Sunday, 17 January 2021

Z - scores? Schmed scores!

 A response to the Covid Sceptic position of the Redline Blog

There is a memorable Sufi parable about the spiritual importance of mortality, and calmness in the face of death. From memory, it goes something like this: A ragged, humble Sufi mystic boards a ship alongside many other passengers. Curious what words of wisdom he has for them, the passengers ask him how he follows the Way. The Sufi replies ‘I think constantly of death’. Uninspired by this grim and negative sounding advice, the passengers go about their normal business as they travel on the ship. A few days later, a terrible storm hits the ship. Far from land, the ship starts to sink and the passengers run about in a mad panic, terrified of their imminent demise. They look in wonder at the Sufi, who sits calmly on his own, totally at peace with the knowledge that his life will end in the next few minutes.


A somewhat grotesque 21st century caricature of this wisdom tale would replace the Sufi mystic with the Covid 19 sceptic: “Yes,” he might say in a calm and lofty tone, “Covid 19 does exist and kills a few people here and there. But the numbers are tiny and you shouldn’t worry about them too much. The people who do panic and worry are ignorant and have been led astray by Bad Science. Here, look at my Graphs and learn!”


The latest iteration I have come across is an article written by Malcolm Kendrick, re-published on the local NZ Marxist blog ‘Redline’. After presenting a series of impressive looking graphs, Kendrick pours scorn on the apparently irrational and hysterical reaction of people who take the Covid threat seriously:


Hopefully, in time, we will learn something. Which is that we should not, ever, run about panicking, following the madly waved banners… ever again. However, I suspect that we will. This pandemic is going to be a model for all mass panicking stupidity in the future. Because to do otherwise, would be to admit that we made a pig’s ear of it this time. Far too many powerful reputations at stake to allow that.


The Redline blog published its first piece on the Covid topic on April 3rd 2020, just over a week after the start of New Zealand’s lockdown. Hyperbolically titled ‘Corona fevers and the madness of models’, the article conjures up and deploys the same rhetorical framing of Kendrick’s recent piece: lockdown proponents are hysterical and irrational, sober science does not back up their claims. Daphna Whitmore confidently claimed that lockdowns are ‘destructive’ and unfeasible:


[…]Nor is there evidence that a lockdown of an entire country is effective. It has never been done before, let alone encompassing one-third of the world. Why was this extremely destructive action taken? There was abundant evidence that some countries were not being overwhelmed by the virus. Countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam have not shut down their economies. Their eateries are open and they carry on with a mostly normal life.


New Zealand’s aim of eradication is probably unachievable. It would take a closed border and strict quarantine for any arrivals indefinitely. It would also rely on a highly effective vaccine being made which would then have to be made mandatory. None of these are realistic options.


Given the outstanding success of the New Zealand response, it appears remarkable that the Redline blog has not offered any sort of retraction or mea culpa for this erroneous prediction. With the publication of Kendrick’s piece, it seems that the focus has shifted away from New Zealand, and the details of the ‘Covid Sceptic’ position have changed in response to our latest knowledge about the virus and its impact.


Before I plunge into investigating the statistical claims made by Kendrick, another guiding existential metaphor: just as the ship in the parable above was battered and pelted by winds and rain, leaving the passengers breathless and not sure what to hold on to, we too are battered by Science. Wall to wall media coverage of the Covid pandemic produces anxiety and then fatigue, and even people with statistical training will find themselves wearied and frustrated by the sheer enormity and endlessness of the graphs, predictions, models and commentaries which constitute the Covid Discourse. In what follows I have stepped gingerly in to the statistical vortex, doing my best to look for the most simple and solid handholds with which to pin down and judge some of the claims made by Kendrick. Some of his comments and claims are worth investigating, whereas some are clearly not – I’ll focus mostly on those which deserve scrutiny.


On the question of the origin of the virus, Kendrick states:


So, what do I know? I know that COVID19 exists – or I am as certain of this as I can be. Was it a natural mutation from a bat, or was it created in a laboratory? Well, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. It’s here, and there is no chance that any Government, anywhere, would ever admit responsibility for creating the damned thing. So, we will never know. If you asked me to bet, I would say it was created in a lab, then escaped by accident.


I’ll leave it up to the reader to judge his guess that it probably came out of a lab ‘by accident’. Notice what he is doing here though – by speculating that it was ‘accidental’, he avoids looking like a conspiracy nut. The sceptical take “Well we have all this information but we just don’t know for sure …” is applied to just about every aspect of the Covid phenomena, and the fact that he is a doctor is referenced several times to give his views more authority and importance. The glib pronouncement about the origins question, ‘Well, I suppose it doesn’t really matter’ is quite incredible, especially for readers of a Marxist blog. Facts like these really do matter for how Covid is interpreted politically!!


Anyway, moving on: Kendrick goes on to claim that because people who supposedly die of Covid often have many co-morbidities, and because determining exact cause of death is not an exact science, it is likely that Covid 19 death statistics are overreported:


There are so many cases where – even if the COVID19 test was accurate – COVID19 would have had nothing whatsoever to do with the death. Another thing known, or at least we probably know, is that the vast majority of people who die had many other things wrong with them.


One way of testing this claim is to compare reported Covid deaths with excess mortality statistics from 2020. Kendrick himself goes on at great length about the importance and robustness of excess mortality data: given that there is doubt and uncertainty about the integrity of worldwide Covid death data (which could in theory be either over-reported or under-reported), comparing total 2020 deaths with average figures from previous years and looking at the difference gives us a more comprehensive and ‘solid’ view of the impact of Covid 19. Of course there are a host of interpretative issues which complicate the ‘solidity’ of the excess mortality statistic: population size and demographics, whether the population has changed drastically over the past five years (usually the way they work out a baseline) and the question of whether there are significant numbers of deaths resulting from other causes. But if we look at a comparison of reported Covid deaths with excess mortality figures for a whole lot of different countries, many of these issues are (indirectly) addressed and we can see a clear pattern. Here is a screenshot from a recent article in the Economist, which uses the same EuroMOMO data set referred to by Kendrick:



In just about all of the countries listed, the excess mortality figure is larger than the reported Covid death figure. In some countries the difference is massive (eg, Russia and the US). I have highlighted Britain, one of the few countries where the reported Covid death figure is larger (by a very tiny amount!) than the excess mortality figure. These comparisons clearly show that if we are going to worry about the accuracy of Covid 19 death data, the worry should be about under-reporting not over-reporting.


It is also interesting to note here the views of Christopher J Snowdon, writing for Quillette. Snowdon is a libertarian, and has also been a critic of lockdowns. Politically, worlds away from anything resembling Marxism, but he appears keen to avoid the disingenuous and illogical pitfalls of Covid scepticism:



A rise in the number of excess deaths would be compelling evidence that the people dying “with COVID” had died of COVID and would not have died of anything else that year. The ONS has recorded excess mortality every week since mid-October, with the north-west hardest hit at first followed by London and the south-east more recently. In total, there were 71,731 excess deaths in England last year and 76,610 people had COVID-19 mentioned on their death certificate. Coincidence? Why yes, say the sceptics. They claim that the excess deaths were not caused by COVID-19, but by the lockdowns themselves. In any case, they say, the rate of excess mortality is lower than it was in the spring and the current rate is not without historical precedent. Any suggestion that there would have been even more deaths without lockdowns is dismissed as impossible because “lockdowns don’t work.”


Kendrick attempts to impress his readers by referencing the EuroMOMO data on excess mortality, and taking us through a whirlwind tour of various graphs copied from this site. He quickly and confidently pronounces ‘Look – nothing to see here! Hardly any statistical significance!’. Things get tricky and sophisticated when he uses z scores, and denies any sort of correlation between lockdown measures in specific countries with their success in reducing excess mortality. If you actually go to the trouble of looking carefully at sites such as EuroMOMO or Our World in Data it is not that hard to spot where Kendrick goes wrong. His analysis is fast and superficial, he cherry-picks misleading graphs and he fails to interpret statistics correctly. I will start with the graph of raw worldwide excess mortality data Kendrick leads with:



Kendrick acknowledges the big Covid spike in early 2020, but then compares the ‘winter spike’ of 2020 with similar winter spikes in 2018 and 2019. Not that different at all right? All that fuss and bother for what – just a few thousand lives out of populations of hundreds of millions? Extremely hysterical and irrational, surely? Well, here are a couple of other graphs to consider, taken from exactly the same dataset:


A.   Cumulative view:

B.   Weekly view

The difference between 2020 and the other years is huge and noticeable. The margins are in the hundreds of thousands, and it is really clear that the second wave cannot be explained by a regular pattern of increased deaths over the European winter. The Economist article referenced above uses the same dataset to provide yet another graph, emphasising the gravity of the European situation:


“The chart below uses data from EuroMOMO, a network of epidemiologists who collect weekly reports on deaths from all causes in 24 European countries, covering 290m people. These figures show that, compared with a historical baseline of 2009-19, Europe has suffered some deadly flu seasons since 2016—but that the death toll this year from covid-19 is far greater. Overall, the number of excess deaths across the continent since March is about 170,000. Though most of those victims have been older than 65, the number of deaths among Europeans aged 45-64 was 40% higher than usual in early April.”


Next, Kendrick goes into graphs showing excess mortality for individual European countries. He swiftly explains his use of ‘z scores’ instead of raw numbers, and then shows the graph for England:


It is a thing called the Z-score. Which means standard deviation from the mean. Sorry, maths. If the Z-score goes above five, this means something significant is happening. The red, upper, dotted line is Z > 5. As you can see, despite the howls of anguish from England about COVID19 overwhelming the country, we are really not seeing much at all.


For anyone out there interested in the math, the most useful explainer I could find was on the ‘Our World in Data’ site. There is a very clear and readable article which goes through the methodologies used by EuroMOMO and other dataset providers, explaining how measures such as the z score are calculated and the strengths and weaknesses of different statistics. For the (more likely) people out there who won’t read such boring articles, or who struggle to get their heads around abstract representations of variation in time series data sets, it’s probably useful to slow down and back up to the actual numbers themselves. The famous Mark Twain quote ‘Lies, lies and damn statistics!’ gets its justly deserved status from the immense pliability and manipulability of statistics. Motivated reasoners, if they are clever enough, can tell just about any story they want if they use the “right” statistic. Returning back to raw data to check on and monitor conclusions reached by using complex mathematical formulae is a useful heuristic. If your fancy-pants statistic tells you a different story from the raw data, then it’s quite likely that you are using the fancy-pants statistic in an inappropriate manner. Here is the raw excess death data for England, taken this time from the ‘Our World in Data’ site:





Again, the graph shows a clear increase from the average figures starting around November 2020. If you examine the graph closely with the data embedded, the difference between the 2020 deaths and the average deaths from the 2015-2019 baseline is around 1,500 to 2000 for every week from mid November to January 3rd. If we knew for sure that had Covid 19 not happened 2020 would have been very similar to the ‘Average 2015-2019’ line, then we could conclude with confidence that some 10 – 12,000 people died in an eight week period in England who would have been alive had Covid not happened. We don’t know this for sure – partly just because of the variability of the baseline data, partly because we can never be confident about counterfactuals. But that sure is a big gap between the red line and the other lines. And if we notice similar (or bigger!) gaps in most other countries affected by Covid (as we do), then it makes the case stronger to interpret the increase as Covid caused, not just an effect of variability.


Anyway, back to the z scores – these are designed specifically to deal with variability, but there are difficulties. Another measure, favoured over z scores by the Our World in Data site, is the P score. The P score is just the percentage difference between the average baseline and the excess mortality for each week. I’m going to finish up by quoting from the discussion article referenced above and showing the P score graph for England as a comparison:


EuroMOMO’s measures of weekly excess mortality in Europe show the mortality patterns between different time-periods, across countries, and by age-groups. The Z-scores standardise data on excess deaths by scaling by the standard deviation of deaths. EuroMOMO are currently not permitted to publish actual excess death figures by country and do not publish the standard deviations used in their calculations. However, they graph the Z-scores and the estimated confidence intervals back to 2015 providing a visual guide to their variability. In contrast to the P-scores, the Z-scores are a measure that is less easily interpretable. Moreover, if the natural variability of the weekly data is lower in one country compared to another, then the Z-scores could lead to exaggeration of excess mortality compared to the P-scores. Strictly, the Z-scores are not comparable across countries, though see the caveats in section 4.1. [….]

Another major defect of Z-scores, compared to P-scores and per capita excess death measures, is that their cumulation over multiple pandemic weeks is problematic. While excess deaths can be cumulated, the standard deviation of normal deaths cannot, and, in any case, EuroMOMO do not report either excess deaths or these standard deviations. This makes it hard to obtain a comprehensive summary of the pandemic’s impact from the Z-scores.



Clearly, there are some big differences between the ‘pictures’ we get through the lens of z scores compared to P scores. Indeed for all of the European countries Kendrick breezes through in his lighting-fast survey, the ‘Our World in Data’ graphs using P scores tell a very different story.


A very recent article in the online Guardian reports that “University lecturers will not resume “unsafe” face-to-face teaching this academic year, and any attempt by the government or vice-chancellors to reopen campuses in February will fail, the UK’s largest academic union has warned.” Maybe these ignorant lecturers need a good dose of Sufic mysticism to calm their illogical fears.





Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Defend Feminism 2020: SUFW is not a 'hate group'

Six thousand idiotic people have signed a petition, the university itself has offered up a ridiculous and shameful 'apology' for hosting the event and numerous influential people and organisations on the so called 'left' have denounced the upcoming Feminism 2020 event at Massey university. They say it's 'hateful', 'transphobic' etc etc. All the usual moronic and dishonest smears.

It's bullshit. 

Speak Up For Women is a group dedicated to the rights of women. Please read the press release:

On 23 September Speak Up For Women announced that we would be holding an event at the Massey University Theaterette. The event is called Feminism 2020.

The intention of the event is to discuss the future of feminism. What are the big issues on the horizon for the women’s liberation movement to focus on? What can women look forward to in the future?
The response to an announcement that a group of women were going to discuss their own liberation movement was drearily predictable: a partnership of liberal organisations took action to shut down the conversation before it had started.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Link to an article on Puberty Blockers

A really detailed examination of the facts concerning puberty blockers, in response to a recent 'Spinoff' article which made a series of very misleading claims:
"An implicit theme in her article is that people who take a critical stance on medical interventions such as puberty blockers and hormones for children and adolescents are critical because they are hateful or ‘phobic’. I take issue with this: just as someone might be critical of Prozac and at the same time supportive of people suffering from depression, it is possible to have compassion for people who suffer from gender dysphoria and at the same time be critical of puberty blocking drugs such as Leuprorelin. Questioning medicalisation is not in any way equivalent to hate speech or ‘transphobia’."

Friday, 20 April 2018

Trans Warfare II: Victim framing and the dogmas of sacrifice

Four years ago I started up a blog called ‘100 years of trenches’, partly as a response to the hyped up Anzac and WW1 centenary period (2014 – 2018). A big focus of the blog was to understand and also counter the de-politicised version of ‘remembrance’ pushed on the public by state authorities. The key themes of my analysis include:

  • Remembrance media and ceremonies tend to promote a ‘micro focus’ on dead soldiers and trenches. Military historians tend to provide the framing, with the details of battles, and the image of the ‘Fallen soldier’ being central. This image summons up emotive notions of suffering, death, heroism and sacrifice.

  • The idea of sacrifice which is embedded in this image is very important, but the highly solemn and emotive framing makes it almost impossible to question or even explore. There is a form of romanticism involved here, in which the idea of sacrifice draws on both religious and secular traditions. To suggest that these brave young men didn’t die for a ‘greater and noble cause’ is to violate the moral imperative which is hidden inside the Fallen Soldier image.

  • The micro-focus also makes it harder to look at and think about the years outside the period 1914 – 1918. Questions about the political and economic factors which led to the war are marginalised. Connections between the imperialist state system of 1914 and the imperialist state system of the 21st century are not part of the mainstream media narrative. It is no accident that we place such huge emphasis on Gallipoli; the narrative here is palatable and poses no challenge to the legitimacy of the current military state apparatus.

  • The micro-focus makes it harder to look at and think about the impact of WW1 on other groups of people: the women who lost fathers, sons and brothers, or had to deal with traumatised husbands returning from the war; the people of the Middle East who are still dealing with the consequences of the imperialist carve up of their homelands.

  • Alongside the ‘micro focus’ there are historical meta - narratives. The older versions of these tended to cast the Germans as the vicious aggressors, battling against a much more noble and just British Empire. The more recent and powerful versions involve appeals to the idea of ‘national identity’. Here the idea that New Zealand truly ‘became a nation’ through the experiences of Gallipoli and the Somme effectively frame the meaning of those deaths. The ‘sacrifice’ no longer serves the interest of a greater imperial power we owe allegiance to, but rather a nebulous and untouchable set of National Values: mateship, egalitarianism, courage and honour. The grim and shameful political truth that these deaths served the interests of a brutal imperial state are swept under the carpet of red poppies, Anzac biscuits and solemn ceremonies.

  • The Really Big Things we should remember if we want to truly live up to the demands of the ‘Lest We Forget’ slogan are the structural features of our society which lead to war: capitalism, militarism, imperialism.

  • The micro-focus, alongside the falsifying historical meta narratives, prevent this sort of critical remembrance, and tend to effectively frame war as a sort of natural event, akin to things like volcanoes and hurricanes. Military conflict is naturalised and depoliticised.

For more details, please check out my other blog.

Anzac Day 2015, National War Memorial, Wellington

Over the past year I have devoted a lot of my energy into understanding and writing about a completely different topic, the theory and politics of transgenderism. Yet I have repeatedly found myself pondering over some of the strangely common rhetorical strategies employed by both fervent conservative nationalists and transactivists. In the comments section under my first blog piece (where I examined the logic behind the vilification of radical feminists who questioned the notion of gender identity) is this wee gem of insight and wisdom:

In just about any exchange between transactivists and critics, you will find people highlighting the central importance of the oppression of trans people. The most frequently cited victims are trans identified males (always referred to as transwomen), and particularly ‘transwomen of colour’. There are countless articles and stories about the murder of transwomen, and the Transgender Day of Remembrance which is held every year internationally on November 20th specifically commemorates the deaths of trans people through violence or suicide. After reading a few of these articles, I came away feeling quite dissatisfied. The causes of the murders are invariably ascribed very simply to ‘transphobia’, without much elaboration or insight. The most interesting thing I came upon was this graph of murders by region in a Pink News article:

Why are there so many more murders of trans identifying people in Central and South America? The article makes no attempt to answer this question, so you are left wondering. In online debates I have frequently observed radical feminists point to the fact that a very large number of these deaths are caused by violent punters. The context of sexual violence within the practice of prostitution probably has a large bearing on this issue, but these sorts of interpretations do not seem to be popular. As Julie Bindel has highlighted recently, transactivists tend to side with people who endorse a ‘sex work is work’ framing of prostitution. Criticising prostitution in any way is off limits in the same way as questioning gender identity is.

Rather than acquiring critical understanding of the causes and nature of “transphobic” violence, the image of the murdered transwoman is typically foregrounded as a rhetorical strategy to frame and influence debate about broader issues. Here are a couple of examples from ‘socialist’ (socialist identified?) supporters of trans identity ideology:

In the early hours of Tuesday 22 August Kiwi Herring, a 30 year old trans woman and mother of three, was shot dead by police in St Louis, US. Police had been called after Kiwi had allegedly stabbed her neighbour. After an altercation during which one police officer received a “minor injury”, the police opened fire.
The following day around 100 supporters held a vigil in her honour and marched into the road, blocking a junction. A man drove into the protest, knocking over three people — though none was seriously hurt. One witness reported that he was giving them the finger as he accelerated through the crowd.
Kiwi is the 18th known trans person killed this year. Like her, the majority are black women. Kiwi’s family report that her neighbour was transphobic and had been harassing her for some time.
I start here because in any discussion about trans rights it is crucial to begin with a recognition of the reality of trans oppression. The events described above tell a story of structural racism and transphobia, experienced at the hands of the state and of bigoted individuals.

The article goes on to argue women in the UK have nothing at all to fear from the proposed legal changes of the Gender Recognition Act, and concludes a series of shoddy arguments with the claim that “there is no evidence that trans rights will harm women, and there is every evidence that lack of trans rights does harm trans people”. There is plentiful evidence that gender identity - based access laws such as the proposed GRA will harm women, but the article does not engage with these arguments in good faith. By foregrounding the image of the murdered transwomen, and suggesting (indirectly in this case, but the implication is clear) that opponents to the proposed legislation are somehow complicit with this violence, the author does not even need to try very hard to make her case. The manipulative and emotive appeal to a uniquely vulnerable and oppressed group does most of the work. Leftists are suckers for that sort of jazz. Fighting oppression is what they (supposedly) do.

A second example, unfortunately more typical in its heated and frenzied tone, is the text of a petition for the removal of an article from the UK based site Socialist Resistance. I don’t know that much about the site or the organisation, but this article (Feminism and transgender - why is there is a debate?) was considered so blasphemous that even Marxist luminaries such as Richard Seymour signed the petition for its removal. I also don’t know what it said, because it was in fact removed. But we can glean some idea of how evil the article was by reading the petition text , which opens with the familiar Image of the Oppressed Transwoman:

‘I’ve been to prison and I’ve been raped by men — straight men!’ In these words at her speech to the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, Sylvia Rivera outlined the conditions still faced by trans women today. Trans women suffer primarily at the hands of men, yet much of the feminist movement passes over this patriarchal violence in silence. A fixated minority within the movement is uncontent even with this, and actively contributes to the villainization of their trans sisters.

The petition concludes with the claim that although it is men who are responsible for transphobic violence, women who question in any way the broader issues of transgenderism are also complicit in the rape and murder of transwomen:

Trans women’s lives are not a matter to be deliberated. Their existence is not an ‘issue’ that it is helpful for leftist sects to publicly discuss and to take ‘positions’ on. Without support from those with more social weight, the rape and murder of trans women simply trying to walk the streets, and subsist by the limited means available to them, will continue.

Another variant of the image is that of trans identified children, who commit suicide because they are prevented from accessing ‘life saving’ puberty blockers and/or synthetic hormones. Again the emotive and victim focused framing which acts as a prohibition against critical perspectives, the  sketchy.evidence for such suicides notwithstanding. In this case the threat of suicide is leveraged into debates precisely in order to smear opponents to the medicalisation of gender as 'bigots' or 'transphobes'. The untouchable image of a child experiencing unendurable suffering due to dysphoria works hand in glove with the essentialist notion of a fixed immutable gender essence trapped in the 'wrong' body. Of course the contexts are radically distinct, but the psychological and rhetorical functions of an heroic young member of the New Zealand Division, sacrificing himself for the good of his country and Democracy appear quite similar. An image of a suffering innocent on the one hand (the young soldier, the gender dysphoric child) alongside a falsifying ideology which insists on the necessity of 'sacrifice' or 'treatment'. 

Going back to consider and compare the trans issue with my analysis of remembrance ideology, it is notable that my ‘100 years of trenches’ blog generated very little debate within the leftist circles who read it. No one faulted me for not placing the suffering and death of thousands of soldiers at the centre of my account. No one had any problem distinguishing between the people caught up in the cogs of imperialist aggression and the political and economic structures governing that same aggression. No one pointed out that as somebody who has never fought in a real battle and witnessed the terrible human cost of war, I had no right to question or explore the idea of sacrifice.

The conclusion from these observations is that ‘trans oppression’ functions the same way that the concept of ‘sacrifice’ does in sanitising war narratives: both tactics foreground pain, suffering and death and insist upon a very particular type of compassion. This is a compassion that must not doubt or question, a compassion which dare not examine the holy necessity of the Cause served by the victim.

San Francisco City Hall lit up with pink and blue, TDOR 2017

Trans murder is a case in point: it is not at all clear that ‘transphobia’ is a helpful way of framing our understanding of the phenomenon, and there is clear and compelling empirical evidence that trans people are no more likely  to be murdered than other people in the general population. I make this point not to dismiss or understate the real oppression suffered by trans identified people, but rather to highlight how a very particular sort of ‘victim framing’ can distort and falsify our perception of reality. It is not that hard to identify a parallel distortion in our Gallipoli remembrance narratives: the 2700 odd New Zealanders who died are vastly outnumbered by the 80,000 Ottoman soldiers killed by an invading imperial force.

If we accept that the violence endemic to prostitution has a lot to do with the murder of a particular subset of the trans population, then the case becomes even more compelling. In a video documenting the Transgender Day or Remembrance in Amsterdam 2017, the opening scene pans across a crowd holding red umbrellas chanting ‘sex work is work! Sex work is work!’:

One of the speakers pays a tribute to “fallen trans warriors” who are “at war with people and systems that put people in little boxes”. The framing of the deaths as caused by a nebulous and loosely defined societal prejudice, rather than a very specific form of male violence, acts as a falsifying meta narrative. It is very hard to challenge this because of the emotive focus on death and suffering: questioning the victim framing is tantamount to complicity with the prejudice targeted by the performative rituals of the ceremony. Just as ‘fighting for democracy’ acts as a falsifying meta narrative justifying the deaths of soldiers, the ‘sex work is work’ slogan falsifies and distorts the true nature of the very deaths the Transgender Day or Remembrance is designed to honour.

If we accept the socialist idea that imperialist war serves the interests of the ruling classes, and that remembrance ceremonies such as Anzac day tend to reinforce and propagate a patriotic nationalism which serves state interests rather than those of human liberation, then the parallels I have sketched also help to explain the way feminist concerns are marginalised, distorted and opposed by trans ideology. In focusing on the suffering experienced by trans people, remembrance practices like the Transgender Day of Remembrance (and the associated rhetorical strategies identified above) reinforce and propagate a set of notions around sex and gender which serve patriarchal interests.  

In New Zealand during the first world war people with German surnames were persecuted: they lost their jobs, had their houses set on fire and were openly discriminated against. This discrimination was carried out with a fervent sense of righteousness: God and Right was on the side of the British Empire. Irish nationalists, Maori who followed the lead of Te Puea Herangi, anarchists, socialists and pacifists all faced massive state sanctioned censure and persecution for their ‘disloyal’ anti war stance. In New Zealand today, and throughout the first world western nations, it is not hard to identify social groups facing censure, marginalisation and abuse because of tensions felt between them and the dictates of trans ideology. The middle aged women  who have their lives up-ended by their trans identifying husbands, the parents  of teenagers with gender dysphoria, the lesbian women  who experience pressure to form relationships with men and feminist women who fight to preserve female only spaces   are some of the notable examples. The thoughtless righteousness and moralistic fervour with which these acts of censure and abuse are carried out appear largely driven by the ideological framework I have attempted to sketch here: a sentimental and quasi romantic image of trans oppression, together with a set of dogmas (‘transwomen are women’, ‘sex work is work’) which legitimate these acts. Although the differences in context, scale and setting are very considerable, the silencing and stifling of dissent during WW1 era New Zealand society has very real resonances and similarities with current day gender politics.

What are the structural realities we should attend to if we wish to understand and address the different types of harm and suffering connected with gender identity? If we reject the focus on trans oppression as a framing tactic, and the associated dogmas, then we avoid the cost of the moral blackmail and are able to critically examine things like:

If we don’t reject the trans oppression focus with its silencing dogmas, then the notion of ‘gender identity’ becomes something like the idea of war as an inevitable feature of human destiny. Gender becomes, rather than an oppressive and profitable result of patriarchal injustice, another essential, naturalised inevitability.  If we can’t connect the dots between things like big pharmaceutical companies, cultural misogyny and neoliberal identity politics the consequence is a ‘naturalisation’ of gender. Gender, and in particular the mysterious notion of ‘gender identity’, becomes a sacrosanct topic out of the reach of critical discussion. 

The acceptance of war and gender as necessary features of society is a conservative stance: being radical means taking seriously the Marxist commitment to the ruthless critique of all existing social structures.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Does Auckland Peace Action have a problem with free speech?

With the recent events in Syria I have been quite active on social media, commenting on articles and posting links on various pages. One of the facebook groups I follow is an anti war group named Auckland Peace Action. Although I do not live in Auckland, I have participated in an event organised by this group – the 2016 protest against the weapons conference in Auckland. I have quite a lot in common with the values and beliefs of this group, and I am heartily supportive of their anti war activism. The upcoming Peace Action event ‘Picnic for Peace’, an alternative to the mainstream Anzac commemorations, is something I wish I could participate in. I hope that the fact I have written multiple blogs   about this will convince readers, and hopefully Peace Action members and supporters, that I passionately share the same critical anti war views.

Not long after posting comments on the Auckland Peace Action facebook, I received this comment from one of the page administrators:

For the record, it is true that I came out publicly in support of Renee and Charlie’s brave protest action.

Here is the message I sent in response:

I'm glad you appreciate my comments on Syria. This is a complex and divisive subject which attracts a lot of heated debate within the left. I strongly believe that people in the anti war movement and the left more generally need to have these sorts of debate. When the issues are complex and multifaceted and the potential outcomes important and a matter of life and death, we need to have open debate. When people's emotions and ideological presuppositions are challenged and subjected to scrutiny because of this sort of debate, we need to continue to have this sort of debate. We should not demonise or make slurs against our opponents to short cut or dismiss their arguments, we need to engage (passionately and respectfully) in that debate. This sort of approach is absolutely necessary for a strong, thoughtful and open minded left to develop and grow.

The exact same approach should apply when it comes to discussing the ideas and politics of trans issues. I believe that Renee Gerlich and Charlie Montague have engaged in good faith, and I fully support them. I have contributed to this debate also, and I stand by every word I have said on the topic. I resent strongly the insinuation here that Renee, Charlie and I are 'transphobic' because we contest notions such as gender identity. Having said that, I fully support your right to speak against our views - I welcome any debate or discussion if it is made in good faith.

It is interesting that people resort to slurs when they engage in topics close to their hearts. When discussing Syria, I am sometimes tempted to throw around words like 'islamophobic' and 'racist' when engaged in debates with people who have pro Assad positions. I resist this urge, and do my best to stick to discussing the issue without making attacks on the supposed moral integrity of my opponent.

So, strangely enough, I find that I have friends in my social media circle who I strongly agree with regarding gender, but strongly disagree with when it comes to Syria. There are no doubt other heated issues where we have some commonalities and some differences. As an adult who cares about the ability of people with different opinions to communicate, discuss and develop arguments and ideas, I find it extremely concerning that you appear willing to cut me off because I disagree with you on trans issues. I hope you think carefully on this issue and change your mind about this infantile and regressive stance.

I also sent the admin a query about whether or not they were speaking as an individual, or if they represented the official views of Auckland Peace Action. They have not responded to my query, and when I tried to post up my recent blog article  on Syria to the Auckland Peace Action page, it appears to have been blocked. My comments under other people’s posts are still visible however, and I am happy to give Auckland Peace Action the benefit of the doubt here. I’m quite happy not to post anything on the Auckland Peace Action page which relates to my gender critical views, but I would like to retain the ability to communicate on this platform about anti war related topics, such as Syria.

My question therefore: does Auckland Peace Action support the right for me to speak to them and others who visit their facebook page about things I agree with them about, even though there are other topics (which I promise to remain silent about while on their platform) which we disagree on?

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Five Reasons the Douma Chemical Attack was Real

This is my first ever post on Syria. There are other people out there who know a lot more than I do, who I would seriously recommend readers of this blog to look up for themselves if they want to go deeper: Yassin Al Haj Saleh , Leila Al Shami , Michael Karadjis  and Louis Proyect   are the people who have shaped my views the most.

What I have seen in conversations and social media posts lately has surprised me. Many people who I respect for their intelligence, critical sensibilities and leftist political orientation have expressed doubt about the reality and/or origin of the recent chemical attacks of April 7 in Douma. This has led to me posting the same things again and again on my social media feed, and I am getting a bit sick and tired of the effort of repeated copy-pasting. So here are the five main reasons I think that the chemical attacks were real events caused by the Assad regime:

Reason #1: Assad had good reason to use chemical weapons because Jaysh al Islam fighters had refused to surrender and after the chemical massacre they were forced to surrender   in ten hours . Before the chemical attack, Assad had attacked Douma for 2 days, and could not advance because of Jaysh al Islam resistance. Of course Assad would have taken Douma even without the chemical attack, but probably at the cost of heavy losses . In this way, Assad took Douma without a fight.

Reason #2: Assad has used chemical weapons dozens of times in the past without facing any significant consequences for doing so. In 2013 Obama came close to doing something, but drew back in spite of solid evidence   that Assad had indeed crossed over his so called ‘red line’. Last year Trump made a minor, token strike against Assad’s forces in retaliation for the Khan Shaykhun sarin attack. (Again, the evidence is solid ). It is notable that these two examples are not the only times that Assad has deployed chemical weapons, they are just the most famous ones. There is convincing evidence   that Assad has used chemical weapons dozens of times   over the course of the past seven years. Assad was taking a gamble for sure, but it wasn’t completely stupid or foolhardy. Past experience indicates that while chemical attacks might provoke a great deal of media heat and noise, they do not lead to significant intervention.

Reason #3: There is solid and believable open source video evidence for the attacks. The single most reliable source here is the British blogger Elliot Higgins, who runs a site called Bellingcat. Please, go to his site and watch the videos. Watch them a couple of times. Listen to the voices of the people who discover the dead bodies with white foam coming out of their mouths and noses. Look at the outdoor scenes which show the devastation wrought by months and years of barrel bombs. Try to imagine that this evidence is somehow faked, or that the people died of some other cause. (There are literally hundreds of Russian media sources which will help you do this by the way, but I want you to watch the videos and really think carefully about the idea that they are ‘staged’)

Reason #4: The idea that the rebels had a serious and credible motive for ‘faking’ the attacks is highly questionable. Chemical attacks against them have failed to provoke any serious or consequential intervention by other forces in the past, so why should they go to great lengths to fake such attacks now in order to attract such intervention?

Reason #5: The explanations and theories put forward by the armies of Assad apologists are massively unconvincing. The most prominent example here is that of Robert Fisk, who paints a picture   of a vast underground network of tunnels and caves beneath Douma. The rebels lead a ‘troglodyte’ like existence deep underground, and Fisk meets up with a doctor lurking in one of these subterranean lairs. He doesn’t actually come out and say it, of course – Fisk is way too clever for that. He merely quotes the doctor’s story and asks us to ‘consider’ it. Well, OK then, let’s consider it:

“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

If you didn’t watch the videos I mentioned above, go back and watch them. See if you can spot any underground tunnels or caverns. I couldn’t. Maybe the ‘cellars and basements’ are deep enough underground for dust clouds to suck all the oxygen out from them? Maybe the devious rebels carried the bodies from deep underground caves and tunnels and placed them in the building shown in the videos? And then cleverly applied make up to make it look like they were all frothing at the mouth? Again, there are armies of Putin-bot trolls out there with sophisticated versions of all this shit, so you can go for life here if you want to. I don’t.

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(Regarding Fisk’s noxious Douma article, I would also like to point out Louis Proyect’s devastating take down . Idrees Ahmed’s article analysing Fisk’s rhetorical techniques and fabrications is also very worthwhile.)

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None of this means, of course, that we should back Trump and May in their response to the chemical attacks. But if you want to fight for both peace for the Middle East region and justice for the Syrian people who have endured seven years of relentless murder, it pays to base your activism on truth rather than fiction.