immense willpower and ambition. Her first foray into print was in response to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch; signing herself “Lonely Orphan Girl” and decrying the current narrow definition of the ‘wom-
en’s sphere’, she so impressed the editor that he offered her a place on his staff. After heading off to Mexico for a stint as a cultural reporter, she decided that the only place to be was in New York, writing in 1887, “I’m off for New York. Look out for me. BLY.” She first broke into the world of New York journalism by writing about the difficulty of getting in. Posing as a naive Pittsburgh girl, she posed a very simple question to the most important editors of the day: why is it so difficult to become a female journalist? In their answers, her ‘newspaper gods of Gotham’ exposed themselves as sexist, misogynistic, and painfully out of touch.
Nellie Bly The responses of these great men were summarised by Bly as, “Woman are no good, anyway.”
Bly, Hav ing practised in her mirror at home, feigned mental illness and had herself committe d to the Women’ s Lunatic asylum on Blac k well’ s I sland . She set out to prove them wrong and their first mistake was giving her an assignment. The story that made her name was her first at the New York World – ‘Ten Days in the Madhouse’, commissioned by Colonel Cockerill, one of the men whom she had embarrassed by her story. He gave her few instructions, simply saying: “You can try”. Bly liked taking risks, and having practised in her mirror at home, she feigned mental illness and had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She endured the ice-cold baths, unsanitary conditions, painful boredom and the cruelty of the attendants and doctors, going on to publish her exposé of the asylum on 4th October 1887. Bly’s article shocked the city. The Board of Estimate and Apportionment, partly in response to the bad publicity, found $850,000 for the cause of Public Charities and Corrections. Nellie became a household name in New York overnight, famous as the “Plucky Representative of *The World*’’ who was “Too Sharp for the Island Doctors”. In the next few months, she went on to write further exposés about the trafficking of newborn babies and the maltreatment of the female ‘white slaves’ working in factories. Bly was by no means the only woman reporter of the period, but she was the most famous and successful of a group of journalists revolution-
ising the way reporting worked. She was reinventing the role that men thought women could have in journalism. No longer were women to write solely about ‘women’s issues’ but about ‘proper’ things that really mattered. More than just striking a blow for women in print, Bly’s reporting formed the foundation of modern-day investigative journalism: Pulitzer’s ‘New Journalism’ of the late nineteenth century. This dynamic, reformist, narrative-based style of reporting was completely new, and Bly was at the forefront of it. Though her style was never polished, her ability to create an exciting narrative, her disarming bluntness, and her social conscience meant she produced a steady stream of engaging, authoritative and effectual articles. In the autumn of 1888 while lying in bed she came up with an idea to solidify her fame. The next day, she went to her editor and said she wanted to go round the world quicker than the fictional Phileas Fogg, whose story had been published 15 years earlier. The response came back that it really ought to be a man, as she would undoubtedly need a chaperone. Bly set off the next Thursday, unchaperoned. 72 days later she returned, having met Jules Verne, discovered seasickness, crossed the Suez Canal, caused a flurry of excitement in New York, broken the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the world, and become a national celebrity. I told you she was pretty amazing. In 1895 she married Robert Seaman, a millionaire factory owner 40 years her senior. His company made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers, and when he died in 1904, she was left in charge. You might imagine that a woman who had spent the previous 20 years writing in newspapers would be out of her depth running factories; however, she quadrupled the business, took it out of debt, and
by 1905 had been assigned 25 patents, including one for the 55-gallon oil drum, still in use. The most powerful woman industrialist in the world, she instituted liberal reforms in her factory, building a six-storey recreation centre with a bowling alley and gymnasium, and instituting weekly wages for every employee. Embezzlement by those she trusted with her finances led to the company being taken into receivership in 1911 and Nellie confessed that she blamed herself completely for taking no interest in the “financial details [which] bored me terribly”. It is impossible to write at any sort of fair length about her subsequent reporting from the Russian and Serbian fronts in 1914. In the months she spent there, she sent back affecting reports of her experience of the plight of those living there, and after the war, went in a quasi-official capacity to appeal to Woodrow Wilson for aid for Austrians at the Paris Peace Conference. She lived out the rest of her life in New York, writing an advice column at the Evening Journal until dying of pneumonia in 1922. Though she should be remembered for the change she achieved in journalism within her own life, some of her best writing is to be found in the most unassuming places, such as her column, in which she wrote on subjects from women’s fencing to proposing to men on a leap year. It is here that she demonstrates the wit and indefatigable curiosity that make you, in that uncanny way, like her, this utter stranger who has nearly been forgotten but whose influence is so immense. =
Ideology and Soul in the Life of a Book Charlotte Sykes
ollow the plumes of smoke issuing from the funeral pyres of books through history, and you trace the path of every conflict and every repressive regime. To publicly burn is to humiliate: a performance of irreversible destruction that summons up visions of witches burning at the stake, their otherworldly knowledge destroyed in infernal flames. A bonfire of books represents the purposeful and powerful ‘pruning’ of cultural heritage; it is a common tool used by authoritarian regimes to eradicate minority cultures’ claim on their past. From the book burnings of the Nazis, to Chancellor Li Si’s destruction of political and historical texts in China in 213BCE, to Christian crusaders’ burning of an estimated 100, 000 books in Tripoli’s Dar-em-llm library in the 12th
cism and a denial of liberal knowledge, yet the ‘People’s Revolutions’ – French, Russian and Chinese – all destroyed manuscripts and books in their quest for a clean slate from which to build their utopian visions. century – these events served to destroy that which threatens ideological order: books.
A new world order is made possible through the catharsis of fire Book burnings tend to symbolise regeneration rather than finality. A new world order is made possible through the catharsis of fire: the ideas of older generations are sacrificed to ensure the preeminence of contemporary ideology. Today, book burning is associated with fas-
Urbain Domergue, a French Revolutionary, urged his fellow Jacobins to take “a scalpel to our huge depositories of books and amputate all the gangrenous members from the bibliographic body. Let us remove from our libraries the swelling which presages death.” Another demanded still further action: “Burn all the books… they are useless and harmful.” Professor Rebecca Knuth, author of a cultural history of book burning, explains: “Most of the [French Revolution] leaders actively encouraged cultural destruction as a means of maintaining revolutionary momentum.”
Though some prominent figures wanted to protect books and manuscripts from the torches of the sans-culottes, expressing a desire to retain the learning of the ancien régime was seen as counter-revolutionary. And yet there was practical need to retain the old regime texts: administrative documents were crucial to revolutionary progress. The mobs were caught between a desire to destroy all symbols of their previous oppression, and dependence on the actual documents that detailed taxation dues or the genealogy of the nobility. A wave of book burning similarly occurred during China’s Cultural Revolution, yet this instance of cultural incineration had the further intention of colonisation and subjugation. Alongside the destruction of Chinese books and manuscripts and other cultural items, book burning was used to cripple Tibet’s cultural autonomy.
Books ‘speak’ to us, forging the link between absent author and present reader. The climax of this systematic destruction took place in August 1966. The Red Guards invaded the Lhasa Central Cathedral of Tibet (equivalent to the Vatican), trampling on the sacred artefacts and disfiguring decorations. The destruction was especially tragic as the cathedral had become a sanctuary for relics from other monasteries, and contained countless civil and religious records. A journalist writing in the 1980s described the desolation of the monks as their priceless manuscripts were set alight: “…the Chinese came and tore them from the shelves they had lain on for hundred of years and threw them on the fire they made in the middle of the temple. When some monks pleaded with
Let us remove from our libraries the swelling which presages death. the soldiers saying, ‘Please don’t. They are very old and mean everything to us,’ the Chinese pushed them to the floor and said, ‘Rubbish, religion is bourgeois poison!’” The Cultural Revolution destroyed the embellished canvases and scriptures and books, leaving in its wake the charred remains of Tibetan culture. Here was a ‘clean’ slate on which to build a new communist order. Perhaps the reason for our strong associations with book burning (as opposed to the burning of buildings and other inanimate objects) is something to do with what books do for the reader. Books ‘speak’ to us, forging a link between absent author and present reader. Burning books is imagined either as burning someone alive, or as the cremation of a dead body. Haig Bosmajian writes: “Books and fire – both have been endowed with magic and power. When books are set ablaze in the book burning ritual the result is an interaction between two potent forces.” Yet the historical implications of this interplay of fire and books – the destruction of culture – lead us to German poet Heinrich Heine’s apocalyptic observation: “When they burn books,
t he y will also, in the end, burn human beings.” As records of language, books have a voice, blurring the distinction between inanimate and animate. Burning books is therefore often understood as either immolation or the cremation of a dead body. As long as books represent human freedom to express ideas, the destruction of them by fire will remain a striking example of the repression of dissidence. What starts with violence against the written word soon turns to violence against those whose culture is enriched by those words. p
Der v la M ur p hy : T h e winte red trave lle r Valentine Reside
hen I arrived in Lismore the butcher told me where Dervla Murphy lived, but the gate to her house was padlocked. She hadn’t given me her phone number but a neighbour rang and her daughter picked up. “Are you from the student magazine?” she asks, sounding apologetic. “I’m so sorry but we’ve been drinking wine and beer all day, and my mother is very drunk.” I can hear Dervla Murphy in the background. “Why don’t you stay the night and
my mother will talk to you in the morning, she gets up very early, at 7.” “5.30,” I hear Murphy yell. When I come in to her study she is reading a book on South East Asia and the Cold War. It’s 5.45am. “I love cold weather,” she tells me. “I really don’t get on with the heat and I don’t care how cold it is.” In the severe winter of 1963 Dervla Murphy set off from Dunkirk
to Delhi by bicycle and launched into a travel writing career during which she has written more than 25 books - on Baltistan, Ethiopia, Tibet, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Birmingham and Gaza among other places. Eighty-two years old, she lives on the high street in the small town of Lismore, between Waterford and Cork. She had lived in the town until she was thirty, looking after her ailing mother. At the time, she was engaged in a “psychotic personality
Valentine Reside battle” with her mother, who drove her away, she wrote, “as if a part of her wished to do so”. Upon her mother’s death, with the minimum of clothes and a .25 revolver Murphy cycled through the hazardously cold Soviet Eastern Europe and the Middle East to get to India in ‘63. Young men threw stones at her while cycling in Middle East before she dressed up as a man to avoid danger, and a police officer in Eastern Europe tried to molest her. In Slovenia she was attacked by wolves and in Afghanistan she allowed a truck driver (who was giving her a lift when her bike was broken) to treat her sun burn with engine oil. When Murphy replied to my interview request saying “I’d love to talk,” that is what she meant. She doesn’t like the idea of “interviewing” and said that she developed her technique of recording what people tell her when she was in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, during the Troubles. “It was really important not to misquote people.” She used to take out her notebook and sit down on the pavement outside pubs where she had spoken with Republicans or loyalists and write down what she had heard. “I never wanted to do anything else.” She says, “People with a very strong urge to do one thing, or in my case two things, to write and to travel, well, you’re just born like that. Just as you might have blue eyes or brown eyes.” By the time Murphy was 30 she already had “clear ideas about how [she] wanted to travel”. She wanted to travel on her own to “leave yourself in a position where you are dependent on the local people”. She would arrive alone in an isolated village so that “the people know you trust them”. But it would be “almost impossible” to do “my sort of travelling now”, she concedes. “So many mo-
tor-roads have been built in places like Baltistan, linking the remote places to the “modern consumer world”. This scepticism about modernisation is something of a theme. In 1977 she wrote Where the Indus is Young: A Winter in Baltistan and noted her own weakness as a traveller, “There I was,” she wrote, “rather fancying myself as the hardy traveller moving through remote Baltistan – but the first touch of real pain (from a toothache) revealed me in my true colours as a degenerate product of twentieth century over-civilisation.” But she wouldn’t want to go back to Baltistan or Ethiopia, where she went in 1968, “I’d rather keep my memories of when they were really remote. We never saw a motorcar or a motor road or a big town. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to travel simply and slowly.” The recording of meeting with people has continually been the basis of Murphy’s writing. But in the 1970s her writing became more politicised. “I can pretty well date the change actually, it was on the way back from Peru in ’79 when we just happened to be passing Three Mile Island when the danger point came and then, instead of writing my book about Peru, I wrote a book against nuclear power.” Since then, politics has been a major influence on her writing. Her subsequent book on Northern Ireland voiced hard opinions about the Unionist side in particular and she wrote a book on race relations in Bradford and Birmingham in Tales of Two Cities: Travels of Another Sort, published in 1987.
Her autonomy has deep roots. In her memoirs Murphy describes being taught to write the letter ‘h’ by Sister Andrew, when she was at school. She was “bending over me, whitely angry. I knew quite well how to write a standard ‘h’ but I was determined not to do it according to the specifications. I had my own method, which I naturally preferred.” But with Murphy, autonomy does not mean self-involvement: “I’ve never ever read one of my own books. No, that wouldn’t occur to me,” she laughs. Neither does she read other travel writers “on the whole”. Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Colin Thubron are exceptions. But you can see her thirst for knowledge in the ordered book shelves that line the walls of the huts in her “compound”, as she calls it. These low wooden huts are of typical Irish rural style, she says, and the books are arranged by country. There are Turkish rugs, a military helmet from Rwanda and drawers of maps, reminders of Murphy’s adventures. Amongst all this, she seems committed to another world, where life was riskier and foreign places were genuinely untouched. As I leave she advises me to take the back-road back to Cappoquin, rather than the dual carriageway. “It’s a mile shorter,” she laughs, “and there’s barely any traffic.” n
“I always lived as a feminist in the sense that I did my own thing.” She says “It would have been unheard of to travel alone anywhere”. But she wouldn’t describe herself as a feminist. “I never thought about feminism in the days when it was, as it were, fashionable,” she says. “I just did what I wanted to.”
‘The Masked Man’s a Fag!’
“Th e Ma s ked Ma n’s a Fa g!” Lenny Bru ce a n d S o u t h Pa r k
This project traces a politics of masking and unmasking in American culture that runs from the post-Civil War era through to the present day, and which constellates around the life and work of Lenny Bruce. In order to trace this history I have compiled a series of quotations from many sources: The Lone Ranger to Lenny Bruce, Batman to South Park. Marking the connections between these varied sources are 17 tropes or topics, which set up each quotation and are the alleyways through which the quotations are interconnected. These figures or topics have been organised like the figures in a deck of tarot cards. I hope you enjoy working your way through the web.=
Thank You Masked Man - Lenny Bruce
‘The Masked Man’s a Fag!’ -Efraim Carlebach
Thank You Mask Man is an animated short film based on a comedy routine by Lenny Bruce. Running to just over seven minutes, the film was produced by John Magnuson and directed by Jeff Hale in 1968, and released in 1971, five years after Bruce’s death. Bruce’s original ‘bit’ intersects pop culture and politics, turning the popular characters of The Lone Ranger and Tanto (from the radio and television serial western The Lone Ranger) into the instruments of satirical comment on homophobia and identity politics. Bruce’s pop culture references look backwards in two directions: to the popularity of radio and TV Westerns from the 30s to 50s; and to the American Civil War and subsequent ‘opening of the West’ embedded in the post-Civil War reconstruction of American identity. Thank You Mask Man looks forward to the animated TV series South Park – both in the aesthetics of the animation and in the politically subversive and allusive nature of its material.
fraim Carlebach talks about his online project which traces a politics of masking in American popular culture through a montage of quotations, guided by a reinvented deck of tarot cards.
In the Dark in North Korea
I N TH E DAR K I N N O RT H KO R E A T he o nli ne wo rl d o f th e H e rmit Kin g d o m Henry Van Oosterom
n 2012, NASA took a series of photographs of the Earth at night. These fragmented images were weaved together into a comprehensive global map. Major urban settlements shine like pulsating neurons; the US East Coast, Western Europe, and the Far East gleam with particular intensity. Even the rainforests of South America and the Australian outback are sprinkled with lambent communities, easily visible from space. However, there is an anomaly in South East Asia. Between the
luminescent triangle formed by China, South Korea and Japan, lies a patch of murky gloom hardly distinguishable from the inkblack ocean either side. This is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or simply, North Korea. The darkness which engulfs the country, the result of a vastly inadequate, Soviet-era national energy grid, serves as a neat metaphor for the country as a whole. Its population exists permanently ‘in the dark’ – thanks to a totalitarian, isolationist government, so terrified of what might happen should their citizens
gain access to information, that it has imposed an almost blanket-ban on internet access within its borders.
S ince 2 000, t he only for m of inter net accessible to t he public has been a ‘walled garden’ int ranet called Kwangmyong . Civic stability in North Korea rests on maintaining lies about the glories of the regime and concealing the truth about the atrocities the regime
Henry Van Oosterom commits. It is thus no surprise that internet access in North Korea is a highly sensitive issue. Since 2000, the only form of internet accessible to the public has been a ‘walled garden’ intranet called Kwangmyong. This service, which runs through a connection with a server in China, contains a rudimentary messaging system and permits access to state-controlled news providers. Requests can be made to download information from the global internet, but few of these are agreed to; even then heavy censorship takes place. The intranet can be accessed only by academics, scientists and businessmen with special clearance. Access to the wider internet is the privilege of the most elite circles of government: those drawn from the top tier of the regime-imposed Songbun social class system. The Songbun system takes into account a person’s economic, social, family and political background, before determining which class they are placed in. This in turn determines how much trust the government places in them, who they can hope to marry and what kind of jobs they can aspire to. It is a Stalinist perversion of the ancient Confucian notion that all humans fit into strict social hierarchy. Crimes committed by a person’s grandfather can render them beulsun, “of tainted blood”, eliminating their chances of joining the Workers’ Party, or living near the capital city. It is suspected that even the internet activity of the tiny trusted minority of government officials is logged and monitored. According to a diplomatic source in the nation’s capital, Pyongyang, foreign embassies, international organisations, and visiting journalists are the only parties able to access the internet totally unfettered, via a satellite link. However, in recent years there has been a slight relaxation of the state’s attitude to the World Wide Web. This is progress in a North Korean
context, but progress nonetheless— as a diplomatic source noted: “For a population that is used to having relatively little information, [any small change can] be seen as a great leap forward.” For several years now, Air Koryo, a commercial airline operating in North Korea, has been permitted to engage in open, non-political question and answer sessions on their Facebook page with potential visitors from the West. The airline’s official spokesman has some way to go regarding online customer service; he responds to one user’s innocent enquiry about timetables with the rebuke: “What a stupid question.” Another comment, which cheekily suggests that defectors might use Air Koryo planes to flee the country, receives the reply: “Hopefully the people they’re getting out are people as stupid as yourself... grow up.” The official forays of the North Korean government into the online world are equally amateurish. The government has official Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube accounts, all under the username Uriminzokkiri, “Our People”. However, the accounts’ managers have failed to grasp that bellicose anti-American rhetoric and strident patriotism don’t carry quite the same gravitas when published on social networking platforms dominated by Instagramming preteens and celebrities. The official government Twitter page published a tweet on 10th July this year that began: “Shut up” – addressed to no one in particular. North Korea exports some of its own online wares to the outside world, under the domain name ‘.kp’; Rodong Sinmun, the country’s leading newspaper, has an English language version, which spouts a distinctive brand of ardent jingoism, misinformation, and ferocious antiWestern sentiment. North Korean journalism has the capacity to deeply confuse: in an article colourfully titled “Obama’s Tomfoolery”, a US Presidential visit to Africa was
mysteriously described as “gay”. Mistranslation? Childish playground taunt? Sensational exposé of Obama’s sexuality? We will likely never know. The number of citizens who successfully defect from North Korea has risen from fewer than ten per annum 20 years ago to almost 3000 in 2012. There is increased trade in Western films and music, smuggled into the country in the form of battered VRCs and cassette tapes. China, Russia, and South Korea all now produce sufficiently powerful radio waves and mobile phone networks that North Koreans living near the borders can pick up signals using crudely modified equipment. Little by little, a few North Korean citizens are glimpsing life outside the Hermit Kingdom.
Lit t le by lit t le, a few Nor t h Korean cit izens are glimpsing life out side t he Her m it Kingdom. The internet is a potent tool for those planning dissent, and the North Korean authorities are well aware of it. The government therefore faces an uncomfortable dilemma regarding the internet. If the country refuses to embrace the economic, academic and pragmatic benefits bestowed by the World Wide Web, it will lag further behind the rest of the world. This sits uncomfortably with Kim Jong-Un’s desire that North Korea be a major force on the world stage. Yet if the regime is to retain power, the government must continue to keep its people in the dark. A diplomatic representative concluded: “The DPRK is likely to continue to restrict and be restricted in the way that it engages with the outside world and, although the level of these restrictions might be reduced, they will not disappear.” The regime is right to be scared: uncensored web access would surely be its death sentence. p
How to Survive a Year in Russia
How To Survive a year in Russia Aurora Dawson
here are a few things that might surprise you about Russia. As they say, to be forewarned is to be forearmed.
The distance between home and Russia is not as far as you think (unless you’re in Vladivostok). But this does not stop you feeling like you’re on another planet. When you arrive, your mountain of documentation is checked. Then again, and again. You are given even more documents, because no single document is ever enough. You do not chitchat with anyone because:
The metro system in most major cities will include a few canine passengers.
a. no one is making eye contact. b. you do not want to mention the weather. c. you cannot actually speak Russian – you can only speak Oxford-Russian. Apparently, Oxford-Russian and Russian-Russian are not the same thing. It is the most frightening reality check you will ever have, so you refuse to believe it.
FOOD There’s food, and then there’s Russian food. You will probably consume more oil in your first week than you have done, cumulatively, in your entire life up to that point. Meat? Fry it. Veg? Fry it. Pasta? Fry it. Then you will encounter tvorog. This substance is mistakenly equated with cottage cheese (cottage cheese is much nicer). It is served with breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s in everything. There are even special tvorog shops.
Be prepared for all eventualities on long-haul train journeys. You’ll need your passport number to buy the train ticket. If your train journey is over six hours you’ll most likely have a bed, not a seat. Slippers are a must. Hot water is free, so bring lots of tea bags.
CURIOSITY People are likely to be curious about you. Are you American? Why are you here? When they find out you’re a Brit: “Did you like Princess Diana?” Questions get personal quickly, especially if you’re stuck with someone particularly curious on a long train journey. Just be ready.
FUR It is socially acceptable and arguably necessary to wear fur. Whatever your beliefs on the matter, you’ll be seeing a lot of it, from fox-head hats to mole-body scarves. Don’t cling on to what you think you know about Russia. It is not a mafia-owned land of vodka-drinking, chain-smoking babushkas – there are plenty of other peculiarities too. The day you wake up, glance at the thermometer on your windowsill and find the temperature has finally crept above freezing point, is a great day. It is the day the culture shock disappears. You are finally able to embrace your fate in that mysterious stretch of icy land: Mother Russia. n
Robo Sapiens Social inequality in a post-human age Matthew BroomField
uman extinction may be nearer than you think. Biotechnology is evolving at an exponential rate, and the barriers between man and machine are being rapidly redefined. Soon, it will be impossible to tell where man ends and machine begins. There may come a time when we are no longer homo sapiens at all—a time when we are post-human. Transhumanists are those who see this fundamental shift in the human condition as an end in itself. They feel a responsibility to harness emerging technologies, transcending the limitations of being human. They foresee a society where suffering is eliminated, the damage we do to the Earth is halted, and immortality becomes a reality. This is not a new desire. The major world religions, whether they refer to paradise or heaven or nirvana, all concern themselves with transcending the physical and temporal limits of ordinary human life. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, these aspirations were re-examined in the light of scientific advancement, most notably by a group of futurists based at the University of California in Los Angeles, who called themselves transhumanists. All philosophical approaches which openly seek to bring about the post-human
condition are now grouped under the name ‘transhumanism’. Theirs is no purely theoretical enterprise. From recent developments in cochlear and retinal implants, which extend the body’s natural functions where they have failed due to congenital disease, to the artificial memory augmentation afforded by computer memory banks, many of the technologies which surround us today can be deemed transhuman. Ray Kurzweil, a transhumanist theorist, divides evolution into six epochs, and traces our development thus far through four of these phases: Physics and Chemistry; Biology and DNA; Brains; and Technology. Citing the speed with which the internet has transformed our lives, alongside a host of other technological advancements, Kurzweil predicts an explosive development as we enter the fifth epoch: The Merger of Human Technology With Human Intelligence. This will occur within the next 100 years, he thinks, in line with a “law of accelerating returns”. The ethical problems raised by transhumanism border on the spiritual. What happens when engineered intelligence outstrips humankind’s understanding or control? In his seminal transhumanist essay The Coming Technological Sin-
gularity, Vernon Vinge argues that the resulting post-human era will be “simply too different to fit into the classical frame of good and evil”.
TRANSHUMANISM IS EGALITARIAN IN THEORY IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN WHETHER IS WILL BE SO IN PRACTICE The noted economist Francis Fukuyama has described transhumanism as the world’s most dangerous idea in Foreign Policy magazine, raising the concern that equality is “the first victim” of transhumanism. “Underlying [the] idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin colour, beauty, and even intelligence… if we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?” Peter Rothman, editor of the leading transhumanist publication H+, tried to answer Fukuyama’s question when he spoke to ISIS about the socioeconomic difficulties of a post-human world. “Generally, I expect that machine intelligences
might be kinder than humans since they have no biological history of violence, anger, or abuse.” However, he does accept that certain safeguards are necessary. “We need to look mostly at coercion… employers shouldn’t be able to require employees to enhance themselves [or] take specific drugs.” Rothman recognises that people might be unwilling to adopt technologies for a host of religious and moral reasons. However, given people’s current enthusiasm for technology and our immemorial timor mortis, transhumanists are confident that most will accept radical future technology as beneficial to society. There will always be those who refuse enhancement, but Rothman is confident that these reprogenetic Amish would not become second-class citizens, and that their choices would be respected. “In an expansive and abundant society that values morphological freedom, individuals could choose to remain as twenty-first century humans if they wanted.” That said, Rothman and his fellow transhumanists see the technological enhancement of the human organism as a necessary and inevi-
table step, eradicating suffering at all levels of society. “We can use currently existing technology applied at the bottom of society to generate a wave of abundance and thereby solve many of the worst social and economic problems we face.”
Transhumanists are confident that most will accept radical future technology as beneficial to society. The shift to a post-human condition is an ongoing process, and it is unlikely that transhumanist technology will become available simultaneously across society. All machines are ultimately an extension of the human body’s natural functions. Every tool humankind creates, from a crude stone axe to the prosthetic limbs of Oscar Pistorius, is designed to push the boundaries of what we can achieve. Throughout history, the best tools have invariably been available to those with the greatest wealth. The same can be said of what Rothman terms “positive and life affirming… transhumanist ideas and technologies that already exist, such as cochlear and retinal im-
plants”. Enhancement of our bodies might lead to enhanced social stratification, with the rich enjoying biotechnological enhancements denied to the poor. A future society founded on “free access to knowledge and morphological freedom” is the stated goal of the transhumanists, says Rothman. However, it is difficult to see this society becoming a reality without a period where access to transitional technologies is limited to those who can afford them. The solution is to adopt a more equitable model when phasing in new technology: “Want to usher in an abundant global society? Start at the bottom.” Rothman cites a project by the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), an American non-profit organisation, as exemplifying the way that technologies can be implemented in communities with meagre financial resources. The project involves “electrifying the entire Kalalé district of northern Benin with photovoltaic solar systems”. SELF have introduced a system of solar-powered pumps, making local agricultural processes simpler and more effective. The solar panels also provide electricity to public spaces and com-
Robo Sapiens munity centres. Rothman portrays SELF’s involvement in Benin as representative of the way “relatively low technology [can be applied] in a novel way that changes the lives of people from one of struggle and poverty to one of abundance”. It is an admirable model, making use of simple technology to revolutionise agriculture and infrastructure in the region. However, this analogy between current and future technologies obscures several key issues.
TRANSHUMANISTS SEE TECHNOLOGICAL ENHANCEMENT OF THE HUMAN ORGANISM AS A NECESSARY AND INEVITABLE STEP, ERADICATING SUFFERING AT ALL LEVELS OF SOCIETY Firstly, solar technology is not an emerging technology. It has taken decades for solar energy systems to become affordable in communities like those SELF is supporting in Benin. Secondly, although the photovoltaic solar systems provided by SELF are purchased by the villagers who use them (through microcredit financing), the fact remains that SELF is a charity. Biotechnology is largely the preserve of multinational corporations. The charitable economic model of SELF is unlikely to be mirrored by the leading
biotech companies currently developing transhuman technologies, such as Monsanto, which is already renowned for monopolising the agricultural industry in developing nations. Monsanto’s business model involves using biological patents, meaning that processes that might be universally available are instead used for the economic benefit of the company. Finally, there is the risk of substandard human enhancement technology being implemented in developing nations. Much of the developing world has been scarred by pharmaceutical piracy and illegal drug testing: in Nigeria, the Pfizer-Trovan drug trial left 11 children dead as the result of a highly controversial (and possibly illegal) trial of an unregistered drug. Rothman claims: “The most important safeguards we need are those which protect the right to conduct research and develop enhancement technologies.” Serious consideration must surely also be given to the potentially huge disparities in availability, safety and quality of the technologies which might emerge.
versally available. However, transitional technologies are a potentially lucrative market, and have great potential to widen existing social disparities. Human extinction may be nearer than you think, but this is not necessarily something to be feared. Rothman makes it clear that “transhumanists reject the notion of a fixed human nature and see our nature instead as a dynamic evolving process that can be directed under conscious control.” The forthcoming biotechnological revolution could see social inequalities transcended; it could equally see them exacerbated. In its idealism, the transhumanist movement must not forget its egalitarian roots. =
Transhumanism is egalitarian in theory; it remains to be seen whether it will be so in practise. Transhumanists aspire to a future where social stratification is a thing of the past, eradicating suffering by making augmentative technology uni-
Topsy the Elephant
Topsy the Elephant The commercial battle that gave America the electric chair
n November 1887, a group investigating new forms of capital punishment wrote to Thomas Edison seeking advice on how best to electrocute a man. Edison, a strong opponent of the death penalty, refused to cooperate. Desperate for his insight, the group wrote again. This time Edison replied with information that would be fundamental in creating the electric chair. Three years later, William Kemmler became the first man to be executed by electrocution. When his defence team appealed against the use of the chair, Edison provided expert testimony which persuaded the jury to go ahead. Exactly why Edison changed his mind so dramatically offers a crucial insight into a high-stakes commercial battle between Edison and his fellow industrialist George Westinghouse, and also into attitudes to pain and execution in a society desperately trying to define itself as civilised. It began with light bulbs. When Edison developed an electric light bulb for indoor use, he unlocked an incredibly lucrative new market for electrical lighting. This market of light bulb buyers needed power, and Edison invested in direct current (DC) generators, which reliably produced low voltage power, but could only transmit that power over a very small local area. Edison’s generators therefore had to be built in cramped urban spaces, near to where power was most required. A few years after Edison rolled out his popular new light bulbs, an industrialist named George Westinghouse entered the market offering alternating current (AC) power. AC carried very high voltage pow-
er over long distances before being distributed at a lower, safer voltage into buildings. Westinghouse was able to build large out-of-town power stations, at a cheaper cost than Edison’s urban power generators. He soon mounted a serious threat to Edison’s DC business. Edison responded with a campaign of misinformation to scare the public away from AC. To illustrate its dan-
Edison orchestrated a series of animal executions the most theatrical of which was the execution of topsy the circus elephant. gers, Edison orchestrated a series of animal executions, the most theatrical of which was the execution of Topsy the circus elephant on Coney Island Pier in 1904. Edison filmed the event and produced a short celluloid copy of the animal’s last moments, which then toured America. It was in November 1887, at the height of the Westinghouse panic, that Edison received a letter from a commission put together to investigate new forms of capital punishment. When he eventually replied, Edison explained: “The most suitable apparatus for the purpose is that class of dynamo-electric machine which employs intermittent currents. The most effective of these are known as ‘alternating machines’ manufactured principally in this country by Mr. Geo. Westinghouse, Pittsburgh.” The electric chair, at least in part, was an attempt to associate Westinghouse’s domestic
product with criminals and death. It would be unfair to suggest that Edison completely ignored moral considerations for commercial gain. His decision to support the development of the electric chair was partly ethically motivated. Edison believed that electrocution was more humane than hanging, and that, absent the possibility of abolition of the death penalty, the electric chair was a step in the right direction. Edison wrote to the commission: “I would join heartily in an effort to totally abolish capital punishment, I at the same time realize that… it is the duty of the [State] to adopt the most humane method available for… the sentence of death.” At the time, the main method of execution in the country was hanging. This was seen by many as incommensurate with civilised society. In theory, hanging instantly broke the condemned person’s neck. However, if the noose was incorrectly tied or the condemned moved their head, they could end up being strangled to death over the course of several minutes. Journalists referred to this elongated struggle as ‘the dance of death’. On the worst occasions the head was ripped straight off. This was not a method of execution a society embracing modernity could pride itself on. Electricity was put forward as a solution. An 1888 article in Harper’s Weekly magazine argued: “There is apparently no reason why this mysterious agent which now unites the whole civilized world by nerves of keen intelligence, which illuminates every enterprising city, which already propels trains of cars
Jack Owen and promises to heat them, which has added to life in apparently inexhaustible variety, should not also be employed to take it away.” Supposedly, electrocution provided a painless death: it was thought that the current travelled so quickly through the body that death occurred before nerves could transmit pain to the brain. The capital
the popular press rallied round this great innovation in the justice system punishment commission argued that traditionally there had been a “passionate desire to inflict physical pain and suffering, even the utmost agony possible” on wrongdoers and that this was shown by “almost all primitive forms of capital punishment”. Moving away from this primitive approach to justice was the logical step for a modern society focused on the ideals of progress.
which appealed to exactly the primal urges that civilised US society was meant to be reacting against. When Edison wrote his letter offering advice on creating a machine of execution, he did so believing it was the right thing to do, not just for himself, but for America. And America agreed with him. The popular press rallied around this great innovation in the justice system. First used in New York, death by electrocution soon spread to other states. Within two decades it had been adopted in Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia, and it quickly became the most prevalent method of execution.
123 years after it was first switched on. When Edison wrote his letter, he hoped the electric chair would be a step in the ongoing march towards the abolition of the death penalty. He couldn’t have been more wrong. By making capital punishment clean and efficient, Edison helped extend its use dramatically. The ethical arguments against execution remained, but the most uncomfortable and conspicuous problems with the procedure had been solved. This was a new form of capital punishment, and it was one that America found far easier to live with. p
In January this year, in Virginia, condemned prisoner Robert Gleason, Jr. chose the electric chair as his preferred method of execution,
And yet other methods of capital punishment were known to provide a quick and instant death. A gun or guillotine would have sufficed if this was the only factor the commission was interested in. The quality that electrocution had — which neither the gun nor guillotine could provide — was the ability to kill without disfiguring the body. It was important not only that the body felt no pain but also that this was visibly apparent. The electric chair would remove much of the public gruesomeness from execution; and also, the difficulty. Commentators noted that the process was so easy a child could do it. In the 1880s, most states were stopping the practice of public execution; nevertheless, the press were still allowed to witness it, and frequently published graphic descriptions. The commission thought that electrocution would stop the press publishing articles of this kind, articles
Sit Down and Pay Attention
A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Deep Web Charlotte Sykes
he deep web is often cited as making up 99% of the internet. It is understood to be a murky, metamorphosing nebula of information in which websites for contract killers and drug lords swirl malignantly. Impossible to navigate without the precise address of your final destination, untamed by national laws or governments, the deep web lurks beneath the safe waters of the surface web. Exciting though this conception of the deep web is, there is considerable confusion between the ‘deep’ and ‘dark’ web, added to by the media’s habit of conflating the two
most extreme characteristics of both: the size of the deep web and the seediness of the dark web. The deep web is what cannot be found through search engines such as Google, and largely comprises people’s home videos and large databases of mundane information. The dark web refers to websites that are specifically hidden, only accessible by using special software, and which are believed to provide complete anonymity. The most popular agent to facilitate your trip to the dark web is Tor. Short for The Onion Router, the name analogises the way in which
your communications are ‘bounced’ around multiple volunteer-maintained servers across the world— thus masking your original location and identity—to the layers of an onion. Fittingly for a program that plumbs the part of the internet often understood as the underside of an iceberg, Tor was originally designed by the US navy. Besides hosting the now defunct Silk Road and sites of a similar ilk, Tor is used by journalists and activists in areas like Syria, and by citizens in countries with a viciously fierce firewall, such as China.
Things you should know about the dark web: 1. Here lurk the angler fish of the internet sea. Tor can be an amazing resource, and has probably helped countless activists and freedom fighters, but it’s also an online haven for cyber criminals. 2. It’s not ideal for people in a rush (you wouldn’t use Tor to check the local cinema times for instance). Its complex ‘bouncing’ mechanism makes connections slow and unreliable, while dark websites often change address frequently to avoid detection. 3. Although there are search engines that trawl the deep web, typing ‘aromatic Moroccan hash’ or ‘Egyptian dissident network’ into Deepsearch is unlikely to be successful. The deep and dark webs require a certain prior knowledge of the destination site. 4. Websites such as The Hidden Wiki or TORLINKS largely act as portals—though websites do move around, links are often updated on this page. 5. Dark websites look like this: http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/. Try memorising that. 6. In the months after the public became aware of NSA information hacking, the number of discrete Tor users doubled. The NSA was shown to be trying to retrieve information from Tor, yet one secret presentation sadly entitled ‘Tor Stinks’ came to the conclusion: “We will never be able to de-anonymize all Tor users all the time.” 7. Edward Snowden has a Tor Project sticker on his laptop. n
A SHORT AND DIRECT RO AD B I T C OIN S, T H E N SA , AND TH E DE M ISE O F SIL K RO AD Peter Endicott
ntil a couple of months ago, if Ethan wanted drugs, he would sit at his computer scrolling through a page offering products with paired names: white widow, black frost, grape wreck. By logging on to Silk Road, he could access one of the largest and most notorious marketplaces for drug deals in the world.
as reward for success. The system has produced a widely-used currency, but one that remains unstable. Ethan was cautious about Bitcoins, explaining it was ‘’Silk Road, rather than Bitcoins, that let me get drugs. I try and deal in Bitcoins for as short a period of time, because they fluctuate so much… I’ve seen days where one Bitcoin may be
Five years previously, he would have had to bike down the road with a £20 note and a phone. But his bike had been replaced by a mouse, and his notes by an online cryptocurrency known as the Bitcoin. Anonymous, instantly transferrable, and impossible to counterfeit, Bitcoins became famous for facilitating illicit transactions online.
O ve r time , wo rries over wh e th e r Silk Ro a d itself could su rvive slowly d issipated.
‘’I heard about Silk Road I think on 4chan, like, two years ago. They just basically said the main use is like buying drugs online.’’ Using free software, easily accessible (multiple YouTube videos offered instructions on how to access Silk Road), it became possible to order drugs for delivery through your front door. ‘‘I’ve bought weed, coke, acid, quite a lot of M-bone, which is like a synthetic acid thing, and... shrooms, um, like crystal MDMA and pills... GHB. I’m trying to think... valium.’’ Bitcoins are produced in a process known as ‘mining’, where individuals devote large amounts of their computer’s power to solving mathematical puzzles, with Bitcoins given
£100 one day, and £50 the next, so you lose 50% of what you’ve put in.’’ It seemed to be the difficulties of using Bitcoins, and not the dangers of being caught buying drugs, that worried Silk Road users. Over time, worries over whether Silk Road itself could survive slowly dissipated: ‘‘I always just thought of trying to use it for as long as I could, assuming it would be shut down any minute… But the fact that it’s lasted for so long means I don’t really see why it shouldn’t continue.’’ Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is a Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford. He is quick to disagree about the extent of anonymity that Silk Road provided : ‘‘I think, at least in the medium to long term, as we leave behind traces online, much more so than in the physical world, it [will be]
much easier to track and find people who are involved in these illicit transactions.’’ He cites the use of PRISM, the clandestine electronic data mining program, by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as evidence: ‘‘One of the very interesting outcomes of the PRISM revelations… was that… the DEA is using the results from PRISM more often, if I recall correctly, than the NSA itself. So for the DEA in the US, PRISM is a godsend. Largely because it is very hard for people, even those that try, to not leave behind any traces at all.’’ While drug buyers may face problems in the future, current governments are seeking to come to terms with the growing problem of independent currencies. Professor Mayer-Schönberger sees Bitcoins as part of an evolving history of online currencies: ‘‘In Second Life [an online virtual world launched by Linden Lab, a US-based internet company, in 2003] there was the Linden Dollar. That was used in part for money laundering purposes. A few years back Linden Lab, based on strong pressure from US government agencies, put in stringent controls to stop money laundering on Second Life… [Now] there’s new players coming in, players from different countries… and this is a very fluid game in which quite clearly traditional, conventionally trained law enforcement agents have difficulties accommodating themselves.’’
A Short and Direct Road
In the case of Second Life, the United States Government was able to regulate an online currency through placing real-world pressure on the company in control. Similar cases have been seen in the world of online gambling. An activity illegal in many states in the US, many Americans were able to bypass these laws by placing bets on websites based around the globe. In response, ‘‘What the US did was to amend an act for financial institutions that makes [the institution] liable if they do business with these kind of companies in these kind of countries… and so a gambling company in Costa Rica can’t find a credit card provider that will do business with them.’’ Therefore, while online currencies retain links to the real world, governments may clamp down on the intermediaries that facilitate the real to virtual transition. Bitcoins, however, seem to be amassing the components of independence: an autonomous means of production as well as user-driven marketplaces for the conversion of dollars and pounds. What is perhaps missing is a big enough backer. Professor Mayer-Schönberger sees one possible route to an independent internet currency: ‘‘Imagine Russia, for example, permitting people to
deposit money into Russian accounts… then these Russian financial institutions could issue credit cards with a prepaid value on them, which could then be translated into Bitcoins, and then these could be spent somewhere on the internet. What could the US do in this situation? It could make it illegal for US citizens to transfer any money into these Russian accounts… But probably not pressure Russia to stop doing it.’’
An o nymo u s, in sta nt ly t ransfe rra b le , a n d imp ossible to c o u nte rfe it, Bitc o ins became fa mo u s fo r fa c ilitat ing illicit tra n sa c tio n s online. Ethan’s concerns were more mundane: ‘‘The main drawback with Silk Road is it takes like a week or whatever for everything to come. So if there’s an event that I didn’t know was happening, or whatever, then I’ll just use a normal dealer.’’ However, flames to dust, lovers to friends; all good things come to an end. On the 30th September this year, the FBI announced the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, the man
they believe to be the founder of Silk Road. The website’s servers were claimed, leaving nothing but a seizure message where once there had been images and prices of goods on sale. Following Ulbricht’s detention, the price of Bitcoins plummeted, casting doubt on the latter’s quest for legitimacy and stability. The demise of Silk Road clearly shocked many who had grown to rely on the easy accessibility of drugs. Shock may very well turn to unease: four arrests within the UK have already been announced, with more likely to follow. Ethan’s confidence in the survivability of Silk Road has been proven misplaced; it remains to be seen whether his confidence in online anonymity will last. Although a new website labelled ‘Silk Road 2.0’ has recently been released, doubts have been raised over its owners, and its potential to recapture the success of its predecessor. Intriguingly though, Bitcoins, initially having plummeted in value, have since risen, suggesting that this online currency may still hold significant potential. =
P E T ER TATCHELL B y Pe te r H u hne
never set out to be a public figure, but once you are people will come to you and ask your opinion on anything and everything under the sun, and to accept being in the public gaze you’ve got to be prepared to answer.” Peter Tatchell has done a lot for human rights activism. He has twice
attempted the arrest of Robert Mugabe; was recently beaten and badly injured by Russian police in a gay pride march; and once ambushed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon, in reaction to the Archbishop’s opposition to legal equality for homosexuals. In 1983, he stood as the Labour candidate in a safe Labour seat, Bermondsey, and
lost the by-election, partly because members of the party machine refused to campaign for their openly gay candidate, and partly because the Liberal Simon Hughes ran a homophobic campaign, styling himself as ‘the straight choice’. Tatchell was beaten and spat at in the street, and lived in constant fear.
“Bad things were done, but it’s pointless to be bitter and hold grudges.” When I ask him whether he was particularly aggravated to find out that Hughes was bisexual (something only revealed publicly in 2006) he replies, “I knew all along. But I decided not to resort to those scurrilous tactics. Despite a lot of pressure to do so.” Tatchell’s reputation as the figurehead of good causes means that he has to have a view for every occasion: on Syria and cuts, on activism and feminism, on new turns in the LGBTQ movement, on mental health, and on Western imperialism. Some pressure. I start by asking about the subject closest to home: gay rights. A central figure in British gay liberation, Tatchell cites the motto of the Gay Liberation Front: “Innovate, don’t assimilate” as inspiration. He recently wrote an article on gay marriage despairing of the current movement – which in conversation he calls “mediocre” – for doing precisely what gay liberation movement inveighed against: assimilating. The LGBTQ movement should not be defined by a bourgeois capitalist system. And it should not be defined by the bourgeois capitalist construct of marriage.
for election in 1983. “The best campaigners work both within the system and outside it. To win women’s franchise it was necessary for the suffragettes to go on the outside, challenging and shaking up the system; it was also essential to have the suffragists on the inside, to negotiate with the government and prepare legislation.” Is this true? Even if it were, how can you want to bring down the system if you are constantly showing faith in its ability to adapt? Isn’t there a tension in having a revolutionary and a reformist side? “Yes, that’s why a lot of people find me quite difficult to handle. I straddle both.” I ask him about his stance on foreign affairs. In 2011, Tatchell wrote an article insisting that, while he had been against the invasion of Afghanistan, he was now against withdrawal. Does he still believe this? “Absolutely. It is absolutely wrong to say that for the sake of getting out of Afghanistan we’re prepared to allow the Taliban to come back to power. That would be a betrayal of the Afghani people’s struggle for freedom and justice.” “Betrayal”, “duty to the people”: similar arguments were used by rightwingers like William Buckley for America’s continued presence in Vietnam. If he was against regime change, why is he now in favour of staying? “Because we are in Afghanistan now, [although] we shouldn’t have gone in, [and] the
strategy there is wrong, there’s too much emphasis on war fighting and no solutions, not enough on peacekeeping, economic empowerment, and reconciliation; but since we’re there, we need to make that shift in strategy and then have a phased withdrawal.” I find it impossible to get my head around this: either one insists the war is wrong and opposes invasion, or one supports it on grounds of liberal intervention. To suggest that you can do both seems evasive. Anyway, might not ideas of liberty vary from country to country? “I don’t take the standard left line that non-white people’s rights can be made subservient to a Western anti-imperialist agenda. People the world over deserve the same rights and the same freedom.” This seems like a simplification. And this self-positioning, this repeated insistence that he is difficult to handle, an enigma, distinct from the rest of the Left - can it be helpful in a movement that aims to create solidarity? For all the undoubtable good he has done, I wonder whether he has got this a bit wrong. It isn’t Tatchell’s fault that he’s a figurehead, and it isn’t Tatchell’s fault that people come to him for views on how to change the world. But perhaps, in being so defiantly his own man, he risks isolation. p
Most revolutionaries have no faith in reform: they want to change the whole system. But Tatchell seems more than happy to work with and lobby legislators. After all, he stood
Interviewing Jackson Katz
Interviewing Jackson Katz: Gender Violence – A Man’s Issue? Isabelle Gerretsen
ackson Katz is an American author and lecturer internationally recognised as a pioneer for his work in educating people about gender violence. He is the co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), one of the most widely used gender violence prevention initiatives in university and professional athletics in North America. MVP has been implemented in schools as well as all branches of the US military. Katz lectures around the world on violence, media, and masculinities. 1. Could you tell me something about your background as an antisexism activist? I’ve been involved since my days as an undergraduate student in the early 1980s. I could walk home late at night from parties, but my female dorm mates didn’t have that same freedom. I realized that if I were a woman and had to constantly worry about being assaulted by men, I would be pretty ticked off. I was inspired when I saw women picketing for better lighting on campus, standing up for their rights and dignity. And as a man, I realized I was in a position to do something about this. Also, I got very early on that feminist ideas not only provided a deeply sophisticated critique of Western civilization (and all others), but also contained insights that had enormously positive implications for the lives of men. 2. In your TEDx talk you argued that violence against women and gender discrimination are first and foremost men’s issues. Could you explain your reasoning behind this theory? Let’s talk about rape. Whether the victims are female, in about 90% of cases, or male, in about 10%, the perpetrators of rape are overwhelmingly men, young men, and boys. According to the US government, something like 99% of rape is perpetrated by men. Calling rape a ‘women’s issue’ has the effect of shifting the focus off men—not only off individual perpetrators, but off a male-dominated culture that perpetuates the enormous problem of sexual violence. 3. Some people believe that your argument diminishes the role of feminists by focusing completely on the behaviour and mentality of men. How would you respond to this? I don’t see it that way. In order to reduce violence and increase gender equality, one of the things that needs to happen is to focus on the behaviour and mentality of men and male-dominated institutions. That seems self-ev-
Isabelle Gerretsen ident. This doesn’t in any way diminish the centrality of women in feminist theory or practice, far from it. But I understand some women’s frustration when men say these kinds of things and are heard saying them, while feminist voices are so often dismissed or shouted down. 4. In Oxford last year there was an anti-rape campaign in which posters showed girls who had passed out from drinking too much. The captions read: “Her mum bought her the cider” and “Don’t let a night full of promise turn into a morning full of regret.” There was huge student opposition to these posters as they promote the idea of victim-blaming. Why do you think there is a tendency to focus the attention on the victim rather than the perpetrator? Victim-blaming is the low-hanging fruit. It’s easy to do. It doesn’t involve the difficult work of holding perpetrators accountable—along with the culture that produces them. Women have their own reasons for engaging in victim-blaming. For men, blaming victims has the added bonus of shifting the focus off of us and the role that each of us plays—to one degree or another—in maintaining cultural beliefs and practices that sustain a high degree of sexual objectification of women, sexual harassment, aggression and violence. 5. Girls and women are often labelled victims, while men are usually seen as perpetrators. Do you think this accurately mirrors reality? Do you think the media and advertising industry propagate this view? You have spoken out in the past about male victims of gender violence, how can they receive the necessary attention? In many major categories of violence, men are the primary victims: murder, attempted murder, assault, physical bullying, gay-bashing. It’s important to acknowledge the racial, ethnic and class dimensions to this: in some categories, men of colour are much more likely than white men to be victims. It is critically important to recognize, treat, and advocate for male victims of violence, including sexual violence. But let’s be clear: men are also the primary perpetrators of sexual violence against men. There is some female-to-male perpetration, but it’s nowhere near the rate of male-on-male. The same cultural system that creates so many female victims also creates male victims. There is very little sophisticated coverage or commentary in mainstream media that analyzes the gendered nature of most violence, including (men’s) violence against men. Violent incidents are attributed to degendered factors: poverty, mental illness, alcohol and drug problems, and in the States, guns. It’s as if no one wants to state the obvious: that the primary characteristic linking the vast majority of violent acts is the gender of the perpetrators. Violence is increasingly understood as a public health issue, an approach I generally support as long as improving the public health means critiquing and transforming cultural ideas about masculinity. 6. One of the models you advocate is the bystander approach. Could you explain what this involves? The bystander approach challenges everyone in a peer culture to intervene in abusive situations, and also to support the victims and targets of harassment, abuse, gender violence and bullying. Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), the programme I co-created in Boston in 1993, was the first sexual and domestic violence prevention initiative to focus on bystanders. A key strength of the bystander approach is that it gives people ways to get involved in creating healthier peer cultures and communities. Part of
Interviewing Jackson Katz the power of bystander training for young men is it gives them an opportunity to have honest, interactive dialogues about questions like:
versity. I’ve been doing an increasing amount of talks and training with men in senior positions in the public and private sectors. These men often have significant influence in shaping social norms and expectations. They help define what in the military is referred to as a “command climate”—things like leadership, cohesion, morale and the human relations environment, which includes how people treat each other. And yet many men in positions of political, institutional, and cultural leadership often have minimal training on issues of sexism, sexual violence and bystander intervention. That needs to change. Ultimately, gender violence prevention is a leadership issue, especially for men. We need to make it clear that we expect men at all levels of cultural and political leadership to speak out about violence against women, not because they’re ‘nice guys’ but because they’re leaders and that’s what leaders do. n
What does it mean to be a man? What responsibility do we have not only to women, but to other men, to interrupt sexist abuse—from jokes to assaults? Why do some men challenge their peers when they act inappropriately or abusively, and others remain silent? What are some of the dynamics among groups of men, from boys in high school, to Oxford students, to men in corporate boardrooms, that either contribute to abuses or counteract them? 7. What do you think stops men from challenging male peers who make abusive and degrading statements about women? One of the dirty little secrets in male culture is how many men fear other men, and not just physically. A lot of men are afraid that if they critique or challenge other men’s sexism, they’ll be seen as soft, or weak, or not ‘one of the guys’. There are intense pressures to conform to group norms about manhood. 8. Where does the change need to start? Do political figures need to lead on this? Or should it become a point that is taught in the national curriculum? I think issues related to gender, power and violence should be taught from the earliest grades at age-appropriate levels. At minimum, university graduates should be able to have thoughtful dialogues and debates about a range of issues related to the central role gender plays in human civilization, of course accounting for the intersections of gender with race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class. But this education should not be targeted exclusively at schoolboys or young men (and women) in uni-
Post-Marriage Old & N ew Pat h s for L G BTQ a c t i v i s m Ed Siddons Important theoretical issues and practical problems were effaced in same-sex marriage’s overwhelming media campaign. This article seeks to give a voice to the silenced critiques, and make visible the causes that were lost in the rhetoric of love and equality.
n 17 July 2013 same-sex marriage, having passed through the Commons and Lords with landslide majorities, was given royal assent and written into law. Stonewall rejoiced. Nominally progressive politicians self-congratulated, and the neoliberal Twitterati glutted themselves on emotionally incontinent hashtags. The word ‘history’ tattooed itself on front pages and Facebook walls. The passing of same-sex marriage ushered in a new era of equality. But for whom was the day historic?
For whom was a new era of equality beginning?
Awa re n e ss wa s p recisely wh at th e ma rria g e campaign sip h o n e d of f The answer is not the full LGBTQ* spectrum. Marriage was indeed a final legislative step towards a kind of equality for some. For the most politically important and financially influential tranche of the com-
munity—the white, wealthy, middle-class, gay, cisgendered males and females in stable employment with a long term partner—marriage equality was one of the final legislative barriers to overcome. Stonewall, The Coalition for Equal Marriage and a slew of other queer organisations mobilised the mainstream LGBTQ* community and its allies as few causes in recent years have. Enormous funding was poured into the campaign, and it was made the queer issue in the public eye.
Whether, and why, it should have been accorded such primacy seems to have gone without question in many mainstream LGBTQ* organisations, and by many of the LGBTQ* themselves. But dissent did exist. This was not a universally welcomed move. Even Stonewall, albeit for financial reasons and only briefly, were initially sceptical. On the fringes, important critiques were taking place. **** Against Equality, a radical queer collective, saw same-sex marriage as misguided, overfunded, and an essentially harmful campaign privileging assimilation over liberation. They proposed the notion that same-sex marriage was yet another state manipulation of personal relationships as a means of social regulation. Marriage had historically ensured man’s ownership of woman, and guaranteed enslavement for children born of slaves. For the state, they argued, same-sex marriage was about the extension of control, not a desire to liberate the oppressed. Instead of seeking to undermine hierarchies of socially acceptable sexual behaviour, one of the bases for gender and sexuality-based discrimination, same-sex marriage campaigners were consolidating the emphasis Western society places on (thus far) heteronormative practice. Radical queers of all ages feared that the polyamorous, the single, and the multiple parent families that
had been the staple of many outcast queer communities would be further demonised, this time from within the increasingly normalised and regulated community.
gulfed by the equal marriage campaign. Old and new paths for LGBTQ* activism were being effaced as marriage came to seem like the only issue queers had to fight for.
Queerness, essentially, was being tamed, and in its place a new homonormativity was being installed. Same-sex marriage was going to ensure the placation of the most influential (and least oppressed) on the spectrum. Those most in need would find their allies gone. Queer activism would be demobilised, and wealthy white gays and lesbians depoliticised.
Marriage has functioned as yet another milestone in the historicisation of the queer HIV/AIDS crisis. Never has HIV/AIDS seemed less pressing an issue than during the heady euphoria of marriage equality’s success. It is symptomatic of a wider trend, a generational rift between the old queers and the young. The older generation dealt with the AIDS crisis, with the illegality of homosexuality, and with open and state-sanctioned discrimination; the younger has seen equal adoption rights, (nominally) equal workplace opportunities, civil partnerships and now equal marriage rights. It understandably seeks to dislocate itself from a morbid past.
**** Many will balk at the word ‘homonormativity’ and dismiss the above critique as symptomatic of the world of theory dislocated from grassroots campaigning and practice, but depoliticisation and demobilisation are very real threats, ones that stand to harm the most vulnerable infinitely more than the ivory tower. Theory was trying to fight for those most in need, not simply for the influential backers of LGBTQ* organisations. It was exposing the limited scope of same-sex marriage’s audience within the community, and the conservatism of the thought process behind the movement. Simultaneously, it tried to refocus attention on what it considered more worthy causes. The ongoing AIDS crisis, queer youth homelessness, and queer mental health issues had been en-
Yet the queer HIV/AIDS crisis is far from over. Figures released by the Health Protection Agency in 2010 posited that, nationally, one in twenty men who have sex with men (MSM) are now infected. In London, the figures jumps to one in eleven. To put that figure into context, the proportion of men (including MSM) living with HIV in the UK was estimated to be only 1 in 500. In addition, figures released by Public Health England demonstrated yet more worryingly that infection
In t he r hetor ic of love and equalit y, t he awareness of deat h, discr im inat ion and contagion was silenced.
Ed Siddons rates were on the rise. Amongst MSM nationally, infection rates rose by 8% during 2012. Queers are hugely over-represented in any form of AIDS statistics, particularly queers of colour. Yet aware-
Sa m e - s ex m a rria g e wa s o n l y th e rig ht m ove fo r t he c o n s e rvative a nd th e pr i v i l e g e d in th e c o mmu n ity ness seems shockingly inadequate. An approximated 20% of those infected in the UK currently are unaware that they are HIV-positive. While HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence in Western communities, a life with the side effects of antiretrovirals can still be crippling, particularly when compounded by intense social stigma. In the rhetoric of love and equality, the awareness of death, discrimination and contagion was silenced. If same-sex marriage can severely detract from queer activism’s focus on HIV/AIDS, it stands to reason that it might do the same to lesserknown issues too. Youth homelessness and mental health issues are social ills in which queers are disproportionately represented. The media attention they receive is negligible. And when competing against a cause as uplifting as samesex marriage, they cannot help but be eclipsed. In the UK, it is estimated that 7% of homeless youth are LGBTQ*, while
only 1.5% of the population are LGB (Office for National Statistics’ Integrated Housing Survey). This survey was limited in scope, and more comprehensive studies in the US estimate that between 25 and 42% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ*. The same study went on to show that 58.7% of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized, compared to 33.4% of heterosexual homeless youth (National Coalition for the Homeless), and that queer homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%). Among the non-homeless LGBTQ* we find markedly increased rates of mental health illness too. 53 per cent of under-24-year-olds had thought seriously about suicide. 19 per cent of under-24-year-olds had been prescribed medication for depression in the previous 12 months. To those living with HIV, to homeless queer youth, and to those suffering with mental health issues, same-sex marriage was not the panacea required. Awareness is a primary issue with all three of these threats to the queer community, and awareness was precisely what the marriage campaign siphoned off. **** The chance to make history is appealing. The symbolism of same-sex marriage was intoxicating. It was the perfect cause to pique public interest: it was about love; it was about family; it was about equality. It had the financial backing to
ensure exposure and success. And it led to a definite, achievable goal that guaranteed a feeling of gratification for all those campaigning, queer or otherwise. HIV/AIDS, homelessness and mental health issues will not be eradicated, in the foreseeable future at least. Campaigners campaign in the knowledge that they will never triumph completely; they do not have same-sex marriage’s light at the end of the tunnel. They will, at best, enjoy incremental progress, but work in the knowledge that they are helping those most in need. It is to these causes that activism must return. Same-sex marriage has exposed a worrying trend: a desire to chase the historical moments and the great leaps forward. While these lynchpin events are too often what history hangs on, they are rarely of equal significance for the minority groups living under oppressive societies. LGBTQ* activism must re-evaluate its goals, and reorient its funds towards helping the most vulnerable within its community. Instant gratification should be eschewed for longer term progress. It must not silence its radical voices, and should question the philosophy behind its activism at every turn. Same-sex marriage was only the right move for the conservative and the privileged in the community. It was not the step forward the queers more broadly needed.=
Both Timid and Tough
Both Timid and Tough: The Fa’afafine Samoa’s Third Gender Beth Timmins
“Some have long ears like those of Martians, some have tails, some too have legs like the corner posts of big buildings in Samoa.” Speaking at the thirtieth annual pageant held by the Samoan Fa’afafine Association (SFA), this is how the country’s Prime Minister described Samoan culture’s ‘third gender’ - the group of people neither male, nor female, but Fa’afafine. The history of the Fa’afafine is unclear, but has been shown to predate colonial Christian conversion. The Fa’afafine do not struggle between two dichotomous gender identities, but instead occupy a separate category
People’s par k is st ill a campsite; it is also st ill a bat t leground
between male and female. In the words of Hazy Pau Talauatu, “When I was young, my parents looked at me and the way I am… and they [thought], ‘Oh Hazy, she must be not a boy, but something else.’ And then… they really accepted me. They understood what I am, in my body.” Similar gender roles are present in
Both Timid and Tough surrounding communities: they call them Mahu in Hawai’i, Akavahine in the Cook Islands and Fakaleti in Tonga. At the SFA annual pageant, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Maliglegaoi described the Fa’afafine as a “shining example of the glorious miracles and creations of our Lord”. Samoa is a Christian country, yet reconciling the existence of the Fa’afafine with Christianity (a faith not always accomodating of gender variance) does not seem to be a problem. Fa’afafine regularly attend church in gender variant clothing. Jaiyah Salua is a professional footballer who made history in November 2011 as the first Fa’afafine (and therefore, in FIFA’s terminology, transgender) person to play international football. “It hadn’t dawned on me that I was the first transgender person to play in an official FIFA match until we had won against Tonga and a few reporters rushed to me for interviews!” Working in a characteristically masculine environment, Jayiah says that the integral aspect of his experience has been: “the feeling of acceptance, protection and encouragement I receive from my teammates... My brothers! Without them I would not have had the courage to play.”
“ W hen I wa s you n g , my p a re nts lo o ke d at m e a n d th e way I am … a n d th ey [th ou g ht], ‘O h Haz y, s h e m u s t b e n ot a b oy, bu t s om e th in g e l s e .’”
The Tuilagi brothers, six of whom are professional rugby players, have competed for Samoa in the Rugby Union World Cup, as well as in UK rugby league teams. They are from the Leicester suburb of Thorpe Astley. Olotuli, the biggest of the brothers, is a Fa’afafine. Fereti, who plays for St. Helen’s rugby league team, says that Olotuli “wears a
dress and make-up and if he walks around Leicester, everyone looks at him, thinking, ‘Is this a man or a woman?’ But in Samoa it’s normal, there is no prejudice.” A 2007 National Geographic documentary entitled ‘Sexual Identity’ explains the Fa’afafine’s acceptance in Samoan society by reference to the family and notions of group belonging. The importance of the family in Samoa is such that a person’s “role in the group defines your identity more than individual anatomy”. The documentary suggests that the Fa’afafine are accepted because of their useful role in household labour: that Fa’afafine are raised whenever there are not enough women to carry out the domestic chores in the family. Jayiah argues that the National Geographic misunderstood how someone becomes a Fa’afafine. “[They] stated that parents ‘pick a male in their families to nurture as a female so that they may grow to be a Fa’afafine.’ False! No such actions are ever practised. The truth is, when parents realise that one of their sons has more feminine intuitions than masculine, they embrace that aspect of their son and raise him to be both timid and tough.” Fa’afafine perform the everyday cleaning chores which are traditionally female tasks in Samoa, while also doing traditional male work, such as collecting and carrying bananas. Hazy argues: “The Fa’afafine can help the mother [by] doing the same job… and they can do the men’s job as well. I think that’s why the Fa’afafine here are so popular, because they are hardworking.” However, the picture of a healthily integrated transgender community is not entirely accurate. Antiquated laws from the era of British and New Zealand government control, although not enforced, discriminate against the Fa’afafine. And sexual relations between males are still
outlawed. In recent years, international governments have pressured Polynesian countries to alter these laws. At the Universal Periodic Review (a review of the human rights records of all UN member states) Slovenia, Spain, Norway, Canada, the UK and France urged the Solomon Islands, Western Samoa and Papua New Guinea to decriminalise homosexuality. The United States appealed
Fa’afaf ine regular ly at tend church in gender var iant clot hing, for American Samoa to reconsider its “laws that restrict the human rights of individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and repeal all such laws”. Yet Roger Stanley, President of the SFA, says that issues such as gay marriage are “the least of [our] concerns”. The Fa’afafine, he explains, “are very much part of the society, so it’s a matter of us trying to stick to that way, and I think we are far much better off this way than supporting the case of gay marriage. Having gay marriage around… won’t change anything for Fa’afafine.” The attitude of the Fa’afafine is summed up in the local saying “fa’ale-popoi”, roughly translated as “not caring”. It is this freedom not to care about gender variance that psychologists are investigating in order to better understand cases of Western gender dysphoria, showing how other societies can learn from the treatment of the Fa’afafine. “I want to make this known,” says Jayiah, “The word Fa’afafine comes from a much higher… understanding for transgender people than… the [Western] word ‘transgender’. My culture and traditions make the Fa’afafine unique.” p
“This is the first time in 40 years that it’s felt like something’s coming back” A Roundtable Discussion on Feminism, Spare Rib to Present Written by Charlotte Sykes ISIS brought together the editors of various Oxford feminist magazines and the student union’s vice-president for women to discuss the surge of interest in feminism in British universities. Alongside, we invited Rosie Boycott, co-founder of the iconic second-wave feminist magazine Spare Rib, to comment on recent developments and discuss the climate in which Spare Rib was founded.1 We compare approaches to feminism from era to era, and discuss how the themes and objectives have changed.
the counterculture was a wonderful muddle of lots of different ideas, which would range from anything like nobody should drink alcohol, we should all smoke dope, through to supporting the IRA and Chairman Mao. But what became clear was that men were getting to live this alternative life, while all that was changing for women was that they were meant to have more sex. And we were still the secretaries, we were still typing away and making tea.
Rosie Boycott: Co-founder, Spare Rib Sarah Pine: Vice-President (Women), Oxford University Student Union Simone Webb: Co-editor, WomCam Zine Charlotte Sykes: Current Editor, Cuntry Living, Deputy Editor ISIS Alice Figes: Former Editor, Cuntry Living Daisy Fletcher: Former Editor, Cuntry Living, ISIS Editor Violet Brand: ISIS Editor
Feminism is such a complicated issue. How far is it a socialist issue, how far is it about extra privilege for women at the top? There’s a part of me that thinks that the gains that feminism has made in 40 years have been primarily for those at the top of the tree. What you get in the newspapers is: “New glass ceiling broken”. But the realities of 1.6 women a week murdered in domestic violence, figure not changed, women’s refuges – the first one was started by Erin Pizzey just at the same time Spare Rib was set up, and there’s still not enough of them and they get closed down. Women still end up stuck at home looking after the kids, on no money. There is no childcare unless you’ve got money. There are a lot of issues. This is the first time in 40 years that it’s felt
RB: Spare Rib had a great deal to do with its time. I was 20 and I wanted a different world. So I got myself very involved in counterculture. And 1 Spare Rib was first published in June 1972.
like something’s coming back. DF: So how has feminism changed? SP: One thing that I find very interesting about current feminist activism in this university is that there seems to be a narrative about assimilation. The very successful whiteboard campaign that ran last year projected a narrative that anyone can be a feminist, you just have to believe that women and men are equal. But I think that can be quite frustrating: for me, being a feminist
Men have a 10% higher rate of graduate employment six months after leaving Oxford than women. means committing to some broader principles. You brought up cost of childcare; as a feminist, I strongly believe that for women’s liberation, we need some critical attitudes towards capitalism. VB: What does everyone feel the agenda of contemporary feminism in universities is? SW: The buzzword seems to be intersectionality.
A Roundtable Discussion on Feminism AF: Victim blaming, sexual harassment. SP: In Oxford, definitely. We seem to be less concerned with equal pay and graduate employment prospects, even though there’s a massive discrepancy there: men have a 10% higher rate of graduate employment six months after leaving Oxford than women. People care more about victim blaming, sexual harassment and ‘lad culture’ - interesectionality playing a big part in critiques of lad culture as it’s so homophobic. VB: Daisy and Alice, what were your experiences of editing the student feminist zine Cuntry Living? Having to set an agenda and also having to deal with the backlash? AF: That was a huge problem with Cuntry Living. The problem is that people unknowingly uphold misogyny in a number of different
If you’re not angry a bit, nothing happens. ways, but would never see themselves as part of the problem, they might even identify as a ‘liberal’ or whatever that means today. As an organization trying to get the fem-
inist conversation going again, it’s alienating to call these people out, crushing their idea of themselves as innocent bystanders to this massive problem. It’s alienating, and it’s also counter productive, elitist and potentially patronising. For us, as editors, the question was: should you always be radical in this context, or should one present a ‘softer’ feminism to allow debate to start in the first place? SP: There’s a debate there: there can be wonderful feminist literature that’s made for people who already agree, and have already bought into feminism, and then there’s some stuff that’s very good at convincing people. It just depends on whether you’re writing for people who aren’t already feminists, or if you’re writing for your sisters and allies. SW: It can be overemphasised how much a radical line can alienate people. Having seen people being angry about white privilege or cisprivilege online, although I instinctively reacted with the sentiment that it’s not my fault that racism exists, I came to really understand the implications of my privilege. Seeing how much anger those things cause made me realise how important they are.
AF: The flip side of this is that people project so much anger onto feminists. RB: I think that women are perhaps afraid of being angry, especially that men will use it as a put-down. But you have to be angry, you should embrace it. If you’re not angry a bit, nothing happens. Anger is great, but our upbringings stifle that. DF: I think there’s a history perceiving men’s anger as acceptable and to do with power, whereas women’s anger is more associated with the hysterical mad woman in the attic, or PMS. And so anger in a woman is seen as a hormonal irregularity rather than legitimate. RB: That has not changed. Not at all. **** SW: One thing I found really interesting was the reaction to how boys are performing less well than girls in A-levels. People are jumping over themselves to say that this is because the exam system is feminised, that they aren’t testing what boys are good at. But if there’s inequality in jobs or exams for women, the reaction is generally that women are just not as good as men at those
tasks, or that their choices have hindered them. No one has ever said with men that maybe they’re just not as good at exams as women. DF: Sarah, have you done any research into the Finals gap in Humanities subjects? SP: Well for instance, you are 1.6% more likely to get a first if you’re a man in PPE: about 32% of men get firsts versus around 25% of women. The gap is bigger in the Humanities subjects than in the Sciences. The only currently promising lead [towards explanation] is ‘expectation of first’ or academic self-worth. Academic confidence seems to drop quite abruptly in women in their first year; shortly after arriving at Oxford, they tend to suddenly think of themselves as less academically successful, less good at their subject, worse than the people around them. Men don’t seem to suffer this as much. SP: It definitely seems that there’s something about the structure, the people, the culture, that encourages women to think less of themselves. In my opinion, that comes from lots of nebulous places. When you go anywhere, there are around thirty pictures of white men on the walls, while there are no role models for women. In PPE, there are very few role models; in my experience wom-
en academics tend to be on the one year, three year teaching contracts. Men tend to have fellowships. The
One in four women is sexually assaulted during their university career. tutorials tend to be quite antagonistic, and from a young age we praise combative discourse in men, but in women frame that as angry or irrational. **** DF: The term ‘banter’ is a synecdoche for the problems with lad culture, because it describes a comment that is probably quite offensive, but is clouded in a joke, so there’s nothing you can do about it, and no easy way to react. What can we do about the idea of feminism being a joke, and lad culture laughing at feminism? SP: Well my experience of lad culture is that it tends to be framed in humour or irony in a way that’s not funny or ironic. People perform misogyny, but position themselves as saying: “But we’re more intelligent than that. Because we go to Oxford we know that this is bad, but we’re going to do it anyway. And that’s ironic.” But it’s not done in a way
that’s disowning, or critical of the behaviour, because it constructs a social space and a social dynamic where one has to reproduce misogyny, or homophobia, or racism, to take part. **** SP: One in four women is sexually assaulted during their university career. Feminists get criticised because we all think men are rapists. That’s obviously not true. It’s rapists that think that all men are rapists, because they have their behaviour legitimised, and confirmed and affirmed by the men around them, so they don’t think it’s wrong, and they don’t realise what they’re doing is rape. VB: Rosie, what’s your reaction to all this? RB: I’m shocked about the sexual violence. In a naïve way I thought it was probably better. What frightens me is that a lot of these boys had working mums. I suppose my belief was that impact of a working mum on a boy was going to change the way that boy grew up into a man, and therefore saw the role of women. And what you’re saying is that they’re not seeing it. This misogyny is being repackaged for a new era. ****
A Roundtable Discussion on Feminism Roundtable VB: We need to discuss audiences for all of these publications. You’ve got Cuntry Living, Spare Rib, the Womcam Zine and It Happens Here.2 We’ve already touched on whether your message is for your fellow feminists or to convince people. What was Spare Rib trying to do? RB: In the end it was aimed at a group of women who were trying to find their voice. We were in a different climate: women then were very isolated, they tended not to talk to each other, they tended to be at home with their children indoors. There tended to be no place to put your sense of frustration about your career or your life as a mother or wife. We just wanted to unify and give confidence to that group of women, which we believed was large. And it was large.
Women then were very isolated, they tended to be at home with their children indoors. VB: I want to draw a contrast between magazine-based feminism and internet-based feminism. The openness of the internet seems to allow women from different contexts to speak out - and also facilitates intersectionality. It gives feminism a much more broad, inclusive and richer texture. But does that make it more difficult to unify and have a coherent set of demands? Magazines have the opposite problem. When you are editing a magazine, you are necessarily narrowing. How do you choose to narrow in a way that’s inclusive? SW: I’m not sure it’s fair to say that feminism has to have a coherent set of demands. VB: But even in the university context? In a very small context? Would
it then be possible to have a unified voice? RB: I think it’s quite important. There are far too many voices to try and shoehorn everybody into one thing, but there are big universal truths. And in fact, the culture that allows for this ‘lad culture’ to thrive seems to be a huge deal. Has it been influenced by porn, has it been influenced by the lads’ mags, where is this coming from? It’s very shocking to someone like me that Oxford today is still in that. I think that should be shouted about. SW: I agree, but I think a problem with trying to expect a unified voice is the question of whose voice does it end up being? Is it going to be the white middle-class cis-gendered non-sex-worker woman? SP: How much was Spare Rib a white, middle class team? RB: It was middle class. But we did write quite a lot about working class women. It was that, but it wasn’t so much of an issue, because there was no one else to do it. It seems me it doesn’t matter who you are, you could be gay, black, white, a transvestite from New South Wales, you can take that point and hammer it. What matters is the culture that’s created misogyny. Everyone lives within that umbrella. SW: But for instance, transphobia largely comes from a belief in biological essentialism - that women are defined by their wombs or their genitals. So if you tackle the roots of transphobia, that would make things better for all women, as it means that they’re less likely to be defined by their reproductive capacities. RB: But you won’t take as many people along with you.
2 It Happens Here is a zine containing stories of sexual violence at the university.
SW: Yet I think we’ve accidentally concluded with the idea that we’re the ones doing the feminism, and that there are other voices that need to be included, when in fact there are many trans* feminists doing their own feminism. We aren’t the guardians of feminism, and we shouldn’t try to speak for other women. n
Wh o’s th e Fa ire st o f th e m All? T h e wo r l d’s g rowing a ppet ite for skin bl ea c hing Sophie McManus
kin is serious business. The global market of beauty products promising to lighten skin tone is worth $13 billion per annum. Japan spends the most, India has the largest market, while Nigeria boasts the highest percentage of consumers within its population. For hundreds
of millions of people, the twin aspirations of beauty and affluence are tied to the prospect of a fair complexion. This association is derived from tradition—the wealthy have never toiled under sun-drenched fields,
after all—as well as the contemporary cultural influence of the West. The phenomenon is particularly apparent in South Asia: Hollywood has inspired Bollywood and sister industries above and beyond the genre of the insipid romantic comedy. The most popular Bollywood
Who’s the fairest of them all?
actresses share many characteristics, but perhaps most universally, they are pale. Marketing for such products is not reserved for the visible parts of the body. Last year a new ‘Clean and Dry Intimate Wash’ was launched, promising women ‘fairer’ genitals. The television advertisement shows a disillusioned man first ignoring and then enthusiastically embracing his wife, after she has used the cream. As columnist Laskhmi Chaudry put it, “The campaign to eliminate the scourge of darkness has extended to every nook and cranny of a woman’s body.” It seems a fair and lovely face is not enough. The bleaching products can cause serious physical damage. Some compounds essential to the process may be carcinogenic, for example hydroquinone. Mercury, a popular addition to some skin lightening products, blocks melanin production. It’s perfect for a milk-white face. But will probably kill you. The British Skin Foundation urges people to avoid the products: “Contrary to what their name implies, some of the possible side effects include permanent darkening of the skin… The emotional upset this kind of disfigurement can cause is as significant as the health implications.” Indeed, the pressure to conform to the ideal of beauty as pale leaves some women with lowered self-esteem, even before we consider the possibility that their efforts could cause the dreaded ‘darker patches’. In societies which place great emphasis on the importance of ‘a good marriage’, possessing a less-than ‘ideal’ skin colour is a major worry. This is particularly true in rural India, where a pale girl has significantly better marital prospects. Her
social status is increased: the higher the caste, the fairer the skin tone, and the greater the degree of nobility. Within a society in which a girl is often still considered a burden on the family, such a strict definition of beauty means a great deal. And skin bleaching is by no means confined to women; products targeted at men are marketed more than ever under the theory that lighter skin brightens job prospects. Light skin signifies more than a dislike of the great outdoors, since it’s also considered fashionable, glamorous, and clean. This offers an interesting contrast to the tanning mania in the West. Is an obsession with skin whitening any more insidious than our own manipulation of skin colour? All beauty products sell an air of novelty, whether a paler face under hot sun or a ‘healthy tan’ during an English winter. “Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer—so what’s the problem?” So argues the ‘Clean and Dry’ adver-
tisement director. The difference can perhaps best be illustrated by the widespread view in Asia that dark skin is ugly— something to be corrected. A traditional Chinese saying on the subject translates as “one white covers up three ugliness”. Even the UK’s pushiest tanning adverts don’t actually suggest pale skin is an aberration. But whether the popularity of skin-lightening products seems sinister, or merely slightly bizarre, the climb in sales shows no sign of slowing. Skin lightening may not be as obviously monstrous as female genital mutilation or the old Chinese practice of foot-binding. But the potential for physical harm, as well as the emphasis on white skin as a badge of honour, mean that this particular beauty industry sits oddly with today’s vision of a world no longer tainted by racism. The affluent Western world’s perceived glamour has a lot to answer for. =
Bethany Rose Lamont
Ragini Nag R ao Fa s hi on , q u eer ness, a nd postco lo nia l id e nt it y Bethany Rose Lamont
Th e ‘fa tshion’ blo gger talks ab ou t dre s s and ide nt it y , a n d how to say fuck yo u to pe opl e wh o don’t like it .
he picturebook pages of Ragini Nag Rao’s fashion blog ‘A Curious Fancy’ serve as a gentle reminder of all the unexpected gifts the Internet has brought us. Describing herself as a “grown, fat, brown woman dressed as a white kid”, Rao’s style is a combination of postcolonial time travel, Mr Benn bowler hats and Enid Blyton school uniforms.
and Grazia for her contribution to the ‘fatshion’ blogging community. Through her writing, she has encouraged fellow fat girls to wear skintight body suits and cute booty shorts. Publicly fat, publicly female, publicly brown: her theatrical style challenges the old, ugly doctrine of ‘no one wants to see that’. It is a powerful example of how to subvert through mimicry.
Born and based in her hometown of Kolkata, India, Rao first attracted the attention of publications such as The Guardian, The New York Times
**** The act of dressing up allows us to rewrite stories, both in public history and personal memory.
What stories do your clothes tell? People tend to entirely discount fashion and the act of dressing, claiming that it’s frivolous and then, of course, linking it to being female. The thing is, as you rightly say, dressing up does tell a story. The first time anyone sees you, they can’t see into your mind - they observe your appearance. There is such a lot of baggage tied in with how I choose to present myself, being a fat, brown woman.
Ragini Nag Rao I feel an obligation to ‘uphold’ my race, as many people of color do when it comes to their appearance. The same goes for being fat. But like with any other obligation in my life, I tend to shake it off a lot of the time as well, because I don’t deal well with obligations. As a result, my natural state is in my pajamas, entirely makeup free. When I do dress up, I do it as a confidence boost. Dressing up in little girl clothes feeds my childhood desire for [them] and ties me in with the history of people of colour appropriating ‘Western’ clothes... sartori-
Wi t ho u t fe m in is m , I wo u ld still be la b o u rin g u n d e r th e b e lie f t hat b e c a u s e o f my in a b ility to ‘ bag ’ a m a n , I a m a fa ilu re . ally speaking, my closest relations would be the Herero women of Namibia in their elaborate Victorian dresses. When I go out dressed the way I do, I’m an anomaly. I love being an anomaly, as much in my hometown of Kolkata, as in York where I lived for a few years. In Kolkata, I’m overly large and strangely dressed, an object of much public amusement.
In York I was merely strangely dressed in a sea of people clad in black and beige. Can you explain the importance of femme identity 1 as both a fat person and a woman of colour? In being femme, I am constantly straddling the fence between being degendered as a fat woman, while being hypersexualized as a brown one. My size is seen as a neutering factor, but at the same time, brown women are wanton, hypersexual creatures - unless, of course, they are shy and submissive with a hidden perverted streak that’s just aching to be let out. The way I dress is deliberately nonsexual in its infantility yet sexualised because I prefer very high hemlines. My aim is to confuse, to provoke and break the rules of asexuality or hypersexuality that are imposed on me. I’ll go out in a short dress with a scowl firmly fixed on my face that says fuck you because I don’t care for the feminine accessibility that is imposed on me. Feminine is subdued, submissive and eternally accessible; femme will dance on your corpse in stack heel boots because femme gives no fucks. I think that is what, for me at least, lies at the heart of being femme - as a fat, brown woman, I live with the burden of expectations to constantly be pleasing, to seek approval, which is something I did for a long time before discovering the glorious world of femmeness . You have frequently spoken of India’s hatred for fat women. Can you explain this for those unfamiliar with Indian beauty standards? The first thing to understand about 1 A model of personal presentation which involves reapplying and reinterpreting the existing language of ‘feminine’ identity through a queer lens.
My aim is to conf use, to provoke and break t he r ules of asexualit y or hypersexualit y t hat are im posed on m e. I’ll go out in a shor t dress wit h a scowl f ir m ly f ixed on my face t hat says f uck you because I don’t care for t he fem inine accessibilit y t hat is im posed on me.
India is that it is a violently misogynist nation. Women in India are prized on two things - looks and submissiveness. Women truly are the second-class citizens of India, along with trans* people. Yes, we can demand education and yes, we have the right to vote; but in a country where female infanticide and foeticide are widespread, the question is, will you remain alive long enough to demand or access those things? Indian beauty standards are tailored on the basis of internalised racism and a particular sort of fatphobia that ties in with misogyny and from which men, to a large extent, are exempt. We value compactness in a woman because that makes women easier to assault, and we value “fair” skin because of our internalised racism. Women are wives and mothers and have few other socially sanctioned roles to play. You identify as a feminist, why?
Bethany Rose Lamont I identify as a feminist because of the freedom it provides me: because it hands over the reins of control over my own self to me. Without feminism, I would still be labouring under the belief that because of my inability to “bag” a man, I am a failure. Feminism gave me an ‘out’ from that nightmare I would otherwise have been forced to live; feminism through its facet of fat activism helped me live comfortably in my body. And lastly, the kind of feminism I subscribe to advocates equality for every single person who has ever been a victim of institutionalized oppression. As a fat, queer brown woman with an invisible disability, how could I not get on board with that? So many women of colour have been robbed of our childhoods. How can we create a space for us to reclaim our innocence? Somewhere for us to be pretty and silly, cute and playful, and all those other things that seem to be the exclusive territory of white women? Identity is a performance, lives lived are a performance. Innocence is regarded as the performative domain of white women, and the way for us, women of colour, to reclaim our innocence, is to perform it as loudly and as publicly as we can. The image of the skinny white girl standing brokenly in a field in half light, wearing a vintage dress and looking utterly forlorn, needs to be replaced. Innocence is a space which will never be freely granted and we have to fight to reclaim it. We need to put our images out there for the world to see, to peruse, to reject over and over again, but the luxury of giving up the fight is not something which women of colour, or any marginalized group has. In performing innocence, we need to paradoxically be unabashed, we need to be brazen. It is only then that I can see us clearing a space to explore our innocence freely, as unselfconsciously as we should have been able to in the first place. p
A roundta bl e disc ussi on b e t we e n C hi n e se ci ti z e n s at Oxfo rd
M ov i n g o u t Wes t
Moving out West
Xianglin Meng, Chun Peng, Youlin Yang, Yulin Zhang & Jiayu Yang written by Peter Endicott & Violet Brand Students from China make up the fourth largest national group at Oxford, yet, as a group, are relatively underrepresented in the universityâ€™s newspapers and politics. What sort of barriers do Chinese students encounter? Is the university sufficiently welcoming? And what are the attractions of an international education for Chinese citizens? Here, five students from mainland China discuss what brought them to Oxford, student culture in Britain, the nature of politics, and whether to return home.
PE: Do you think there are good job opportunities in China to go back to? Would you look into them?
For m any st udent s I t hink exper ience in a foreign land is t reated as a bargaining chip
Yulin Zhang: DPhil Biochemistry student Chun Peng: DPhil Law student Xianglin Meng: An undergraduate studying Maths Youlin Yuan: An undergraduate studying PPE Jiayu Yang: An undergraduate studying Chemistry Peter Endicott: ISIS Sub-editor Violet Brand: ISIS Editor CP: Our president just recently gave a speech to the association of Chinese students who study abroad. He said that after the opening up reforms in 1978, 2.69
million Chinese students went abroad to study. Only 1.07 million came back. But after 2008, the proportions began to reverse. More Chinese students abroad chose to return to China.
CP: At the end of the day I think it depends on what China does. How, and to what extent, does it open up - so that people can feel secure and that itâ€™s promising to go back? At the moment, many of the upper-middle class migrate to other countries. YZ: From where I stand, this big upper-middle class ex-
Peter Endicott & Violet Brand odus isn’t really true. They themselves are based in China proper for business and other reasons, living overseas is temporary. CP: Yes. They move overseas primarily for education and living. XM: Personally I really want to go back to China maybe when I’m about 30 or so. I grew up in China, I have strong roots in China, and I really want to contribute to my own country. Even though I want to stay a bit longer abroad as I believe I won’t want to go abroad again if I return to China. The cultural shock [of moving to the West] is a big problem to deal with, so once I’m back I would want to stay. YZ: For many students I think experience in a foreign land is treated … as a bargaining chip; when we go back to China, we can show off to Chinese firms that we can perform in foreign countries. CP: He’s being very frank, but that’s the case. A job overseas says something about you. A not very appropriate example is the Korean star, Psy. He’s not very popular in Korea at all initially, but he first became famous in the West and then got popular back home. It’s a strange cultural phenomenon how, in Asia there’s a stereotype that if you can do well overseas it says something about you. “I can be popular in the West, so I can be even more popular in my country.” CP: I mean basically I would say Chinese people culturally succumbed 150 years ago. YZ: They just defeated us. CP: Basically this huge empire (China) was defeated by a small island country (Britain) thousands of miles away. We came to realise that it was not just about superior technology, about the trains, the boats, the cars. It’s about the system. The legal and political system. About the culture. After that basically we were not confident in ourselves. So that explains why we have to have a period of time studying abroad to prove that Chinese can perform, can think. I think it’s very tragic, it’s a shame. One hundred years ago another very famous Chinese overseas student said: “Don’t think it is a glory if you can study abroad, it is a shame.” YY: I think that my generation is quite idealistic, especially the environment that I live in in Shanghai, growing up after the reform movement, in relatively well-off material conditions. I want to stay abroad because I want to stay abroad. I don’t really think too much about these historical things. I still have an emotional attachment to China. Not nec-
essarily the government, but the nation. YZ: It’s a really big investment for families to send us to foreign lands, to receive education. There’s this sense that, before we get back, we need to get the most out of it.
**** VB: Would each of you like to speak about any cultural barriers you’ve encountered? JY: When I came to Oxford there was a short period when I wasn’t so comfortable to talk to British students. It was too different. During tutorials, my tute partner was very expressive, stating his views very strongly. He was from a boy’s school. So people there are naturally quite competitive. I’m kind of quiet, so I didn’t enjoy it so much.
I st ill have an emot ional at tachm ent to C hina. Not necessar ily t he gover nment , but t he nat ion. YZ: Something I encountered that was difficult was the strong drinking culture that I think is universal in most areas of Britain. I gave up drinking, so that was a little bit of an obstacle to mingling with everyone. I think the first three months can be described as a barrier. After that it evolves very quickly. CP: For the whole of my first year here I basically didn’t understand what was going on in class. I was confident in my English language ability before I came here, but then… I could listen to individual words, but I just couldn’t understand sentences. I’m a bit more familiar now with Britain, but I can’t say I know Britain very well. XM: American culture is more dominant in China than British culture. So in most cases when you hear English it’s American English. When I got here I couldn’t understand what people were talking about and I thought “Oh my god, is my English that bad?” Now I don’t force myself to make friends with everyone I meet. I think less about my identity as an Asian person - as I call it, invisible racism. I used to be quite judgmental that when I looked at someone, if they were Chinese it would be easier to chat with them. Now I try and focus on the individual. What are your habits? Are you kind? Can we be friends? It’s on a more personal level instead of Oriental versus Western.
CP: Normally once a year.
CP: Apparently there was a postdoc from Hong Kong who was mistaken to be from China. One law professor said [to the postdoc], “China doesn’t have any law, so why are you studying it?” To this day there is no speciality in this university to study Chinese law, whereas in the US many universities have specific centres for Chinese legal studies. I think Britain’s still many steps behind the US. I wouldn’t say it’s racism, but ignorance. Not knowing what’s going on.
YY: Once or twice a year. YZ: Twice. JY: It was hard, for the first year or two years. CP: I get used to it. I left my family ten years ago. YZ: Also family members and people can come and visit if they have the financial capability.
YZ: Maybe a better word is Western-centric. **** CP: Yes. YY: I think Western-centrism does apply to the PPE course. In the first year we do the US, then England, France and Germany. I think the other thing is in politics tutorials we focus a lot on the critiques of liberalism and multiculturalism. I wouldn’t say it is too biased, but [some say] the first year politics course is very biased towards democratic systems. **** PE: Is there a cohesive Chinese citizens’ student group in Oxford? CP: Not very cohesive I guess, we have several associations with many members. It’s not a large-scale cohesive body. There’s no cause for us to unite together as Chinese students. We’re from different localities, different ages, family backgrounds… We speak different languages! YY: I think the undergraduate population is probably a little more cohesive than the graduate population. Maybe it’s because you have more free time.
T here’s n o c a u s e fo r u s to u n ite to g e th e r a s C hi nes e s tu d e nts . We’re fro m d iffe re nt lo c a lit i es, d if fe re nt a g e s , fa mily b a c k g ro u n d s… We s p e a k d if fe re nt la n g u a g e s!
PE: Do you think there needs to be specific support for international students? Is there effective support when people need it? YZ: I think OUSU is responsible for this. There’s an international student campaign in OUSU that I’m helping out with nowadays. So I think with a growing number of international students there’s a growing need to take care of them, for more measures to protect their rights, to increase the support for welfare, academic performance. I think it is getting more and more developed. But there is space to improve. YY: One of the questions you asked is why Chinese students have a low representation in University politics. It’s just because the concept of a campaign is so foreign to the Chinese. We don’t have this history of representation in student politics. Just establishing a campaign in OUSU might not work. You really have to reach out. I think the international population in OUSU is dominated by Americans, who I think have an awareness of [how to run] very aggressive [political] campaigns. Whereas the Chinese I think do not have a strong sense. CP: We have elections in schools and universities, but those who run explicit campaigns would be despised, looked down on. Chinese culture just isn’t very comfortable with open campaigns. So to say that ‘You have to tell us what kind of services you need!’ - that’s very strange to us, you know? Why should I tell you? YY: Yeah, it gets people scared.
YZ: I think it’s pretty unique in Oxford that we have so many Chinese-based societies. Doing undergraduate in UCL, there was only one association. Because Oxford has a long history of overseas students coming from China compared to other institutions, I feel we are more diversified.
CP: I know! If I have troubles, I can talk to my friends. There seems no need to talk to someone I don’t know. We see campaigning somewhat self-serving. To add another contemporary reason for this distaste, we’ve been through too many campaigns in our lifetime. Political campaigns.
PE: Just a small question on the side. How often do you guys go back home to China in a year?
YZ: They are stages so we don’t want to take part. It’s better to keep a low profile. Even though I work with
Peter Endicott & Violet Brand OUSU I like to keep a low profile. PE: Would you see this as an insurmountable problem for OUSU in providing support to Chinese nationality students? YZ: We have meetings for these things. There are people who are challenging this. Another advantage is there are British-born Chinese or Chinese born in other countries. There are other people who are born in such a cultural atmosphere who are comfortable with campaigning who could campaign for us students. They can do service on behalf of us I think. I don’t know. That’s a possibility.
Po li t i c s in C h in a is n ot ove rt. If yo u ’ve d o n e it over t l y, th at’s fa il u re , wh e th e r yo u ’re su c c e ssf u l o r n ot. CP: When we talk about student politics, politics is understood in different ways. When you talk about student politics, I [as a Chinese citizen] don’t know what you’re talking about basically. What kind of politics? Politics in China is not overt. If you’ve done it overtly, that’s failure, whether you’re successful or not. You have to do things discreetly, under the table. Open campaigns are quite rare. There’s another reason here. Even if, as British or Chinese students, we encounter similar problems, in China you just bear with it. Because that’s
the case, to us [political activity] basically means inconveniences to others. It’s not written in the law that they’re rock solid rights for us. If there’s a margin that’s open to negotiation, let someone else do it. I feel that’s a typical mindset among Chinese - don’t cause trouble to others, don’t let others lose face. YZ: Still in Chinese society typically people just swear on the internet. CP: Only in the most extreme cases is there activity. YZ: Yes, when things get really unbearable. CP: So the question you raised, why do Chinese students have such low representation at the university, is a non-issue to most Chinese students. JY & YZ: Yeah! CP: Many [Western] students engaging in university politics want to polish their political skills as they are transferrable if they want to become politicians. But those skills aren’t transferrable for Chinese politics. If you want to be successful in Chinese politics, those are the very things to avoid. n
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Published on Dec 20, 2013
Issue number 1185 of the oldest independent student magazine in the United Kingdom. Written and edited by students at Oxford University.