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Tactical Retreat: Lonely Man

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

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The First Sexual Revolution

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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Epictetus was the sort of figure that only the Roman Empire could have produced. He was born in the Phrygian hills of Anatolia in the middle of the first century. Enslaved and brought to the capital, he served in the household of the freedman Epaphroditos. Epaphroditos, in turn, was in the direct employ of the emperors. Epictetus has told us nothing about his circumstances in these years, but he must have had a close-up view of the swarm of peoples and ideas that passed through the corridors of power. We do not know whether Epictetus noticed, or cared, when in a.d. 64 the emperor Nero fastened blame for the Great Fire on a tiny band of religious eccentrics known as “the people of the anointed one.” We do know that he met the Roman aristocrat and Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus and fell under the master’s spell. Epictetus earned his freedom and lived out his days, many of them in exile, as a Stoic sage. The former slave from Phrygia was a sensational teacher, sought out by the sons of the gentry from across the empire; he shaped the best minds of a generation.

Epictetus sought to attain the Stoic ideal of “apathy,” a majestic indifference to all things without moral value, including pain and death. For the Stoic, the lover of virtue does his duty—to family, to city—without concern for wealth or status. True freedom, taught the ex-slave, is not a legal condition, but a kind of moral Zen achieved by emancipation from the passions, including the pangs of sexual desire. Musonius Rufus seems to have gone so far as to advise against all sex for the purpose of pleasure, even within marriage. Epictetus, too, reckoned the conquest of physical desire an integral part of the philosopher’s task. But sexual desire claimed no special place of distinction in the wide array of the world’s enticements. “Learn to use wine with refinement,” Epictetus said, “and to hold back from some little lass or a little flatcake.” The precise tone of Stoic advice in sexual matters is nowhere clearer than in his Stoic Handbook. “Remain as pure as you can before marriage with regard to sexual pleasures, and insofar as they are engaged in, let them be lawful. Yet do not become oppressive or reproachful toward those who do indulge, and do not hold forth all the time on your own restraint.”

Of course, when it comes to sex in the ancient world, the moral decency of the imperial Stoics is not what immediately leaps to mind. We are more apt to imagine modern scenes of Roman debauchery (“I’d like a sit-down orgy for forty”) and the naughty pictures on lamps and living room walls dug up in places like Pompeii. But the tame austerity of the philosophers and the ebullient eroticism of the streets coexisted in easy proximity. In fact, they shared a hidden premise. Both presumed that sex was just sex, one instinctual need among others, to be channeled in certain fundamental ways.

For sages and sensualists alike, there were consensus “no-go” zones, where the rules were hard and fast. Expectations of chastity for respectable women, whether maidens or wives, were clear and inflexible. Female purity was heavily guarded. Men were governed by entirely different rules. The code of masculinity abhorred any hint of feminine passivity, in the public square and in the bedchamber alike. The stern threats of public law hovered in the background of these norms. But male sexual restraint was not a prerequisite of dynastic purity, and men were not restrained by the protocols that regulated female chastity. For instance, there is not even a word for “male virgin” in Latin or Greek. It is a little misleading to say that Roman sexual culture had a double standard. There were, very frankly, two entirely different sets of standards of erotic behavior, precisely because sexual morality was determined by the imperatives of reproducing the family and the city, and the bodies of men and women had different roles in that endeavor. The perpetuation of socially honorable households, generation after generation, was the enduring mental frame of public sexual morality. Stoic morality, hard-edged as it might at times be, ran along the grain of this world.

The Roman Empire that nurtured Stoic moralists such as Musonius and Epictetus was really an agglomeration of societies connected by bustling roads and busy sea-lanes. It was a sprawling, polyglot, and agrarian empire. The empire was home to a galaxy of cities—some one thousand of them, most of them smaller than their proud marble ruins might suggest. A grievously poor and unlettered peasantry constituted the silent majority, and some 10 or 15 percent of the empire’s inhabitants had the misfortune of finding themselves in bondage, as chattel slaves whose bodies could as well have been inert matter in the moral imagination of ancient philosophers. Life expectancy at birth was in the mid-twenties. The evanescence of all life turned eros into a divine blessing to be enjoyed in proper season. But the grim realities of Roman life expectancy also made reproduction urgent. Epictetus’s short list of human duties encompassed “citizenship, marriage, child production, piety to God, care of one’s parents.” Sex was a civic duty.

This was the scene onto which the Christians came loudly striding. The Christian movement’s sexual demands were not just austere or unusual. They were jolting, and deliberately so. The apostolic generation did not pour out of the Levant onto the open roads of the empire with anything like a detailed packet of sexual rules. Paul’s letters show us that Christian sexual morality was settled on the go, adapting the gospel’s searing ethic of radical love and interior purity to the realities of life in the towns of the empire. Paul’s letter to the fledgling Christian community in Corinth provides the clearest example. It is the most direct entrée we have to the confrontation between the nascent Christian Church and the habits and half-articulate expectations that governed sexual life in a Greek or Roman city.

First Corinthians shows that Paul’s message was heard in the most contradictory ways, even by sympathetic ears. Some of the new adherents to the faith had drawn startlingly libertine conclusions from Paul’s language of Christian freedom: “All things are lawful for me.” This was not altogether surprising. In the society from which they came, sexual ethics were not invested with much more significance than dietary guidelines. The desire for some “little lass” and the desire for a “little flatcake” were treated with the same moral gravity. So it stood to reason that just as the Gentile Christians were freed from the magnificently intricate regulations of the Jewish dietary code, so too they might expect a certain laxness in erotic matters.

Paul stops this line of thinking in its tracks. His letter unleashes a barrage of ideas and metaphors that came to define the boundaries of Christian sexual orthodoxy. He could have ruled narrowly—along the lines that sex is a moral category like violence or greed, not a merely ethnic cultic norm like rules about shellfish and the Sabbath. He could have enjoined Gentile Christians to obey the old Jewish codes, which regulated sex in detailed ways. Instead, he offered a conceptual framework that, while drawing some of its language and logic from familiar sources, offered an entirely fresh way of grounding sexual morality. His model of human sexuality flowed from a much grander vision than any we find in pagan antiquity. Sexual morality was part of the proclamation of a half-hidden story of God’s restoration of the created cosmos.

The keystone of Paul’s reaction to the Corinthians was his steadfast opposition to “fornication,” porneia in Greek. The word’s underlying associations are rich and esoteric, and we must approach the term with due caution. Consider that the Latin word for it, fornicatio, seems to have been invented for no other purpose than to capture all the fugitive associations of the original. Fornication in English is a churchy word, with little place in the vernacular. (As I tell my students, it is impossible to imagine “fornication” in a text message or tweet.) The root of the word in Greek is “prostitute,” pornê. In ordinary Greek from the classical period onward, the meaning of porneia was prostitution. Before Jews and Christians took hold of the term, the exclusive meaning of porneia was prostitution in the active sense, from the pimp’s or prostitute’s perspective. Porneia was the business of trading sex for money, not the act of patronizing a brothel—and certainly not premarital or extramarital sex tout court.

Yet Paul has something much broader in mind than running a cathouse when he uses the term in his letters. The generic translation in English, “sexual immorality,” won’t do. The locution is too anodyne and reflects a failure of nerve in the face of the intimidating range of meanings that porneia takes in Paul’s usage. It fails to shed light on what the word meant for Paul and leaves a fog around the origins of a distinctive Christian sexual ethics.

Paul’s use of porneia fuses two very different frames of reference, one biblical and the other drawn from the experience of life in the Greco-Roman towns where the apostle preached. In the Old Testament, prostitution (zenuth in the Hebrew, which became porneia in the Septuagint) became a metaphor for idolatry. It is the visceral image of Israel’s betrayal of her exclusive covenantal relationship with Yahweh, and it appears frequently in the Old Testament. The English “harlotry” may still capture some of the abrasive sound of this evocation of covenant infidelity. Closer still: Idolaters are spiritual sluts. The metaphor is easily reversed, so sexual sin can be considered a form of religious betrayal. The prostitute, especially the non-Israelite harlot, who had many lovers, threatens to lure men into idolatry, the worship of many gods. In the Old Testament, sexual and covenantal infidelity are blurred, and thus the imperative of fidelity also has fused meaning. Religious matters of supreme significance merge with and elevate what the surrounding cultures considered matters of worldly propriety.

Paul not only summoned the high-stakes history of porneia in Israel’s Scripture but also deployed it in a way that made the word’s resonance unmistakable. In his usage, prostitution was a synecdoche for the many forms of erotic permissiveness in the culture around him. Moving in a society where it was totally unexceptional—and casually expected—for men to indulge their sexual desires with prostitutes, slaves, and others who lacked social honor, Paul forbade it. Not only that, he proclaimed sexual congress to be a mysterious union of the flesh, something of transcendent significance. The body is a temple, a site of sacred communication. Sexual sin, therefore, is a kind of pollution, as scandalous and disruptive as the desecration of a holy sanctum. We are a long way from the rigorous but pragmatic counsels of Epictetus. The Stoic urged self-control, on the grounds that physical pleasure was a dangerous distraction from the virtuous life. Paul does so because sex implicates us in something with sacred significance.

Paul concedes in his Letter to the Corinthians that marriage is a legitimate safeguard. Because of the lures of the city, the followers of Christ would be allowed to marry. But Paul’s words are hesitant and qualified. Ideally, he writes, followers of Christ would be as he is—in a state of sexual abstinence (possibly but not certainly lifelong celibacy). Marriage is permissible, but only by way of concession, not command. It seems an implicit rejection, or at least a fundamental qualification, of the original imperative “Be fruitful and multiply.” Yet, for Paul, marriage does look back to the original acts of creation. It requires a level of mutual fidelity between partners that mirrors the original congress of God and the human creature. This emphasis on fidelity was alien to the patriarchal culture in which he proclaimed the gospel. With these few words, Paul charted the future course of Christian sexual discipline: Virginity as the highest mode of life and marriage as second best, yet also infused with a divine significance that jealously reserves sexual union for itself.

It is easy enough, and not entirely misleading, to say that Paul’s thought was compressed by the heavy weight of the apocalyptic atmosphere. He wanted his churches to live devotedly toward the coming age, during the small slice of time remaining. But that never led ancient Christians to doubt the larger significance of Paul’s austere counsels. After all, as the time between Christ’s ascension and return lengthened, the entire orthodox tradition in early Christianity chose not to write off Paul’s rigorism as a distortion of his apocalyptic lens; quite the opposite, it tended to accentuate the more extreme and anti-erotic possibilities latent in his thought. The possibility of full-blown Encratism stalked much of early Christian history. (Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues” is about right: “Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish; / There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.”) In the second century, Clement of Alexandria held fast to the view that within marriage, only sex solely for the purpose of procreation was permissible. Not until the Jovinianist controversy was extinguished in the late fourth century, and Augustine’s tour de force “Of the Good of Marriage” was written, did it become completely clear within Christianity that marriage could be a genuine good and not merely some kind of lesser evil.

Over this same span of centuries, the Church gradually worked out another revolutionary implication of Paul’s message: Sexual morality would require moral agency for all persons, even those whose bodies were beyond the field of vision for ancient thinkers. In today’s terms, Christian sexual morality was inclusive. To be sure, Paul hardly announced the legal emancipation of the unfree. But already (so I have argued, though not all agree) Paul’s ban on porneia restricted one of the slave-owner’s most ordinary prerogatives: sexual access to his slaves. We can trace a dawning awareness in the early Church, unlike anything in pagan antiquity, of the sexual integrity of all persons. By the fifth century, Christian emperors were actually taking proactive (if still, by our standards, limited) measures to protect the bodily integrity of vulnerable women. The heightened place of sexuality in the overarching structure of morality, the respect for the human dignity of all persons, and the insistence on the value of the transcendent and sacred over the secular and the civic—these all went hand in hand in the growth of Christian culture.

Paul’s prohibition on fornication, his highly qualified acceptance of the practical necessity of marriage, and the liberatory movement of Christian individualism form a coherent ethic: For the early Christians, sexual morality was woven inseparably into their whole effort to live rightly in the world. Sex, by its essence, is entangled in the most fundamental questions about the nature of the self and its relation to God. Once launched, the revolution was not easily contained, and when the early Christians tore sexual morality away from the familiar outlines provided by the civic background, the repercussions were not confined to one discrete section of the moral code. Sex came to occupy a place in the foreground of moral instruction in a way that it simply never had in Judaism, or even the most stringent pagan philosophies. The conspicuous austerity of the early Christians caught the eye of early observers, including the Greek doctor Galen. In the competitive marketplace of Roman imperial religion, the way in which Paul loaded questions of sexual morality with dramatic salvific significance gave the moral teaching of this small but vocal movement a particular flavor. The proclamation of the gospel and this strange, spiritualized rigorism were inseparable.

The Christian movement did not come, in the first place, to overthrow the Stoic sages, but rather the folk and civic polytheism that ruled in the hearths and streets of the ancient Mediterranean. Despite the importance of the philosophical schools in shaping literate morality, traditional paganism prevailed. The Roman Empire was not an age of spiritual decadence, as once believed. Christianity did not triumph over a tired or limping polytheism. The old gods confidently ruled. The cities thrummed with their sounds, and the streets were fogged with altar smoke. Later Roman Alexandria, we happen to know, had some 2,500 temples. So it is no accident that the Roman Empire gave birth to the genre of deeply religious literature we call the Greek romance. The romances may be as close as we can get to the warm, earthy spirit of mature paganism in the centuries when Christianity rose to prominence. These long, prose stories of love—of eros, erotic love—start to appear in the first century. They celebrate the idea that two young people, a boy and a girl of high station and uncommon beauty, can fall in love with each other and overcome the obstacles thrown in their way. In the end, all tensions are resolved, as reliably as the stars move across the heavens. The lovers wed and are physically united. Sex is a blessing, the source of all generation and renewal.

These romances proclaim that we belong to the world; we are ordered toward its endless pattern of sexual consummation and new life. The presiding god is Eros, the son of Aphrodite, a god of this world if ever there was one. In Daphnis and Chloe, a second-century pastoral romance that Goethe advised rereading every year, the innocent, natural desire of the two protagonists is likened to the same lush power of nature that impelled the herds of rams and ewes in their season of love. The springs of desire well up from deep inside us and sweep us through life on their raging currents. Sex is an immanent, divine force running through the cycles of time. In these narratives, the whole course of vegetable life—desire, love, marriage, sex, childbirth—constitute who we truly are. We belong here, to the earth, to the benevolent gods, and to the dancing cosmos.

Despite its charms, the romance told Christians exactly what they were not. They did not belong in this world. It is telling that early Christians shaped their imaginations with the diffuse body of legends known as the apocryphal acts of the apostles (whence come such integral stories as the quo vadis and upside-down crucifixion of Peter). These stories are, despite their low literary register, clever anti-romances. In these stories, the Christian apostle often rends a convert away from sex and marriage. Usually, the apostle convinces the beautiful wife of a powerful Roman to believe in Christ, and even to renounce conjugal relations. The Christians in these narratives are ruthlessly hunted by a ruling order that is not benevolent. The assault on physical eros throws ice water in the face of those who walk through life oblivious to the false promises of this world. The stories end not in marriage and the renewal of life but in abstinence and spectacular, sanguinary acts of dying. The renunciation of sex is integral to the apocryphal acts, not as a discrete moral commandment, but as a way of orienting the self in the world. In the early Christian imagination, sexual renunciation turns humanity away from the transient cosmos and toward the eternal reality of divine truth. For the early Christians, a rigorous sexual morality was integral to its spiritual project, which was to move through a world that was always ebbing away and toward the immaterial and transcendent God.

It was not the austere sexual morality itself that set Christians apart from the world so much as its central place within an effort to redefine how humanity ought to live in a created but fallen order. This transforming vision was something new and altogether estranging—in antiquity and ever since. Michel Foucault was neither the first nor the last to look at the rigors of Stoic virtue and see antecedents for Christian austerity. But appearances of continuity are deceptive. However close they were in time, place, and occasionally idiom, what seem like subtle differences between Epictetus and Paul in fact point toward an impassable chasm. The Christian revolution in sexual morality was a departure from, not an acceleration of, Stoic asceticism. And it was a radical break from the warm and earthy pagan eroticism of the kind we find in romance. Christianity put forward a new cosmology, a new ethics, and a new vision of human solidarity, in short, a new view of human destiny that makes sex far more important. Sexual morality is integral to the Christian vision of redemption.

The experience of the early Church might suggest that there have always been, and will always be, uneasy fault lines between the Church and the culture around it. These fault lines have become more visible and dramatic in recent decades. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the 1960s as the “hinge moment” in the longer arc of modern secularization. The triumph of the secular, by Taylor’s account, does not mean the simple abolition or erasure of the divine from the modern world. Instead, it is a change in the background conditions of all beliefs. The self is no longer imagined as journeying toward final redemption. Human existence is pictured within an indifferent and infinite universe made up of what T. S. Eliot called the “vacant interstellar spaces.”

In this model, sex was, and is, the crux of secularization. According to Taylor, the 1960s saw the sensibility of romanticism broadened into a mass phenomenon. By romanticism he does not mean the dynamic of the ancient Greek romances, a fusion of erotic desire with a fecund, living cosmos. Modern romanticism is more anthropocentric. Romanticism in this sense means an ethic of individual expressivism in accord with codes of authenticity and freedom. Unable to recover eros as worldly god—and unmoored from a shared, public culture whose picture of the universe has a measure of enchantment and meaning—we are left with eros as a private prerogative.

Secularization is not just the scraping away of a religious crust and the return to a pristine condition. (Indeed, it is worth observing that the social assumptions of pre-Christian sexual morality, such as the casual exploitation of the bodies of non-persons, seem incomprehensible precisely because the Christian revolution so completely swept away that old order.) The dethroning of a broadly Christian public morality in the last generations has seen the revival of eros, but not a return to a pre-Christian framework. Eros is no longer a god that weaves us mysteriously into the fabric of an enchanted cosmos. The Christians killed that god dead. Nor does modern sexuality bear any trace of the Stoic sensibility, in which the needs of the city provide moral order to the desires of the individual subject. The power of eros simply is.

Thus, the modern Church finds itself in an odd position. It is surrounded by a culture that bears some of its own values, but they are shorn of their enchanted origins and presented as neutral axioms of the universe. Ironically, some of the most unabashedly secular models of human sexuality also share with Christianity a belief in the central place of the erotic within the architecture of morality. This is utterly alien to Epictetus, and for that matter to most religions outside the Christian (and to some extent the Jewish) tradition. An avowed secularist is as likely as a Christian activist to proclaim the universal dignity of all individuals and insist upon the individual’s freedom. And yet, however moralized the domain of sex might be, the vast, vacant universe seems to have left only authenticity and consent as the shared, public principles of sexual morality. These axioms derive from a picture of the universe different from the one imagined by Paul, who always envisioned the individual—including the sexual self—within the larger story of the gospel and its picture of a created cosmos in the throes of restoration.

And so we live in a fractured culture, with a shared background of meaning that is as thin as gossamer and yet whose values bear the ghostly presence of ancient religious revolutions. The friction between old codes and new ones is not about restraint versus liberty, repression versus authenticity, any more than the difference between Stoic sexual morality and the Pauline view can be described in terms of strict versus lax. In our secular age, just as in the early years of Christianity, differences in sexual morality are really about the clash between different pictures of the universe and the place of the individual within it.

The modern sexual revolution, Taylor writes, has “a tremendous impact on churches whose stance in recent centuries has laid so much stress on these issues [sexual ethics], and where piety has often been identified with a very stringent sexual code.” That is putting it delicately. For stance, read core. For recent centuries, all the way back. For piety, orthodoxy. In the early Church, sexual morality was not baggage, afterthought, or accident. It was the plane on which Christians tried to live in the world, but not of it. Which is why adapting this sexual morality to the modern age has proven as simple as extricating a taut thread from a spider’s web

By Kyle Harper and originally published in First Things in January 2018 and can be seen here.

India’s Supreme Court May Consider Constitutionality of Muslim Divorce Practices

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

India’s Supreme Court today said it will examine whether it has jurisdiction to invalidate Muslim personal laws if they interfere with constitutional rights.  According to NDTV, the move comes in a suit challenging triple talaq, the practice that allows a Muslim husband to divorce his wife by pronouncing three times the phrase “I divorce you.” (Background.) One of the cases raising the question was brought by a woman whose husband divorced her through triple talaq delivered by mail. The court will hear arguments on the issue on Sept. 6.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Liberalism and the Wrath of the Privileged Whites

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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Each of our parties is acting crazy, thanks to its own elites. The Republicans are acting crazy thanks to the narcissism and entitlement of the right-leaning business and professional classes. The Democrats are acting crazy thanks to racial politics—specifically, the angry racial politics of upper-middle-class white liberals.

One irony of recent American politics is that the exodus of wage-earning whites from the Democratic party has tended to make the rump of white Democratic voters more affluent, better educated, and more doctrinaire leftist. According to Pew, about 35 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners are white “solid liberals.”

Solid liberals are left-of-center on both economic and social issues, and they are pessimistic about American society. One presumes that they are pessimistic about other people in American society. The solid liberals are also the best educated and most affluent segment of the Democratic party’s factions.

The weakness of solid liberals is that they are electorally nothing, absent alliances with less affluent, less ideologically rigid, and less secular groups. This creates all kinds of complications. The largely white and affluent solid liberals are notionally egalitarian and opposed to white privilege, but they include many of the most privileged whites in America. How can they participate in a coalition that is largely poorer, less educated, and darker-skinned than they are, while maintaining their comfortable position (both economically and socially)?

One solution would be for them not to maintain their privileged position, but instead to prioritize the interests of the poorer, less secular, and more moderate parts of their coalition. But that hasn’t happened so far. An overwhelming majority of Hispanics opposes increasing immigration, but their position is entirely unrepresented in the Democratic party. It seems possible that the Democrats will throw away a winnable Senate seat in Alabama because they have nominated a pro-abortion extremist against a Republican who has been credibly accused of sexual assault and ephebophilia (probably better that you don’t look that up).

Even ten years ago, Democrats were willing to nominate candidates who were culturally conservative (or at least willing to pretend to be culturally conservative) in order to replace conservative Republicans with somewhat-more-liberal Democrats. What changed?

The first thing was the alleged coming of the “emerging Democratic majority,” which was supposed to be brought about by demographic change and a larger nonwhite share of the electorate. This Democratic majority has been a little late in arriving, but that isn’t the only important part of the story.

Many liberal whites wanted to be rid of the culturally conservative, economically liberal, working-class white voters whom Democrats had courted in the previous decade. Upper-middle-class whites were embarrassed by these people. After all these centuries of white privilege, they never managed to get into a good school—or even a state college—and now they were making demands about trade and immigration.

One of the themes that emerges from Shattered (a chronicle of the Clinton campaign) is that the Clinton operation didn’t want to make a strong play for working-class white voters in swing states. The Clintonites thought these voters were disposable. It was left to Barack Obama to point out that he had done better than Clinton in many heavily working-class white areas, because he had done those voters the courtesy of treating them as though they were as important as any other American.

In one sense, it was easy for Obama. He didn’t risk being called a racist by playing to working-class whites. This is the dilemma facing affluent white liberals: They want to lead a coalition in favor of equality, but their identity places them under suspicion.

And they do want to lead. Hilary Clinton’s slogan was “I’m with Her.” That is why the loudest yelps about white privilege come from pale-skinned students at the most expensive liberal arts colleges. The strategy is to make the bad whites a justification for the privilege and power of the good, solidly liberal whites. See? We are using our position to make America a better place (and living rather well in the meantime).

This helps explain the biggest rhetorical difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama’s rhetorical vision included all but the most right-wing of Americans. Millions of working-class whites felt that Obama was talking about them, too, when he said, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

And many of those same Americans knew that Hillary Clinton was talking about them when she ranted about the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it” deplorables.

The Trump administration, for all of its obnoxiousness, seems most to have irritated affluent white liberals, rather than the nonwhite and relatively poor who are supposedly Trump’s great targets. Part of this is ideology, of course, since affluent white liberals are the most extreme segment of the Democratic coalition. But part of it is the rage of a privileged class.

By Pete Spiliakos and originally published in First Things on December 7, 2017 and can be seen here.

 

 

Futures Markets and the Absurdity of Capitalism

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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Capitalism is often celebrated by its supporters as the only economic system that can really deliver the goods, the only way of arranging our economic activity that has or that can lift mankind out of its supposedly otherwise inevitable poverty. And it is the case, one must admit, that capitalism does act as a remarkable spur to the manufacture of stuff, all kinds of stuff, sometimes useful, but just as equally useless or even harmful – anything, in fact, that the producer thinks can be marketed. But production of goods, even useless goods, is not the hallmark of capitalism. Rather capitalism, understood as the separation of ownership and work, has as its unique attribute not production, but selling, even, as we are about to see, selling of things that really do not exist.

The human race has always grown or otherwise gathered food, and there has probably always existed some kinds of exchange. But the growing or obtaining of food and the exchange of one desired object for another was always seen as a subordinate part of the life of the human race. Obtaining food was for the sake of living, exchange was for the sake of living better. But with capitalism this common-sense relationship of means and ends is very often perverted. Now all production is for the sake of exchange, social life becomes subordinated to the processes of production and exchange, and they in turn become subordinated to more exotic economic practices. This is because the capitalist imperative is always more sales, more profit, more speculative ways of making money, without any inherent limit or even a notion of what all this activity is for, except for the enrichment of those who own or control the economic processes. Capitalism as the separation of ownership from work creates a class of individuals who are removed from the production of useful objects and who regard the objects produced as primarily commodities to be sold, rather than useful goods to be consumed. Hence the imperative for more sales, ever increasing profits and market share, regardless of demand, because there is no natural limit, no end for which one is striving and with which, when obtained, one is satisfied. Let us look at the interesting example of the futures market in grain and see what we can learn from it as to the nature of the capitalist approach to organizing an economy.

In his book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, William Cronon discusses among other topics how the grain trade gave rise to the futures’ market in agricultural products. This account shows the absurdity of economic activity divorced from any rational end, and eventually even from a real product, the purposeless kind of economics fostered by capitalism. As long as something makes money for those who own or control it, capitalism cares nothing for whether the activity actually contributes anything toward meeting mankind’s real needs for goods and services.

Originally, as has generally been the case with mankind, grain grown on the prairies of Illinois and neighboring states was a means of feeding the farmer, his family and his near neighbors. But as it became an item to be shipped and sold, and eventually turned into a commodity future at the Chicago Board of Trade, we can see the transformation of a human and natural object into the abstraction of a commodity, something regarded as merely a means of profit.

A certain amount of grain trading and shipping existed from the early 19th century using water transportation. But this was slow and awkward and did not reach every place. Before there could be a transformation in the understanding of grain, there had to be a more efficient means of transportation. This was provided by the railroads, which were built mostly to facilitate the capitalist imperative to totally commercialize every aspect of life. If people had thought of grain as primarily a food to be consumed pretty much where it was grown, then the huge railroad network of the Mid-West would probably never have come into existence, since the existing modest means of transportation would have sufficed. Thus to extend and fully implement the capitalist transformation of wheat from a food into a commodity, the railway system first had to exist. The building of the railroad network transformed not only food exchange, but the environment, both natural and cultural of the region and the nation. Capitalism, then, both building upon and transforming the human vice of greed, powerfully shaped the entire culture and violently captured such pre-capitalist aspects of society as food production and local exchange and bent them to its purposes.

The existence of the railroad network enabled farmers to conceive of themselves not as growers of food for consumption but as producers of a commodity. Grain was shipped via the railroads to Chicago where it was held in large grain elevators for eventual shipment to the East coast. Originally the ownership of any particular sack of grain was retained by the farmer who harvested it. But naturally sacks of grain differed from each other significantly in quality. The storage of these sacks in grain elevators created a problem: “elevator operators began objecting to keeping small quantities of different owners’ grain in separate bins that were only partially filled…. To avoid that…, they sought to mix grain in common bins.” To do this required some system of grain standardization or grading. After such a system was created it became possible for the elevator owners to contract for sale of a certain quantity of a certain grade of wheat, with no reference to any particular sack of wheat actually existing anywhere. But because of the ever-changing price of grain, sellers and buyers soon realized that they could essentially bet against the future price by contracting in the present for sale or purchase of a definite quantity of grain at some future date, hoping that the price would increase or decrease to their benefit by the time of the actual sale. Ultimately this created the final absurdity:

…futures contracts [which] were essentially interchangeable and could be bought and sold quite independently of the physical grain… Moreover, the seller…did not necessarily even have to deliver grain on the day it fell due. As long as the buyer was willing, the two could settle their transaction by simply exchanging the difference between the grain’s contracted price and its market price when the contract expired. [They] could complete their transaction without any grain ever changing hands…. The futures market was a market not in grain but in the price of grain…one bought and sold not wheat or corn or oats but the prices of those goods as they would exist at a future time. Speculators made and lost money by selling each other legally binding forecasts of how much grain prices would rise or fall.

Grain went from being a means for feeding the population of farmers and others who lived nearby, to being centrally stored in bins in Chicago and shipped throughout the Northeast United States and into Canada, into being merely a symbol, but nevertheless a symbol that enabled speculators to engage in exchange. The contracts themselves have become a commodity to be bought and sold, but the contracts now have no necessary connection with any object of real economic value.

Despite its claim to be the only economic system that can produce sufficient goods to satisfy mankind’s needs, capitalism is really not interested in production at all, except as that can serve sales. It is interested in moneymaking, to be sure, but moneymaking by nearly any means that one can concoct. It might seem obvious, for example, that the financial sector would be a modest adjunct of the more primary economic activities of production or even exchange, sometimes necessary, often helpful, but always subordinate. But frequently someone can make more money by a merger or buyout, which often results in a decrease in real economic activity, than by actual production.

It should be obvious that mankind’s economic activity exists to serve our need for external goods and services. Thus economic activity must always be subordinate to the genuine needs and interests of humanity. But when economic activity is seen as basically a means of getting rich by almost any method, it is apt to become entirely divorced from meeting our real economic needs. The economy becomes essentially a private playground for those with enough skill or money to manipulate it in their favor. Pope Pius XI wrote with regard to such types of economic manipulation, “A stern insistence on the moral law, enforced with vigor by civil authority, could have dispelled or perhaps averted these enormous evils” (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 133). But this is too rarely the case in a capitalist, commercial society, where indeed as Karl Polanyi noted, “society itself becomes an `adjunct’ of the market.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Religious Tracts Cannot Be Distributed On Arena Plaza

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

In Ball v. City of Lincoln, Nebraska, (D NE, June 23, 2016), a Nebraska federal district court dismissed an attempt to enjoin authorities from enforcing a policy that, among other things, bars leafleting on a Plaza Area outside the Pinnacle Bank Arena unless requested by a person renting out the Arena or the artists or productions they represent. (Full text of Use Policy.) The Arena was jointly constructed by the city of Lincoln and the University of Nebraska.  Plaintiff Larry Ball handed out religious tracts in the Plaza Area on several occasions, and was cited for trespass.  The court upheld the Arena’s policy, finding that the Plaza Area is a non-public forum and that the restrictions on its use are reasonable because they are neutral and do not curtail free speech in nearby areas. Lincoln Journal Star reporting on the decision says that an appeal is planned.

You can learn more about this issue here.

May 2018, “The Evangelist” Newsletter from St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, Abington, PA

The Evangelist is the monthly newsletter of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Abington, Pennsylvania.  The May 2018 issue of The Evangelist is now out which you can read here.

Something is wrong on the internet

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in Medium which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

_______________

I’m James Bridle. I’m a writer and artist concerned with technology and culture. I usually write on my own blog, but frankly I don’t want what I’m talking about here anywhere near my own site. Please be advised: this essay describes disturbing things and links to disturbing graphic and video content. You don’t have to read it, and are advised to take caution exploring further.

As someone who grew up on the internet, I credit it as one of the most important influences on who I am today. I had a computer with internet access in my bedroom from the age of 13. It gave me access to a lot of things which were totally inappropriate for a young teenager, but it was OK. The culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships which I consider to be central to my identity were shaped by the internet, in ways that I have always considered to be beneficial to me personally. I have always been a critical proponent of the internet and everything it has brought, and broadly considered it to be emancipatory and beneficial. I state this at the outset because thinking through the implications of the problem I am going to describe troubles my own assumptions and prejudices in significant ways.

One of the thus-far hypothetical questions I ask myself frequently is how I would feel about my own children having the same kind of access to the internet today. And I find the question increasingly difficult to answer. I understand that this is a natural evolution of attitudes which happens with age, and at some point this question might be a lot less hypothetical. I don’t want to be a hypocrite about it. I would want my kids to have the same opportunities to explore and grow and express themselves as I did. I would like them to have that choice. And this belief broadens into attitudes about the role of the internet in public life as whole.

I’ve also been aware for some time of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between younger children and YouTube. I see kids engrossed in screens all the time, in pushchairs and in restaurants, and there’s always a bit of a Luddite twinge there, but I am not a parent, and I’m not making parental judgments for or on anyone else. I’ve seen family members and friend’s children plugged into Peppa Pig and nursery rhyme videos, and it makes them happy and gives everyone a break, so OK.

But I don’t even have kids and right now I just want to burn the whole thing down.

Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level. Much of what I am going to describe next has been covered elsewhere, although none of the mainstream coverage I’ve seen has really grasped the implications of what seems to be occurring.

To begin: Kid’s YouTube is definitely and markedly weird. I’ve been aware of its weirdness for some time. Last year, there were a number of articles posted about the Surprise Egg craze. Surprise Eggs videos depict, often at excruciating length, the process of unwrapping Kinder and other egg toys. That’s it, but kids are captivated by them. There are thousands and thousands of these videos and thousands and thousands, if not millions, of children watching them.

From the article linked above:

The maker of my particular favorite videos is “Blu Toys Surprise Brinquedos & Juegos,” and since 2010 he seems to have accrued 3.7 million subscribers and just under 6 billion views for a kid-friendly channel entirely devoted to opening surprise eggs and unboxing toys. The video titles are a continuous pattern of obscure branded lines and tie-ins: “Surprise Play Doh Eggs Peppa Pig Stamper Cars Pocoyo Minecraft Smurfs Kinder Play Doh Sparkle Brilho,” “Cars Screamin’ Banshee Eats Lightning McQueen Disney Pixar,” “Disney Baby Pop Up Pals Easter Eggs SURPRISE.”

As I write this he has done a total of 4,426 videos and counting. With so many views — for comparison, Justin Bieber’s official channel has more than 10 billion views, while full-time YouTube celebrity PewDiePie has nearly 12 billion — it’s likely this man makes a living as a pair of gently murmuring hands that unwrap Kinder eggs. (Surprise-egg videos are all accompanied by pre-roll, and sometimes mid-video and ads.)

That should give you some idea of just how odd the world of kids online video is, and that list of video titles hints at the extraordinary range and complexity of this situation. We’ll get into the latter in a minute; for the moment know that it’s already very strange, if apparently pretty harmless, out there.

Another huge trope, especially the youngest children, is nursery rhyme videos.

Little Baby Bum, which made the above video, is the 7th most popular channel on YouTube. With just 515 videos, they have accrued 11.5 million subscribers and 13 billion views. Again, there are questions as to the accuracy of these numbers, which I’ll get into shortly, but the key point is that this is a huge, huge network and industry.

On-demand video is catnip to both parents and to children, and thus to content creators and advertisers. Small children are mesmerised by these videos, whether it’s familiar characters and songs, or simply bright colours and soothing sounds. The length of many of these videos — one common video tactic is to assemble many nursery rhyme or cartoon episodes into hour+ compilations —and the way that length is marketed as part of the video’s appeal, points to the amount of time some kids are spending with them.

YouTube broadcasters have thus developed a huge number of tactics to draw parents’ and childrens’ attention to their videos, and the advertising revenues that accompany them. The first of these tactics is simply to copy and pirate other content. A simple search for “Peppa Pig” on YouTube in my case yielded “About 10,400,000 results” and the front page is almost entirely from the verified “Peppa Pig Official Channel”, while one is from an unverified channel called Play Go Toys, which you really wouldn’t notice unless you were looking out for it:

Play Go Toys’ channel consists of (I guess?) pirated Peppa Pig and other cartoons, videos of toy unboxings (another kid magnet), and videos of, one supposes, the channel owner’s own children. I am not alleging anything bad about Play Go Toys; I am simply illustrating how the structure of YouTube facilitates the delamination of content and author, and how this impacts on our awareness and trust of its source.

As another blogger notes, one of the traditional roles of branded content is that it is a trusted source. Whether it’s Peppa Pig on children’s TV or a Disney movie, whatever one’s feelings about the industrial model of entertainment production, they are carefully produced and monitored so that kids are essentially safe watching them, and can be trusted as such. This no longer applies when brand and content are disassociated by the platform, and so known and trusted content provides a seamless gateway to unverified and potentially harmful content.

(Yes, this is the exact same process as the delamination of trusted news media on Facebook feeds and in Google results that is currently wreaking such havoc on our cognitive and political systems and I am not going to explicitly explore that relationship further here, but it is obviously deeply significant.)

A second way of increasing hits on videos is through keyword/hashtag association, which is a whole dark art unto itself. When some trend, such as Surprise Egg videos, reaches critical mass, content producers pile onto it, creating thousands and thousands more of these videos in every possible iteration. This is the origin of all the weird names in the list above: branded content and nursery rhyme titles and “surprise egg” all stuffed into the same word salad to capture search results, sidebar placement, and “up next” autoplay rankings.

A striking example of the weirdness is the Finger Family videos (harmless example embedded above). I have no idea where they came from or the origin of the children’s rhyme at the core of the trope, but there are at least 17 million versions of this currently on YouTube, and again they cover every possible genre, with billions and billions of aggregated views.

Once again, the view numbers of these videos must be taken under serious advisement. A huge number of these videos are essentially created by bots and viewed by bots, and even commented on by bots. That is a whole strange world in and of itself. But it shouldn’t obscure that there are also many actual children, plugged into iphones and tablets, watching these over and over again — in part accounting for the inflated view numbers — learning to type basic search terms into the browser, or simply mashing the sidebar to bring up another video.

What I find somewhat disturbing about the proliferation of even (relatively) normal kids videos is the impossibility of determining the degree of automation which is at work here; how to parse out the gap between human and machine. The example above, from a channel called Bounce Patrol Kids, with almost two million subscribers, show this effect in action. It posts professionally produced videos, with dedicated human actors, at the rate of about one per week. Once again, I am not alleging anything untoward about Bounce Patrol, which clearly follows in the footsteps of pre-digital kid sensations like their fellow Australians The Wiggles.

And yet, there is something weird about a group of people endlessly acting out the implications of a combination of algorithmically generated keywords: “Halloween Finger Family & more Halloween Songs for Children | Kids Halloween Songs Collection”, “Australian Animals Finger Family Song | Finger Family Nursery Rhymes”, “Farm Animals Finger Family and more Animals Songs | Finger Family Collection – Learn Animals Sounds”, “Safari Animals Finger Family Song | Elephant, Lion, Giraffe, Zebra & Hippo! Wild Animals for kids”, “Superheroes Finger Family and more Finger Family Songs! Superhero Finger Family Collection”, “Batman Finger Family Song — Superheroes and Villains! Batman, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman” and on and on and on. This is content production in the age of algorithmic discovery — even if you’re a human, you have to end up impersonating the machine.

Other channels do away with the human actors to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos. The above channel, Videogyan 3D Rhymes — Nursery Rhymes & Baby Songs, posts several videos a week, in increasingly byzantine combinations of keywords. They have almost five million subscribers — more than double Bounce Patrol — although once again it’s impossible to know who or what is actually racking up these millions and millions of views.

I’m trying not to turn this essay into an endless list of examples, but it’s important to grasp how vast this system is, and how indeterminate its actions, process, and audience. It’s also international: there are variations of Finger Family and Learn Colours videos for Tamil epics and Malaysian cartoonswhich are unlikely to pop up in any Anglophone search results. This very indeterminacy and reach is key to its existence, and its implications. Its dimensionality makes it difficult to grasp, or even to really think about.

We’ve encountered pretty clear examples of the disturbing outcomes of full automation before — some of which have been thankfully leavened with a dark kind of humour, others not so much. Much has been made of the algorithmic interbreeding of stock photo libraries and on-demand production of everything from tshirts to coffee mugs to infant onesies and cell phone covers. The above example, available until recently on Amazon, is one such case, and the story of how it came to occur is fascinating and weird but essentially comprehensible. Nobody set out to create phone cases with drugs and medical equipment on them, it was just a deeply weird mathematical/probabilistic outcome. The fact that it took a while to notice might ring some alarm bells however.

Likewise, the case of the “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot” tshirts (along with the “Keep Calm and Knife Her” and “Keep Calm and Hit Her” ones) is depressing and distressing but comprehensible. Nobody set out to create these shirts: they just paired an unchecked list of verbs and pronouns with an online image generator. It’s quite possible that none of these shirts ever physically existed, were ever purchased or worn, and thus that no harm was done. Once again though, the people creating this content failed to notice, and neither did the distributor. They literally had no idea what they were doing.

What I will argue, on the basis of these cases and of those I’m going to describe further, is that the scale and logic of the system is complicit in these outputs, and requires us to think through their implications.

(Also again: I’m not going to dig into the wider social implications of such processes outside the scope of what I am writing about here, but it’s clear that one can draw a clear line from examples such as these to pressing contemporary issues such as racial and gender bias in big data and machine intelligence-driven systems, which require urgent attention but in the same manner do not have anything resembling easy or even preferable solutions.)

Let’s look at just one video among the piles of kid videos, and try to parse out where it comes from. It’s important to stress that I didn’t set out to find this particular video: it appeared organically and highly ranked in a search for ‘finger family’ in an incognito browser window (i.e. it should not have been influenced by previous searches). This automation takes us to very, very strange places, and at this point the rabbithole is so deep that it’s impossible to know how such a thing came into being.

Once again, a content warning: this video is not inappropriate in any way, but it is decidedly off, and contains elements which might trouble anyone. It’s very mild on the scale of such things, but. I describe it below if you don’t want to watch it and head down that road. This warning will recur.

The above video is entitled Wrong Heads Disney Wrong Ears Wrong Legs Kids Learn Colors Finger Family 2017 Nursery Rhymes. The title alone confirms its automated provenance. I have no idea where the “Wrong Heads” trope originates, but I can imagine, as with the Finger Family Song, that somewhere there is a totally original and harmless version that made enough kids laugh that it started to climb the algorithmic rankings until it made it onto the word salad lists, combining with Learn Colors, Finger Family, and Nursery Rhymes, and all of these tropes — not merely as words but as images, processes, and actions — to be mixed into what we see here.

The video consists of a regular version of the Finger Family song played over an animation of character heads and bodies from Disney’s Aladdin swapping and intersecting. Again, this is weird but frankly no more than the Surprise Egg videos or anything else kids watch. I get how innocent it is. The offness creeps in with the appearance of a non-Aladdin character —Agnes, the little girl from Despicable Me. Agnes is the arbiter of the scene: when the heads don’t match up, she cries, when they do, she cheers.

The video’s creator, BABYFUN TV (screenshot above), has produced many similar videos. As many of the Wrong Heads videos as I could bear to watch all work in exactly the same way. The character Hope from Inside Out weeps through a Smurfs and Trolls head swap. It goes on and on. I get the game, but the constant overlaying and intermixing of different tropes starts to get inside you. BABYFUN TV only has 170 subscribers and very low view rates, but then there are thousands and thousands of channels like this. Numbers in the long tail aren’t significant in the abstract, but in their accumulation.

The question becomes: how did this come to be? The “Bad Baby” trope also present on BABYFUN TV features the same crying. While I find it disturbing, I can understand how it might provide some of the rhythm or cadence or relation to their own experience that actual babies are attracted to in this content, although it has been warped and stretched through algorithmic repetition and recombination in ways that I don’t think anyone actually wants to happen.

Screenshot from Toy Freaks channel

[Edit, 21/11/2017: Following the publication of this article, the Toy Freaks channel was removed by YouTube as part of a widespread removal of contentious content.]

Toy Freaks is a hugely popular channel (68th on the platform) which features a father and his two daughters playing out — or in some cases perhaps originating — many of the tropes we’ve identified so far, including “Bad Baby”, (previously embedded above). As well as nursery rhymes and learning colours, Toy Freaks specialises in gross-out situations, as well as activities which many, many viewers feel border on abuse and exploitation, if not cross the line entirely, including videos of the children vomiting and in pain. Toy Freaks is a YouTube verified channel, whatever that means. (I think we know by now it means nothing useful.)

As with Bounce Patrol Kids, however you feel about the content of these videos, it feels impossible to know where the automation starts and ends, who is coming up with the ideas and who is roleplaying them. In turn, the amplification of tropes in popular, human-led channels such as Toy Freaks leads to them being endlessly repeated across the network in increasingly outlandish and distorted recombinations.

There’s a second level of what I’m characterising as human-led videos which are much more disturbing than the mostly distasteful activities of Toy Freaks and their kin. Here is a relatively mild, but still upsetting example:

A step beyond the simply pirated Peppa Pig videos mentioned previously are the knock-offs. These too seem to teem with violence. In the official Peppa Pig videos, Peppa does indeed go to the dentist, and the episode in which she does so seems to be popular — although, confusingly, what appears to be the real episode is only available on an unofficial channel. In the official timeline, Peppa is appropriately reassured by a kindly dentist. In the version above, she is basically tortured, before turning into a series of Iron Man robots and performing the Learn Colours dance. A search for “peppa pig dentist” returns the above video on the front page, and it only gets worse from here.

[Edit, 21/11/2017: the original video cited here has now been removed as part of YouTube’s recent purge, although many similar videos remain on the platform.]

Disturbing Peppa Pig videos, which tend towards extreme violence and fear, with Peppa eating her father or drinking bleach, are, it turns out very widespread. They make up an entire YouTube subculture. Many are obviously parodies, or even satires of themselves, in the pretty common style of the internet’s outrageous, deliberately offensive kind. All the 4chan tropes are there, the trolls are out, we know this.

In the example above, the agency is less clear: the video starts with a trollish Peppa parody, but later syncs into the kind of automated repetition of tropes we’ve seen already. I don’t know which camp it belongs to. Maybe it’s just trolls. I kind of hope it is. But I don’t think so. Trolls don’t cover the intersection of human actors and more automated examples further down the line. They’re at play here, but they’re not the whole story.

I suppose it’s naive not to see the deliberate versions of this coming, but many are so close to the original, and so unsignposted — like the dentist example — that many, many kids are watching them. I understand that most of them are not trying to mess kids up, not really, even though they are.

I’m trying to understand why, as plainly and simply troubling as it is, this is not a simple matter of “won’t somebody think of the children” hand-wringing. Obviously this content is inappropriate, obviously there are bad actors out there, obviously some of these videos should be removed. Obviously too this raises questions of fair use, appropriation, free speech and so on. But reports which simply understand the problem through this lens fail to fully grasp the mechanisms being deployed, and thus are incapable of thinking its implications in totality, and responding accordingly.

The New York Times, headlining their article on a subset of this issue “On YouTube Kids, Startling Videos Slip Past Filters”, highlights the use of knock-off characters and nursery rhymes in disturbing content, and frames it as a problem of moderation and legislation. YouTube Kids, an official app which claims to be kid-safe but is quite obviously not, is the problem identified, because it wrongly engenders trust in users. An article in the British tabloid The Sun, “Kids left traumatised after sick YouTube clips showing Peppa Pig characters with knives and guns appear on app for children” takes the same line, with an added dose of right-wing technophobia and self-righteousness. But both stories take at face value YouTube’s assertions that these results are incredibly rare and quickly removed: assertions utterly refuted by the proliferation of the stories themselves, and the growing number of social media posts, largely by concerned parents, from which they arise.

But as with Toy Freaks, what is concerning to me about the Peppa videos is how the obvious parodies and even the shadier knock-offs interact with the legions of algorithmic content producers until it is completely impossible to know what is going on. (“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”)

Here’s what is basically a version of Toy Freaks produced in Asia (screenshot above). Here’s one from Russia. I don’t really want to use the term “human-led” any more about these videos, although they contain all the same tropes and actual people acting them out. I no longer have any idea what’s going on here and I really don’t want to and I’m starting to think that that is kind of the point. That’s part of why I’m starting to think about the deliberateness of this all. There is a lot of effort going into making these. More than spam revenue can generate — can it? Who’s writing these scripts, editing these videos? Once again, I want to stress: this is still really mild, even funny stuff compared to a lot of what is out there.

Here are a few things which are disturbing me:

The first is the level of horror and violence on display. Some of the times it’s troll-y gross-out stuff; most of the time it seems deeper, and more unconscious than that. The internet has a way of amplifying and enabling many of our latent desires; in fact, it’s what it seems to do best. I spend a lot of time arguing for this tendency, with regards to human sexual freedom, individual identity, and other issues. Here, and overwhelmingly it sometimes feels, that tendency is itself a violent and destructive one.

The second is the levels of exploitation, not of children because they are children but of children because they are powerless. Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against. Not in a future of AI overlords and robots in the factories, but right here, now, on your screen, in your living room and in your pocket.

Many of these latest examples confound any attempt to argue that nobody is actually watching these videos, that these are all bots. There are humans in the loop here, even if only on the production side, and I’m pretty worried about them too.

I’ve written enough, too much, but I feel like I actually need to justify all this raving about violence and abuse and automated systems with an example that sums it up. Maybe after everything I’ve said you won’t think it’s so bad. I don’t know what to think any more.

[Edit, 21/11/2017: the original video cited here has now been removed as part of YouTube’s recent purge, although many similar videos remain on the platform. The video used animations from the Grand Theft Auto game series overlaid with cartoon characters assaulting, killing, and burying one another.]

This video, BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video, contains all of the elements we’ve covered above, and takes them to another level. Familiar characters, nursery tropes, keyword salad, full automation, violence, and the very stuff of kids’ worst dreams. And of course there are vast, vast numbers of these videos. Channel after channel after channel of similar content, churned out at the rate of hundreds of new videos every week. Industrialised nightmare production.

For the final time: There is more violent and more sexual content like this available. I’m not going to link to it. I don’t believe in traumatising other people, but it’s necessary to keep stressing it, and not dismiss the psychological effect on children of things which aren’t overtly disturbing to adults, just incredibly dark and weird.

A friend who works in digital video described to me what it would take to make something like this: a small studio of people (half a dozen, maybe more) making high volumes of low quality content to reap ad revenue by tripping certain requirements of the system (length in particular seems to be a factor). According to my friend, online kids’ content is one of the few alternative ways of making money from 3D animation because the aesthetic standards are lower and independent production can profit through scale. It uses existing and easily available content (such as character models and motion-capture libraries) and it can be repeated and revised endlessly and mostly meaninglessly because the algorithms don’t discriminate — and neither do the kids.

These videos, wherever they are made, however they come to be made, and whatever their conscious intention (i.e. to accumulate ad revenue) are feeding upon a system which was consciously intended to show videos to children for profit. The unconsciously-generated, emergent outcomes of that are all over the place.

To expose children to this content is abuse. We’re not talking about the debatable but undoubtedly real effects of film or videogame violence on teenagers, or the effects of pornography or extreme images on young minds, which were alluded to in my opening description of my own teenage internet use. Those are important debates, but they’re not what is being discussed here. What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives. It’s down to that level of the metal.

This, I think, is my point: The system is complicit in the abuse.

And right now, right here, YouTube and Google are complicit in that system. The architecture they have built to extract the maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown to abuse children, perhaps not even deliberately, but at a massive scale. I believe they have an absolute responsibility to deal with this, just as they have a responsibility to deal with the radicalisation of (mostly) young (mostly) men via extremist videos — of any political persuasion. They have so far showed absolutely no inclination to do this, which is in itself despicable. However, a huge part of my troubled response to this issue is that I have no idea how they can respond without shutting down the service itself, and most systems which resemble it. We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the examples I’ve used in this essay. The asides I’ve kept in parentheses throughout, if expanded upon, would allow one with minimal effort to rewrite everything I’ve said, with very little effort, to be not about child abuse, but about white nationalism, about violent religious ideologies, about fake news, about climate denialism, about 9/11 conspiracies.

This is a deeply dark time, in which the structures we have built to sustain ourselves are being used against us — all of us — in systematic and automated ways. It is hard to keep faith with the network when it produces horrors such as these. While it is tempting to dismiss the wilder examples as trolling, of which a significant number certainly are, that fails to account for the sheer volume of content weighted in a particularly grotesque direction. It presents many and complexly entangled dangers, including that, just as with the increasing focus on alleged Russian interference in social media, such events will be used as justification for increased control over the internet, increasing censorship, and so on. This is not what many of us want.

I’m going to stop here, saying only this:

What concerns me is not just the violence being done to children here, although that concerns me deeply. What concerns me is that this is just one aspect of a kind of infrastructural violence being done to all of us, all of the time, and we’re still struggling to find a way to even talk about it, to describe its mechanisms and its actions and its effects. As I said at the beginning of this essay: this is being done by people and by things and by a combination of things and people. Responsibility for its outcomes is impossible to assign but the damage is very, very real indeed.

By James Bridle and published in Medium on November 6, 2017 and can be found here.

9th Circuit Rejects RFRA Defense Raised By Hawaii Cannabis Ministers

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

In United States v. Christie, (9th Cir., June 14, 2016), the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions of the founder of the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry and his wife on charges of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana.  The court rejected defendants’ claim that their convictions violate their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The court held that the government had a compelling interest in mitigating the risk that cannabis from the Ministry would be diverted to recreational users, and that the government achieved that compelling interest in the least restrictive manner. The court said in part:

there is specific evidence that the Ministry’s distribution methods created a realistic possibility that cannabis intended for members of the Ministry would be distributed instead to outsiders who were merely feigning membership in the Ministry and adherence to its religious tenets. Additionally, the government’s interest in this case is all the more compelling given the Ministry’s well-publicized willingness to extend membership in the Ministry (with all that that entails) to minors.

Courthouse News Service reports on the decision.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Amish Man Wins Exemption From State Building Code

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

A Michigan state trial court judge has held that a member of the Old Order Amish is entitled to an exemption from the Michigan Residential Building Code.  According to the Sault St. Marie News, in a June 6 opinion visiting Judge Harold Johnson sitting in the 50th District Court held that denial of the exemption would violate both the Fair Housing Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Amish defendant William Miller objected on religious grounds to requirements for electric and plumbing systems, indoor bathrooms, modernized kitchens and electronic devices such as smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.

You can learn more about this issue here.

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