Free Speech and the Means of Communication

This XKCD comic caused quite a bit of discussion recently. There’s plenty one could debate here regarding freedom of speech and the various campaigns to oust this or that person (from Brendan Eich to Jonathan Ross) from a position because of their views (or views falsely attributed to them), but there’s a deeper flaw in the comic’s argument that should be mentioned.

The understanding of free speech the comic promotes is fatally undermined by the fact that the means of communication are privately owned.

Look at that first panel again. The basis of the argument is that “the right to free speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say.” In the context of capitalism, that’s an incredibly reductionist definition. If speech is supposed to be free, we must ask: who owns the means by which speech is expressed and transmitted in the modern world? Who owns the newspapers? Who owns the TV channels? Who owns Twitter? Who owns Facebook? Who owns the film production studios? Who owns the ISPs? And so on. The answer is always the same: not the government. Not the people, either. All of these things are owned by capital. All of these things are industries.

So, in a situation where public discourse takes place in privately-owned spaces, how are the handful of people who ultimately own most of the media any different from a government? Apart from the lack of any kind of system of democratic control or a pretense of accountability, that is.

An old example of this is the Hollywood blacklist, in which people who were suspected of being leftists (or “communist sympathizers”) were prevented from working or receiving credit for their work. This is a classical example of censorship, and yet, according to the XKCD comic, it’s actually not a free speech issue at all, since it was a private initiative and not something forced onto Hollywood by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Yes, all that happened was that some powerful people in Hollywood thought that leftists were assholes, and showed them the door.

A newer example would be anything to do with Wikileaks or the War on Terror. When Twitter “disappears” trending topics about Chelsea Manning or Julian Assange or proof of various government-committed crimes against humanity, is that censorship? Not according to XKCD, because the government isn’t forcing them to do it. It just so happens that the political interests of capital are the same as those of a capitalist government, and so they act to protect each other. Twitter just thinks that dissenters are assholes, and is showing them the door.

But where are the public alternatives to Twitter or Facebook? Sure, you can kick somebody who’s annoying you out of your garden, but what happens when your garden is also the agora? What happens when the location of public discourse is not public?

Ultimately, what this comic is selling is a strange libertarian capitalist fantasy of freedom, where freedom is defined solely as freedom from government interference, but freedom from the structures of authority produced by the accumulation of capital is never considered.

Comments Off

I’ve permanently disabled comments for all pages and posts on this website.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In a way it’s absurd that the notion of turning off comments requires commenting on (hah). Why should it? When did we suddenly simply accept it as natural that every bloody piece of text we read has a little space at the bottom in which we can add whatever our brain is about to fart out? And when in God’s name did we come to assume such a thing would be healthy?

Don’t get me wrong, debate can be quite healthy. But debate isn’t the same as comments. I’ve often enjoyed reading written debates in collections of letters or articles; there are authors who are primarily famous for precisely such texts. But these are coherent texts, presented in their own space. They are a proper response, often enjoyable and thought-provoking even to someone who hasn’t read what they are responding to. Comments, on the other hand, are this weird growth that continues where the proper text stops, more like a strangely-shaped mole on the text’s bottom that you can’t quite look away from than like… well, something worth reading.

The problem, I suppose, is that comments become part of the text. They affect – or perhaps infect – our reading of the text in ways that a separate response does not. They’re right there, after all, on the same page, as if they were part of the author’s intent. This effect is particularly strong with negative comments, of course. You can write thousands of words about the interaction of culture and economics, for example, and all it’ll take to completely skew people’s perception of what you’ve written is someone leaving a comment to say that “you obviously think racism doesn’t exist” or “you’re clearly a Men’s Rights Activist!” or “how dare you suggest that violent Stalinism is the only solution to the world’s problems!”

What do you do in such a situation? You can delete the offending comment, though that can easily lead to making your comments nothing but an echo chamber. You can respond politely, wasting hours of your life on restating basic premises that did not require restating and draining yourself intellectually – which, in the long run, leads to apathy and depression. Or you can respond with the same level of thought they put into their comment and tell them to fuck off – which is perfectly justified, but ultimately just gives fodder to the people who claim that you’re unwilling to engage. Finally, you can ignore the comment, leaving it to fester in everyone’s reading of the text. None of these solutions are helpful.

This also happens with less hostile comments. Comments encourage a kind of intellectual laziness, because it’s easier to just say “I don’t understand this!” than to actually think about what premises the author is arguing from or what the context of their argument is. A complete text, uncommentable, is much easier to consider as a whole than a text that is perpetually unfinished, always awaiting another explanation by its author. The relationship that comments encourage between author and reader is not a healthy one. (That applies to most parts of today’s consumer culture. Artists are no longer visionaries or messengers; they merely provide a service to their customers.)

Even completely well-intentioned comments that aren’t based on ignorance or malice can completely derail people’s understanding of a text. I’ve often seen wonderful articles followed by ten times as much text debating one minor aspect of something mentioned in passing by the author, to the point where at the end it feels like that minor detail was what it was actually all about. Now, it’s not that that conversation is boring or bad; it’s what it does to people’s perception of the original text, which was after all written for a reason.

Let’s go back to the idea of deleting comments you don’t like, because that relates to the other reason for having comments: ego. Yes, the public acknowledgment of one’s brilliance. People saying “that was a great article, you’re so right!” It’s always a huge rush and an encouragement to get these. But ego is the enemy of truth. You start writing in order to get that response – not to be right, but to be cool.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being happy about positive feedback. I crave that feedback as much as anyone. I’m just suspicious of it in that context, where it’s not a thought-through appraisal of something you’ve written or a private communication, but part of the author’s performance of coolness. If you don’t let the words stand on their own, the presence of the author overwhelms them, and suddenly we’re discussing the author, not the work.

All of this is not to say that I don’t appreciate the majority of comments left on this site, or that I don’t enjoy engaging with people on a variety of issues. I love a good debate, especially since I’m not one of the people who are so fond of trying to censor language or who believe that differences of opinion inherently signify differences in moral stature. But I don’t want those debates to happen in the swollen flesh-sacks hanging off the lower sections of the internet. This site is where I want to put the stuff that I create, to stand or fall on its own merits.

There are plenty of places where we can talk; let’s not talk in the cinema, OK?

Notes

  1. See also: Popular Science, Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments.
  2. I don’t really want to debate stuff on Twitter, either.
  3. I may make exceptions for technical issues – reporting bugs is easier to do when you know what other people have already run into.
  4. If you want to talk to me, please do write me an email. I’m slow to respond, but I always try to.

Sing About Love

I was going to write something about why I keep going on and on about politics when I hate politics, but then I remembered that this song exists and says everything more eloquently than I could.

Bear With Me

A BEAR!

I saw this the other day, and figured it was probably more important than identity politics.

Bundle of Love

The Sea Will Claim Everything is currently part of the Bundle of Love for Brandon Boyer. The story is one that should be unsurprising to anyone who is familiar with private healthcare in the United States: person gets healthcare, person gets sick, healthcare company refuses to pay, person is left destitute.

Humble Bundle has teamed with independent developers to put together a bundle like no other. To help support this cause, pay at least $25 to receive a ton of games and all proceeds will go directly to the Brandon Boyer Cancer Treatment Relief fund. In addition to Brandon’s medical bills for cancer treatment, the excess funds from this promotion will be donated to a select cancer research organization.

I’ve already seen people complaining that this is a terrible thing to do because Boyer is white, male and privileged. Apart from being unbelievably, breathtakingly petty and unkind, this is also completely missing the point. The barbaric state of healthcare in the United States – and its decline to that level in other countries – is a systemic problem. It cannot be solved by Gofundme, Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Humble or Patreon. Millions of people are struggling with such problems in the US alone. Charity can, at best, be a personal gesture. An individual choice that helps an individual. Which is good and fine, and if I get a chance to help someone, I’ll take it. But to support, say, a black disabled trans journalist (which I would also do, given the chance) instead is just as much an individual choice that helps an individual, because it still leaves the same millions of people struggling to survive. However, to assert that some people are less deserving of the money because of their skin colour or gender is not only inhumane, but completely undermines the idea that all people deserve free healthcare. All of them, without exception.

Yeah, Brandon Boyer is lucky because he’s famous for the work he’s done and a lot of people want to support him. But the same is true of every game developer’s or journalist’s Patreon that has popped up recently. The people who get this kind of support are, for the most part, getting it because they already have an audience. Millions of people are losing everything right now who’ve never even heard of crowdfunding, and who wouldn’t get a single cent if they tried it – because they aren’t artists or journalists or capable of promoting themselves in the right way. That does not make them less valuable as human beings, or less deserving of our support.

Pointing fingers and talking about privilege is missing the point. Yes, we must be very aware of the fact that charity does not solve systemic problems. We must make sure that laudable efforts like this one don’t blind us to the fact that most people have to face such situations alone. But under no circumstances must we accept the logic of fighting for scraps when we deserve the whole buffet. Everyone deserves the right to as healthy a life as our civilization can provide. The crazy cat lady in the trailer park. The black teen from the gated community. The white game developer from California. The old man from Greece. The young immigrant in Italy. Everyone. No exceptions.

So, if you want to be angry, don’t be angry that some white guy is getting some donations. Be angry that donations are necessary at all.

Against All Nationalisms

Irony

“Why do you write about identity politics and all that stuff if it’s just going to alienate people?”

I get that question a lot. Why always insist on the big picture, on internationalism, on transculturality? Why not support the nationalism of the oppressed? It makes people angry, it goes against what’s expected, it causes trouble and loses you allies. And it’s tedious. It’s cold, hard logic versus the seemingly liberating fire of intense emotion. It’s abstract argument versus the intimacy of personal experience. I get it. Trust me, I wish this stuff was irrelevant. I hate politics.

But take a good look at that picture.

What you’re seeing there is members of the American Nazi Party attending a Nation of Islam rally. (For those unfamiliar with the American Civil Rights Movement, the Nation of Islam was a black nationalist organization that had very little to do with actual Islam. Its most famous members included Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.) That’s right: members of a white supremacist movement were guests of honour at an event dedicated to the dignity and pride of African-Americans. It gets better: the Nation of Islam also worked with the Ku Klu Klan.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable describes the relationship between the two groups:

Most of the details about the planning and logistics of this meeting are still sketchy. What is established is that, despite a previous exchange of hostile letters [...] both the Klan and the NOI saw advantages to crafting a secret alliance. On January 28 [1961], Malcolm and Atlanta NOI leader Jeremiah X met in Atlanta with KKK representantives. Apparently, the Nation was interested in purchasing tracts of farmland and other properties in the South and, as Malcolm explained, wanted to solicit “the aid of the Klan to obtain the land.” According to FBI surveillance, Malcolm assured the white racists that “his people wanted complete segregation from the white race.” If sufficient territory were obtainable, blacks could establish their own racially separate businesses and even government. Explaining that the Nation exercised a strict discipline over its members, he urged white racists in Georgia to do likewise: to eliminate those white “traitors who assisted integration leaders.”

[...]

Jeremiah X, who was actively involved in the Klan negotiations, participated in a daylight Klan rally in Atlanta in 1964, receiving the public praise of the Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Robert M. Sheldon.

[Manning Marable, A Life of Reinvention, p. 178-179]

I know that this is the kind of disturbing fact, so far outside the common narratives of what it means to be progressive, that one almost instinctively tries to ignore or downplay. But there’s no avoiding the truth. Look at that photo again. Read the last sentence of that quote. Jeremiah X received the public praise of Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Robert M. Sheldon. And it’s hardly the only such case – the collaboration of Zionist organizations with the Nazis is well-documented (including by Jewish historians such as Lenni Brenner). Read this, for example:

Between 9 September and 9 October 1934 the Nazi Party Berlin newspaper Der Angriff, founded and controlled by Joseph Goebbels, published a series of twelve pro-Zionist articles by Mildenstein under the title A National Socialist Goes to Palestine. In honour of his visit, the newspaper issued a commemorative medallion, with the swastika on one side and the Star of David on the other.

[Wikipedia entry on SS officer Leopold von Mildenstein]

Given the events that followed, it’s difficult to imagine anything more horrific and absurd than “a commemorative medallion, with the swastika on one side and the Star of David on the other.” Yet in many ways, it’s a perfect symbol for nationalism.

This is the part that’s important: on a very fundamental level, all these nationalist organizations were in agreement about how the world was structured. Sure, the white supremacists thought white people were better and the black nationalists thought black people were better. But where they all agreed was that there was such a thing as Whites and Blacks and Aryans and Jews, that these were meaningful divisions of humanity and that these divisions should be upheld. To construct an identity always requires the construction of an Other, against which one can be defined; as such, these nationalisms were different sides of the same coin.

They also shared a common enemy: the many, many people on all sides who refused to be categorized. The majority of German Jews, for example, who did not conceive of themselves as a special group based on ethnic identity (Zionism was a fringe movement at the time). The people on both “sides” who fought and died for equality. The people who committed the sin of intermarriage. And the most dangerous bunch of them all: the communists. To defeat the latter, any alliance would do.

To question the nationalism of the oppressed is not to question the existence of oppression; in fact, the very suggestion is one that “silences” or “erases” (to use the terms commonly employed in modern identity politics) all the many, many people who never embraced an ideology of borders in the first place, who fought for full equality and freedom beyond any concept of identity. It ignores the millions of people who fought and died for their right to be people. Not black people or Jewish people. Just people.

Today’s proponents of identity politics/intersectionality are not that different in their goals from the Nation of Islam: pride for their identity, lifting people of that identity up from poverty, creating jobs for people of that identity, creating and maintaining (and policing) communities. They’re opposed to oppression, but rarely to exploitation – i.e. they conceive of the problem with capitalism as being the unfair representation of minorities in positions of power, not the inherent relationship between working people and the system. The poor whites that Martin Luther King Jr. was so concerned about are dismissed as privileged.

And that’s what it always comes down to. All nationalisms – whether the literal kind, or those of gender, religion, or other cultural groups – are ultimately segregationist in nature. To believe that identities intersect, you must believe in separate, clearly divided identities. To believe that appropriation is a problem, you must believe that cultures exist as contained units. And so there must always be an Other; to construct that Other as the “white heterosexual cis man” instead of the “dark foreigner” changes nothing about the underlying logic. The West isn’t superior to the Orient, but neither is the Orient superior to the West – the real point is that there is no Orient, and thus there is no West. Cultural borders are a fantasy, and it is that very fantasy that we must destroy. We can’t do that by reinforcing the very logic that creates the fantasy in the first place.

I write about these issues because I believe that people should have the freedom to live their lives as they choose to. I believe that the world is plagued by inequality, oppression and exploitation. And I firmly believe that history shows us that nationalism, no matter how attractively presented, no matter how emotionally justified, can never lead to freedom.

Notes:

  1. Malcolm X, of course, eventually grew disgusted with the Nation of Islam and tried to find a way towards equality that embraced everyone. That’s when he became a real threat to the system, and he was killed long before he managed to complete his evolution.
  2. “I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice, and equality for everyone, and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think that it will be based on the color of the skin.” – Malcolm X
  3. Is the Turk a White Man? American liberal politics appear not to have moved on for over a century.
  4. Transculturality: the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today, by Wolfgang Welsch.
  5. The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel by Shlomo Sand.
  6. “In the logic of antiracism, exposure of the racial element of an instance of wrongdoing will lead to recognition of injustice, which in turn will lead to remedial action—though not much attention seems ever given to how this part is supposed to work. I suspect this is because the exposure part, which feels so righteously yet undemandingly good, is the real focus. But this exposure convinces only those who are already disposed to recognize.” – Adolph Reed, Jr. in The Limits of Anti-Racism. And yeah, he’s black. Does intersectionality have space for those of the oppressed who don’t subscribe to intersectionality?

Reload

We were on German television the other day, in a show about videogames called Reload. We show up somewhere around 23 minutes in. (And it’s in German, of course.) I haven’t watched it yet, but people tell me I wasn’t too embarrassing.

Fear of Twine

The Matter of the Great Red Dragon

Fear of Twine is an online exhibition of text-based games made by a highly diverse group of people from all around the world. It’s not just diverse in its list of authors, though: it has everything from fantasy to horror to science fiction to deeply personal explorations of kink to abstract political fiction about working-class politics. The site’s a little minimalistic, but the content is fantastically rich.

Fear of Twine features my new Lands of Dream game, The Matter of the Great Red Dragon. I know I’m supposed to be either insincerely humble or ridiculously boastful for the purposes of marketing, but the truth is that I’m just really happy that I got to make this game. It turned out exactly as I wanted it to and thinking about it gives me the warm, fuzzy feeling of having met some old friends and found that we still get along. So there you go. I hope you enjoy it.

Fear of Twine also includes Verena’s first solo game, Zombies and Elephants. Personally, I think it’s pretty awesome, with a lot more layers to it than the title might suggest (as is true of a lot of pulp fiction), but then again I may be biased. (I’m not. I’m a very harsh critic.) I know there are still a couple of things that Verena would like to change, but you know what they say about art. It’s full of the undead.

There’s a lot more to Fear of Twine, though I can’t figure out how to start another sentence with it. I haven’t played all the games yet, but I should definitely mention Abstract State-warp Machines by my dear friend and accomplished, original poet Ivaylo Shmilev. Interactive science fiction poetry! You’re in for a challenge and a treat. (And then there’s Workers in Progress by Konstantinos Dimopoulos and Truth is Ghost by Joel Goodwin and and and…)

I hope this exhibition will gain some traction with the press. I don’t think there’s ever been anything quite like it, and it deserves some attention.

(The site was recently updated, by the way, and is now more accessible.)

Project Update

Crows!

I recently finished my text game for the upcoming Fear of Twine exhibition. It’s called The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, is set in the Lands of Dream, and has turned out quite wonderful, even though the whole thing came to me in a flash at the last minute, after I’d thrown my original idea out the window. I don’t mean to brag, I’m just really happy with how it turned out. You should be able to play it in a week.

I am now returning to work on The Council of Crows, which may or may not be a working title. This is a short(er) Lands of Dream game – bigger than The Book of Living Magic but not as huge as The Sea Will Claim Everything – and will be free to all those who supported our Indiegogo. The rest of you will be able to get it for an affordable sum. Chris Christodoulou has written absolutely fantastic music for it, and Verena has drawn some of her most evocative art so far. I think it’ll be beautiful.

(The screenshot is old and a little unpolished, but that’s pretty much what it looks like.)

Incidentally, this game was supposed to come out much earlier, but I ran into a serious problem with how Windows 7 handles fonts in Multimedia Fusion games, and had to engineer an ugly but functional solution. This has also caused a delay for Ithaka of the Clouds, but don’t complain – you’re getting a free game!

(If your text looks weird and a bit jagged in The Sea Will Claim Everything, it’s a Windows feature called ClearType. There’s nothing I can currently do about it, so if it bothers you, you’ll have to turn it off before playing. I’m very sorry about this, and more than a little irritated. There doesn’t appear to be a simple solution, and I cannot currently go back and rewrite all the code for a game that sells almost nothing. Thankfully, not that many people seem to have had this problem or noticed it.)

I’m also working on a few other projects in parallel, including a platformer and another text game which… pertains to the Lands of Dream, to slightly paraphrase Dunsany. In fact, I’m quite in love with text games at the moment. Or actually with writing in general. Every now and then I get a chance to do really write and I remember that writing is actually what I’m all about.

And then there’s the Secret Project I’m Not Allowed To Tell You About, which does not involve squirrels, scorpions, or the use of the word “pronk.”

Exciting times. Now to just convince my body to defeat the common cold.

The Greatest Moment in Human History

web

Always remember the past, comrades!