Labour Leadership Election 2016: Pro Owen Smith

August 24, 2016
I voted for Owen Smith for Labour leader today and if you are eligible to vote, I encourage you to do so as well.
The current situation is pretty damn grim and likely to get grimmer both for Labour and for the UK. We need to at least staunch our wounds to survive. Corbyn is clearly not the person who can even try to do that.
Corbyn is successful in getting strong support from a large group of left leaning folks (from moderate to extreme left). (I count myself as pretty far left, but also as a devotee of harm minimisation over purity in political action.) This translates into strong support from general party members and many left leaning folks joining. Some of his policies are generally correct but often suffer from 1) lack of specificity (cf his anti-austerity measues), 2) poor prioritisation (cf. Trident), or 3) poor messaging (cf. Brexit, with the generous assumption he was actually pro-Remain) and sometimes all three. This makes him a terrible standard bearer for these policies.
Corbyn clearly cannot work effectively with the PLP or members of the political elites (including policy wonks). The mass resignation of the Shadow cabinet *including former supporters) is strong evidence thereof and there are increasing numbers of specific stories where incompetence or misprioritisation screw things up. As a fringe party member for decades, he just hasn’t been able to transcend that both in the perception of others and, as far as I can tell, his own thinking.
Corbyn faces a hugely hostile press. The coverage of him is decidedly unfair, but absent a plan to turn that around or mitigate it, it doesn’t matter that it’s unfair, merely that it exists. Plus, I would go so far to say that he exacerbates the problem. Stuff like not timing press releases correctly make things worse. 
Corbyn is not seen as PM material by large swaths of the electorate. Putting aside the question of whether Labour can win the next general election (it’s going to be tough no matter what), voters often vote against MP candidates when they dislike the Leader, because they understand (correctly) that the way to vote for a PM is to vote for that candidate’s local MP. (This can be overridden, of course, by local excellence, but we’re talking about overall effects.) Corbyn’s multiple layers of general unpopularity will hurt all Labour’s races. The size of a loss matters.
Thus far, this has been all “vote against Corbyn” instead of “vote against Smith”. And I think there’s a very strong case to be made on that basis. I’m not quite “anyone but Corbyn” but it’s pretty close. Corbyn is close to being a Trump like figure for Labour: An outsider, outlier candidate who’s pretty toxic with the populace and terrible at conventional politics but caught the imagination of a fairly cohesive group with outlier views. This is a recipe for destruction.
Smith seems about as left a conventional politician we are likely to get with good relations throughout the political elite. He has been a party loyalist while trying to move the party left (which leads to some party line votes people take as evidence of his “blariteness”). Thus, I think he will play better with the press and the general populace and do better in getting the MPs together to fight in the next election (and to be a strong opposition now).
Defeating Corbyn is not, necessarily, a defeat for the left in Labour any more than Bernie Sanders loss was a defeat for the left in the Democratic party. Sanders help push the Democrats much more to the left. If Corbyn doesn’t torch the party, that could happen as well. If the party falls apart, this will marginalise the left like almost nothing else could.

Contrariwise, recognising that polices are what matters and that we are, to say the least, living in a country which doesn’t easily tack left and being willing to strategically compromise is the best way to have a substantial and effective effect. We shouldn’t be invested in a person, but in a movement.

N.B. This article contains a compendium of links about issues with Corbyn. I find it mostly compelling though incomplete.

Calling someone “crazy” as an insult can contribute to stigmatisation of the mentally ill (probably)

August 9, 2016

I’ve been meaning to write something about the use and abuse of the conceptual framework of mental illness, esp in the current US presidential election, for a while now. There’s been a uptick in the past week with Trump behaving erratically and then accusing Clinton of having various sorts of mental illnesses. Also, on one of my favourite blogs (where I comment a lot), one interlocutor has adopted a systematic gaslighting (among other things) strategy to try to shut down my criticism of them. So, it’s on my mind!

This is not that writing, but rather a response to a Kevin Drum blog post entitled “Calling Someone Crazy Is Not an Insult to the Mentally Ill.” He writes:

No. Just no. There are lots of words that have both ordinary meanings as well as technical medical meanings. When I say that Donald Trump is a cancer on our society, it’s not an insult to people with leukemia. When I say that Donald Trump is stupid, it’s not an insult to the mentally retarded. And when I say that Donald Trump is crazy, it’s not an insult to people with mental illnesses.

No. Just no. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)

How should we evaluate these sorts of claim? Before I present what he’s responding do, let’s consider some prior probabilities.

  1. Are people with mental illness stigmatised? Yes, of course they are. In all sorts of ways.
  2. Is there a lot of derogatory language which uses the idea of being mental ill as a disqualified for various activities (e.g., jobs, relationships, etc.). Yes! I trust we all agree on this.
  3. Historically, have complaints about derogatory or biased language been met with
    1. derision,
    2. nonsense claims about language (i.e., it’s not derogatory or it’s a joke or..), and
    3. hyperbole about the harms that come from opposing such derogation?

    Yes. Are there any exceptions?!

This should establish a burden of proof. 1 and 2 alone show that if you want to argue that some use of mental illness inflected derogatory language is harmless, you have work to do. 3 should make one very cautious about particular arguments for harmlessness. How does Drum’s fare? We have 3.a right off the bat. 3.b is there in the first paragraph as well. (Words have different meanings! By implication the derogatory use of “crazy” has NOTHING AT ALL to do with the “technical” meaning!!) How about 3.c?

This is the kind of thing that helps power people like Trump in the first place. Sure, a lot of people who gripe about political correctness are just upset that people get on their case these days if they call blacks lazy or Asians inscrutable or women hysterical. There’s not much we can do about this except keep fighting the good fight and wait for them to all die off.

But there are also people who aren’t especially racist or sexist, but nonetheless feel like they have to walk on eggshells around us liberals. Call someone crazy and you’re insulting the mentally ill. Talk about someone “suffering” from an illness and you get a stern lecture about not making assumptions. Ask any number of possibly dumb but innocent questions and you’re committing a microaggression. Wear a sari in a music video and you’re engaging in cultural appropriation.

This kind of hypersensitivity does little good and plenty of harm.

We can agree that people like Trump use the “PC” charge to rile up their followers. That’s evidently true. I’m more skeptical that it nudges people of good will off the ranch. After all, the core of Trump’s use of PC isn’t to attack PC per se, but as an amplifier and defence of being racist, sexist, etc. Trump, in particular, is very naked about his repugnant behaviour. It’s hard to see how people who are predisposed to find Trumps e.g., racism horrific are going to be turned back by mild requests not to use mental illness terms.

Notice as well that there’s nothing specific about mental illness terms in this litany…it immediately segues into a general PC complaint and a mishmashy one at that. (For example, if micro aggression theory is correct then there are real harms associated with those “dumb but innocent questions”. If micro aggression theory is wrong, then those complaints are misguided. But notice that Drum isn’t questioning anything here. There’s a just a presumption.)

Now, I did a super brief look at some research (via a simple Google Scholar search) and there’s at least prima facie evidence that use of terms like “crazy” as derogatory terms contribute to stigmatisation of mental illness which leads to lack of treatment or support. So, what claims was Drum fulminating against?

What I do know is that we ought to stop casually throwing around terms like “crazy” in this campaign and our daily lives….When that language is commonplace, it becomes that much harder for those experiencing mental illness to openly seek treatment that works. It discriminates, in subtle and overt ways, and extends its reach into schools, workplaces and the health-care system, where we still don’t provide routine mental health exams. When we use that word the way we have, we perpetuate the dangerous, “separate and unequal” treatment of these illnesses, and continue to pretend that the brain isn’t part of the body.

This is a pretty modest claim (by Rep. Patrick Kennedy) that seems congruent with the literature. But, let’s note that Drum cherry picked the quote. Right before it we have:

Is Donald Trump experiencing a mental illness? That’s the question making the rounds these days. The answer is: I don’t know. And neither do the commentators, tweeters and psychiatrists — both licensed and armchair — who’ve diagnosed him from afar as “crazy,” a “psychopath,” not “sane,” having “narcissistic personality disorder” and a “screw loose.”

So while Kennedy uses “crazy” as a synecdoche for the general derogatory misuse of mental illness talk in the campaign, it’s clear that he’s not primarily talking about minor positive uses “crazy weather!” “That’s just crazy awesome.” It’s not unreasonable to wonder where the tipping point is in cost-benefit for language campaigns (though people just assuming that the cost is always out of wack with the benefits are often those who don’t stand to benefit), but the mental illness talk we’re seeing in the campaign is extreme and worth opposing.

Music Monday: Most of Rachel Bloom

August 1, 2016

I’ve been feeling sick with no obvious cause (yay! autoimmune diseases are such a joy!). This naturally leads to some binge watching of TV shows. Netflix Streaming UK, as it was driven brutally home on my recent trip to Spain, has about the suckiest catalog around (even for Netflix Streaming). One title that I was skeptical about was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The title along, even if ironic, is rather a turn off. However, I read a recommendation and checked it out. I’m hooked.

It’s a musical (as any review will talk about). It’s a real musical. The songs are original, diverse (musically and thematically), and very well performed. All the singers are phenomenal and they have some incredible dancers as well. The whole cast really commits. Like The Mindy Project, a good chuck of the show is playing off (in a variety of ways) the trops of romantic comedies. There’s a delicate balance that needs to be maintained between mocking romcoms, ironically mirroring them, redeeming them, and depicting the realistic(ish) relation people have to them.

Watch it!

The songs are really awesome, though often a bit “talky”. Not just because there a smidgeon of rap and talk songs, but because they don’t try to make the lyrics “song like” a lot of the time. For example, consider “I Have Friends”:

I have friends, I definitely have friends
No one can say that I do not have friends

I have friends, I definitely have friends,
friends, friends, friendly friends,
time to meet my friends

Oh yeah! I have friends, I definitely have friends
Objectively, I can say that I have all the friends

Love it! (I’m a sucker for modal modifers like “definitely” and “objectively” in songs.)

I’m not super engaged by the panoply of “loser” friends (which leans a bit heavily on facial disfigurement), but the main bits of the song is so cheerful, optimistic, and  desperate that it works.

There’s often a “literal music video” vibe, as in “The Sexy Getting Ready Song”:

It’s the sexy getting-ready song
The sexy getting-ready song
I’m fluffin’ and flouncin’
I’m gigglin’ and layin’
Sexy getting-ready song

Really, I could post almost every song from season 1. There’s a complete playlist on YouTube, but it’s worth getting them in context first.

The star and main created, Rachel Bloom, was a YouTube comedy singer before this show, and I’ve been finding those more hit and miss. But “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” is pretty good:

But “I Steal Pets” is my favourite thus far:


Music Monday: Schoolhouse Rock

July 4, 2016

It’s July 4th, which is a pretty big holiday in the US. Just another day here in the UK.

But the 4th! A perfect time to share jingoistic, if catchy, propaganda such as The Shot Heard Round the World:

And, of course, No More Kings:

(This was running through my head when I gave my citizenship oath in Manchester.)

These are so catchy and so…wrong. In so many details and in the basic spirit.

But Elbow Room really causes me some cognitive dissonance…its content is awful but it’s so catchy!

I mean:

The way was opened up for folks with bravery.
There were plenty of fights
To win land rights,
But the West was meant to be;
It was our Manifest Destiny!

I guess that’s one way to gloss over genocide!

However, the chorus of the Preamble is really pretty:

We the people,
In order to form a more perfect union,
Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility,
Provide for the common defense,
Promote the general welfare and
Secure the blessings of liberty
To ourselves and our posterity
Do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Preamble is great, of course, but setting it to music so that it even scans is pretty tough! (It gets a bit rough at the end.

But, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the best musical cartoon about US history:

In addition to being slick as mustard, it’s not wildly less accurate than the others!

Cosmopolis lost

June 29, 2016

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

— John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I

The EU is not heaven, nor a severed UK hell, but we have, indeed, sacrificed a favourable place and position for the sake of pride, for want of a better word. The fact that the chains that bound us were not chains at all and were of our own making and continual renewal doesn’t matter. At a deep level, the UK was offended, and that offence had a price.

We haven’t fallen from paradise, but we have left the larger cosmopolis (a nation of many peoples) and  probably have broken our smaller one. We rejected blending with many peoples, however around the edges and the majority demands that we pull back at whatever the cost. The many flares of overt xenophobic racism before and especially right after the decision are worrisome. We’re heading into difficult times: Our economy will shrink. The clowns that pretend to be leaders will try to wiggle out of the worst consequences. But such wriggling may well be met by revulsion and revolt. Once things break a little, the risk of catastrophic failure goes up.

I hope we can salvage some measures of sanity, dignity, and kindness. In my most optimistic moments, I imagine we can stay cosmopolitan, either by staying in the EU (though there are prices to be paid there) or staying sane somewhat outside it (with different prices).

Even that is just gripping tightly to the facade of a society. Increasing economic inequality is probably at the heart of matters. I’d long been wondering why various peoples around the world didn’t rise up harder after the Great Recession wherein there was so much unnecessary suffering and loss. Wherein the people most responsible paid almost not price at all, or even flourished, smug and condescending in their undeserved riches. Something will give, and it won’t be nice, or rational, or effective.

We on the left might think this is fertile ground for a new leftist politics where social and economic justice can be furthered.

We would be wrong.

The propaganda and political ironworks that dominate our societies do not wholly prevent outcomes that the rich elites favour (at least, not those that most favour), but they aren’t channeled against root causes. Austerity is popular in the UK populace. Blame is directed toward mirages and the people who suffer are those living there.

While personal failures are not the sole cause of this crises, the petty politicking of Cameron, Johnson, and various lesser figures in the Conservative Party have let the fires out while Corbyn, the Labour Party Members, and the Labour MPs Just Fall Down.

In the end, stuff will happen. We will muddle to a new normal. I don’t think the issues that motivated the Great Breaking are going to be anything but worsened by it and now we have new ones. Half the populace is alienated, perhaps enraged, by the other half.

E pluribus unum; ex uno multa.

Après nous le déluge.

But the mind is its own place. Perhaps by thinking and feeling together, we can make a just city from this fractured landscape.

Music Monday (backdated): The Musical Museum in London

June 27, 2016

We’re post-brexitpocolypes, which I’ve mostly been bemoaning on my Facebook feed. I have thoughts about various aspects which I might post at some point.

But, I had a musical experience well worth sharing! We are were in London on Sunday with Zoe’s father (who came over for a friends’ 50th wedding anniversary) and after visiting the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (well worth exploring!), we wanted a quick hit museum and found that the Musical Museum was close and open. When in Brussels to see the flower carpet, we very much enjoyed the Musical Instruments Museum, so the Musical Museum seemed like a no brainer. Which it was! It was wonderful.

The Musical Museum is a collection of automated, mostly mechanical instruments. Think music boxes and player pianos, but also a player organ which takes up several rooms, lots of mechanical orchestras, and a machine that plays two violins! The tour guide plays the instruments, so you get to hear them and see their guts moving. Our guide, Roy, was wonderful with lots of personal touches.

Mechanical music box/toy videos are cool, but the real things are just amazing. Complex, delicate, and beautiful, while often being able to produce tremendous sounds. Well worth your visit!

Yet Another Strike Day

June 22, 2016

A university is a community: staff and students, graduates and families, people in the town and people around the world. The university is its people. Buildings are more iconic; the physical environment conditions all our experiences and memories; but a university’s mission is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and all knowledge exists in the people and communities that know it.

My union, the University and College Union (UCU), is in dispute with a large number of universities, and my local and my university (the University of Manchester) are part of that dispute. We are on strike today.

Strikers stand by the UCU banner with the slogans "Knowledge is Power" and "Unity is Strength".

Strikers by the UCU banner.

The Reason

It’s a pay dispute. The capsule UCU summary:

The dispute has arisen following a pay offer of just 1.1% from the universities’ employers, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. UCU said universities could afford to pay more and the latest offer did little to address the real terms pay cut of 14.5% that its members have suffered since 2009. The squeeze on staff salaries comes despite vice-chancellors enjoying a 6.1% pay hike.

The union has also called for universities to commit to closing the gender pay gap and reducing the proportion of staff on casual and zero-hour contracts. On average, female academics across the sector are paid £6,103 per year less than male counterparts while 49% of university teachers are on insecure contracts.

Since 2010 the amount spent on staff by universities as a percentage of total income has dropped by 3%. However the total of cash in reserves has rocketed by 72% to stand at over £21bn.

(It started as a 1% offer. We pushed back. The Universities came back with a 1.1% offer. The faith is not good here.)

Note that we are in the midst of a £1 billion building spree  (after spending £750 million since 2004 on 10 buildings some of which are already falling apart and were hideous and misdesigned in the first place.

Now, I know not all money is the same, yadda yadda yadda. However, where is the billion pound effort to improve staff? Staff development, better pay, better recruitment…these are things that are not part of a giant, well funded master plan. Instead we get stagnant pay, increasing work loads, onerous busywork, metrics, targets, punitive measures, pensions slashed, etc. etc. etc. Less academic freedom and more centralisation of functions for the sake of centralisation.

The administrations should be actively figuring out how to “build up” staff which includes building up staff pay instead of having every drop wrung from them by disruptive action. Until they do, they are failing at their jobs.

The Tactics

This is part of a second round of targeted strikes after a national two day strike. Each local is picking a day designed to be maximally disruptive for their university. We are focused on exam boards (where we make final decisions on student grades). Oxford is targeting honorary degree and graduation ceremonies.

This is serious stuff. Disruption is disruptive. Student degrees may be delayed, complicating their job starts. Ceremonies that normally generate cherished memories are marred. It’s not something the union takes lightly. But there is really little choice. The administrations are not negotiating with us. Nor are they performing the basic function of nurturing the university. Neglecting staff issues is neglecting the foundations of the university.

It’s disruptive to staff. It’s not a “day off”. People are picketing. There’s work that’s delayed or created. Our pay is docked by the university. It costs us to go on strike (though often that is returned as a negotiation sweetener). It’s emotionally draining both to be faced by this situation and to engage in the action.

Simon Harper et al picketing one of the entrances to University Place.

Simon Harper et al picketing one of the entrances to University Place.

It is in the power of the adminstrations to prevent this disruption, to have prevented the risk of it. Coming in with 1% and “moving” to 1.1% isn’t a opening move in a sincere negotiation. Having no long range plan to address wage declines is not the background of this “discussion”.

As I often do, I look to Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

MLK was fighting a much, much more serious fight with dramatically greater stakes. but his description of direct action is applicable in a wide range of circumstances, including labour disputes.

(Read the whole thing! Read his books! It repays the effort many times in many circumstances. It is not merely of historical interest. King’s thinking is live, complex, theoretically interesting, and practically helpful.)

What you can do if you aren’t staff

Students and families can show solidarity. Write your university in support. Call for administrations to look toward staff development as the central part of their job, worthy of big efforts and active work. Stop and say hi to picketers!

Place the blame for the disruption where it belongs, with the administrations. Turn the situation into an opportunity to stand with others in your community. Instead of a marred experience, make it a proud moment.

Music Monday: Midsummer Hymn

June 20, 2016

One of my favourite things about the Zoe songbook is the set of holiday songs. Aside from being wonderful, she’s quirky in her holidays (and obviously, I share and/or live with such quirks!).

Today’s the summer solstice and she has a song for it:

Now the days are long and pleasant
Do not waste the light
Take these moments as a present
offered up for our delight
Take the gifts the Summer brings us
early dawn and dusk that lingers
Let them not slip through our fingers
Do not waste the light

Now the earth is rich with plenty
Do not waste the light
Gather in the Summer’s bounty
ere the season takes her flight
Mow the hay and seek the berry,
tread the grape and pluck the cherry
Once she’s done, she will not tarry
Do not waste the light

Lovely words, lovely thoughts, and a lovely tune! (Berry/cherry/tarry is a great rhyme sequence!)

At some point, I’ll do a full compendium of her holiday and seasonal songs.

Of course, in the (mid) north of the UK, the summer days are insanely long. I used to complain that my productivity dropped in summer because the all-nighters were too short! But…after 10 years, I’ve gotten used to it. Indeed, the shorter summer days in the Philly area feel sort of weird.

The biggest gain of summer in Manchester: NO HORRIBLE HEAT AND HUMIDITY PITS! I don’t use air conditioning in the UK. Enough said.

The biggest loss: Fireflies. We ain’t got ’em and I love ’em.

Jo Cox: RIP

June 16, 2016

Jo Cox, member of parliament, was murdered today. She was Labour and a strong Remain champion.

Both sides of the referendum suspended their campaigns for the day.

I never heard of her before today. We don’t have any certain knowledge of the motive behind her murder, thought there’s some reports that her killer was mentally ill and may have shouted “Britain First” (which would suggest Leave sympathies). It’s really too early to draw any firm conclusions about it. It may be political violence, but I really hope not. Regardless, it may be that the campaigns both pull back from some of their more extreme rhetoric (though, obviously, I think the Leave campaign has been worse). That would be some small good salvaged.

She seems to have been a really wonderful person. Her husband’s statement is very moving and measured.

I now know to miss her.

Music Monday: Zoe’s Kickstarter SUCCESS!

June 6, 2016

The Kickstarter campaign is now over and not only was it fully funded, but we met two stretch goals ($1500 for US radio promotion and $1500 for UK radio promotion). Thanks to all 196 backers and indeed to all the people who put up with my nagging and pleading about it. The results should be well worth it.

One of the songs forthcoming is a cover of the Red Clay Rambler’s “The Queen Of Skye” from their absolutely wonderful album Rambler(You can listen to a snippet of the original from the AllMusic page. Check out “Cotten-eyed Joe”, “One Rose/Hot Buttered Rum”, and “Black Smoke Train” as stand outs, but really the whole album is worth a listen.)

Interestingly, Zoe’s vocal line tracks the harmony rather than the melody, since the harmony fits her voice better. I find it rather striking and strange coming off a million listens of the Rambler’s version (and having heard her cover the melody before). (Strange in a good way!)

Other notable Zoecovers, Vincent Black Lightening:

She also does a very nifty version of Blackbird (for which I don’t believe there’s a video…here’s Paul doing it):

She uses banjo and interleaves a story about waiting for the last train back to Manchester. The story and song engage in a kind of lyrical counterpoint: The story is funny, literal, and personal. The song is melancholy, metaphorical, and impersonal. in a certain way. That is, it’s not about any specific person or situation. It’s perhaps universal via the metaphor, but I think it’s more a kind of de-personalised fiction as well as a metaphor. Indeed, the metaphor is contested.

However, juxtaposing the two allows the qualities of each side to inform the other.


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