Saturday, June 27, 2020

About Dampier and Casablanca

Stuff I learned today when truffling around the interwebs in search of something else.

1. The explorer, naturalist and privateer William Dampier (who I first encountered around the age of seven in L du Garde Peach’s masterpiece A Ladybird Book About Pirates) is cited in the OED for the earliest recorded uses of 80 words, including “barbecue”, “sub-species” and “chopsticks”; he also gave us the first recorded recipes in English for guacamole and mango chutney; and crew members on his voyages were the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

2. Casablanca was banned in Ireland until the end of World War II because its negative depiction of Nazis and Vichy collaborators contravened the country’s policy of neutrality; as late as 1974 it could only be shown on Irish television if Ilse’s lines about loving Rick (despite being married to Victor) were removed. Meanwhile, when it was released in Germany in 1952, all the scenes containing Nazis were removed, and the uncut version was not shown until 1975.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

About male/female

I’m wary of getting pulled into the scrap over trans issues that’s damaged the credentials of even the sainted JK Rowling, beyond making the bland assertion that on a purely social level, if someone is happier identifying with a particular gender identity, I’m equally happy to let [insert correct pronoun] get on with it.

Two observations, though. One is that, even as a dreaded cis het white male, I’ve often felt frustrated by the dead hand of traditional gender expectations, the idea that men talk about cars and drink pints and women talk about shoes and drink Prosecco and anyone who doesn’t fit into these boxes is a bit weird. One might have thought that increased relaxation of the binary divide between His and Hers might have pushed us closer to a world when such distinctions mattered far less, if at all; in fact, it feels as if one’s gender identity, whether the one assigned at birth or the one adopted later, matters even more than it used to. It’s certainly making a lot of people very cross.

The other is that so much of the disagreement and tension in this area is less about things, more about words about things; ultimately, semantics. The use or non-use of a particular pronoun in regard to an individual takes on a massive significance, far more than any real actions or behaviours. Obviously, words matter; but not to the exclusion of all else, including what they represent.

So I was heartened to read this article in the New York Times, which appears to offer a way out:
“Sex” is a biological framework, a panoply of possibility on its own. “Sex” needs precise words like “male” and “female” and “intersex” to describe the origins, components and functions of bodies. But we can’t maintain this precision if we use words about sex to describe gender — the social and political roles and possibilities we take on as women, as men, as something else or none of the above... That is to say: Stop using “male” and “female” to refer to men and women. In fact, stop using sex-based words to refer to people at all. They’re words for bodies, not for people with hearts and souls and minds.
So, as I understand it, a penis is “male” and menstruation is “female”; but the individuals to which they apply may be either or (preferably) neither. As technology pushes us on to a more transhuman state of being – a process that can only have been accelerated by the enforced separateness that we’ve seen in the past few months – we should be closer to a situation where nobody, not even JK Rowling, argues about gender because nobody cares.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

About Bennett and Eliot


Despite the plague, life goes on. Alan Bennett has admitted that, since his Talking Heads monologues were put on the A-level syllabus he’s frequently pestered by students seeking help with their homework; his advice is to “treat me like a dead author who was thus unavailable for comment”. It may just be a way to shake them off, or it could be a subtle attempt to introduce them to the works of Roland Barthes. Who knows?

In other news, the current craze for protecting statues has extended to George Eliot in Nuneaton, although some have suggested that the defenders have confused her with the late blackface entertainer GH Elliott, whose gravestone is to be removed from his Sussex resting place.

And The Sun’s idea of a “highbrow drama” is, uh, Downton Abbey.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

About Little Mix


The decision to replace human editors on MSN.com with robots was already controversial; but the fact that one of the Hot Metal Mickeys confused two members of popular beat combo Little Mix is in reality just the sort of dumb mistake flesh-and-blood hacks make. The racial angle to the cock-up is embarrassing, especially in the wake of the current #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations but again, humans have made similar mistakes.

The real problem is that MSN doesn’t actually do any of its own journalism; it just takes stories from other sources, including what we used to call newspapers. And this is where it all gets a bit meta, not to mention sinister, as a real journalist in The Guardian reports:
In advance of the publication of this article, staff at MSN were told to expect a negative article in the Guardian about alleged racist bias in the artificial intelligence software that will soon take their jobs... Because they are unable to stop the new robot editor selecting stories from external news sites such as the Guardian, the remaining human staff have been told to stay alert and delete a version of this article if the robot decides it is of interest and automatically publishes it on MSN.com. They have also been warned that even if they delete it, the robot editor may overrule them and attempt to publish it again.

Monday, June 08, 2020

About statues


The simple action of pulling down a statue is, in and of itself, morally neutral; it’s the context that matters. Most of us would have regarded the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan as a bad thing; the toppling of Saddam’s likeness in Firdaus Square as welcome. So the damp demise of Edward Colston in Bristol yesterday should be viewed in the same context. Ultimately, if we believe that Colston’s egregious sins as a trafficker in live human flesh outweigh his endowment of a few entertainment venues, he should have been toppled many years ago.

Interestingly, a compromise had long been available; for the statue to remain, but a plaque putting Colston’s deeds in context to be affixed. This option was foolishly rejected by the good citizens of Bristol but an ad hoc variant was yesterday applied to Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square with the helpful addition of the words “WAS A RACIST” to the plinth.

Well, yes, he was, by modern standards at least (although it shouldn’t be forgotten that his greatest achievement was to save his country and the world from someone who made him look pretty woke by comparison). It could of course be argued that “Churchill was a racist” should be added to the pervasive “#AllLivesMatter” in a list of comments that are empirically true but not particularly helpful in the current circumstances; and the same could apply to the misdeeds of Nelson, Wellington, Cromwell and plenty of others who are still celebrated in bronze.

Not just Dead White Males either. Gandhi expressed some pretty nasty views about Africans; and many of the leaders of the American civil rights movement were less keen about extending said rights to gay people. And doubtless if we dig deep enough into the lives of recently commemorated figures such as Millicent Fawcett or Mary Seacole we’d find something that would at least spark a bit of a Twitterspat if it were said or done today. Doubtless one day there will be a JK Rowling statue in Edinburgh, accompanied by strident demands for it to be tossed unceremoniously into the Firth of Forth.

PS:

Friday, June 05, 2020

About #blacklivesmatter

We’re encouraged to speak out but sometimes it’s best to maintain a watchful silence.

Monday, June 01, 2020

About lockdown life

Dickon Edwards on taking part in a live event that suddenly had to migrate to Twitter:
It’s a frustrating experience, as not only is my computer slow, but I realise I am so much slower at tweeting than most. I manage about three questions before the 30 mins of questioning is up... I am a little unhappy about this, feeling forced into a new digital Darwinian era that favours only those who have fast computers and fast computer skills. I worry now that I have even less place in a pandemic-hit world than I did in the one before.

Friday, May 29, 2020

About movie posters

In February, Black History Month, the US book chain Barnes & Noble added special covers  featuring “people of color” (I have issues with that phrase but it’s the one they used) to a range of classic novels; the logic was that nowhere in the texts does it say that Dorothy Gale or Frankenstein’s monster or Captain Ahab is white, so why not make them black or Asian or Hispanic. There was a backlash. This was “literary blackface” according to one critic, and instead of blacking up characters in books by white authors, B & N should have been promoting books by black authors instead. (Of course, the real problem with focusing on texts by non-white writers to the exclusion of all else is that you give the impression that there was very little literature before World War II; just as a focus on female authors turns everything before 1800 into a creative wasteland. Even Virginia Woolf didn’t argue that we shouldn’t read Shakespeare.)


The BFI is, I guess, making itself liable to similar accusations with by commissioning new covers for its Film Classics series, with a new focus on “women, LGBTIQ+, black, Asian, mixed ethnicity and the Global South”. It’s a tougher call than book covers, because while you can plausibly imagine that Frank Baum’s Dorothy is black or Bhutanese, there’s no such wriggle room when you’re presented with Judy Garland in the role. The BFI cleverly got round this by offering the artists “a short description of the film, along with an idea of certain characters or a scene central to the film”. Rather than telling them to, uh, watch the film, which may have confused the issue.

PS: Vaguely connected with both the above: a review of a talk about female artists that spent so long raging about the sins of male artists (among other stuff) that hardly any women got a mention. Includes a visceral condemnation of Gauguin by someone who admits to knowing nothing about Gauguin.