My prediction for the election

I’m going to do a proper blog post later, if I’m well enough (been busy today and it’s taken it out of me), but I thought I’d set out my best guesses as to what the final result of the election will be.
I think in terms of MPs, we’re going to have something like 280 Labour, 270 Tory, 38 SNP, 35 Lib Dems, and no other party having any significant numbers (the Northern Irish parties will be roughly the same, Plaid will get four, UKIP will if they’re *very* lucky get three but will most likely get one, the Greens will probably hold their one MP). The other parties will mostly be interesting in terms of how they affect the results in marginals — will more Labour-leaning than Lib Dem-leaning people defect to the Greens, for example, giving the Lib Dems an advantage in otherwise difficult Labour-facing seats?

I also suspect that the Tories will get *slightly* more votes than Labour, but fewer seats, and that UKIP will get a *LOT* more votes than the Lib Dems (though not as many more as the polls show at the moment — UKIP’s support is very soft and they’ve got lousy get-out-the-vote compared to other parties) but basically no seats. The SNP will come sixth in votes and third in seats. Basically, the result will be a mess.

If I’m right, or anything close to it, there will need to be a three-party agreement in order to form a government. The SNP have already ruled out working with the Tories, but not with Labour. Labour have ruled out coalition with the SNP, and vice versa, but neither have ruled out confidence and supply. The Lib Dems haven’t ruled out working with either Labour or the Tories, but *many* of the front-benchers have been hinting very strongly that they think Labour would be easier to work with, and Ed Miliband recently refused to repeat his old rule that he won’t go into coalition with the Lib Dems while Clegg is the leader.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are very unlikely to be happy with confidence and supply if the party can keep a fairly reasonable number of MPs. They’ll want full coalition.

So my guess is that if the result looks *anything* like what I expect, the only viable option will be a Labour/Lib Dem coalition with SNP confidence and supply. The stupid result will reopen the debate about electoral reform, and even Labour, who will have benefited from it, will notice that they’ve been nearly completely wiped out in their former strongholds in Scotland. So I *very* strongly suspect we’ll get electoral reform *at least* at the council level. Labour may well be persuadable that STV would be better than d’Hondt for Euro elections, too…

I suspect that with a result like that Nick Clegg would have to step down, but not until coalition negotiations had been completed and enough of a decent interval had passed that it didn’t look like he was being forced out by Labour — possibly waiting until party conference in September. If we *don’t* get a coalition, he’s pretty much definitely gone long before then.

I must admit, though, that a Lab/Lib coalition is my preferred outcome out of the possible ones (though I’d wish for a MUCH larger number of Lib Dem MPs than we’re likely to get, and if it relied on a third party for support I’d prefer the Greens or the Pirates to the SNP, though I don’t find the SNP as viscerally revolting as some of my Scottish friends do), so while I think I’m being sensible here, there may be an element of wishful thinking. But I don’t think so. I think something like this is the most probable result, though “most probable” when predicting a chaotic system through several inferential steps is still not hugely likely in absolute terms.

On the other hand, those results *could* go another way. There’s been an uncomfortable amount of kite-flying about a Labour/Tory coalition recently, and other than UKIP being in government I can’t imagine anything worse for the country.

What do you think?

The Single Biggest Reason I’m Still A Lib Dem

I’ve never had any doubt that this election I will be campaigning for, and voting for, the Liberal Democrats, the same party I’ve voted for in every election since 1997 (except I think for a single council election about fifteen years ago, where I wrongly thought that the Green had a better chance of beating Labour in my ward).

But I’m very lucky, in that the candidate in the seat where I live, Dave Page, is someone I could never *not* vote for. He’s not only a very good friend of mine, but he’s an extremely principled liberal, the hardest working activist I know, the most *effective* activist I know, and someone who’s both intelligent and a genuinely nice person. When your choice is between someone like that on the one hand and Gerald Kaufman, a useless, venal, time-server who doesn’t even have a constituency office but did try to claim nearly £9000 in expenses for a TV, and successfully claimed £1800 for a rug, there’s no choice at all. Dave gets my vote.

Similarly, the constituency where I’ll be doing most of my campaigning, Manchester Withington (next door to mine), has John Leech as its MP. John is an absolutely exemplary MP who does a *huge* amount of constituency work, and is also one of the most rebellious MPs in the country (20th out of 650, and fourth most rebellious of the 57 Lib Dem MPs), regularly voting for the liberal thing rather than voting with the government when the two disagree.

So in my case, I can happily vote for, and campaign for, my local Lib Dem MPs with a clear conscience, knowing that I’m actually voting and campaigning for people who will be supporting liberal principles. The same goes for those in the constituencies of many other Lib Dem MPs and candidates — if you vote for, say, Adrian Sanders, Julian Huppert, or Tim Farron, you know you’re going to get a good representative who will do good work in Parliament.

However, some Liberals, or leftish people who’ve voted Lib Dem in the past, aren’t so lucky. Their local MP has been in government, and has made compromises as a result of that, compromises which the voter is uncomfortable with. We could argue all day about to what extent those compromises are justified, and everyone has different red lines. Personally I have a lot of sympathy for Tim Farron’s position, when he recently said:

“I’ll tell you the thing I am most proud of, most proud of, that nearly nobody knows about, is that there are nearly 3,000 children of asylum seekers who are not under lock and key now because of what Nick Clegg did with his popularity.

“I hear Nick Clegg being attacked regularly; if you want to know the integrity of somebody, it’s that he spends his political capital, gets nothing for it and makes people’s lives better. That’s a man with integrity.

And in general, I think the Lib Dems have done a lot of good, underreported, things like that. But we do all have red lines, things we simply cannot tolerate, and I don’t think there’s a single Lib Dem member who hasn’t been so annoyed by something this government has done that they haven’t thought “Is this worth it? Is this really what I got into politics for? To support this?” at least once (those who follow me on my non-public Twitter will have seen exactly how often this happens to me…)

But even if you’re one of those people who think that the compromises the party has made in power have been too great, there’s one very important reason to vote Lib Dem again.

This election, more than any other, shows that our electoral system, and our political system more generally, has become unfit for purpose. As the Daily Mash put it, A vote for the SNP ‘is a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for the Tories is a vote for UKIP’. The so-called “first past the post” system (a misnomer if ever there was one, given that there’s no post — “biggest loser” would be a more accurate term) made some kind of sense when there were two ideologically opposite, distinct, large parties to choose from. If you’re trying to choose between a party that wants to nationalise pretty much everything, raise the top rate of income tax to 95%, and scrap nuclear weapons, and one which wants to privatise pretty much everything, bring back the death penalty, and criminalise strikes, and there are no other parties contesting the area, then the biggest loser system makes sense.

But when your choice is between two right-authoritarian managerialist parties debating head-of-a-pin distinctions like “we will stop anyone under 25 from claiming benefits, and make them take a job” versus “we will have a compulsory jobs guarantee, and anyone under twenty-five who doesn’t take the compulsory job will lose their benefits”, while at the same time there are another five parties who might affect the final government, with policy platforms ranging from “free money for everyone and save the whales” to “we hate the foreigns”, the biggest loser system is laughably unsuitable.

We have a system now that is only democratic in the loosest possible sense. What government we get this election will have almost nothing to do with what people vote for, and still less with what they actually want. When you add in things like the unelected Lords, and the Bishops who still sit in Parliament, the system’s barely fit for the nineteenth century, still less the twenty-first.

The Lib Dems are the *only* party that will actually do anything to fix this problem. When the chance came to change the voting system, even though the option available (AV) was one that would disadvantage the Lib Dems (the Lib Dems would do better under a proportional system than they do now, but AV isn’t proportional), the Lib Dems voted and campaigned for it. The Labour Party — who had a referendum on changing the voting system in their manifestos in 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2010, but just never quite got round to it — voted against having the referendum at all, and then the majority of them campaigned with the Tories against the change. The Greens’ one MP voted against having the referendum as well.

When the Lib Dems got a cross-party committee to come to a consensus for how to reform the Lords and make it democratic, Labour, a party that had Lords reform in its manifesto every election but somehow never quite got round to it, voted with the Tory backbenchers to stop the bill having Parliamentary time, blocking reform. The Greens’ one MP voted against even setting up the committee to look into it.

Quite simply, politics is broken. There is no space in the current political system for the voices we need to hear — whether from socialists, or environmentalists, or libertarians, or nationalists, or Burkean conservatives, or anyone else outside the tiny Westminster consensus. To my mind, the issues surrounding this — whether to do with the actual electoral system, or with the increasing restrictions being placed on freedom of speech, are the most important facing us at the moment. We can’t get anything else right in politics until we have a system that *allows* us to get things right, and right now we don’t have that.

I broadly agree with the Lib Dems’ policies, and I think most of the Lib Dems’ elected representatives are at least basically OK, but even if I disagreed with the party on almost everything else, I think the fact that they’re the only party that actually want to fix our broken system would be reason enough by itself to vote for them.

I have no idea what will happen in May — my *guess* is that the Lib Dems will get about 35 seats and Labour will be the single largest party, but beyond that I haven’t a clue — but whatever happens, it won’t be what *anyone* wants or has voted for. I’m hoping that whatever mess of a government we end up with in two months, in five years, if nothing else, I won’t have to write this same blog post again. And the only way to make that even slightly likely is to vote Lib Dem.

Identity Politics, As She Is Done

Suppose you were an arsehole. I know you’re not — you read my blog, you’re a nice person. But suppose, instead, that you were a vile bigot. And, like many vile bigots sadly are, you’re in a position of power and influence over the media. Again, you’re not, because otherwise one of you would have used that power and influence to get me a high-paying column somewhere, but imagine you are. You could be a bigoted MP, a bigoted comedian, a bigoted TV-academic, or a bigoted columnist. It doesn’t really matter what flavour of powerful bigot you are.

Now suppose, for some unfathomable reason, it really matters to you — I mean really, *really*, matters — that some other people should not be allowed to go to the toilet. You have some horrible fetish for people being forced nonconsensually to urinate themselves in public or something (your kink is not my kink, and in this case your kink is definitely not OK).

But you have a problem. The audience you cater to like to think of themselves as liberal or left-wing. They’re *not*, for the most part, but they remember being told that Tories aren’t nice, and that Tories say bigoted things, so actually just saying “I hate this group and I want their bladders to burst” is something that might put a few of your audience off, and stop them listening to you comparing a thing in the news to another thing in the news on Radio 4, or donating to your charitable foundation for advancing your pet cause.

However, there’s a get-out clause. Lefty liberals love this thing called free speech! You’re not entirely sure what that means, but what words actually mean doesn’t really matter. So what do you do?

Step one — have someone who is a recognised “contrarian” (which means the person who is paid to say vile, unpleasant, things because they’re a friend of the editor of the Guardian or New Statesman and terribly witty at dinner parties) say “these people shouldn’t be allowed to go to the toilet”.

This will cause a “controversy”, consisting of five people on Twitter saying “Oh Christ, the Guardian have printed another bigoted column, I don’t know why I expected better at this point” and three people tweeting at the original author saying “What right have you to say whether or not I can go to the toilet?”

Step two — someone else can be the “voice of reason”, printing a column about the “controversy” in whichever of the Guardian or New Statesman didn’t publish the original, saying “while of course we must never endorse hatred, and I am, as you know, an ally of $oppressedgroup, there are two sides to the question of whether people should be allowed basic biological functions, and there really should be a proper debate on the subject, and why can’t everyone just get along?”

This will then cause a second Twitter “controversy”, when two people will tweet at the new author saying “No, actually, it’s really not up for debate. I want to live my life and they want to stop me.”

This is referred to as “attempting to shut down debate”.

Repeat this three times, and now you have three occasions where one group (marginalised voices on Twitter) “tried to shut down debate” by disagreeing with another group (rich, influential, bigots, who have columns in ostensibly left-liberal magazines).

Step four — Write an open letter to the Observer or the Independent, as they’re the only left-liberal publications that haven’t been involved yet. Call it something like “In defence of free speech and academic freedom”, describe the three occasions so obliquely that no-one who hadn’t followed them would recognise what had happened, and get all the columnists to sign it, along with a lot of respected-but-gullible people who’ve heard the trigger words “free speech” and “academic freedom”.

This will then cause people to tweet at every one of the respected-but-gullible people, saying “Hang on, did you actually read this?”. It will also cause at least one person, who’s been getting progressively more annoyed for months, to get so angry they tweet “fuck off and die, you arsehole!” at one of the gullible people, because they’re taking the side of the people who won’t even let them go to the toilet in peace.

Step five — use this “fuck off and die” tweet as “proof” that “the other side” are violent extremists. Couple it, in a way that skirts the libel laws, with the names of as many prominent figures in the marginal community as you can (not that they’re as prominent as you, of course). Now the story is “moderate figure in oppressed group associates with extremists who tell national treasures to fuck off and die!”

And voila! Now you’re not a disgusting bigot with a fetish for making other people’s bladders explode, but a martyr for free speech, and a hero! You’re raising valid points and standing up to the oppressors! If you’re lucky, you might even get a book deal. And all while you and your audience congratulate yourselves on your tolerance and liberalism.

What the Political Parties Stand For: 2015

I’ve seen quite a bit of traffic recently to a post I did before the last general election, setting out what the different parties stand for. As obviously some things have changed in the intervening time, here’s a rewritten version.

I’m going to try here to set out what all the major parties in the UK General Election believe, as simply as I can. I’m going to try to avoid words like ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism’ because I want this to be useful to as many people as possible – I genuinely know quite a few people who don’t know even what the most basic ideas of what the parties stand for even at this late stage. It should also, though, help my foreign friends understand things a bit better. If you’re a member or supporter of one of the parties listed and you think I’m being unfair or inaccurate (within the very simplistic way I’m doing this) please leave a comment. Obviously I’m a Lib Dem, so might be overly kind to my own side, but I believe I’m being fairly accurate in all cases.

The Conservative Party
are the simplest party to explain. They believe that, more or less, the way things are is the best way they could be. They think that the people with power at the moment (not just politicians, but religious leaders, business leaders, banks and so on – ‘important’ people) are the people who should keep power. This also means that even though it’s not actually their policy, a lot of them think that middle-aged white straight men deserve more power than anyone who isn’t a middle-aged white straight male, though some individual Conservatives don’t think that. The Conservatives are also called the Tories, and over Britain’s history they have been in government most of the time. Their leader is David Cameron. For the last five years they have been the main party in government.

The Labour Party are the hardest to explain. They used to believe that working people deserved to get a better share of the money than they do, and that government should make sure of that, but that otherwise it would be better to give people more freedom. Labour governments brought in the National Health Service, created the Open University, ended capital punishment (hanging) and legalised homosexuality and abortion. (Many of these were Liberal ideas originally, but Labour brought them in). However, after the Conservatives were in power for eighteen years, the leaders of the party decided that people didn’t want a government like that any more, and Labour became more-or-less identical to the Conservatives. There are some slight differences – they brought in the minimum wage and civil partnerships for same-sex couples – but otherwise when in government from 1997 to 2010 they behaved almost exactly like the Conservatives (increasing the gap between rich and poor, supporting the Americans in illegal wars). Many Labour *members* though still hope the party will go back to the way it used to be. Labour have spent much of the last five years, while they’ve not been in government, attacking the government for doing things Labour said they were planning on doing. Their leader is Ed Miliband.

The Liberal Democrats believe in freedom – that the government should not interfere in you doing what you want with your life. We realise, though, that you can’t be free without enough food to eat or somewhere to live or medicine if you’re sick, so we think the government should do what it can to make sure everybody has those things, even if it means interfering a bit with rich people’s freedom (by taking some of their money away) to make sure poor people have them. We also think it’s worth making sure we have a better environment for everyone, because the freedoms not to choke on fumes or to have your home not be flooded by dangerous weather are also important. We also want a fairer voting system, to give everyone the freedom to have a say in how they’re governed.
We also want to make sure that *everyone* has more freedom, so we support gay people, and transsexual people, and disabled people, and other people who have a hard time at the moment, and we want to make sure they have the same rights as everyone else and can also do what *they* want to with their lives.
The Liberal Democrats have spent the last five years working with the Conservatives in the government, because the last election didn’t produce a clear winner. This has led to a lot of people who voted for the Liberal Democrats being very upset, because they don’t like the Conservatives and the Conservatives have got their own way most of the time because they have far more MPs. The Liberal Democrats argue that by doing so, they have made sure that the government has been less cruel to poor people than it otherwise would have (though it’s still been quite cruel to them), and they’ve got a lot of important changes, like allowing people to marry partners of the same sex (“gay marriage”), or scrapping ID cards, through, but some people argue that that’s not worth the things the Conservatives have got. The Liberal Democrats’ leader is Nick Clegg. The preamble to the Lib Dem constitution, which goes into slightly more detail, is here.

The Green Party want to protect the environment. Their main focus is the environment, but they also share some of the ideas that the Lib Dems have, and some that Labour used to have, about helping poor people, and they think the government should be more involved in people’s lives. Liberal Democrats think some of the ways they want to do things won’t work properly, while Greens think Lib Dems are too similar to the Conservatives and Labour and not radical enough. The Greens currently only have one MP, but are hoping to get more. Their leader is Natalie Bennett.

The Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru are nationalists – they believe that Scotland (for the SNP) and Wales (for Plaid Cymru) should become separate countries. As you would imagine, they don’t have many MPs (Scotland and Wales don’t have many people in compared to England), but they both have a lot of members of their respective assemblies (the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly). A lot of Scottish people have recently started supporting the SNP because they think that the other parties are too similar. Nicola Sturgeon leads the SNP, and Leanne Wood leads Plaid Cymru.

There are *lots* of smaller parties in Northern Ireland, where the major mainland parties don’t stand. Roughly speaking the Unionist parties (those that want Northern Ireland to stay part of the UK, mostly Protestants) will support the Conservatives in Parliament, while the Republican parties (those that want Northern Ireland to join with the Republic of Ireland, mostly Catholics) will support Labour, but some Republican parties (like Sinn Fein) won’t take their seats in Parliament because you have to swear allegiance to the Queen. The Alliance Party, which tries to work with both communities and bring them together, are formally linked to the Liberal Democrats.

The United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, refuse to tell anyone what their policies will be until closer to the election. Last election, their policies were mostly centred around not liking foreigners, so they didn’t want to be part of the European Union and they wanted to stop any foreign people coming over here and get rid of some of the ones who already are. However, in the last few years they have had a lot of people join who think all the other parties are being too similar, and who wish the Tories were more like they used to be. Those people don’t care so much about disliking foreigners, but want everything to be like it was in the 1950s. Nigel Farage is the leader of UKIP.

Nerdy Boys, @PennyRed, Scott Aaronson and Male Privilege

EDIT 01/01/15: Since I wrote this, Scott Aaronson has written a follow-up post, in which he says, in particular:

The second concession is that, all my life, I’ve benefited from male privilege, white privilege, and straight privilege. I would only add that, for some time, I was about as miserable as it’s possible for a person to be, so that in an instant, I would’ve traded all three privileges for the privilege of not being miserable. And if, as some suggested, there are many women, blacks, and gays who would’ve gladly accepted the other side of that trade—well then, so much the better for all of us, I guess. “Privilege” simply struck me as a pompous, cumbersome way to describe such situations: why not just say that person A’s life stinks in this way, and person B’s stinks in that way? If they’re not actively bothering each other, then why do we also need to spread person A’s stink over to person B and vice versa, by claiming they’re each “privileged” by not having the other one’s?

However, I now understand why so many people became so attached to that word: if I won’t use it, they think it means I think that sexism, racism, and homophobia don’t exist, rather than just that I think people fixated on a really bad way to talk about these problems.

I think he’s still rather missing the point, but he’s *trying* to get the point, and it’s worth reading his post before reading what follows.

This is going to be both more personal than I normally get, and more emotionally draining, so before I get started properly, here’s a song that felt apropos:

Over the last couple of days, a comment on Scott Aaronson’s blog has been doing the rounds a lot. The comment was originally posted a couple of weeks back, but Slate Star Codex linked it in a link roundup and it’s spread since then. In part, Aaronson claims that “being a nerdy male… put me into one of society’s least privileged classes” because “I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.”

Laurie Penny wrote a response to this, first on her Facebook and then on the New Statesman website (which I hate having to link to, because I do not approve of the transphobia that’s a semi-regular part of that site’s editorial policy, which in my view makes it a hate site; unfortunately the liberal/left commentariat disagree with me…), which has also been getting linked a lot, and which says that yes, Aaronson has suffered, but that suffering does not eradicate his male privilege, and is effectively orthogonal to him being male, since women also suffer in similar ways.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I admire both Aaronson and Penny. I’ve read every blog post Aaronson has posted for about the last six years, he’s increased my understanding of quantum physics, computer science, and the basics of mathematics far more than any of my university lecturers ever did (though I still don’t understand those things as well as I should), and I think his Quantum Computing Since Democritus is the best book in what we might call the hard-pop-science category since Feynman’s QED.

Laurie Penny, meanwhile, I’ve vaguely known in an internet-acquaintance way for about eight years. I don’t know her well, but we used to be LiveJournal friends back when that was a thing, we’re Facebook friends, we follow each other on Twitter, and we have a bunch of mutual friends. I think she’s got the right instincts, even when I disagree with her on the details, and while a lot of her pronouncements end up sounding silly, much of the criticism she receives is because she’s a young, good-looking, woman, rather than because of anything she actually says.

I say this, because I don’t want people to think that anything that follows is personal. Well, it is… but it’s personal about me.

I think Laurie is misunderstanding, slightly, the problems Aaronson’s talking about. I had pretty much precisely the same life experiences as Aaronson, to the point that I almost cried reading his comment.

I didn’t lose my virginity until I was twenty-four, because I’m fat, ugly, and aspie. I still, in my late thirties, have crippling anxiety problems related to the idea that any woman, even my wife, could possibly find me attractive. I also, no doubt, in my late teens and early twenties, came off as creepy once or twice due to my lack of understanding of the rules, but far, far more often just removed myself from situations where the rules might matter. From puberty til my mid-twenties, my *only* experience of my own sexuality — the *only* framework I had for it — was as a source of shame, frustration, worry, and utter terror that should any woman I found attractive ever suspect for one second I was attracted to her she would be so revolted that I would actually be causing her harm by letting her know. That will never leave me, and is a large part of the reason for my ongoing mental health problems.

The idea that I grew up with — and this is not something unique to me, but is something that many, many, intelligent, socially-awkward, physically-unattractive but basically decent men have suffered from — is that me being attracted to a woman, any woman, is an unwelcome, unwanted, burden upon her, and that the only decent thing to do is not act upon that attraction *in any way whatsoever*. That’s not something anyone should have to suffer.

I know women — many of them — who have had the same experiences Laurie’s talking about, and while of course one can’t ever judge someone else’s mental state, I can say that the experiences are not comparable. They’re two very specific kinds of hell, and I will bear the scars of what I went through forever. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every problem my marriage has ever had has been directly because of my own messed-up feelings on this matter. (Don’t worry about that sentence — my marriage is, as far as I’m any judge, incredibly strong. But it hasn’t always been, and when it hasn’t, it’s been because of that.)

As one of the few examples I can point to directly without revealing even more of my life than I have here, or than I ever want to, a year or so back I was at a party and a (female) friend said, in passing “you’re a good-looking man”. Without thinking, I immediately blurted out “Bullshit!”, because I’ve been so hardwired with the idea that any kind of sexual attention from me must be a horribly unwelcome burden that my brain makes it go the other way too — anything said by any woman that indicates even in the most innocuous way that I may be desirable is immediately shot down, often (at least in my head, though I hope rarely in reality) quite aggressively.

I think the problem Laurie is talking about when she talks about the horrible time a teenage girl has, and the problem Scott Aaronson was talking about, are two very different things, and I don’t think it’s helpful to compare them.

But even so, even as I was nearly in tears at the similarity of Aaronson’s horrible experiences to my own, as soon as I got to the point where Scott Aaronson said he doesn’t have privilege, I just thought “oh, come ON! SURELY you’re not that stupid?”

Like Aaronson, I am a white, English-speaking, cis, het, intelligent male with no visible disabilities. I have been able to find jobs in the past for which I was unqualified, simply because my face fit. When I was unemployed after leaving university, I had no pressure from the Job Centre because “Oh, you’ll have NO problem getting a job”. Except when there’s a football match on I can walk down the street without fear of any violence.

Scott Aaronson has all these advantages, plus the advantage of having been able to attend one of the best universities in the world thanks to his background, and having had the support he needed to become a professor in a field he loves. To say he’s one of the least privileged people there are, simply because in one (admittedly important, admittedly upsetting) area of his life things didn’t go perfectly for him as they have in every other area, shows a cluelessness that’s hard to comprehend.

And this is important, because Aaronson is saying that nerdy men have no privilege — are, in fact, one of the least privileged groups around — and therefore shouldn’t be held responsible for the lack of women getting jobs in STEM fields. And in fact, it’s precisely this kind of attitude, this lack of understanding of our privilege, that *does* cause that.

To take one example, I used to work at a very big technology company whose name you probably know. In one meeting, my then-manager complained about having to do diversity training. “Look at us,” he said, “we’re a pretty diverse bunch!”

The group of people in the room at the time were all male, all without visible disabilities, and all (as far as I had been made aware) cis and straight. In the office we were working in, which had between fifty and eighty people working there over the few years I was there, there was no point at which there were more than three women working there — usually there were only two, and one was the admin/receptionist.

I don’t want to say conclusively that the blame for that lies all in one direction of course, but there were a *lot* of nerdy men working there, and not a lot of radical feminists…

Man can hurt. Men can hurt badly, and in ways that women can’t really understand. Not enough is done about those types of hurt, and not enough is done to even acknowledge that they exist.

But that doesn’t mean male privilege is not real. In fact, as far as I can see, male privilege is in large part the cause of those hurts. Well-meaning men like Scott Aaronson or myself (and Aaronson definitely means well — he’s one of the good guys) should acknowledge that despite those hurts, we are still in many other ways the beneficiaries of a huge systematic imbalance in power, and that correcting that will, as well as being the right thing to do morally, get rid of those hurts. And it will also get rid of the horrors that women go through, as Laurie Penny describes, and if we do it properly it’ll get rid of the suffering that people who are neither men nor women go through, which I can only imagine is not comparable to either and probably worse than both.

We need to get rid of the state of society in which anyone at all feels that their gender expression or (consensual) sexual desires are wrong, or disgusting, or make them less than human, so no-one has to feel like Aaronson did. There’s a whole movement devoted to doing just that. It’s called feminism.

[Note about comments: This post discusses both my own personal life in a way I’m very far from comfortable doing in public, and political issues which can often lead to very heated discussion. I am going to be far firmer than normal about deleting comments and banning commenters, and am going to ask that if you’re going to make a nitpicky or angry comment you first reread the whole post at least three times to make sure that I actually said what you think you said, and that you then bear in mind the comment policy an internet friend has in place, which I think will be useful here — “Your comment should be at least two out of kind, interesting, useful & correct. If you can’t manage that, don’t post it.”

Also, a favour — in the unlikely event you share this on Facebook, please don’t tag me. There are people I’m FB friends with, who I believe are not regular readers of this blog, and who I would rather didn’t see this.]

Political Issues

(If you’re the kind of person who needs trigger warnings for things, the following post almost certainly contains a mention of whatever triggers you, but doesn’t contain any graphic descriptions or endorsement of those things…)

There have been many things in politics that have depressed me over the last few years — the loss of the AV referendum, Labour playing silly buggers and blocking Lords reform, the Lib Dems’ collapse in the polls… there have been a lot — but I don’t think I’ve ever been as thoroughly, utterly, depressed by politics as I was today when filling out a YouGov poll.

After the standard questions came:
Which of these policies do you think would be better for the country:
a) Raising the minimum wage to the living wage
b) Banning all immigrants from claiming benefits until they’ve been here for four years?

In case anyone’s wondering, I chose a. I don’t know what the effects of ensuring people in low-paid jobs earn enough to feed, clothe, and house themselves would be, other than some poor people having food, housing, and clothing, but I suspect overall there would be fewer negative effects than there would be from letting people starve to death on the street because they’re foreign.

Then there were a whole bunch of questions about torture. “Do you think torture is ever justified?” “Should the UK co-operate with other countries in the use of torture?” “Should the UK make use of information it knows to have been obtained by torture?” and so on.

In case you’re wondering, the correct answers to those questions are “no”, “no”, and “no”.

Because this is what we’ve come to, in 2014, that these are questions that need to be asked. These are partisan political questions, about which there is debate.

I had hoped, until relatively recently, that we had as a society decided that it was probably a good thing not to let people starve to death if they lose their jobs. Apparently not, if we’re talking about waiting *four years* before people can claim benefits. Apparently if someone moves to this country, say to marry someone she loves, follows all the rules, becomes a citizen, pays her taxes, works hard and contributes to society, but then after being here three years she gets hit by a car and paralysed from the waist down, it is a matter for *debate* as to whether society should allow her to keep paying rent and eating food.

And note the wording of the YouGov question (as best as I can remember it) — the question implicitly accepts that both choices offered are good ones, it’s just that one might be a bit better than the other.

And again — torture? As a matter for debate, where people can argue in favour of torture without having people scream “holy shit, get away from me you fucking monster!”?

And this has been happening over and over again recently. The big political debate of the last few months — in the US, but infecting our politics too, as US politics is prone to — has been “is it OK for the police to gun down unarmed teenage boys in cold blood if they’re black? How about choking unarmed black men to death? Is that OK?”

Again, this is not something that we should be having a debate about. This is something that should be settled.

So a few pointers to add to the political conversation at the moment:
Leaving unemployed and disabled people to starve to death is bad. Yes, even if they’re foreign.
Leaving people to drown is bad. Yes, even if they’re foreign.
Murdering people is also bad. Yes, even if the murder is racially-motivated. In fact that’s one of the worst kinds of murdering. Don’t do that.
Raping people is also bad. Yes, even if you’re rich and powerful.
Torturing people is bad.
Revealing the most intimate details of people’s lives, like naked photos of them or (if they’re trans) their pre-transition name, without their consent, is bad. Yes, even if they were in a film.
Threatening strangers that you will do any or all of the above to them or their families is bad. Yes, even if they disagree with your opinion about a video game.

Those are the ONLY correct opinions on these matters. I am not normally much of a moral absolutist, but these are not things that really admit of any nuance. There are many, many, *MANY* grey areas in politics and morality, but those aren’t among them.

If we can’t, as a culture, even agree on the wrongness of murder, rape, and torture — if we can’t take those as axioms from which we can proceed — how the hell are we ever going to get the ability to solve the *hard* problems?

(CalDreaming posts tomorrow and Friday, Batman and Cerebus this weekend…)

“Immigration” is not “Immigrant”

There is a speech that the leaders and prominent figures of all political parties have given recently that makes absolutely no sense. It goes something like this.

UKIP are vile, and what they stand for goes against everything that makes Britain great. Make no mistake, their brand of narrow-minded xenophobia is not what the British people stand for, it’s not what the [insert party name here] party stands for, and it’s not what I stand for. We must take a firm stand against UKIP, and tell Nigel Farage that you can love your country without hating others.

So we will not let hatred win. We will win by making a case for our values, [insert party here] values, the traditional, forward-thinking, British values, that make Britain and [insert party here] great. We must stand up to Nigel Farage and say “No more!”

But at the same time, we must recognise that people have real, legitimate, concerns about immigration, and those concerns must be dealt with. Fairly, responsibly, [liberally/progressively/conservatively]. That is why I am pleased to announce that [if I get into government I will ensure that/I have pushed in government to ensure that] from 2015 all immigrants, children of immigrants, and people who have touched an immigrant, will have to wear a sign round their neck saying “unclean!” and ring a bell whenever they are in public.

It is by fair, moderate, sensible, [progressive/liberal/conservative] measures like this that we can tackle people’s legitimate concerns, while still keeping the benefits of immigration, and maybe stopping our last three voters from switching to UKIP oh shit did I say that out loud?

That’s far less paraphrased than I’d like.

Now, the worst thing about this speech is not the mealy-mouthed refusal to take a stand without immediately contradicting it, nor the craven abandoning of every principle in the face of the electoral juggernaut that is UKIP, whose greatest success to date has been to return two incumbent Conservative defectors to the seats they already held, with a reduced majority, but wearing a different rosette. It’s not even the unnecessarily cruel policies these speeches announce.

No, it’s that these cruel policies are pure theatre. They’ll hurt people, but they won’t deal with the problems they purport to solve. And the people making these announcements know that. They don’t intend them to.

Do you see the bait and switch there? “People have genuine and real concerns about immigration, therefore we will punish immigrants

Now, let’s accept for a second the politicians’ argument, that they’re not aiming these policies at racists or xenophobes, but only at those people (and they do exist) who have reasonable concerns. We’ll ignore for now whether those concerns are right or wrong, and just accept that. Those concerns generally amount to “there are too many people from abroad coming into Britain”. There are nuances — some are concerned about pressure on public services, others about housing, others about jobs — but they boil down to “too many people are coming here”.

(Again, I’m not saying those people are *right* to have those views — I’m a liberal, and tend to be in favour of free movement. But one can hold those views without necessarily being racist, and those are the people those speeches purport to be aimed at.)

Now, if you are presented with the problem “there are too many people coming here”, there are things that can be done about that. They range from changing the requirements for skilled worker and student visas slightly at one end, to UKIP’s policy of an all-out ban on any new immigration at all, including withdrawing from the EU in order to completely close the border.

I’m not saying those would be *good* things to do, but they would go towards solving the actual problem they claim to be dealing with. Too many people coming in — stop people coming in.

But no politician is ever actually going to do that. The Tories won’t because the City is so dependent on free(ish) movement, Labour won’t because so many public services rely on cheap immigrant labour, and the Lib Dems won’t because the majority of the party are still Liberals who believe in freedom of movement and internationalism.

So what we get instead is persecution of those already here. Making life difficult in a myriad tiny nasty bureaucratic ways for people who already live here won’t stop more people from coming — you only stop people from coming by, you know, stopping them from coming. Life in Britain is already, frankly, fucking horrible for immigrants (as my wife would tell you at great length, and she’s a white English-speaking immigrant and thus doesn’t get the worst of it). Anyone still moving here is doing so because they have a very good reason, and won’t be put off by pettiness like being unable to have a translator when taking a driving test.

It just makes people’s lives needlessly worse, but lets the politicians look like they’re “responding to people’s concerns” and “being tough on immigration”.

It’s not fooling anyone, least of all the people they actually want to fool, who are moving to UKIP in greater numbers all the time. Either actually deal with anti-immigration people’s actual concerns, however politically unfeasible that would be, or (the option I infinitely prefer) just say “no, we’re not doing that, we need immigrants”, and just stop trying to patronise voters. Unless, of course, the aim isn’t actually to attract the reasonable people with reasonable concerns about immigration, but to attract the bigots — in which case, again, just be honest and say “we hate the foreigns, they talk funny and they smell”, don’t try to pretend to be more principled than that.

And I’d remind Nick Clegg, especially, that there are as many *pro*-immigration voters as *anti*-immigration ones, and they don’t have all the major parties and a minor one that gets overrepresented on TV chasing after them. Maybe, just maybe, if he started making speeches that said “I won’t be needlessly horrible to vulnerable people” instead, we’d get back into double digits in the polls? Just a thought…