Random thoughts on the budget

The budget is really good overall. With this sorta thing its really easy to ignore the ‘edge cases’ like freelancers, the creative industries, students, etc but this budget addresses these. At the same time, it doesn’t stray from the overarching ideology of the PAP.

If you’re employed, the primary ‘support’ you get actually goes to the employer, with the fundamental assumption that this support ‘trickles down’. There’s a binary state assumption. If you’re employed you’re fine and dandy (maybe you get a one time payout). If you’re not employed we’ll help you. It doesn’t take into account that for many working class people wages were already pitifully low and it might just get worse.

There’s also the usual trotting out of the notion of ‘upskilling’, which seems even more egregious in the current epidemic. ‘Upskilling’ belies a belief in meritocracy, that wealth accrues to those who have skills, which in truth correlates less with determination or resilience but with historic privilege.

Lastly, there is the sacred cow of the reserves. This idea of only dipping in the reserves in emergencies is generally sound for sure, but at the same time seemingly creates the public perception that the government cannot afford to spend more on social security schemes in ordinary times, lest they waste all their money. From an optics standpoint, it’s the local equivalent to the insincere Republican cry of ‘well how are you gonna pay for it!?’.

Asking for more support for the poor in ordinary times is bad because it either means higher taxes, which sounds bad, or dipping in the reserves, which also sounds bad.

As a contra-example, It would be interesting to see a government, any government, adopt Modern Monetary Theory, aka MMT, where government budgets aren’t funded by taxes and bonds, but by increasing issuance of the government-issued fiat currency, with taxes used to control inflation. MMT also advocates for 100% employment with a job guarantee, which would probably be nice in these times.

My greatest hope would be that this support does so much good the PAP realizes that moving left would be a good idea.

On Pete Buttigieg

https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/01/buttigiegs-hollow-military-bragging/

This article about Buttigieg’s rather hollow military service helped me understand what I find so distasteful about his campaign: he reminds me of Singapore’s ministers. Buttigieg’s military career was short. He entered through a scheme known as Direct Commission and his short-lived Afghanistan deployment was spent mostly pushing papers. Yet now he spends all of his time on the campaign trail talking up his military experience.

The thing about the military is that it is the one organization in which attaining a high position in its hierarchy is uniformly respected and recognized (at least among pre-millennial generations). If you wanted to manufacture respect and honour and experience, this is a simple way of doing it. Thus the phenomena of “paper generals” in Singapore, where potential ministers are given high ranks in the SAF, before being parachuted into cushy ministerial roles, lording over civil servants with vastly more experience and understanding of the necessities and responsibilities of the ministries they are in charge of. The high rank in the SAF seems to justify their ministerial role. It’s self-confirming.

Buttigieg’s hollowness is evident in his rhetoric. Consider this tweet:

Like, no shit Sherlock? The nature of our governance systems ha implications for the effects of governance. Like, duh. There’s no wisdom in this. But it has the *aesthetics* of intelligence and eloquence. It sounds smart. The Singapore government’s rhetoric feels like this so often. It sounds visionary and imaginative and progressive and forward looking. But there frequently is no substantiate progressive policy underlying it. The policies underlying this rhetoric is often safe and milquetoast. Exactly like Buttigieg, and it’s really really disheartening that so many people seem taken in by this sort of thing, both in the USA and here.

Crunch and Consumers

The announcement of Cyberpunk 2077’s delay came together with a barely-tacit admission that the developers would be crunching to meet this already-delayed release date.

It should, I think, be an uncontroversial statement to say that crunch is bad. It’s psychologically draining, demotivating and simply leads to bad quality work from people. For the individual, it’s also completely unsustainable.

For the corporation though, you can pretty much go on crunch mode forever if you are able to replenish your workforce as they slowly get fired or quit from depression and disillusionment. This is very much happening. Blizzard did this when they laid off over 800 people before relisting their job positions with either lower pay or more responsibilities or both.

Hiring and firing is a hassle, of course, but the crunch, ah yes the crunch makes it worth it. Crunch make thing go fast. When thing go fast, you make more thing. When you make more thing you make more money.

But hey, games are made for us consumers right? What if we, through sheer force of miraculous will, collectively decided we didn’t like our favourite game devs crunching? What is that sacred power we have under Capitalism? It’s like democracy but the rich have more power. Oh right! It’s called voting with your wallet. So let’s say we did just that. How does the company respond? Maybe, if you’re lucky, they stop crunching. Maybe, instead, they do something else to cope with lost revenue. They fire people. They add micro-transactions. They make smaller games. There’s a whole host of ways a company can cope with lost revenue. If your company culture involves crunch, it can feel like it’s impossible to separate your company from that culture. That certainly seems to be CD Projekt Red’s attitude. You can give them a reason to change. You can’t direct *how* they change.

The awkward truth here is that the idea of ‘voting with your wallet’, the power to shift markets and corporations through market incentives, is severely limited in a variety of ways. After all, you’re controlling a company’s bottom line, which is really just a single number. Maybe the power to stop crunch has to come from somewhere else. Maybe it has to come from within.



Work and the Zero

[Some spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero]

Through an unfortunate series of events, Kentucky Route Zero’s Conway finds himself in debt to a mysterious distillery in the Zero, staffed entirely by strange glowing skeletons. With no way to pay, the distillery hounds him into working for them.

His traveling partner Shannon Marquez suggests that he could always just run from them. Run, far away from the curious spatial anomalies of the Zero, but Conway doesn’t want to. When they are granted the opportunity to rest and relax at the Rum Colony, a beach-side bar in the Zero with a literally infinite menu of Rum cocktails, Conway explains his reasoning.

He is getting old. His body is starting to fail. His boss, Lysette, may be going senile and is shutting down her shop. Small businesses throughout the Zero are slowly closing or being subsumed by the shadowy Consolidated Power Co.

He’s watching the decay of the world, and he, like everyone else, is powerless to stop it. How do you live in a world dying around you? How do you soldier on? How do you motivate yourself to keep living, to not want to drown yourself in rum cocktails? For Conway, the debt with the distillery is a blessing in disguise. If he just held a job, if he just worked, greased the cogs of the machine, then all will be well. Whether the world decays or lives, he could live with himself, that he did something dignified with his time.

Embedded in Conway’s story, in the nether shadows of the Zero, is this message: there is a hidden irony in late-stage capitalism. It swallows the world, and rots it from the inside, then offers us the appearance of an antidote, a salve for our anger and nihilism: work.

On Rogan

So Joe Rogan kinda sorta ‘endorsed’ Bernie Sanders. And the Sanders campaign picked up on that, and circulated the video of the endorsement.  Rogan is hardly a ideological ‘pure’ figure. His podcast has had guests associated with the alt-right. He himself has said some things that can be construed as transphobic. That said, his influence and reach is not to be reckoned with. His audience isn’t really right wing or centrist. They are frequently cognizant of the fundamental inequalities in society, but they don’t consider themselves left-wing due to their wariness of so-called identity politics.

 So when Sanders signal boosted the Rogan endorsement, it caused a bit of a stir, even among progressives, even among trans people.  The act of accepting Rogan’s endorsement is a tactical one. Rogan’s influence would likely bring many many votes in favour of Sanders. The acceptance of the endorsement implicitly suggests that these votes are more important than the feelings of trans people. 

The thing is, the votes are kinda more important though? If those votes help make Sanders the democratic presidential candidate, then the hope of a Sanders presidency grows brighter.  The feelings of people who are hurt are… well feelings. They are not invalid. They are not unimportant, but in consideration of how to respond to hurt that has been caused, factors beyond the hurt itself need to be considered. 

Is Rogan a figure to be ‘cancelled’? His podcast has certainly been hurtful in various ways, but I don’t think he is motivated by malice. Like his audience, he’s just ignorant. This is evident in his interviewing style. He allows guests to talk without end. Rarely does he disagree or question the claims made by his guests, even when they are so clearly wrong. By exposing himself to guests of wildly varying perspectives and claims, he and his audience end up ideologically rudderless. They have no comprehensive and consistent understanding of the system of the world. 

This can be exploited. 

Rogan’s audience and Rogan himself understand class inequalities, thus the Sanders endorsement. Now they just need to understand that minority issues and identity politics are part of the same system of inequalities. That’s not impossible.

Clothing, Cost, Capitalism

There’s this Berlin-based fashion label. They’re called Acronym. They’re the grand-daddy of the techwear fashion ‘sub-genre’, with each item they release being a perfect blend of functionality, performance and urban aesthetics. Dress yourself in Acronym gear and you’ll look like you just stepped out of a cyberpunk dystopia, and with the features and build quality of their apparel, you’re certainly well-equipped for one. Little wonder they’ve done outfit designs for videogames like Death Stranding and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

Here’s the thing. They’re expensive. A pair of pants or a jacket from them will set you back at least 1000-2000 Euros. The justification for this price is manifold. The clothing is constructed out of incredibly high quality fabrics and materials. The stitching is meticulous and durable. The design of the garment is pored over endlessly and field-tested. They are made in Berlin by well-compensated workers. They are built to last years and not to be discarded at the end of a season.

I believe them when they say all this. One of the foundations of techwear is that the garment itself, beyond its visual aesthetic, should be a well-constructed high-performance item. But this isn’t necessarily true of all fashion styles or all fashion labels, yet astronomical or higher tier pricing is not exclusive to techwear.

It made me realize something that I’m not sure is unique to me or not: the correlation of pricing of clothing to quality and/or ethics is completely invisible to me.

What is a fair price for an item of clothing? When you walk into Cotton On or H&M, there’s probably an implicit expectation that at least part of their catalog was sweatshop-made and possibly of dubious quality. After all, how else do you make a t-shirt that costs 15 bucks? But at what price point can you be somewhat certain that a garment was ethically made or is made to be durable and not fall apart a season later? Zara’s items are somewhat more expensive than H&M, but they have been implicated in various labour rights violations and accusations of plagiarizing designs. Uniqlo’s items often feature high performance fabrics, but they too are not innocent of labour rights violations.

On the flip side you have luxury labels like Balenciaga, Prada or the aforementioned Acronym. These labels certainly aren’t mired in the same sort of controversies as fast fashion labels. But are they just overpriced? Are you just paying for the brand? What about more ‘mid tier’ labels like Abercrombie & Fitch? They’re guilty of labour rights violations too.

The fundamental truth of all this is that industrialization, globalization and capitalism have abstracted away the externalities involved in the manufacturing and distribution of apparel. As consumers, often the only information you have on which to base your purchasing decisions is pricing, but that frequently has no correlation with other factors you should consider. I would like to buy clothes that are made to last and don’t end up leaking toxic dyes into a landfill. I would like to buy clothes that were not made by children in developing nations. But I can’t be sure if what I buy fulfill these desires. What information there is about environmental or labour violations by fashion labels is scattered about the web and dense and difficult to remember in an already information-saturated world. Thus we can only buy what looks good. Not what feels good. Not what is good.

Self-Preservation and Society

The UK Police recently got into some hot water when a internal document describing various ‘extremist groups’ and their symbols was leaked to the public. Among the extremist groups were climate change NGOs like Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, as well as left-wing symbols like Antifa and Anti-Nuclear Power. These were placed alongside right-wing groups and symbols like Neo-Nazis, the swastika, and the iron cross.

It should go without saying that Neo-Nazis are a lot more of a threat than Greenpeace is, and so it’s quite outrageous that they are perceived to be of similar threat to society by the police, but in truth it makes perfect sense that the police would think that way.

Police forces are instruments of the states, acting as enforcers of the law, itself an instrument of the state, and the law as it is so often constructed is designed to be a system of self-preservation of the dominant ideology of the state and society. The law preserves systems. The law is not justice.

The one similarity between the left and right is the desire for transforming society. The desired transformation and the means of achieving said transformation are vastly different. The Left desires justice, where justice is defined as equality, but as the law, despite what the state might claim, does not enforce justice. Naturally the left is seen as hostile. As long as power dynamics like this underlie society, the police are not your friends.

Discourse and Disagreement

There is a substantial body of evidence that suggests that the experience of discrimination early in life has a tendency to heighten one’s stress response to conflict and social situations. Like a form of trauma, the experience of discrimination leaves a psychological scar that can lead one to feel stressed and panicked in situations of conflict or disagreement, even if said conflict arises not from a place of malice or oppression. It becomes a form of impairment that impacts your ability to function in life, even if you no longer experience discrimination. It is thus important to remember that conflict is not abuse, to quote Sarah Schulman.

The fantasy and science fiction magazine Clarkesworld recently published a short story by Isabel Fall. The title of the story was ‘I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter‘. It’s a skillfully written deep dive into the transphobic meme in its title and a deconstruction of the notion of gender identity and gender expression. As you might be able to infer from its title and the fact that it has been taken down, the story generated quite a great deal of *discourse*.

There are those who really like it, myself and a fair number of trans people included, who find the prose written with a precision and control indicative of a skilled and experience writer and a nuanced exploration of gender with a clear thesis (though we may not fully agree with all of it). There are those who dislike it, believing the ideas put forward to be a subtle attempt to justify transphobia or a prescriptive approach to gender.

Then there are those who have not read it, and have decided never to read it, and who believe it to be anathema and its publication a fatal mistake.

The justification for this perspective is that the meme embodied in its title is a transphobic slur, and the publication of this story merely serves to remind people of the existence of the slur, and for that alone it has caused harm to people, regardless of content or intention.

I find this perspective deeply frustrating. One of the most powerful ways to obliterate the effectiveness and power in a slur is to interrogate its fundamental precepts and to reclaim the term as a source of empowerment. What if gay people refused to read fiction that deconstructed homophobia because the word ‘fag’ is used? What if Asian people refused to watch a movie that criticized Orientalism because the word ‘chink’ is used? Fall’s story interrogates the transphobic slur and as evidenced by its position in Google search results for the meme, it has also started to reclaim the slur.

Of course, one could argue that the slur is still in use and thus still hurtful. It, like the scars it causes, is still fresh. But if not now, then when? It’s perfectly valid to be hurt by the story’s title and to refuse to read it, but to be hurt by a thing does not automatically imply the thing is dangerous or intended to be dangerous. You could poke yourself with a pen, but it does not mean the pen was dangerous. Some, however, believe that the presence of the hurt automatically implies that the story is *objectively* immoral. The subjective sentiment, not universally shared, is assumed to be the objective. The story explores emotionally raw territory and some would rather it didn’t but this disagreement, this conflict, is perceived as abuse.

I do not believe that to be a healthy attitude. That approach is counter-productive to progress, and should be changed. It may seem quite unfair to ask of a minority to put aside their feelings, to be the one who has to play nice, but solidarity requires reciprocity. A refusal to engage in discourse or to even allow discourse is a barrier to solidarity.

Healthy productive well-intentioned discourse is vital. Like disinfectant on a wound, it hurts, but in the end it heals.

(I’m well aware that I’m a cis person commenting on trans issues here. There are a fair number of trans people who liked the story and who share a similar perspective here so I believe I’m not off the mark)

Poverty Porn

The Straits Times recently released an article about Aqil, an O-Level student from a poor family who deliberately went hungry for years to help save money to pay for his parents’ medical treatment. This adversity is ostensibly presented as a feel good story, highlighting Aqil’s courage in the face of hardship.

This entire story reminds me of gamers.

(probably not in the way you think)

There is a small subculture of reactionary gamers who feel like their hobby and passion is under threat from the ‘SJWs’ who are trying to insert forced diversity into the games they play. If a character is gay, or black, or trans, or anything that isn’t cisgendered and white and straight it instantly becomes ‘political’. They cry out, wHy aRe yOu iNsErTiNg pOlItIcS InTo gAmEs!?!?

Of course, this fallacy belies an unquestioned assumption that cis straight white male is the default – the apolitical. It is of course incredibly political. Diversity or the lack thereof in a fictional world has fundamental implications on the sociopolitical zeitgeists of said fictional world, whether intended by the creator or not. If all your humans in your fantasy land are white, what does that say about the geography and anthropology of your fantasy world? What does that say about the fantasy genre as a whole? If all your orcs are black-skinned and also intrinsically evil what does that say about the cultural connotations of skin colour in your world? How does that influence real world perceptions of skin colour?

Everything. Is. Political.

That includes the story of Aqil, which very much fulfills the dictionary definition of poverty porn. His courage is not in question here. What matters here is that the default, the socioeconomic status quo that led to the necessity of him starving himself, goes unquestioned by our journalists. The pertinent point is not his courage. The pertinent point is that our systems of financial aid and healthcare seem to be woefully insufficient in providing the necessary care for our people without the need for them to bankrupt themselves. If we leave the underlying status quo unquestioned, the way the article does, then we are effectively implying that ‘it’s okay for poor people to starve to pay for their health care’. If we question that assumption, then we are saying ‘we are a wealthy nation and people should not need to starve themselves to pay for medical care’. I don’t think that is a controversial opinion, but it certainly s a political one. If our journalists, the ‘Fourth Estate’ of society, do not question ‘what is’, then society will never evolve from ‘what is’ to ‘what should be’.

Jojo Rabbit’s Cardinal Sin (and why it’s a good thing)

[Spoilers for Jojo Rabbit]

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit does the one thing you shouldn’t do when depicting Nazis: make them sympathetic. On the surface this might seem like a deplorable artistic choice – the idea that a Nazi, the universal villain, is somehow worthy of understanding and sympathy. What Jojo Rabbit does though, is the precarious balancing act of delineating between the ideology and the individual.

In Jojo Rabbit, as in real life, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Nazi ideology is heinous and morally grotesque. This statement alone is uncontroversial, but Jojo Rabbit shows us this by perceiving this ideology through the eyes of a child. The figurative vilification and demonization of Jews is taken at face value by our protagonist Jojo, and he believes Jews to be literal monsters. Like the antisemitism of the Nazis, Jojo’s perception of Jews is both absurd and self-contradictory. Similarly, like the actual Hitler, Jojo’s Hitler is a farcical daddy figure for a fragile consciousness.

Yet Jojo, like many of the characters in the film, is not undeserving of sympathy and understanding despite their identification with and adherence to the Nazi regime. Jojo is a child – his naivety is a given and to be excused. His mother is a lone individual – her means of rebellion have to be personal and private. Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf is a disgraced soldier, longing for the glory of battle. He is unconcerned with the underlying ideology of the Nazis, evidenced by his small acts of disobedience helping Jojo evade arrest and capture. For him, the Nazis are a means to glory. This does not reduce his culpability for the crimes of the regime (he is implied to be shot as the allies roll into town), but this understanding of his underlying motivations is paramount to our understanding of the allure of fascism.

The tragedy in Jojo Rabbit is not just the death of Jojo’s mother, but the implied death of Captain Klenzendorf. Given the circumstances, there is no denying he deserves some form of justice, but the film asks: sure, his actions embody evil, but did his heart? Were he born American, would he not have joined the army, seeking to liberate Germany, and thus be branded a hero and given the glory he so desired? Under the Nazis, he became both victim and victimizer. His sin was not malice. His sin was a lack of courage, a failure to rebel.

Jojo Rabbit assumes the evil of fascism to be self-evident. Instead, it wishes to consciously interrogate it and how people can be swept up by it, whether in Klenzendorf’s desire for glory or Jojo’s desire for a father figure. It follows in the tradition of Mel Brooks’ films and cleverly avoids the mistake of making its satire serious, which frequently results in the satire being taken at face value by the targets of satire. In Jojo Rabbit, humour reveals tragedy, it reveals truth.