Assessing the Overton Window: Trudeau’s 2019 Blackface Incident

[Note: This was the final essay for a rhetoric class that I took last term, titled Politics and Bullshit. I figured I might as well put it up, because I had a lot of fun writing it, and also school is cancelled because of this new virus going around so I suddenly have some free time on my hands.

This is an extra-long post, so I’m sticking it under a cut. Read on to find out about party, media, and internet responses to the scandal and what it might mean for our understanding of modern politics.]

Continue reading “Assessing the Overton Window: Trudeau’s 2019 Blackface Incident”

Links Retrospective – Rest of 2019

It’s weird how school terms seem pretty ok when you’re in them but then when they’re done you’re like “wow, that sure was, a brickload of stress I was under, I had no time to do anything!” You think I’d be used to it after like 4 years.

Anyways, now that I have dealt with both exams and a case of what was likely bronchitis that my friend had thoughtfully gifted me from all the way across the pond, I’m finally ready to finish what I started. So here are the some of the most interesting things from the internet that I’ve read in the latter half of 2019.

As a reminder, the articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the months in question. 

August

The Anglosphere Has Always Had Three Genders (Archive)
Death is Bad Blog, 2019

I see almost everyone on both sides acting as if traditional American society has only two genders, and I don’t think this is right. It’s at least half-wrong, anyway. Because since its inception, American society has always had a third gender option for women, and I think this is true for all anglophone cultures for several centuries now. I speak, of course, of the tomboy.

I think this is an interesting theory, and honestly based on the feminist theory I’ve read it seems like it could be valid. But my own, lived experience as a tomboy is messier. My tomboyness 100% had a performativity aspect to it, and my tomboyness changed the things I was allowed to do, restricting in some places and expanding in others.

As a girl, I really liked some of the affectations of femininity – the colour pink, wearing dresses, doing my long hair in elaborate ways. but I had to act as though I didn’t. In return, I was allowed to climb trees and fences, and bring worms home when it rained, and play with beyblades with the boys in the sand pit. I think some part of me knew that I was making a bargain at the time, because the world would not accept me in its entirety. And I decided that I valued wearing dresses less than I value the freedom to climb trees. And I feel like this story of sacrifiting bits of yourself so that you’re legible to others in your society, isn’t innate to tomboyhood, or even femininity. It just sounds like part and parcel of being human, and (sigh) living in a society.

Ra (Archive)
Sarah Constantin, 2016

Ra is a specific kind of glitch in intuition, which can roughly be summarized as the drive to idealize vagueness and despise clarity.

This wasn’t like, the first time that I read this essay, but at the end of my internship deep within the guts of the federal welfare machine, as I began to see more and more of the picture, it was a piece that kept coming to the forefront of my mind. 

What’s interesting is that I think I started the term off very anti-Ra, but by the end, I was seeing many benefits that come from vagueness. It’s not a glitch in intuition, it’s a tradeoff. The vagueness is intrinsically powerful in many ways – although it is a dangerous path that is conducive to corruption and systemic rot. All in all, it’s not a tradeoff I would make, but I can see why others might. I think anyone who works in a large company or organization should read this piece, and come to their own conclusions.

September

Untitled microfiction piece (Archive)
Grimelords, 2014

There’s six guys who live in this flat and all they do all day is play WoW and watch movies.

Short and tender piece about the university experience, if you’re a certain type of nerd.

Warcraft: LFG (Archive)
Left Conservative, 2016

Think about this the next time you wonder why, as we have more loot, more sex, more games, and more media that fits our tastes than ever before, we’re also less satisfied than we’ve ever been.

A cool microcosm of what modernity does.

October

It’s not “them” — it’s us! (Archive)
Betsy Leondar-Wright, 2006

“But let’s say that some working-class people did nevertheless manage to get into this organization. What would we do to make sure they felt uncomfortable and to stop them from taking leadership?” The group launched in with gusto: “A dress code — nothing but tuxedos and evening gowns!” “Fancy food — caviar and champagne!” “The real business takes place at the golf course at the country club!”

No-one said anything like “tofu.”

An old piece, but one that is still so incredibly useful and informative for building cross-class coalitions. 

The Music of “Hustlers” and the Soaring, Stupid National Mood Circa 2008 (Archive)
Jia Tolentino, 2019

I started crying a little, because Usher’s “Love in This Club” was playing. It’s a song with synths that shudder like lasers, and a central looping riff so triumphant and brimming that it sounds like someone telling you that you’re never going to die. As the song played, a flash of pre-recession memories emerged from beneath eleven years’ worth of increasingly subdued expectations: I was in college, and things often felt that good and endless, even though the wad of bills in my pocket was a bunch of greasy ones from waiting tables and my roommates and I were blasting “Love in This Club” in our wood-panelled living room, wearing clearance American Apparel and chugging leftover keg beer, hoping that we wouldn’t see any mice. It feels unseemly and indulgent to get nostalgic about something so dumb and so close to the present, and yet “Hustlers” helped me realize how many people have begun to remember the brief period just before the recession in a similar way.

If you ever want to relive 2007, here is one very excellent way to do it.

November

Why Are My Students Afraid of the World? (Archive)
Christopher Schaberg, 2019

I’m talking about discomfort with the physical world outside our campus buildings, things like sitting on grass: many students just won’t do it.

A new(?) phenomenon, that seems simultaneously tragic, dangerous, and inevitable.

The Real Class War (Archive)
Julius Krein, 2019

The socioeconomic divide that will determine the future of poli­tics, particularly in the United States, is not between the top 30 per­cent or 10 percent and the rest, nor even between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The real class war is between the 0.1 percent and (at most) the 10 percent—or, more precisely, between elites primarily dependent on capital gains and those primarily dependent on profes­sional labor.

The last few years have brought about a new “discovery” of working-class immiseration—a media phenomenon arguably pro­voked by renewed elite anxieties. As a result, the story of a declining working class is now broadly understood. It is, after all, decades old, and it was entirely predictable if not exactly intended. Much less understood, however, is the more recent reshaping and radicalization of the professional managerial class. While the top 5 or 10 percent may not deserve public sympathy, their underperformance relative to the top 0.1 percent will be more politically significant than the hol­lowing out of the working or lower-middle classes. Unlike the work­ing class, the professional managerial class is still capable of, and re­quired for, wielding political power.

This maps on very well to the class-based discussions that I’m seeing online and in-person (in my very academic crowd, being a uni student and all).

December

What Is a Take? A Trans Feminist Take on the 2019 British Election Results (Archive)
Grace Lavery, 2019

At some point in the last, say, five years, the phrase “hot take” both started to appear less frequently in conversations about online culture (especially Twitter), and the apparently more neutral term “take” has seemed to appear more frequently. The shift seems to have entailed a subtle shift in tone, too. The phrase “hot take” was usually fairly scornful, indicative of a callow or insincere attempt to gin up controversy for the sake of getting attention, much like “clickbait.” Another term from the same period, “thinkpiece,” possessed an even stronger critical association: the typifying thinkpiece was self-indulgent, unfocused pie-in-the-sky; the term carried the sense of intellectual irresponsibility, an inability or refusal to grasp things as they actually are. In that sense, then – and this will be a hot take for some, and a very cold one for others – that the object scorned by the term “thinkpiece” is conceptually indistinguishable from the object once scorned by the term “theory.” We have never lacked for terms to indicate our contempt for those whose thinking is piecemeal, or who fail/refuse to knead the pieces into a larger thinkloaf. 

A really weird and interesting piece, and a good example of what queer theory can contribute to one’s understanding of the world. I wanted to excerpt the entire thing.

Probably the best take you’ll get on the new star wars movies ugghhhhh (Archive)
Kuiperblog, 2019

Rogue One might be the only film since the original trilogy that really understood what, exactly, Star Wars was before it was Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. 

As someone who doesn’t care about Star Wars, this was an extremely interesting piece of analysis that made me care more about Star Wars.

 

Okay! Those are the links. Hopefully the next retrospective wouldn’t be like, 6 months late, but we’ll see 😛

Notes from the Salon: Social Class

[Editor’s note: this piece was ported over from Less Wrong on March 13, 2020, and backdated to the original publication date. Minor edits were made for clarity.]

This is a write-up of some interesting points raised at a tea party “literary” salon I held on October 6th, 2019. It is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the topic. It is conventional for attendees to do all the suggested readings before salon starts, so some parts of the write-up might not make sense without that context.

Assigned readings: Siderea on Class, Thoughts on the “STEM” class

Economic Class vs. Social Class

Economic class and social class are not the same thing. The two are decoupled, but only partly. You can be wealthy but lower class (e.g. a skilled tradesman making 6 figures) or poor but upper class (e.g. an adjunct professor at a prestigious university). Everyone at the salon was in the same social class: the class that attends semi-ironic and entirely sober literary salons, likely G2 on Church’s ladder. But it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in the room belonged to the same economic class – there is a much broader distribution of economic classes in attendance.

Performing upper-(middle)-classness grants you privilege. It costs some amount of money, but not as much as you would think, to perform professional-classness. The harder part by far is knowing what to buy in the first place. To a first approximation, a blazer is more middle-class-y than a hoodie. But a clean-ish hoodie emblazoned with your university seal is a much better signal than a polyester blend leopard-print blazer.

Most people want to make more money, but few people are interested in climbing the social ladder. When you find the class that you belong to and join it, you tend to go “ew” at the people in the classes below you, and “yikes”* at the people in the classes above you.

*Or the equivalent of “yikes”, if you’re in a class that doesn’t say “yikes”

Everyone is “Middle-Class”

The middle class is the only virtuous class – both “lower class” and “upper class” are insults. This results in basically everyone except billionaires and the homeless identifying as middle class. Premium mediocrity is what middle-classness could look like for millennials.

Class is a culture and a performance. For example, someone who makes six figures may choose to get their morning coffee at Tim Horton’s instead of Starbucks or an indie coffee shop. They might make this decision even if they like their coffee not terrible, because it’s more important to them to be seen as a salt-of-the-earth sort, and salt-of-the-earth sorts here in Canada drink Tim’s instead of Starbucks.

A more extreme example of this was outlined in this piece, where a Yale student who was actually broke didn’t realize that all of her classmates were only pretending to be broke. In one incident, she offered to buy a classmate that she knew for 3 years a sandwich, because she thought he was actually on the verge of starving. The classmate graciously broke the act and told her that he actually has a trust fund and was just carefully cultivating a starving artist image. In another incident, her classmates shamed her for not donating to a charity, because they perceived her to be only faking her destitution like the rest of them.

Scott’s cellular automata model of fashion talks about something similar, but what the Yale piece adds is that performing poorness gives the elites an unfounded confidence in knowing how poor people live, which is terrible for society.

That “STEM Class” Piece

The makeup of this Salon session was something like 60% STEM folk, 20% non-STEM folk who work or socialize with STEM folk a lot, and 20% non-STEM folk who don’t interact with STEM folk on a regular basis.

The only thing that the Salon agreed on was that STEM class people pretend more than other classes that they don’t care about class and just wear things they like.

Things we disagreed on included:

  • how accurate the tumblr post was about STEM folk
  • how accurate the tumblr post was about the connection between STEM and the military-officer class
  • whether any single person in the Salon has a good idea of what a representative sample of STEM folk would look like
  • how much STEM folk cared about art, politics, and sports
  • whether the r/uwaterloo subreddit is a decent representative sample of STEM folk
  • if this is the class that’s responsible for the existence of the alt-right
  • whether this is a class or a subculture (e.g. could a similar tumblr post be made for “the lawyer class”?)
  • if “STEM folk” is a real and useful category

Diversifying

People generally don’t deliberately seek to hang out with other social classes. When it happens, it’s usually as a result of another shared interest or trait. You can run into people in another social class at a  comic con, or your sports league, or your very small local queer community. Or if you’re doing a substantial amount of going on first dates with people from dating apps. It still won’t be the entire range of social classes, it’s just a wider range than who you would hang out with by default. Talking to a person in another social class is generally more unpleasant than talking to a person in your own, but this shared experience of being at a con/being queer/trying to date/etc can act like a social lubricant.

Many activist organizers come from the middle- and upper-middle classes. One common trap that they fall into is modelling working- and lower-class activists as sharing the exact same set of aversions that they do, to the upper class. So they think, “as long as we’re not doing fancy dress codes and caviar and country clubs, we’re inclusive”. In truth, working- and lower-class activists often have an aversion to middle-class norms as well — things like tofu, women who don’t shave, and non-hierarchical meeting structures. To make meetings and spaces welcoming towards everyone, middle- and upper-middle class activists should reflect on their own cultural norms, and to what extent it is necessary to impose it on other classes.

Betsy-Leondar Wright, an activist-scholar, suggests distinguishing between essential and non-essential weirdness, where essential weirdnesses are defined as practices that can’t be eliminated without doing great injustice to someone. In other words, essential weirdnesses must be kept, even if they seem offputting to some attendants, because discarding them causes greater harm. Essential weirdnesses are things like “the practice of always speaking out against racist comments” or “having your meetings be secular”.

Non-essential weirdnesses, on the other hand, should be eliminated as much as possible because pushing lifestyle choices onto disinterested working-class people is a misuse of class privilege. Because classes are hierarchical in nature, this is especially important for middle-upper class people to keep in mind. An example of non-essential weirdness is “only having vegan options for dinner”.

Effective Civic Action, Inside and Outside the System

I read Teardown by Dave Meslin for a book club here in Ottawa, and it is the weirdest thing that I’ve read in some time. I’ve described it to some friends as the most milquetoast call to radicalism that I’ve ever read. But a more charitable interpretation, perhaps, is that it is a book that excludes all theory to focus single-mindedly on praxis, and how to do it well in the Canadian political context. Meslin has a wealth of experience as an activist, and his book reflects that.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, especially if you’re Canadian. The tactics that he describes does have their limitations, and don’t try to look for any sort of coherent ideology (but again…. pracccssisssss is where the book shines), but there are enough nuggets of wisdom to mine that I think it’s likely worth your time overall.

I took lots of notes during my read-through, but of course focused on the chapters that are most useful and insightful for me personally. Key takeaways:

Useful ideas for local planning/advocacy:

  • 4 rules to create engaging public notices: be pretty, highlight important info, highlight engagement opportunities, finish with a call for action: “Your voice matters.” “This is your chance to be heard.” “We want your opinion.”

  • Use less planning jargon. Specifically called out examples: “podium”, “mechanical penthouse”, “below grade”, “amenity space” (be more specific – what’s going in that amenity space?)

  • City hall should have open doors (literally), council chambers should have open doors (literally).

  • Dress codes should be loosened, requiring ties in 2019 is ludicrous

  • Spontaneous consultation meetings on transit buses, giving free bus tickets as incentive

  • Providing pizza to citizens who want to host informal focus groups in their own homes

  • Interesting awareness campaign idea: put price tags on everything. Fire hydrants, bus stops, playgrounds. Show cost to build and to maintain/operate. Could be in lead-up to public budgeting session.

  • Paper newsletters in people’s physical mailboxes are still an incredibly powerful way to involve community

A very well thought out section on ways to clean up campaign money and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solution:

(going in, it should be recognized that governments are already in the habit of giving out rebates, so none of these solutions are like, unrealistically radical)

  • tax incentives by way of rebates
    • Toronto already does this, you get a 75% rebate on all small donations
    • One drawback is that since the refund is delayed, you discriminate against lower-income donors.

  • matching grants
    • 1:1 ratio used in presidential primary elections: if you give $50, govt will kick in $50
    • 6:1 ratio for first $175 of each contribution in NY program, i.e. govt will give $6 per every $1 you donate – completely changed culture of campaign finance in the city. Before, 30% of popn donated, after introduction in 2009, 90% donated. Jump concentrated in neighbourhoods w higher poverty rates, higher concentrations of minority residents. System credited w electing a much more diverse council. In 2018, ratio raised to 8:1.

  • per-vote subsidy
    • annual allowance given to party based on how many votes they got in the last election.
    • introduced in Canada in 2004, each party got flat 1.75/vote in prior election
    • all voters (not just the 1% who donate) help direct funds
    • strategic voting becomes more meaningful
    • honestly a pretty decent option, but they get cancelled and don’t stick around because politicians hate them

  • democracy dollars
    • “bold experiment” in Seattle, each voter is mailed 4 coupons worth $25 each. tripled number of campaign donors; 84% of donors were new to political process, donors were more reflective of general popn (e.g. more donations coming from youth, women, PoC, low-income residents). % funding from small contributions went from under 50% to 87%
    • provides candidates large incentive to knock on doors, talk to voters
    • amplifies new and emerging voices
    • allows all voters, regardless of disposable income, to participate

Misc takes:

  • In runoff elections, things get friendlier because if you’re nice to another candidate then their supporters might vote for you second

  • Billboards erode our sense of collective ownership and social identity. Neighbourhoods gain their character from small businesses, public art, local architecture, and historic landmarks. Billboards create a monolithic aesthetic. It’s kind of ridiculous when neighbourhoods allow billboards but don’t allow local postings from actual people.

  • Disclosure of donations to politicians need to have more information than just a name and address, because that makes it harder to connect the dots between where lobbyists work and what the donate as “private citizens”. But possibly more importantly, we absolutely have to stop releasing them as useless PDFs, and instead release them as actually usable data sets

  • Lobbying is a good thing, as long as there’s a level playing field. Maybe the government should provide lobbyists to community groups, the same way that courts appoint lawyers to low-income defendants. They can do this by providing direct funding to community orgs that cross a support threshold, or corps can be forced to pay for opposition’s lobbying costs, or govts can create an office of public lobbyists staffed w full-time advocates. (That last one sounds a lot like Davidoff’s advocacy planning which I’m a large fan of)

“War stories”:

Olifas Marketing Group (OMG) offered city council thousands of free garbage cans. In exchange, all OMG wanted was permission to put advertising on the cans. The sign bylaw, of course, doesn’t allow advertising to be installed directly on our sidewalks, so the company was asking for an exemption. But OMG couldn’t simply offer the city millions of dollars in exchange for that exemption. Imagine how that would have looked! The optics would have been terrible because everyone knows that policy shouldn’t be for sale. But because OMG offered “free” street furniture, no one saw it for what it is: a company getting special treatment in exchange for financial incentives. Institutionalized bribery. Under this new financial model, the advertising was more important than the garbage can. So the free bins were themselves pieces of garbage, built with the structural integrity of an empty pop can. They began breaking down as soon as they were installed, metal doors flinging open and blocking the sidewalk or a bike lane. And the bins were often installed perpendicular to the curb, which blocked pedestrians but made the advertising more visible to drivers. These weren’t really garbage cans with ads on them at all; they were billboards with lousy garbage cans attached. (216)

[Toronto] has a donations policy that is explicitly designed to ensure that “donations occur at arm’s length from any City decision-making process.” But “when I filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner, she ruled that no rules were broken because the ten-year-old policy regulating donations and community benefits astonishingly doesn’t include a definition of “donations” or “community benefits.” Without clear terminology, no one can actually break any rules. It’s the wild west. (218)

Tribar created the ultimate bundle: if the city gave permission to install a two-storey television screen above one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, the company would (are you ready for this?) contribute $3.5 million towards the construction of a suicide barrier on the same bridge. When the proposal was presented at city hall, the two items were bundled together, so if you were against the video screens (which I was, of course), then you were portrayed as also being against the suicide barrier. Politically, it was a nightmare situation. And that was intentional. (219)

Groups with charitable status are required to follow strict rules that limit their ability to do advocacy, while non-profit groups (without charitable status) can be much more innovative, politically vocal and effective when it comes to advocacy and community organizing. So why would any group choose to be a charity? Because charitable donations are tax-deductible. Under the existing rules, certain kinds of non-partisan advocacy are permitted, as long they account for less than 10 percent of a charity’s resources. But because board members often don’t understand these rules, they tend to take a risk-averse approach. “We have weak and confused sector organizations,” explains charity law expert Mark Blumberg, who’s calculated that more than 99 percent of charities conduct far fewer political activities than are allowed under the current rules. In fact, Blumberg estimates that the sector as a whole is spending only one-thousandth of its permitted threshold. (248)

When Ford went to rehab for two months, we literally had no mayor. As a community activist, I noticed a big difference during those strange years. Before and after Ford, it was absolutely necessary to secure the support of the mayor’s office in order to get any proposal approved by council. But during the Ford years, I was able to win significant political victories both with and without the mayor’s support. The councillors were in charge—as they should be but rarely are. (276)

Rants I won’t attempt to summarize because they are things of beauty you just kinda had to be there for:

  • “Tricks of the trade”, how politicians hide things from public eye

  • The one on billboards

  • The one on the increasing legibility of campaign running, and especially Get Out the Vote (GOTV)

    …Okay, fine, a small quote, because this very specific type of Ra-driven (archive) driven institutional rot is exactly my jam:

    “If they don’t trust their own caucus members to serve as ambassadors to the public, can you imagine how terrified they must be of having random volunteers knocking on doors and saying something that might be off message? This leaves campaigns with a dilemma: how do you distract dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers and make sure they aren’t trying to talk to voters about issues?” (156-157)