South Park’s Hidden Commentary on White Nationalism

Spoilers for South Park: Season 21, Episode 1

A few weeks ago South Park’s 21st season got off to a topical start by skewering white nationalism. And… at first it seemed kind of toothless. Taking up the traditional South Park battle cry of ‘Dey Terk Er Jerbs’, rednecks marched with tiki torches and confederate flags, this time against Siri and Alexa. This seemed kind of lacklustre because it reduced racism to purely economic motives, while economic crashes are undoubtedly one cause of rising racism, cause and motive are different things. Economic hardship no doubt created the conditions for radical white nationalism to thrive, but people who are drawn to it likely have deeper issues. It also replaces the victims of white nationalism, the very reason white nationalism should concern us, with literal objects. Another noteworthy change was that confederate flags predominated at the rally, whereas Nazi flags were entirely absent. Similarly, the outrageous real-life chant of ‘Jews will not replace us’ was sanitised to ‘You will not replace us’, because reality has now become more shocking than South Park. This toning down of Nazi rhetoric early in the episode was initially troubling.

The episode started to improve with Randy’s plotline. While the rednecks struggled to adapt to South Park’s changing economy, Randy jumped in headfirst and created a home makeover show called White People Renovating Houses. When Randy’s filming was disturbed by a white nationalist rally his primary concern was how it effects his show’s image. This was Randy’s primary motive for the rest of the episode, and it ultimately lead him to a sticking plaster solution when he renovated the house of a white nationalist. The people inside were still waving confederate flags, but it became open plan, and modern, and there were confederate flags on throw pillows. The core problem of racism was never addressed, just the problem of the racism being old fashioned. This plot-line struck me as a surprisingly considered look both at how white nationalism makes other white people feel threatened by exposing subtler forms of racism, and the ways in which white nationalists have modernised to conceal their racism. But where the episode’s commentary got really clever was with a subplot that’s been largely overlooked as just a silly return to the old South Park.

Throughout the episode Cartman’s plotline revolved around him becoming exasperated in his relationship with Heidi. This isn’t because of anything she’s done, she was actively trying to make the relationship work, Cartman was just too Cartman and could only see her in terms of nagging stereotypes. Cartman mentally contrasted Heidi with his Alexa device, which has a woman’s voice but no will of its own. As Heidi continued to try and work on their relationship, Cartman decided she was mentally abusing him, and his attempts to call her on this ended up being real emotional abuse towards her. She internalised his accusations, and blamed herself, but just as she started to give in he ended the relationship. Perhaps accidentally, this was a far better explanation of how white nationalism comes about than simply a lack of jobs.

In this plotline Heidi could be interpreted as discriminated against minorities within society, while Cartman is the response of parts of the white majority to them. Heidi brought to the table ways in which their relationship is affecting her negatively, but changing these problems would be work for Cartman. It might even require him to change himself. So, he just saw it as needless nagging. In this light mental abuse is analogous to racism, Cartman was enjoying the relationship as it was, and when asked to change for Heidi’s good he saw this as mental abuse, much as some white people see any attack on their privilege as ‘reverse racism’. Of course, what Cartman responded with was actual abuse, and this is where white nationalism enters the metaphor. Much white nationalist racism is motivated by a narrative in which they are the real victims of racism. Cartman eventually leaving Heidi could be seen as the final step towards white nationalism, openly advocating for a white nation state.

One of the interesting things about this metaphor is that it may have been entirely accidental. One of South park’s strengths is that the dialogue is often very simple and repetitive with a lot of pauses, this seems to make it very effective at suggesting a deeper meaning. And while this interpretation sprung quickly into my mind upon watching the episode, it’s only really signalled by the plotlines running parallel to it. Even if it is accidental it doesn’t take away from its effect, but I hope its intentional. Because if it is it may be a partial mea culpa. In the past few seasons South Park has massively overreacted to concepts it’s seen as PC, for example writing an entire song about their poorly understood conception of a safe space. How I wish this was a sign that they now recognise how they were overreacting.


Why Ruining Your Childhood is Genius

Nostalgia is a seemingly ever renewable resource for film studios. Rebooting a franchise from the 80s or 90s is an easy way to avoid coming up with new ideas, new ideas that might be commercially risky. It’s also been shown that nostalgia makes people relax and unclench their wallets, something the folks in ad-land have long suspected. But, there’s one way in which reboots work financially which seems to go largely ignored, and it’s the fault of the hipsters.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Or at least to a degree. A good controversy can be free advertising for if you annoy the right groups. Starbucks reported record profits after its evil plot to destroy Christmas. Controversy isn’t unanimously good, no-one is going to buy your lasagnes because they were on the news for a horse meat scare. But in the age of social media, an opposing side will develop in almost any controversy. Whether it’s good for your business depends on the size of the controversy, and which side more people support. But what happens when the same business is on both sides of the controversy? It means it doesn’t matter what side people are on, it just has to be big.

When people claim studios are ruining their childhood with reboots, this is itself a form of nostalgia. People may then act on that nostalgia. They may talk to friends about what made the original good. Or recommend the original to a fan of the new film. Or even go out and buy the original. But the chances are good that the same business owns both the original film and the new one. This is why there are a thousand new generations of Pokémon cards. The way in which the new product is criticised renews interest in the original.

The masters of this strategy are Disney. After the release of Snow White in the 30s, they released it to cinemas again in 1944 to see the company through the Second World War. This started a tradition of rereleasing it every 4 to 7 years, meaning children who were born at the time of the last release would now be old enough to see the film. They rereleased the film 9 times, so children who’d seen the film took their own children to it out of nostalgia, until 1993 when VHS and soon DVDs were coming to dominate. DVDs were not limited by having to go out of theatres, and Disney eventually started making live action remakes of their old properties to release to cinemas. But the DVDs were always there if you wanted your kid to see the original instead, and either option was a win for Disney.

If this is a conscious business strategy it’s genius. It converts negative attention into positive. It makes the idea of ‘voting with your wallets’ an illusion if you still buy the original. It’s a problem with no easy way out, because it hijacks our need to talk about good art with bad art. Maybe if you think reboots are legitimately ruining your childhood you’re too attached to nostalgia, but most people don’t think that, they’re just talking about films they like. And it would be a loss if we stopped talking about a part of our culture, even if doing so is exactly what the studios we’re criticising want. I guess the only advice I can give as to a way out is to buy nostalgic films second-hand. I guess you wanted a neater solution than that, but Hollywood is kind of massive, and I write a blog with 2 regular readers. Sorry about that.

How to make Faster Than Light more Human (and Alien)

Faster Than Light is such a good game in a lot of ways, but I’ve noticed something about it that bothers me. The morality of Faster Than light is… complicated. Your mission is at once simple and insanely difficult, get the top-secret information to the Federation without being caught by the advancing Rebels or destroyed by the many other dangers of the universe. Within the scope of this larger mission it becomes easy to justify actions for the greater good. You don’t have to give out fuel to stranded strangers. You don’t have to save people from a burning space station. You don’t have to intervene to attack slavers or pirates. Further complicating this is the fact that it’s unclear what the Rebels or the Federation stand for, the immediate moral conflicts seem more real than what the game tells you is the actual objective. Which you will probably fail at anyway.

Further complicating things is the fact that the game often doesn’t punish you for doing something morally wrong. Sometimes it does, but more often it doesn’t. This absence of a mechanic is in itself a clever choice, it gets across the feel of an uncaring and uncertain universe perfectly. Even better, the game is teaching you to behave immorally, something that could bite you in the ass later on. However, where this falls apart is with the emotional lives of your crew. Sometimes you will decide on a morally reprehensible course of action, and the game will note that your crew is not happy about this. This doesn’t translate into gameplay at all. This is where the game should take a leaf out of the book of Darkest Dungeon, and make it possible for your crew to get stressed out or angry.

The universe of Faster Than Light is vast, and everywhere you travel you meet with unrest, slavery, disease, piracy, asteroid field, former allies who turn on you, rebels who want to kill you for ill-defined reasons, and cool sounding tourist sites you don’t have the time to visit. This is not a place where going about your job should be easy. At the moment, the only way the journey changes your crew is that they learn new skills, which immediately becomes useless when you find an alien who already has that skill maxed out. This game mechanic treats your crew like objects. Like your ship’s weapon or shield systems they’re there to be upgraded and fixed when damaged. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if by making immoral decisions, you caused your crew to question whether they’re on the right side at all. It would also make your punishment for bad behaviour cumulative rather than random.

One place where these moral mechanics are really necessary is when you encounter slave traders. As depressing as the Faster Than Light universe is, slavers might be the most reprehensible thing in it. The only way to stop slavers is to destroy their ship, which is no solace to any slaves who were onboard. You can choose not to attack, or alternatively you can buy one of their slaves and free them to work in your crew. This raises all sorts of moral questions. If you buy someone, and they are expected to work in your crew, and you don’t have an option to take them home, are they really free at all? I’m not suggesting you should be able to keep slaves, and perhaps in this savage lonely universe an inevitably doomed fighter ship isn’t such a bad place to be. But I think you should have the option to return former slaves home, and if you don’t they could reasonable feel quite upset about that. Having every freed slave pull a genie from Aladdin on you is a little too neat.

These emotional mechanisms would really be amplified when faced with the tensions between alien races. There’s an event where a Zoltan ship is attacking a Mantis one and will soon destroy it. In theory, the Mantis are ruthless enemies, and the Zoltan are your allies albeit somewhat overzealous with their laws. However, in the unrest brought on by the Rebellion, the Zoltans are nearly as likely to attack you as the Mantis. There’s also a romantic appeal to joining the wild Mantis on the losing side, against the uptight Zoltans. This is a wonderfully crafted and instantly engaging dilemma. But what is really interesting about this situation is that no matter what you decide, the Mantis and Zoltan members of your crew are unfazed by you choosing between their two races.

Given that the Mantis are so warlike and dangerous, it would make sense if your crew generally felt uneasy about working with them. In another event a virus infects and destroys a member of your crew, one of the mechanical Enji. after you defeat an Enji ship trying to destroy the virus, it reconstitutes his body with the virus’ consciousness and joins your crew. While this new virus crewmember has excellent stats, this would undoubtedly trouble any other Enji crew. In theory the Enji don’t feel fear, and yet they have enough self-preservation to try and destroy your ship with the virus on, why wouldn’t they try to kill the virus crewmember out of fear of infection? And what about other emotions? Can the Enji feel love or grief?

There’s an achievement you can get when playing as a Kestrel Cruiser called the United Federation. It’s a major part of unlocking more advanced Cruiser designs. You get the achievement by having 6 crew-members from different alien races. At the moment, all this means is having enough money and visiting enough shops, until you have bought yourself the necessary crew. This, I feel, misses the point. Unity is hard, and the mechanics should reflect these tensions. We see this in the fall of the Federation which, the achievement implies, held up the ideal of unity ideals. In addition, most sectors of space you pass through do not belong to the Federation anymore, they are divided between the various alien races. Unity is hard, but as each of these races has something to offer, it’s something worth working for.

Should Themes Develop From Gameplay? Rambling Thoughts on Ludonarrative Dissonance

Spoilers for Crypt of the NecroDancer and Papers Please

Something has bothered me about Crypt of the NecroDancer from the start. It’s a wonderful game that uses a really simple innovation, all movements have to be performed on the beat of a song, to add a sense of urgency and fluidity to an old fashioned 2D dungeon-crawler. Though the change is musical, in fitting with the title it made a game about movement. This is reinforced by an increasing number of enemies that not only move in odd patterns, but effect your movements too. Some pull you towards them or teleport you elsewhere, while others reverse your arrow buttons or create icy paths you can slide down. This all seems very good, so what’s the problem exactly? I didn’t identify what it was until I saw this Dan Olson video explaining the concept of ludonarrative dissonance.


Ludonarrative dissonance is a term used to denote a thematic disconnect or conflict between a game’s gameplay and story. For example, a game’s story may revolve around whether violence is ever acceptable but the gameplay involves copious headshots. The opposite of this is ludonarrative harmony, where gameplay themes carry into story and vice versa, when achieved this makes a game feel more wholistic. Dan’s response to criticisms of these concepts based on how we look at film, is to say these critical tools could also be applied to film as cinemanarrative dissonance. I think this is a valid tool to suggest but in suggesting it he seems to ignore the specific relevance of dissonance to video games. Films tend to come about because a director, who oversees and unites all aspects of a project, has a story to tell. Games still often emerge from gameplay elements alone, and arguably this is the best way to build a story.

The story of Crypt of the NecroDancer feels tired and staid, it’s the kind of story familiar to Roguelikes. This wouldn’t be a problem with your average genre revitalisation, but the gameplay is so dynamic it creates a major. The story is told largely through unskippable cutscenes, which after 10 minutes of dancing and dodging, seem to plod along. Largely they detail events remembered in the past, often giving your character a passive feel. The shopkeepers that can be rescued on some of the levels are utterly irrelevant to the plot, sacrificing a major possibility for more integrated storytelling. And the objective of trying to reclaim your heart from the NecroDancer fails to generate the same urgency as the rapidly climaxing music does, perhaps because he never shows up in the gameplay until the very end.

Towards the end of the game, story and gameplay come into direct conflict. Once you have beaten the incredibly difficult Zone 4, you are faced with one of the game’s toughest bosses. Dead Ringer is a fitting final boss in terms of difficulty, but in story terms he is not the NecroDancer but your transfigured father. You don’t know this until after the fight, which rather than acting as an effective twist removes the story stakes from the fight. Afterwards you have to have a second boss fight with the NecroDancer afterwards. Because you are now joined by your father you fight the NecroDancer in tandem, when one of you moves so does the other, and when one of you dies you both lose. The game has given you no chance to master this skill previously (this could have been changed if you had first fought alongside your father, then seen him transfigured, introducing a sense of urgency), so that you can master this new mode of gameplay the final boss fight is anticlimactically easy. In case it’s not clear I don’t think a game should follow a hard boss fight with an easy one as its finale. The generic storyline of Crypt of the NecroDancer has contorted the gameplay of the final levels beyond recognition, this could have been resolved if gameplay instead inspired story.

What would a game look like if story stemmed naturally from gameplay? Perhaps something like Papers Please. The themes of its gameplay are monotony, desperation and messy human error. YouTuber HBomberGuy (who you should all go and follow immediately) argued in his Darkest Dungeon review that Papers Please has one of the best ludonarratives ever, because in obeying the games rules you learn to compromise your own morality, and these rules can easily be disobeyed. The genius of Papers Please is that it recognises that games inherently dehumanise human characters by making them subject to gameplay mechanisms, so it applies this to a real life situation where people are dehumanised by making you a border guard enacting arbitrary immigration rules.

However, Papers Please is not perfect in terms of ludonarrative dissonance. While it makes sense that the effect you have on strangers lives would not come back to haunt you, this should not apply to your family. While not punishing you for it, the gameplay actively encourages you to let some of your family die by allowing you to save money on food this way. The point of rejecting someone at the border is that you can reject them without punishment to make money at your job, the point is you can do awful things to someone when they mean nothing to you. But your family should mean something to you in gameplay terms, or else what are you fighting for in the game? While someone doing awful things just for their job is frightening because they have a banal motive, someone doing awful things for their family is more disturbing because it represents the perversion of positive emotions. And this distinction could have been grasped with more attention to the interaction of gameplay and story themes.

On Homophobia & Transphobia

A month ago, I wrote a blog post Private Eye magazine’s troubled relationship with LGBT issues. While I tried to focus on the present, this inevitably meant engaging with the magazine’s past opposition to the gay rights movement under former editor Richard Ingrams. I tried to keep this encounter brief, but one argument Ingrams made in the Independent, about how he couldn’t possibly be a homophobe, irked me in particular. So I’m going to address it more fully here:

‘Likewise, a recent addition to the dictionary, the word homophobia, is used to describe any expression of anti-gay feeling. The effect of this made-up word is to suggest that any such feelings are the result of a morbid and abnormal psychological condition similar to an irrational fear of mice or spiders.’ – The Independent, Richard Ingrams’ Week: Youth appeal is wasted on the young, 17th December 2005

This is in the context of a broader tantrum he was throwing over how language is changing to be more inclusive, as though language has ever been a stable construct. What is particularly galling in this is that Ingrams thinks he is the one being pathologized. Originally referring to the fear of straight men that they might be considered gay, the word homophobia was coined in the late 1960s. It is of course derived from the word homosexual which was first used in English in the Psychopathia Sexualis 80 years earlier, this work explicitly called homosexuality a mental illness.

This idea gained traction in psychiatry for a time, and the pseudoscientific idea of a cure is still clung to by fringe weirdos such as the Vice President of the United States of America. Ingrams should know all this because he has in the past defended people criticised for propounding conversion therapy. In short, homophobia sounds medical because it evolved out of language constructed by a homophobic society, but Ingrams only considered this an issue when it turned around to bite him in the ass.

I’d love to write Ingrams off as an irrelevant dinosaur, but unfortunately similar arguments are resurfacing all the time on social media. You see, people who have a problem with gay people really don’t like the existence of a word for this phenomenon. So they question whether it’s really accurate to say they’re afraid of gay people (as though they would actually prefer a word claiming they hate gay people). They are missing the admittedly difficult concept that the meaning of words may have altered slightly in 50 years, or since ancient Grecian times.

Okay, I can do better than glibness. Accusations of homophobia can admittedly be a broad-brush approach. It may refer to something people do unconsciously and without consideration. It may refer to systemic attitudes and problem. And, occasionally we can use other words such as bias to reassure the insecure that we are not accusing them of being a card carrying member of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Yet in spite of its inexactness. In spite of the backlash it can arouse. In spite of how people don’t like to be criticised or called on bullshit. In spite of its bastardised mix of Latin and Greek. I think homophobia is more than simply a tolerably functional word. It is a reminder of the real perverse relationship here. That of fear and ignorance with hate. Christians told us that if we accepted gay people, bestiality and paedophilia would be next. Jeremy Irons claimed in an interview that if gay marriage was allowed nothing would stop sons marrying fathers to dodge inheritance tax. Dogs and cats living together. The hysteria has already abated considerably, but the word will always remind us that not all fears are legitimate.

Forgetting is a luxury not everyone has to worry about. Trans acceptance lags decades behind that of the gay community, in spite of their presence throughout LGBT movements as early as Stonewall. I will reiterate that not one trans person has been reported attacking or assaulting a child or woman while going about their business in a public bathroom. This is in contrast to Republican lawmakers who get up to a great deal in bathrooms it seems.

Those against trans people being allowed in bathrooms of their choice (or at least the more tactful among them) like to claim that they don’t actually think trans people are sexual predators. They fear that real sexual predators will use new laws to enter bathrooms belonging to the opposite gender, because sexual predators are famously respectful of laws and boundaries. This fear over trans people is completely irrational… if only we had a word for such irrational fears. In contrast, a survey of over 27,715 transgender people in the US found over half had avoided using public bathrooms in the last year. Nearly a quarter had been questioned or challenged when using a bathroom in the same period of time, and more than one in ten considered this severe enough to constitute harassment. The people with legitimate fears are not those being heard by those in power.

I hope that by maintaining the label homophobia the gay community will be reminded that we have been through the same conservative playlist as the trans community, and we must support their fight against transphobia. My hopes aren’t exactly high, increasingly it seems the price of mainstream acceptance for the gay community has been the privilege to be bigoted. We must not forget the role trans people have played in our liberation. We must not forget how it felt to be powerless, now that we have a little power. However tenuous the link, homophobia is a word that reminds us of our roots.

The Art of Bookstores: Thoughts and Suggestions on visiting The School of Life

Alain De Botton is one of my favourite writers and thinkers. I’ve read 4 of his books now: The Art of Travel, The News, The Architecture of Happiness and perhaps my favourite Religion for Atheists. I’m also subscribed to his YouTube channel, The School of Life. He’s put forward interesting critiques of often unquestioned modern values such as romanticism and relativism. His ideas aren’t always perfect, they can have an infuriatingly middle-ground feel, but they’re always thought provoking and put forward compassionately. Also, he has an adorably awkward smile, and a voice like the flutter of angel’s wings.

So naturally when I was in London a few weeks ago, I was excited to visit The School of Life store. It wasn’t what I expected. My first disappointment with it was that it didn’t open until 11am. But, it’s also on Marchmont Street a few doors down from the famous Gay’s the Word bookstore, which film buffs might know is the one featured in the film Pride. It was pretty awesome, I bought Peter Ackroyd’s book on the queer history of London, and discovered many more books to add to my Goodreads.

One of the first things I noticed when I got into The School of Life store was how modern and simple it was. This in itself is not a fault, but it’s noteworthy because De Botton has criticised this exact style of design when talking about the Villa Savoye. It’s also a style that is in strong contrast with the buildings more traditional surroundings, this is another thing he has explicitly criticised, claiming that buildings need to balance individuality with respect for surrounding styles.

I do think this modernist style does fit with some of the objects sold there, such as the pottery that’s focused on the qualities of simplicity as well as fitting into this sanitised museum-like feel. But I was more interested in the books, and the store really wasn’t designed for them. Bookstores often seem to suit a more old-fashioned feel, perhaps because books are increasingly an old-fashioned thing. Or maybe because they’re the accumulated knowledge of the past, this is particularly true of De Botton’s books which deliberately repackage the ideas of philosophers and writers to use in day to day life.

In contrast to Gay’s the Word, there weren’t enough books to search through in the School of Life. It prevented me making new discoveries in the same way. In fact, there wasn’t even a full collection of Alain De Botton’s own books, and I already owned all the ones there. This was particularly disappointing as De Botton had signed several of the books, but I couldn’t justify to myself buying one I already owned.

All the books there that weren’t written by De Botton I had already seen on The School of Life’s online store. The search, the possibility of finding something new, something you might not find through algorithms and google searches is perhaps the most compelling part of physically visiting a bookstore in modern times. The internet is good at showing us what it thinks we like, or what we ask for, in this way bookstores are far better at exposing us to new ideas. Physically handling and flicking through books piques people’s curiosity in a way you cannot online. So far as I can tell De Botton’s entire career has been dedicated to exposing his audience to new ideas, but in the name of keeping his shop simple he has missed an important opportunity to do this.

In the off chance De Botton ever reads this my advice to him is to tear out the small shelves in the corner that currently contain his books, and replace it with a larger bookshelf that still matches the decorating scheme. Then fill it with books introducing customers to many of the ideas he draws on in his books. Below is a link to a list of books De Botton has previously recommended that could probably quite easily fill a decent sized bookshelf:

A Queer Choice of Ending: Peter Ackroyd’s Reductive Take on Privilege

Peter Ackroyd’s Queer History is a patchwork sort of book. It has well over 100 references and it shows in the often factually dense text, as well as the difficulty with which this is drawn together into a clear narrative of queer London. The book is still very strong as a reference book, at least until it races through the C20th and collides headfirst with modern issues.

The cracks started to show a few pages from the end when Ackroyd started bemoans the decline of London gay bars. While this is a cultural loss worth lamenting, Ackroyd completely fails to acknowledge the digital scene which has replaced it. Queer youths now often learn about their identities online. People can now network with other LGBT+ individuals through Facebook groups. Meanwhile hookup apps like Grindr still ground the digital scene in the physical London. Without acknowledging the services which have moved into this vacuum, Ackroyd paints a false picture of decline when what is really happening is change and adaption.

He could have also discussed other developments in the modern gay scene, for other eras Ackroyd mined records for the evolution of queer terminology, and it would have been interesting to see how bears, jocks and twinks emerged. After all there is a wealth of sources for modern times. But I think Ackroyd’s lack of attention to, and perhaps knowledge of the digital world is more noteworthy. It shows that he doesn’t really understand it, and this will cause major problems in his writing at the very end of this chapter.

The language Ackroyd uses on this same page is pretty telling too, in the coded descriptive style he’s deployed throughout the book he describes what the gay scene has become without hardening legal scandals. ‘Its contours have been soft, its colours tending to the sepia.’ This creates a vague impression of frailty as though legal persecution somehow improved the now ‘muted affair’ of the gay scene. He also links the decline of gay bars to them ‘becoming ‘safer’’. Ackroyd’s point is very unclear here because he gives no examples, but it sure sounds like generic moaning about safe spaces. Newsflash, gay bars were the original safe spaces.  All of this should have been warning for these sentences tacked editorlessly into the last paragraph before the concluding one:

‘The increasing preference for a notion of gender ‘fluidity’ itself accounts not only for the almost bewildering array of terms now approved within debates about gender identity, but also for the remarkably ad hominin or ad feminam sparring that takes place in social media. The initially puzzling exhortation to ‘Check your privilege!’ is, at its best, merely an appeal for a recognition that our opinions can be rooted in personal circumstances that not everyone is heir to. Thus a white middle-class woman is not best placed to lecture a working-class black woman, or vice versa. When the question turns to gender identity, however, something farcical can ensue. A ‘cis woman’ (one born a woman in gender as well as in sexual characteristics) will tell a trans woman to check her privilege for having been able to avoid the difficulties of growing up a woman; a trans woman will retort that a cis woman should check her own privilege for not having undergone all the agonies entailed by growing up in the wrong biological sex, or for never having confronted transphobia. So it goes on.’ – p. 232

First of all, it seems strange to talk about the idea of privilege as something developing out of gender fluidity, privilege as a concept seems to rely on strict divisions between people’s experiences. Ackroyd may have good reason for claiming this link, but he once again does not explain it to us. Secondly, note that Ackroyd’s reaction to the development of new sexual and gender labels is bewilderment. I would have thought that as a historian his job would be to explain these terms to us, and what that tells us about London right now. But Ackroyd does not understand these terms, nor has he sought to understand them as one would a historical text.

Ackroyd is clearly just as bewildered by the notion of privilege as new terminology. Perhaps this is because as I outlined earlier he seems dismissive of the digital gay scene, and privilege to him is limited to social media arguments. He seems to think it is only ever evoked when people are asked to check it, with an exclamation mark at the end for outrage.

I do think Ackroyd has something of a point here, asking someone to check their privilege without the context of an argument can be a way of closing off discussion. But, accompanied with an argument it has the potential to demonstrate how your experiences may have blinded you to a problem, thus opening you up to new ideas. The notion of privilege itself strikes me as fairly solid, people often have the privilege of ignoring issues that don’t affect them, something Queer City itself seems to demonstrate by bringing to light an often-ignored history.

Ackroyd however doesn’t allow for such nuance, he quickly devolves the conversation to an impasse that he freely admits is farcical. I’m sure this conversation has happened at some point on social media, and it does seem to reflect elements of the debate between Trans activists and TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). However, it’s not representative of the whole conversation. It’s the kind of flippant hot take I’d expect to see in The Oldie, not by a professional historian with 2 research assistants.

This matters. It matters because this is the only book I know of that covers the entire queer history of London, and when it is read in the future people will likely see it as an accurate portrayal our historical period. A period Ackroyd has characterised with decline and social media hysteria. Ackroyd has done an astounding thing here. He has written a book entirely about people’s different experiences over time. Then at the last moment he has implicitly dismissed an important way of understanding the simple fact that experiences vary.

In his second to last sentence Ackroyd summarises his book as ‘a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction.’ But I hope I can be forgiven for being left with a bitter taste in my mouth. He may have celebrated the queer past, but he seems to have little interest in offering the same courtesy to the queer present and future.


All quotes taken from  –  P. Ackroyd, Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the present day (London: Chatto & Windus, 2017) pp. 229 & 232

The Jungle Book is Trash

This is my Goodreads review of the Jungle Book. As I only got half way through it before hurling it at the wall, I’m moving my original review here so I can take it off my Read list. Spoilers abound, which is a good thing because it saves you actually reading this ‘classic’.

I’d had enough of this at page 70, nearly exactly halfway through. But frankly, I don’t want it hanging around my Currently Reading list, staring at me. So it goes on the Read list, it’s the least it can do.

Brutish isn’t a strong enough word. If you’ve only ever seen the Disney version, look away now, I don’t want to ruin your precious childhood with the details. Carefree Baloo beats Mowgli when he forgets his lessons, Bagheera even jokes that he knocks the lessons back out of him. Bagheera himself gets in at least one swipe. Tabaqui the jackal, an infinitely better villain than the foolish and cowardly Shere Khan, is disposed of off-page by one of Mowgli’s wolf brothers. He breaks his spine, and it’s strongly implied he tortured him for information. May I beckon the Disney fans back a moment? Mowgli orchestrates a stampede to trample Shere Khan to death, a death Mowgli admits is only worthy of a dog. Now who does this remind you of Disney fans? Well at least Uncle Scar didn’t skin his victim afterwards as Mowgli does.

Ah, Mowgli. A child with the petulance of a child, who never learns a lesson from it. A character whose defining trait is arrogance. When he seizes the Red Flower from the man village he could have left his former pride with dignity and sorrow, instead he returns to humiliate his frightened foe with it.

Now look at this clause, squeezed in the second half of a sentence at the end of a paragraph, describing the rampaging bull Mowgli is riding finally making a climatic collision with Shere Khan. ‘in the bed of the ravine Rama winded Shere Khan and bellowed.’ There is literally no phrasing you could put here and have less effect. The use of ‘bellowed’ as a verb makes barely equal partners of the choice of percussive verb, the slight ‘winded’. How about ‘Bellowing, Rama flung Shere Khan aside.’ He will be dead and skinless within paragraphs either way.

Do not mistake me for a moralist, I think children should have every opportunity to fear. Roald Dahl was perhaps the greatest children’s writer of modern times because he understood they like that children love grit and gristle. But there’s something hollow about a fable that trusts brawn over brain. Brer Rabbit makes no tar babies here, all conflicts are solved by force wielded over an obviously inferior enemy. These are ugly tales for bullies.

Go read Animal Farm instead. George Orwell was both critic and admirer of Kipling, and he read the Jungle Book so you don’t have to. Many of the seeds of the better fable are here. Shere Khan’s teaching of the wolf cubs becomes Napoleon’s indoctrination of the pups. Akela threatened with death on the Council Rock becomes Old Major dying in the barn. The forgetfulness of the Bandar-log probably lends qualities to some of Orwell’s more foolish animals. But Orwell at least has a thought out moral behind his fable.

Slavery in 1905

On the 8th of May 1905, the shocking case of an 11-year-old black boy named Jacks was brought before the guardians at High Wycombe in England.  Jacks gained the sympathy of the guardians who called him ‘one of the dearest little fellows in the world’. He had been a servant when he broke a decanter belonging to his master. He fled the house out of fear of a beating. The case was brought by the master of the workhouse where the Jacks had sought refuge. When Jacks’ master arrived, the case took a shocking turn.

Jacks’ master claimed to have bought the boy from his parents in Africa, and planned to return him when his service was up. It was over 70 years since slavery had been abolished in Britain, and 40 in the United States. The guardians weren’t properly equipped to handle the seriousness of this case, while one pointed out that this made the boy a slave, another was more concerned that the boy was being kept out of school. Ultimately the police were brought in to deal with it, and that’s where the news stories end. The records aren’t available to follow Jacks any further.

Around 1900 the Dutch were using an exploitative ‘apprenticeship’ system on the natives of the Transvaal, it was widely criticised in England for its resemblance to slavery. The slave trade was also a continuing problem around Lake Nyasa in British Central Africa, likely as late as the early 20th Century. In 1896 Sir H. H. Johnston had freed a large number of slaves in this area. Between 1897 and 1902, in British East Africa, and on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, 13,264 slaves were freed. Zanzibar’s British consul, Sir Basil Shillito Cave, claimed it would take a further generation to end domestic slavery there.

Across large swathes of Africa, slavery, particularly of the domestic sort, was still far from a rare practice. The traditional slavery practices which had fed into the Atlantic slave trade were still deep rooted in parts of the continent. Though colonial efforts often strove for and celebrated abolition, some of their exploitative work practices were hard to distinguish from slavery, meaning they often subtly endorsed the existing practices.

While Jacks’ case was not a part of the Atlantic slave trade, it bears some of its features. Most notable would be his race, and the fact that he was bought in Africa and brought to England. But then there are many features to the case that resemble ‘modern’ slavery. The fact that this appeared to be an isolated incident, Jacks’ work being mainly domestic, and also that he was a child as many cases of ‘modern’ slavery target the vulnerable in society. That his slavery was not permanent also resembles the ‘apprenticeships’ of the Dutch. Jacks’ case is challenging to the narrative common when talking about ‘modern’ slavery, which implies slavery went away with abolition and has returned relatively recently in its ‘modern’ form. Jacks’ case has a mix of properties that suggests it may even have been a transitional stage between different forms of slavery.


The Hypocrisy Problem

A few days ago, the Metro newspaper turned Theresa May’s rhetoric back on her, slamming her deal with the DUP as a ‘Coalition of Chaos.’ The phrase had already done the social media rounds as a hashtag. Soon after Jeremy Corbyn threw back the same phrase, as well as Lynton Crosby favourite ‘strong and stable leadership’, in the House of Commons. Undeniably it’s satisfying to see the words of the powerful rebound like this. It has the appeal of poetic justice when they walk into a trap of their own design. It’s also satisfying because it punctures their self-righteousness, they build up a pedestal with words and it returns them to the level playing field with a bump. But, equality is not the real aim, we should be trying to prove how our ideas are better too. And I worry the satisfaction of exposing hypocrisy often stops us from taking the necessary next steps.

There are so many reasons to resent the entrance of the DUP into our government in any way. When we focus our criticisms on the chaotic aspect of the coalition we’re implicitly accepting May’s anti-coalition rhetoric. If we keep repeating the phrase it will take root and inevitably return to bite the left in the ass. The left leaning vote in the UK is far more divided than the right, the left has Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens. All are often expected to reassure they won’t form coalition, accepting the idea beloved by tabloid rags that democracy works best as a sort of ‘strong and stable’ kingship and not by healthy compromise and debate.

Hypocrisy has a purpose beyond the ‘gotcha’ feeling of seeing a politician trip over and tangle in their own words. It shows an opponent’s lack of principle and opportunism (though we often too easily forgive the same on our own side). It pokes holes in the consistency of their morality. But the operative word here is not ‘morality’ but ‘their’. When say a homophobic politician is caught with his trousers down in a men’s bathroom the point is his moral framework is wrong and should be rejected. If we only parrot his homophobia back at him, we in some way reinforce what he stood for.

There’s more to this than just giving credence to our opponent’s worldview. If our response to a criticism is only to turn it around on the wielder we have done nothing to refute it. And yet, we can now focus on the other side’s sins, so we don’t have to worry about our own. It makes it very easy to abdicate responsibility. And this goes for the other side of the conversation too, they can throw back the hypocrisy because we didn’t refute the original accusation. And so on and so on. Nothing is solved, and division and factionalism grow. At the far end of this road lies the mindless, transparent projection of Donald Trump, where whatever name someone hurls at you immediately applies to them. There’s no room for self-reflection down that path.

Hypocrisy accusations are nothing new but it seems to have ramped up in recent years. The new importance of twitter to our political discourse may be blameworthy. The character limit discourages nuance, while the quick click required for a retweet marries well with the satisfaction of catching out a political opponent. But let’s not forget we are living in the wake of a Presidential campaign in which both sides had a closet full of skeletons. It was far easier to attack the other side than defend the problems with your own. In this environment of political nihilism returning an accusation is more common than defending your own stance, and this just feeds the problem further. And yet there were still clear differences between sides, we did not need to accept the illusion hypocrisy makes of an even contest.

Is there an easy solution? Probably not, hypocrisy has been here a long time and it is deep rooted in human thought and argument. But, the next time you spot it maybe also consider whether the hypocrite had a valid point. If they don’t, then pointing out their hypocrisy only highlights a flaw in their logically consistency, be careful not to accept their argument. If they do have a point, then by all means point out their hypocrisy, but you’re going to have to think hard about the charges your side has to answer too.