On Medicalised Fat-Shaming

Content note — this blog post contains discussion of weight, diet, fat-shaming, and possibly eating disorders. People who find such discussions upsetting should read no further.

There has been a lot of coverage of the fact that Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, has managed — or claims to have managed — to bring his type two diabetes under control with diet and exercise. This is, of course, an excellent thing. I have no great love for Watson, who I despise as a politician, but I also have no wish to see him suffer from a debilitating disease which can cause a huge amount of pain and suffering.

What isn’t so good, though, is the sheer amount of fat-shaming and abuse of fat people that has come about because of this. “See? This privileged rich white man with a huge number of advantages has managed to make his health better by diet and exercise! There’s no excuse for anyone else!”

In particular, there’s been a lot of sharing of his story to “raise awareness” of how fat people are just killing ourselves because we’re lazy and worthless and useless.

If you’re one of the people sharing this story, think for a second…think about how aware fat people already are of the health problems associated with being fat, and of the fact that we are fat.

Now, there is a lot of controversy, actually, over the relationship between weight and health. Indeed, I have seen several studies which tend to suggest that the increased risk of mortality associated with obesity is actually because of stress, rather than because of weight — fat people are more stressed than other people, and so we tend to suffer more from stress-related illnesses. Put that to one side, and with it the idea that merely by contributing to fat stigma you are also contributing to the deaths of the people you claim to want to help. Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that all fat people, if they got their BMI (another very dodgy idea, but…) down to “healthy” levels, would have… ooh, let’s say another twenty years of life.

If that was the case — so what?

What good would that information do?

Because here’s the thing — there is not a single fat person in the world who has consciously chosen to be fat. Not one. Many fat people now choose — or try to choose — to be happy with the bodies we have, but I don’t know a fat person who hasn’t struggled with their weight, who hasn’t dieted, who hasn’t got an immense set of mental health problems surrounding their weight. Such a person may exist, but if those were the only fat people around, there’d be no “obesity epidemic” to “deal with”.

Because here’s the thing that all fat people know, and that no thin people seem to: Diets. Do. Not. Work.

I have been fat all my life — and I mean all my life. My mother tells a story of the health visitor seeing me when I was a baby and saying “what have you been feeding him on, elephants’ milk?”. I remember when I was three years old, crying because the other kids in nursery school were bullying me because I was fat. Whatever caused me to be fat, it was something that I had no control over, unless you think that a three-month-old baby is capable of making life decisions that can affect him forty years later.

I spent all my childhood and teenage years trying to get myself thinner. I used sweeteners in my coffee and drank diet drinks all through my teenage years, and all that did was give me horrible migraines for most of that time. I would regularly go on diets, and nothing would happen.

I did once manage to lose weight. When I was sixteen. For three months I ate a single can of Irish Stew a day, totaling about four hundred calories, and walked sixteen miles a day. After those three months, I had managed to get down to the high side of “normal” — I was still a bit podgy, but at a “healthy” weight. Within two years of coming off the diet and returning to normal eating, I was back to being fat. I could, possibly, have stayed that weight by carrying on eating a single can of stew a day and walking twenty miles every day, but when you do that long term that’s not called a diet, it’s called an eating disorder, and given the choice between being fat or dying because of a lack of essential nutrients, I’ll choose the former.

I tried various diets throughout my twenties and much of my thirties, too. Some caused some slight weight loss — mostly no-carb diets — but none caused any significant long-term weight loss, even when I stayed on them.

And this is not unusual at all, because — short of invasive, complicated, surgery — there is no such thing as a weight-loss intervention that actually works. Studies have shown that ninety-five percent of people who go on diets end up weighing more after five years than they would have if they hadn’t gone on the diet. Yes, you read that right. Nineteen out of twenty people who try to lose weight, no matter what the diet, end up putting more weight on. Not immediately, but in the medium term, trying to lose weight makes you fatter.

Yet if you go to see a doctor while fat, that is what you’ll be told to do — and it’s the *only* thing you’ll be told to do. I’ve been told to lose weight in order to treat work-related stress, or because I’ve had an ear infection. You go to see a doctor and you’re fat, even if you’re not *wildly* fat (and in my case I’ve got a big gut and a large frame, but I’m not the fattest person I know by a long way) and that will be the only thing they look at. My arthritis went undiagnosed for five years because when I went to see a GP about the initial symptoms I was told they were because of my weight (they’re not — they’re because I have psoriatic arthritis, and are the absolute classic initial symptoms of that disease, which one in three people with psoriasis get. As my GP knew I had psoriasis, that would have been the first thing they checked for — *if* I’d been “normal” weight).

As far as I can see, the whole problem here is that being fat is treated like smoking — a behaviour which is chosen by the person in question, and which can be overcome with enough willpower (whatever *that* is, but that’s a whole other can of worms). But it’s not like that. In my experience, it’s more like male pattern baldness, which is something else I have. I didn’t choose to have a giant pink patch of skin on the top of my head where previously I had thick, long, curly hair, and all things being equal I’d rather not be going bald, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do to prevent it. There is, however, a multi-billion-pound industry devoted to conning insecure men who are going bald out of their money in return for the *hope* of getting their hair back.

If someone were to prove to me tomorrow that going bald doubled your risk of, say, skin cancer, I’d say “oh shit, that’s worrying, I hope I don’t get it”, but what I wouldn’t do would be to try to will my hair to grow again in the hope of avoiding cancer, because that would be ludicrous. Nor would I go around telling other bald people “if you just had some self-control you could grow hair”, or talking about how the NHS needed to stop treating bald people because they were a drain on taxpayers’ resources.

I repeat what I said at the start. No-one chooses to be fat. No-one — absolutely no-one — in our society is unaware of the health risks associated with their weight. And far people are *hyper*-aware, because we’ve been bullied about it throughout our lives (or since becoming fat in adulthood, for those for whom weight gain was associated with a hormonal change or similar).

The problem is that the rest of you, the adipose-deficient, are *unaware* of what it’s actually like living as a fat person, what it’s like being fat and trying to access medical help, what it’s like being fat and trying to keep oneself healthy when the *only* advice you can ever get is related to something that you have no control over, and to be constantly bombarded on all sides by messaging that says that if you don’t control this uncontrollable aspect of your body you are subhuman. (For example, do you think that the body-shaming message I’ve had literally every day of my life, telling me that my body is putrid and disgusting and unattractive and ridiculous and should be mocked at every turn makes me *more* likely to go to a gym, take my clothes off in front of strangers, and go and exercise in revealing clothes in front of other strangers? Because it doesn’t…)

And this is me as a cis het man talking. I don’t have anything like the pressures on my appearance that women do, or men who have sex with men. I can’t even imagine what fat-shaming does to them.

“Raising existence” of us as a “problem” is the last thing you would want to do if you actually cared about our health. It just adds to our stress levels and encourages doctors to treat all our medical problems as being caused by our fatness.

So it’s very simple. If you actually care at all about the health of fat people, stop talking about “the obesity epidemic”, stop talking about diets, stop talking about weight-loss at all, for anyone, in any circumstances. Fat-shaming *does not work*, unless the reason you’re doing it is to make people who are already having a hard time feel miserable and unattractive and to hasten their deaths.

The applicability of this to other groups who are also in the news at the moment is left to the reader.

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Linkblogging for 12/9/18

I’ve not done a linkblog in too long, have I? Well, here’s one for you.

First, a podcast I came across after hearing it recommended in the Good Place podcast — Cocaine and Rhinestones. For those of you who like my music writing, this is very much the same kind of thing as California Dreaming, but about country music, although it’s from an angle with more personal experience, because Tyler Mahan Coe, the writer/presenter, is the son of David Allen Coe, who is a famous country singer. (For those of you who are worried, because you know Coe sr.’s reputation, there is no overt racism or misogyny in the podcast, although there is one use of whorephobic language. In fact the podcast seems to come from a fairly feminist place, and Coe makes a point occasionally of attacking racism in country music.)

Each episode tells one story about country music history, and they all build up to give a much bigger picture. Take note however, some of the stories may be triggering, especially the one about Spade Cooley.
Andrew Rilstone on the controversy over Talons of Weng Chiang and how it’s obviously racist. (warning, contains various racist images as illustration).
Jack Graham on systemic racism in Doctor Who more generally.

“How not to write about jazz, probably”
Charles Stross on Heinlein tributes

Bullshit-sensitivity predicts prosocial behavior.

And Big Finish have a sale on on the Bernice Summerfield audios, with code BIRTHDAY. This includes the interesting season nine, on CD for £2.50 each. Of those, The Adventure of the Diogenes Damsel may be especially interesting to people who follow my blog, as it’s a stealth Faction Paradox crossover and also features David Warner as Mycroft Holmes.

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Amendments to the Immigration Motion

And so, once again, I find myself writing about navel-gazing internal Lib Dem stuff because, rather than listen to the concerns of the members and do something sensible, the Lib Dem leadership have decided to go to war with the party membership. I promise that after conference this week I’ll be dialing down on the Lib Demmery on here a lot. But as I’m not going to go to conference due to health, I thought I’d set out my thoughts now that amendments are available.

Yes, it’s that immigration motion again.

I’ve said before that I have a simple position on this motion — that it shouldn’t be accepted without all the amendments that Lib Dem Immigrants, Lib Dems for Seekers of Sanctuary, and LGBT+ Lib Dems had put forward being adopted.

Having looked at the amendments that have been accepted I can already tell that that’s not going to happen, because not all of them have been accepted to be voted on — though the fact that there are five amendments up for vote at all (the highest number I can recall is two, though I’m sure someone will pull out a record of a conference from 1993 which had thirty-two amendments for a motion or something now I’ve said that) shows just how bad this motion actually is. So no matter how the amendments go, this should be referenced back — and ideally to people who have a clue about either liberalism, immigration, or both.

But it’s possible that conference will not vote for a reference back, and the amendments are worth considering for whether they make the motion better or worse.

First the drafting amendment — most of this is uncontroversial. There is one bit worth noting though — that’s “In line 2, after ‘rules and’ insert‘, for a time-limited period of not more than two years and subject to individual assessment,’”

This *slightly* fixes one of the many, many, many, many, major problems with this motion, in that it changes the five-year limit (kept from the 2012 rules) on no recourse to public funds to the two-year limit from before then — making this small bit of the motion only as illiberal as David Blunkett, rather than Theresa May. It even allows for the possibility that this time period could even be shorter — meaning we might have a single sentence in this policy that is *more* liberal than David Blunkett, though not as liberal as Jack Straw (we wouldn’t want to be crazy now!).

But then they stick in that kicker “and subject to individual assessment”.

Now, the no recourse to public funds rule is horribly wrong and I see no reason to discuss why any further. If you don’t understand why, see this article. But this “subject to individual assessment”… that has problems of its own.

Because it’ll be the same as the replacement of a de jure income limit with a de facto one that the paper also does — there’s no £18,000 limit any more if we go by this paper, but you still have to prove you can support your spouse. And I can *guarantee* that with no hard and fast income limit, the people who are more privileged on other axes will have to do less to prove that ability to support than educated cis het white abled English speakers will.

And it’ll be the same with this “subject to individual assessment”. Anyone who has had to prove their financial situation or level of disability to the benefits agency, or anyone who has had to deal with the immigration authorities at all, knows that “individual assessment” means less trust for disabled people, for BAME people, for trans people, for neurodivergent, mentally ill, or working class people.

Now I can see that this is done with good intentions — it’s an attempt to make exceptions for people in genuine need (though of course everyone who claims benefits is in genuine need). What it would actually do in the real world though is create more hoops to jump through — hoops which are easier for those with more social capital than for the poorest, the disabled, and oppressed people generally. It’s a loophole which will lead to a few borderline cases getting help earlier, while those who need it most will have to wait longer.

I’ve dealt with government bureaucracies enough in my time to know that that’s how it goes. I’m one of the lucky ones — I’m white, cis, straight, English-speaking, and can pass for a middle-class neurotypical in small doses. But I have *seen* myself, time and again, get special treatment not given to other people in the same circumstances — people who needed more help than I did, and got less.

So I have *deep* reservations about this drafting amendment, even as it does make that one sentence of the motion slightly better and almost as liberal as Blunkett. Sigh…

On to the amendments that get voted on separately as they’ve *not* been accepted by the paper’s authors:

Amendment 1 is a long one from Lib Dems for Seekers of Sanctuary, though it’s much shorter than their original proposed amendment. It’s all focused on asylum seekers and as far as I can tell it’s all good. I don’t know enough about that area of immigration law to say if it’s good *enough* and would improve the current system *enough*, but everything in it certainly seems worthwhile. I’d vote for it to be included.

Amendment 2 is one I have very strong feelings about, and would feel strongly about even were it not being summated by my wife. It takes out the single most despicable and unnecessary part of the motion, the bit that says we can’t challenge racist ideas in case it hurts racists’ feelings, and replaces it with a sensible alternative bit about fixing the problems people wrongly blame on immigrants.

Amendment 3 would fix a *lot* of the problems with the family law section of the motion and paper. It would change the motion to say “For spouse and legal partner settlements, end the crude and arbitrary practice of the state splitting up families on grounds of income and permit families to stay together without any form of means testing or prohibition on seeking support from the state.”

That wouldn’t fix everything, but it would make a lot of people’s lives a lot easier — something this paper otherwise doesn’t seem to want to do.

Amendment four would get the costs of naturalisation for the applicant back down to the cost to the Government — a return to the policy when Michael Howard was Home Secretary. If amendments three and four passed, we’d have a family immigration policy that was actually more liberal than David Blunkett, only slightly less liberal than Jack Straw, and in some places even as liberal as Michael Howard!

That would obviously be a *massive* improvement on the policy paper, and so that amendment should definitely pass.

And amendment five, from LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, contains some good, sorely needed, policy on treatment of LGBT+ asylum seekers. It should pass.

All these amendments are good, strong, liberal positions that fix glaring problems with the motion. Sadly, there are far more problems than there are amendments (even given the number and length of amendments chosen for debate). There’s nothing in here for example to amend the motion giving extra funding to Border Force (the UK equivalent of ICE).

The motion and accompanying policy paper, as I’ve said before, are a shit sandwich. These amendments all do their best to scrape as much of the shit filling out as they can, but at the end of that you’re still left with two slices of shit-covered bread. Even if the bread is quite nice, it’s still better to throw it away and start again than to eat it.

So if I were going to conference, I’d vote to reference back, I’d vote for all the amendments, and whether or not the motion was amended, if the reference back wasn’t successful I’d vote against the motion as a whole. I strongly hope that anyone who can make it to conference this year will do the same. And I’d like to thank LD4SOS, LGBT+ Lib Dems, and the individual proposers of the other amendments for putting far more thought and liberalism into their amendments than the drafters of the motion did into their motion.

Because it isn’t a motion for liberals, it’s a bowel movement for moderates. Demand better.

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Filter Bubbles

This is a blog post based loosely on some stuff I tweeted about a week ago, which Andrew Ducker asked me to expand into a blog post. As it comes from a tweet thread, it’s a little disjointed, but you may still find it interesting. It’s about the way that social media reinforces people’s views and radicalises them, and I’m going to use politics as an example here but it actually also applies to fandoms, to religion, and to everything else about which people can have an opinion that also functions as a group identity.

I’m becoming more and more convinced at the moment that the way social media reinforces people’s ideas is not, as the conventional wisdom has it, because we surround ourselves with people who agree with us. Everyone says that this is the case, but I actually know relatively few people who surround themselves with such a filter bubble. They do exist (and they’re mostly older people, and those less net-savvy, which is why you get the stereotype of the angry Brexit voter who doesn’t know anyone who voted Remain and is angry because of something that was shared from the Daily Mail), but they are a very small minority.

(And in fact, most of the filter bubbles I’ve come across have been from real life — people who only talk with people of the same race or social class, only socialise with their work colleagues and family, and so on. Online it’s harder to avoid people from different backgrounds and with different opinions than it is in physical interactions).

Most people online, like in real life, fall into two basic categories — the people who don’t care about politics or discuss it at all, who tend to not see or join in political discussions at all. Those people don’t see other political perspectives just because they’re not actually interested in politics, and don’t really have political opinions. They’re the people who vote Labour because we’ve aways voted Labour in this family, or who vote Tory because they feel sorry for Theresa May and the way people pick on her, or who don’t bother to vote at all. Those people aren’t in filter bubbles because they don’t think about politics enough to enforce a filter. They might sometimes say things which sound like political opinions, but they’ll contradict themselves a few minutes later, and they’ll think that whichever party, if any, they vote for agrees with them, even if it doesn’t.

The other major group is the people like myself who are obsessed with politics — the ones for whom it’s an autistic special interest or a fandom or a hobby. The latter group tend, in fact, to see every type of opinion. I know the opinions of, to take well-known people from the commentariat, Ian Dunt, John Rentoul, Polly Toynbee, Katie Hopkins, Owen Jones, “Wings Over Scotland”, and Aaron Banks, about pretty much every important issue today.

And that, right there, should give you a bit of a clue as to why we’re *really* getting radicalised. It’s not because we can see the people who agree with us, it’s because we can see all the arseholes who disagree with us. (you may well not think all the people I listed are arseholes, but I can guarantee you that the one or two in there that have you thinking “well, *that* person’s OK…” are loathed with blood-boiling hatred by a lot of people).

Every political grouping has some absolute wankers in it (some more than others, of course — both UKIP and the Tories are basically decent-human-free zones right now, as is the Republican Party in the US). But pre-social media you’d have to make a real effort to come into contact with the wankers outside your own group. Twitter has changed that.

Now we can all see, and be angered by, the transphobic FBPEers, the Corbyn supporters who claim that any criticism of their hero is a Jewish conspiracy and that George Galloway should be welcomed back into Labour, the Labour centrists who think that the Iraq war was just a minor matter to be waved away and that people who keep bringing it up should get a life, the Wings Over Scotland fanboys who will make sure that any woman expressing an opinion on Scottish politics gets subjected to misogynist abuse for the rest of her life, the Lib Dems who still refuse to acknowledge that anyone could reasonably be upset about the coalition, the moderate centrists who think that anyone who doesn’t want immigrants punished for existing is a radical extremist lunatic, the Hillary people who still blame Bernie Sanders for Hillary Clinton losing the election, the Bernie people who refuse to believe that Hillary could have actually got more votes fair and square…

…and because they’re the loudest voices on their sides, we think “well if *that’s* what $politicalgroup is like, then fuck them! Obviously my group is the only decent one!” Because we all know that what gets retweets is not the sensible, thoughtful, empathetic people saying, say, “well, I’m a Lib Dem but I can absolutely see why we lost the trust of radical young people in the coalition, and why Corbyn still has that trust”, or “I basically support Corbyn, but he needs to take note of the views of his young supporters on the EU, and take a stronger pro-EU stance, and I’d like him to clarify his view on anti-semitism”, it’s people saying “Corbyn is in the pay of Putin and is causing Brexit like the conspiracy theorist he is #FBPE #PeoplesVote #ModerateCentrist” or “FBPE is an anti-Corbyn plot run by the Zionist media!”

Because while we see the utter wankers in our own group, we also see the good people who are sitting there with their heads in their hands saying “oh for fuck’s sake shut up, you’re making us all look bad”. But all that the other side (whoever the other side are) sees, unless they go to great lengths to search them out, are the utterly vile people.

If you’re a Lib Dem and the only times you see Corbyn supporters are when they’re calling you “yellow Tories” and calling for you to be shot, and you know you’re not a yellow Tory and don’t really feel like being shot, you’re not going to stick around and have a sensible discussion with them about different modes of railway and train operating company ownership. If you’re a trans person or an immigrant, and you look in the FBPE hashtag to see tons of trans-erasing radicalised fascists and people who talk about how “we need to control immigration more to get the electorate on side for the people’s vote!”, you’re probably not going to volunteer for the next pro-second referendum street stall in your town. If you’re looking at that thread about how gulags are Good Actually, Not Bad Like You Think, Ah!… well, to be fair, that is a pretty decent representation of what Tankies are like.

There’s not really a moral to this, other than “don’t be a dick” — and even there, *everyone* is a dick in the eyes of someone else, and while being more civil is definitely a worthwhile thing to do, there’s a fuzzy boundary between being civil and being one of those “both sides” people who thinks that other people’s lives are up for debate. There’s definitely a very valid argument for telling people to fuck off if they need telling to fuck off.

It’s just… don’t blame filter bubbles when we don’t live in them. We all have access to every opinion in the world, constantly.

Indeed, for many of us, it would be nice to *have* filters — to not have social media forcing hatred and toxicity into our faces every time we go online to just have a chat with our friends. The result of “filter bubble” discourse is Twitter fake-liking fascists’ tweets from your friends’ accounts so you’ll be sure to see them.

There’s not much we can do about this, other than remember that there are, if you look for them, reasonable Corbynites, Marxists, pro-EU campaigners, Liberals, Democrats, Liberal Democrats, Labour centrists, and all the other subgroups in politics outside the racist right wing. Just because we’ve all got (or in some cases *are*) That Idiot Who Makes Us All Look Bad doesn’t mean that everyone in those groups is like that.

Apart from Tankies. Fuck those shitheads.

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“Consultation”, Lib Dem Leadership Style

You may have seen various Lib Dems on your social media all getting angry about proposed new changes to the party constitution. I won’t get into those here, except to say that in my view they’re detrimental to the party democracy and will make it easier to just let the leadership bulldoze the party without having to do any of that pesky “being liberal” or “internal democracy”.

This view is not exactly countered by the communication of this from the party. We’ve had a couple of emails “from” Parliamentarians. Here’s a screenshot of the most recent, “from” Jo Swinson:
Screenshot of email saying "That's what these changes are about - together we can reform the party and transform British politics.  But we can't do it without you. So please get involved with the consultation and tell us what you think: Read more"

That’s good, isn’t it? “Get involved with the consultation and tell us what you think”? So you click the “read more” link and it takes you to this site.

And what do you see there? This:

Screenshot of a website saying "Be part of what's next: Watch the video, see the proposal, sign up"

That’s right: nothing requesting your opinion at all, no way to “tell us what you think”. Just options to see a video about the proposals, see headlines saying what those proposals are, or sign up for the supporters’ group that’s *in* the proposals, which you would normally think would happen *after* a “consultation”.

Now, there *is* a way to find out how to share your views — it’s to click “see the proposal”, click “read full proposals”, click through to the PDF (!) of the proposal paper, and find an email address (consultation@libdems.org.uk ) at the end of the paper, which calls itself a proposal paper in the links, but a consultation paper in the PDF itself. It turns out that along with the advertised proposals, this also contains questions for the consultation.

(This is of course the style of “consultation” we saw previously with the immigration motion, and look what a mess that’s turned out to be).

It’s almost as if they want to make it look like they’re having a consultation but actually make it a fait accompli or something…

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Waving (Short Story)

I’ve been writing short stories and submitting them to magazines for a while now. Every time I get to the point where I have two more short stories written than I have markets suitable for them where I don’t have something submitted, I’m going to post one here for everyone to read and one to Patreon just for my backers to read, and at the end of the month I’ll put them out as paired ebooks. Here’s a short-short called Waving, and for Patreon backers there’s a ten-thousand word story called The Case of the Happy Marriage

You were twenty-three before you realised other people didn’t experience the world like you do, that the hurt you feel when you step outside isn’t the same one that everyone else does, that the way smells can overwhelm you was not shared by the rest, that those fringes around objects and that slight echo on every sound were only for you and not for the neurotypicals around you. And at the same time, that you didn’t notice things that other people noticed all the time, and could walk around entirely oblivious of them.

It was much longer before you realised why it was that you were experiencing things this way.

Yes, you were autistic, as you’d suspected, but it was more than that. This wasn’t just the way that other autistic people would either seek out or avoid sensory information, though there was plenty of that about it. You were seeing things differently even from them.

That didn’t matter at first, and the support groups definitely helped – even if their experience wasn’t quite yours, well, autistic people are used to dealing with people whose way of perceiving the world is different from theirs, and they were extremely welcoming, and actually listened to you (you’d never dealt with people who listened to you before). You even found lovers there – Rebecca and Katy and Thomas, all of them willing to overlook your idiosyncracies and treat you like the individual you were.

But in the end, connecting even with them was impossible. They meant well, and had actual empathy unlike the neurotypicals you’d tried to be friends with, but they weren’t like you and you weren’t like them. You were different even from the group you’d found, and eventually you drifted apart from them.

But it wasn’t until you took the Open University course in quantum mechanics that you started to realise that there was more to this than just autism (as if there’s such a thing as “just” autism, you thought to yourself, remembering the intense loneliness of your teenage years, and your total inability to hold down a job or do anything else that required any level of self-discipline).

It was the fringing that gave you the clue. You could stare for hours at anything that moved, even slightly, and notice the way it flickered and fringed. Anything still wouldn’t do at all, though occasionally you might notice some blurring round the edges of words when reading, or some interference in the TV picture that nobody else in the room ever saw, but if you looked at a flame, for example, it would sometimes even diverge into three or four flames for an instant, going in a multiplicity of different directions, before once again becoming a single flame.

There was a rhythm to it, one that seemed to go along with your breathing and your heartbeat. Things would flicker, unify, flicker, unify, over and over again. And eventually, you realised that what was happening was that you were perceiving alternative realities, parts of the quantum waveform that other people couldn’t see. Not for long, but for enough time.

All the time, since you were a kid, you’d been experiencing not the single reality that everyone else does, but a range of them. That’s why you experienced some things much more intensely – they were the things that were identical in all the worlds you were living in – and some less so – they were the ones that only happened in one of your multiple worlds, or where the waveform cancelled out.

And having an explanation was something, but it was only an explanation. You couldn’t know who else was experiencing this, or why it was happening to you. It explained nothing about the heartbreaking loneliness you felt, and it couldn’t fix that.

And it wasn’t as if this… power… was of any use. You tried your best to see if you could do anything with it, but there was nothing you could think of that worked. You couldn’t use it to make predictions – the effect only lasted for a fraction of a second at a time – and you tried controlling the results of the collapse, but you couldn’t. You couldn’t make a die come up any particular number, or get heads or tails at any better rates than chance. This wasn’t a magic power, and you couldn’t use it to change the world, this was just an annoying flicker in your vision, and an irritating tendency to get overwhelmed by smells. This was just one more way you were different from everyone else, like your tendency to catch every illness going round or the way you couldn’t talk to anyone without them getting bored in a few minutes.

You sank into a depression after that – you’d found the key to unlock everything about your experiences, and all you could do with it was realise that you’d remain different forever. You considered suicide, and nearly went through with it, but that led to the most horrific realisation of all – there’d be worlds where you survived. What would it feel like, to feel yourself dying, hundreds or thousands of times over, simultaneously, but survive it, cut off from those dead versions of you whose suffering you’d felt?

And that was when it hit you that maybe there was something you could do with this after all. You started training yourself in meditation, in opening your perceptions ever wider. You tried LSD and cannabis, as you’d been told that they made people’s filters drop, and you put all your efforts into the new goal – to keep the flicker going for longer and to experience more of it.

And slowly, slowly, this worked. You timed yourself when staring at a candle, trying to see how long you could keep multiple flames going, and after the beginning, when it was barely a tenth of a second, you managed to get it up to half a second or a second at a time before the collapse happened. You pushed more and more, using all of the tiny amount of discipline you had (because one of the worst things about being autistic is that you have almost no self-control, no willpower as neurotypicals experience it, and it takes gargantuan amounts of effort to even get into a rut, let alone push yourself out of one and into another).

The realisation that you’d made it came quite suddenly one day. You were out for a walk, not even thinking about your practices, when you saw a cat on the pavement in front of you, licking itself. As it saw you coming, it ran off. It ran off in two different directions, and you could see both cats running as long as you looked at them. You’d finally gained the ability to perceive things in multiple realities for extended periods of time.

You kept pushing, though, because this was only a small part of what you were trying to do. You wanted to find someone to talk to, someone to connect with, and there was only one way to do that.

Loneliness is a powerful motivator, and it kept you going even after everything else had failed. You needed that connection, more than anything else in the world – more than anything else in any world. You kept pushing your perceptions wider and wider. Soon it was impossible to go outside, because while the buildings were all the same the roads and pavements were just a blur of cars and people that were in some but not all realities. You stayed inside, not eating any more because the food was both there and not there.

Eventually, after days, weeks, months – you lost count of anything – you saw what you’d been hoping to see all along. Another you. In another corner of your flat. You waved, and you waved back.

And for the first time ever you had someone who could truly understand you, who you could talk to about anything and everything, someone who had experienced the world the way you saw it. For the first time ever you could make a connection with someone who understood, who got you.

And as soon as you did, you realised the awful truth. You hated this person in front of you. People didn’t avoid making a connection with you because you were different or special – they avoided you just because you weren’t a nice person. You were no fun, you were self-obsessed, you ignored the world around you and lived inside your own head, and you didn’t even like it in there. If you couldn’t, how could anyone else?

Both of you started to cry, and you realised with a tiny bit of sympathy but mostly with revulsion that you couldn’t even bring yourself to comfort each other, because you found yourself too revolting to ever want to make yourself feel better.

You don’t know which of you closed yourselves off first – you were, after all, enough alike that you both had the same instincts – but the same thing that drove you to push your perceptions ever wider seemed to push a part of your brain that you didn’t know you had into shutting it down. Instantly your flat resolved itself into a single, grimy, dingy bedsit. There was no more blurring, no more echoing reverb. The smell remained intense, though – after not washing, or opening the windows, or tidying since you’d started your programme of self-discovery, it wasn’t really surprising that that was the case.

You looked down at yourself, at the body you’d been so disgusted by when you’d seen it from the outside, at the person you had been running from until you realised that you were only running in place, and you realised that you really were truly alone.

You were stuck with yourself, so you’d better learn how to like yourself, because nobody else was going to be you for you.

(To read The Case of the Happy Marriage, a much longer story (42 pages in manuscript) visit http://patreon.com/andrewhickey and become a backer. For those of you who are already backers, you can read the story at this link.)

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The Howard Rule: A Modest Proposal

I’d like to propose a simple test for all proposed Lib Dem policy, one that should be incredibly easy to meet, but which is increasingly difficult to persuade people of:

If the proposed policy is less liberal than the one in place when Michael Howard was in the Home Office, the policy gets thrown out.

For those who don’t remember, Michael Howard was the Home Secretary when John Major was Prime Minister in the late 1990s. He was, at the time, almost certainly the most horrifically authoritarian person ever to have that job, and he famously introduced things like restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly, the end to the unqualified right to silence when arrested, and attempted to ban raves (leading to definitions banning the public playing of music with “repetitive beats”). He was also Conservative leader in the 2005 General Election, when the Tories had a poster campaign which was widely condemned by all sides as being racist dogwhistling. He was, in every way, the antithesis of liberalism.

Unfortunately, that “antithesis of liberalism” definition also applies to almost everyone who has held the post of Home Secretary or Shadow Home Secretary since him, for both Labour and Conservative parties alike. David Blunkett, Jack Straw, and Theresa May in particular have all done their level best to push the country as close as they could to outright fascism.

And so this means that centrists — as distinct from actual liberals — have been positioning themselves between two wings of illiberalism rather than taking liberal stands. And as the Lib Dems contain both centrists and liberals, what tends to happen in the party is that the party’s policy is a compromise between centrists and liberals. As the centre gets pushed further to the right, so then does the party policy, with people still defending it because, as a compromise between liberalism and the authoritarian centre, it’s still more liberal than the current authoritarian centre.

It’s just so horrifically right-wing that anyone told about it twenty years ago would have assumed it came from the BNP rather than from a party that considered civil liberties important.

Take the proposed immigration policy that the party will debate in a couple of weeks. Now, the policy is certainly more liberal than the current situation, and more liberal than the current policies of Labour or the Tories, but is it actually liberal? Well, an actually liberal policy would be more liberal than Michael Howard’s immigration policy, wouldn’t it?

So, let’s look at the situation that the party wants to have for people who marry a foreigner. The following is the situation that would be in place if the changes in the policy paper and motion, and only those changes, were brought in,

What they want is, once the couple are married, for the British person to prove that they have the ability to support the foreigner without claiming any benefits — so, for example, a ban on love for any disabled person who falls in love with a foreigner. Then their spouse has to live here on a temporary visa, which they have to pay exorbitant costs for (currently in the multiple thousands of pounds).

They have to live on that temporary visa for five years, and during that time if they become unable to work they can’t claim benefits — and if their partner is also unable to work, well, they’ll just have to survive on one person’s benefits, not two (and this is the most generous interpretation of a policy which in fact bars the British person from claiming many benefits too). After five years they have to pay more money to take a test, which they need to pass. Having taken that test, they can then claim indefinite leave to remain, which currently costs £2389 (there is talk in the policy paper of looking in to reducing this cost, but no commitment to actually reduce it). That allows you to live here, and (finally) claim benefits, but not to have the same rights as a citizen.

Then, after another year and another fee (currently £1330, again there’s talk of maybe possibly maybe looking at possibly reducing this a little possibly, but no commitment to actually do so) you can become a citizen — though you still don’t have *all* the rights of a natural-born citizen, as the Home Secretary still has the power to remove your citizenship.

This is the current situation, and it’s also the situation if the current policy paper was brought into force. The only actual change it commits to bringing in is a change from a de jure minimum income for the British spouse to the old system of a de facto one. To show how much difference that makes in practice, the current minimum income for the British spouse is £18000. Under the system that applied in 2006 when I married my American wife, where there was no legal minimum income but, as in this policy, you still had to prove that you could support your spouse, I was advised that if I was earning less than £15000 a year I wouldn’t be considered able to support her.

So, that’s the system that this paper claims to be liberal. Now, let’s look at the system under Michael Howard — the system, in fact, under the first two years of Jack Straw as Home Secretary as well. The system that was in place up until nineteen years ago.

In that system, if you got married to a British person you were entitled to claim benefits from day one. There was no necessity for your British spouse to be able to support you. (that changed in 1999) You got indefinite leave to remain after a year, automatically. There was no fee for it, and no test, until 2003. You could apply for citizenship after another year. The fee in 1996 was £120. That was a *decrease* on the 1991 fee of £135, because “some changes are necessary in order to meet the Government’s policy of recovering no more than the cost of processing citizenship applications.”

So, in other words, the immigration policy being put in front of the party at the moment is slightly more liberal than Theresa May, and also more liberal than the current Labour party. But it’s only slightly more liberal than them, slightly *less* liberal than the system under David Blunkett (where the fees and tests existed but you only had to wait two years for ILR), much less liberal than the system under Jack Straw (who introduced the rule that you couldn’t claim benefits but didn’t bring in fees or tests), and so much less liberal than the system under Michael Howard that if, during the mid-90s Tory government, you had shown anyone with any awareness of politics these proposals, they would have assumed you were an actual fascist.

So how has this happened? It’s happened because, for decades, liberals (small-l, as there are people with liberal views in many political parties) have been compromising with the far right, while the far right haven’t been budging. If you agree to meet someone half way, and they don’t move, the correct response is to go back to your original position. Instead, we’ve been moving half way again, and again, and again, and the far right haven’t been moving at all.

The biggest argument within the Lib Dems at the moment is one that’s largely going unspoken — it’s whether, given the tiny share of the vote we currently have, our main aim should be to get more Lib Dem MPs again, or whether it should be to try to get liberal legislation enacted, however many MPs we have.

Now, obviously, in an ideal world we would have both. And I happen to believe that in the medium term compromises that get a small short-term boost under the FPTP system will hollow out a party and get rid of even the few MPs we have, while sticking to our principles would bring electoral results.

But if we *do* have to choose one or the other, I’ll choose getting liberal legislation passed over getting illiberal Lib Dem MPs every time. And we know that that strategy can work. The last time we were reduced to such a small Parliamentary rump, in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the party essentially acted as a think-tank for the larger parties. At that time, then-radical Liberal ideas like introducing the NHS, legalising homosexual acts between consenting men, and getting rid of capital punishment became mainstream, thanks to big-l Liberals working with small-l liberals in other parties. Indeed several of those small-l liberals later became big-l Lib Dems, most notably Roy Jenkins.

The Liberals back then punched significantly above their weight, because they were a party of radical new ideas.

Now, on the other hand, we’re achieving nothing in terms of national politics (though there are many good Liberals at the local level improving people’s lives on councils up and down the country). And the reason for that is that we’re scared of taking a strong position on anything. We’re the party of lazy compromise.

Meanwhile, you know who has been punching *way* above their weight? UKIP. They have, in total, had one MP get elected at a general election — an incumbent former-Tory defector who quit the party less than two years later — in their entire history. Yet their entire policy programme has been taken up by both Labour and the Tories, and more of it than most of us would like to admit by the Lib Dems.

And the reason for this is that they have always stated, very clearly and simply, that they wanted to leave the EU, that their preferred method for doing so was by a referendum, and that after doing so they would cut immigration drastically or stop it altogether. They used whatever platform they had to hammer home those simple ideas, over and over and over again, not budging but making everyone else shift position closer to theirs.

We should do the same. We should stake out a simple, radical, liberal position, one that can ideally be summed up in a few simple slogans (policies should be more than slogans, but they should be able to be summed up in a slogan if you want to persuade people). “Tax the landlords, not the workers”, “Give everyone enough money to live on”, “Let people live where they like and marry who they like”, “stop Brexit because it’s fucking stupid”. Ideas like that will not necessarily help win over an extra three swing voters in North Norfolk, but they will help shape Britain into a more liberal society.

And by hammering home those ideas, and by having policy to match them, we might even once again get to the point where a Conservative government allows any immigrant who marries a British person to live here without any restrictions at all.

But we’ll only do that if we set out in that direction. So, once again, I suggest the Howard rule. Not as a final aspiration, but as a basic filter. If the Lib Dems can’t be more liberal than David Blunkett, Jack Straw, and Michael Howard, then who will?

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