Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (aequitate bellator fortissimus)

Manifesto for the New Year

Ever since Puppies in various heightened emotional states started lifting their legs and pissing all over the Hugo Awards a few years ago, the term Social Justice Warrior (SJW) has been bandied about as a kind of an all-purpose insult. The phrase has even moved away from the narrow world of fandom and has now started to appear in other, more mainstream areas of discussion. So perhaps it is time to come to grips with the idea. Let’s see if we can work out exactly what people mean when they fling that insult at you...

I’d never come across the term before the Puppies started using it and I was immediately rather angry at them because, taking the words at face value, I felt that the phrase Social Justice Warrior actually described me very well, and I rather objected to being turned into the Puppies’ whipping boy.

So let me be perfectly clear about it – Social Justice Warrior is a label that I’m happy to wear with a great deal of pride.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get down to business.

Generally the SJW insult is used as a somewhat pejorative synonym for "people whose opinions are different from mine" and therefore it has become an ad hominem strawman (but I repeat myself...). Under this definition, any given individual could legitimately call everybody else in the world an SJW because no two people can ever have completely congruent opinions on anything. So clearly the phrase lacks a certain precision when it is employed in this way. Nevertheless it does have its uses, particularly if you take each word completely literally…

I see Social Justice Warriors as being people who advocate positive policies of social progression and/or reform, addressing aspects of society that are perceived to be unjust. Those who use the phrase as an insult presumably do not advocate such policies. So let’s call these people Social Justice Deniers (SJDs), since we have to call them something!

One of the nastier aspects of the Social Justice Deniers is their propensity to denigrate members of society who are not like them. People whose race, colour, creed and gender differ from the race, colour, creed and gender of the SJDs themselves are seen as existential threats. Social Justice Warriors who, by and large, don’t feel threatened by these things and who actively campaign to make them acceptable to the mainstream, are therefore seen as the enemy.

This world view categorises SJWs as the political police of the left wing, actively seeking to deny the SJDs their right of free speech. However the SJDs seem to define free speech as the right to make whatever racist and sexist remarks they chose about the groups they disapprove of, without any consequence to themselves. Unfortunately for them that’s not how it works...

SJDs very much want to remake the world in their own image. This is why they vociferously support enforcing immigration quotas and why they want to eliminate (or refuse to acknowledge) diversity. If everyone was like them, their world would be perfect. They see themselves as a meritocracy in a world which just happens to favour people like them because people like them are just better than everyone else. The circularity of that argument seems to escape them…

It is very hard to come to grips with this kind of attitude because it’s so very difficult to see how any legislative (or other) process can ameliorate it. The only (rather woolly) answer I can come up with for addressing it is a programme of education combined with a lot of wishful thinking and even here I am not hopeful. Some people just seem to have hatred engraved in their DNA. That doesn’t mean we have to stop trying, but it does mean that we must expect to be disappointed with the results.

* * * *

Me is the absurdly appropriate title of Elton John’s autobiography. His flamboyant lifestyle has generated an enormous number of anecdotes over the years and it soon becomes abundantly clear that nobody can tell an Elton John anecdote better than Elton John himself. He has a dry, self-effacing wit that makes almost every page of this book a wonderful giggle fest.

Probably everybody has heard the story about the time when, stuffed to the gills with every drug imaginable (and probably a few that nobody could possibly have imagined) he raved none stop for several days. Finally the atrocious weather outside attracted his attention and he decided it had to be sorted out immediately. So he called one of the movers and shakers in his office and told the person who answered the phone to fix things: "It’s far too windy here, can you do something about it?"

He tells this tale with great glee and then he goes on to say, "This is obviously the ideal moment to state once and for all that this story is a complete urban myth. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that, because the story is completely true."

The delicious wit more than makes up for the somewhat clichéd "musical fame by numbers" that is the outline of Elton John’s life. He had a miserable suburban childhood – his parents separated early and his mother, even seen through Elton’s own rose coloured glasses, was a thoroughly poisonous bitch. He skates delicately around this subject, but the psychological scars are clearly there. Then there were the early musical failures, the meeting with Bernie Taupin, his lyricist which led to a sudden meteoric success, full of sex, drugs and dodgy financial advisers, leading eventually to  him setling down to a relatively normal life of marriage and parenthood.

He tells the story of his life with a warm, clear-eyed honesty, accepting the bad along with the good. Perhaps both are equally important to him. His indulgence towards the absurd and his genuinely talented ability to come up with a hilarious comic line just when he needs it makes this an absorbing and deeply appealing memoir.

The Man Who Was Saturday by Patrick Bishop is a very detailed and utterly enthralling biography of Airey Neave (1916-1979).

Neave was, and (and, I presume, still is), very famous in the UK. He was a British soldier, lawyer and member of parliament. He was captured by the Germans in the second world war and was the first successful British escapee from Colditz, the notorious prisoner of war camp. On his return to England, he worked for MI9, a department of military intelligence whose responsibility was to organise and maintain escape routes across occupied Europe so that shot down aircrew and prisoners of war could be helped to get back to England. Saturday was Neave’s codename at MI9 (hence the title of Bishop’s book). MI9 appears to have been a very Chestertonian organisation. It boasted several other days of the week among its officers, though nobody, as far as I can tell, was codenamed Thursday. Pity...

After the war ended, Neave’s legal training stood him in very good stead when he worked for the prosecution team at the Nuremberg war trials. In 1953 he was elected as a Conservative MP for the Abingdon constituency, a position he held until his death in 1979. He was a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher and manoeuvred successfully behind the scenes to get her elected leader of the party and eventually, of course, Prime Minister. He was her spokesman on the political problems in Northern Ireland and his radical, militaristic approach to addressing the troubles proved to be his downfall. In 1979 he was assassinated by members of the Irish National Liberation Army who planted a bomb in his car.

I vividly remember the shock and horror that gripped the country when Neave was killed. He was well liked by friend and foe alike (his maiden speech in Parliament was praised to the skies by a member of the opposition; something that is almost unheard of). I had a huge respect for him even though I disagreed with many of his political opinions, notably his stance on capital punishment and eagerness to use force of arms to solve political difficulties.

Despite an intensive investigation, nobody was ever charged with his murder and now I suppose nobody ever will be. I find that a little upsetting.

Bishop’s biography is thorough and insightful. Reading it made me like and respect Airey Neave all over again. Bishop shows us Neave’s humanity and brings him thrillingly alive in the mind of the reader. He’s done a skilful and praiseworthy job. If Airey Neave was a part of your life as he was a part of mine, you really do owe it to yourself to read this book. I promise that you won’t regret it.

* * * *

Since SJDs blame the political left wing for all the evils in their world, and because they consider SJWs to be the epitome of left wing thinking, it’s worth looking more closely at the kinds of things that the left wing stands for. Let’s see just what it is that gets under the skin of the SJDs...

We’ll begin with the beautiful words of the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

You will notice that the declaration makes no mention of race, colour or creed – things that are very important to the SJDs. So I doubt that the SJDs think very much of the declaration. But personally I rather like it.

None of the goals it defines can be pursued unless you are healthy and unless you have enough money to put food on the table and to keep a roof over your head. Legislation can supply you with both of those things (they come under the heading of life), leaving you with the liberty to pursue your idea of happiness. That’s terribly idealistic of course, and we can’t even begin to come asymptotically close to that kind of Social Justice goal in real life. But by providing you with free health care and by giving you money when you need it to keep the wolf away from your door, we can at least give you a fighting chance at the rest of it…

This is anathema to the SJDs. They claim (if I understand them correctly) that the implementation of such SJW policies will  invariably lead to socialism – a word, and a concept, that seems to terrify them. Hence, of course, their prejudice against the left wing.

I find this attitude hard to understand. Partly this is because what they call socialism and what I call socialism are often two very different things (nobody can split definitional hairs like socialists who are attempting to define socialism!) and partly it’s because I’ve lived all my life in more or less socialist societies under the control of more or less socialist governments. Sometimes these have been very left wing (Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the UK in the 1960s, for example) and sometimes they have been very right wing (John Key’s National government in New Zealand in the early years of the twenty-first century springs to mind). But one thing that all the governments in my life have had in common, be they right wing or be they left wing, is that they have never dared to mess with the basic legislative tenets of Social Justice because, one and all, they knew that to do so would make them unelectable. Make no mistake about it, SJW policies are very popular policies in the countries that have implemented them – people who have lived with those policies in place always come to like them, and don’t want to lose them. So while governments may tinker around the ideological edges of the policies, the fundamental policies themselves always remain firmly in place.

I can quite literally claim that these socialist policies have saved my life. When I was three years old I got pneumonia. But because medical attention in the UK is free, the antibiotics that I needed were readily available and I made a full recovery. Without a free, universal health care service, my poor as church mice parents would never have been able to pay for the treatment I needed and therefore, for the last sixty-seven years I’d almost certainly have been dead. I’m sure you will all agree that the world would have been a much poorer place if that had happened.

When I relate this anecdote, the SJDs usually point out that the health care I received was not free – it was paid for by the government from the taxes that the government collected. This observation has the interesting property of being both absolutely true and completely irrelevant at one and the same time. Taxes happen. You can’t avoid them unless you are a billionaire. And once your taxes have been paid, the services the government provides with the money are freely available to you whenever you need them. Speaking personally, I really rather like the idea of my taxes being used to finance an enlightened social programme in which everyone gets free medical treatment and everyone has the money to buy food and pay rent if they happen to be unemployed or sick. Yes, I really do want to make a contribution to the medical bills run up by the homeless meth addict lying comatose in the gutter over there. Who knows? Maybe he’ll make a full recovery and one day his taxes will make a contribution to the care that I will need in the future when I’m raving with dementia in a nursing home. What kind of people are we if we don’t look after each other? I don’t have it in me to be that cruel.

* * * *

Jerry Cornelius – His Lives and Times is a collection of almost all Michael Moorcock’s short stories about Jerry Cornelius. The book has been published twice before, in 1974 and 2003, both times with slightly different titles and slightly different contents. This new edition contains all the stories from both the previous editions (with one exception that I’ll come to in a moment) together with seven stories that did not appear in either of the earlier editions! Annoyingly the 2003 edition contains a novella called Firing the Cathedral which does not appear in the current edition. I suspect this is for copyright reasons – the novella is available as a stand alone chapbook from PS Publishing. Fortunately I posses an autographed, numbered, limited edition of Firing the Cathedral (number 289 of 400), so I can read it whenever I want to! Despite the omission of Firing the Cathedral, I think you can probably regard this collection as being pretty much the definitive edition. As an added bonus, it also includes Mal Dean’s original artwork as it first appeared wrapped around the stories when they were originally published in New Worlds.

Jerry is an urban adventurer, a hipster of ambiguous colour and ambivalent gender, a living metaphor of entropy bestriding inconclusive, apocalyptic multiverses. The critic John Clute described Jerry as:

...the paradigmatic native of the inner city; his roles constitute a genuine paradigm set of strategies for living there

The stories mostly date from the 1960s and 1970s but they can still be read with pleasure today for they are quite timeless. Jerry never really understood time. He always felt it got in the way of things.

The stories can also be read in any order – none of them really depend on any of the others and they are often mutually contradictory. Each story consists of a series of vignettes and, by and large, the vignettes that make up any individual story can also be read in any order. Jerry never really approved of linearity. As far as he was concerned, cause and effect were grossly overrated.

I love Jerry in all of his many and varied transmogrifications and I revelled in the reading of this collection as I rediscovered old friends (and made interesting new ones). Jerry Cornelius is not to everybody’s taste so your mileage may vary. I cannot be regarded as dispassionate here. I think that the Jerry Cornelius stories are far and away the very best things that Michael Moorcock has ever written.

While we are talking about story collections, let me draw your attention to The Last Book Of Jorkens by Lord Dunsany. This is the sixth and (as the title implies) very last collection of of Dunsany’s Jorkens stories. It was not published in his lifetime. He was working on it, and had largely completed it, when he died in 1957, and it languished among his papers. A limited edition was published by Night Shade Books in 2002, but the current edition is the only one that has ever been widely available.

It is wonderful to own the book, if only for the sense of completion that it affords me. But I have to admit that the stories are slight, even by Jorkens’ standards, and that’s saying something! Indeed, in many of the stories Jorkens himself is relegated to the role of bystander – a role I do not think he would relish. I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Jorkens, but I must admit that I preferred him in his younger, more outrageous days.

While we are talking about very slight stories, John Scalzi has just published the seasonally thematic collection A Very Scalzi Christmas. As you can probably guess from the title, it’s a collection of short stories all about Christmas.

It’s a very short book (only 144 pages) so it won’t occupy much of your time. But I’m sure you’ll snort and giggle your way through it. The humour is its saving grace – without the jokes I suspect that you’d just roll your eyes and quickly move on. But humour is very subjective of course. We don’t all laugh at the same things so it is highly likely that the things I enjoyed most may not appeal to you. And vice-versa of course. But that’s the nature of this kind of thing. Personally I think that Scalzi hit the nail firmly on the head a sufficient number of times to drive it well into the woodwork.

Interspersed between the more conventionally structured stories are interviews with several Christmas-related characters. These include Santa’s lawyer, Santa’s reindeer wrangler, the Christmas Bunny (a franchise of the same group that owns the Easter Bunny), and the nativity innkeeper. There are also some short lists of things such as The 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time and A Personal Top 10 of Things That Are Not Titles to Christmas Songs and/or Lifetime Holiday Movies and Honestly I Don’t Understand Why. Sometimes the titles are funnier (and occasionally longer) than the contents.

Scalzi obviously loves the whole idea of Christmas, but he isn’t without a certain cynical insight into its more improbable aspects. This, for example, is what he had to say about Jesus being born in a manger:

And then someone says, look, the animals, they are adoring the baby. And I say, adoring, hell. They’re wondering why there’s a baby in their food.

A Very Scalzi Christmas is a lot of fun.

So far in my life I’ve deliberately avoided reading anything by Brandon Sanderson. Partly this is because he is primarily known as a fantasy writer (a genre that, at best, I’m I’m rather lukewarm about) and partly it’s because whenever his novels are praised, sooner or later someone will say something about the ingenuity of Sanderson’s magic system, an oxymoronic phrase that never fails to set my teeth on edge. However I may well have to change my opinion. I’ve just read Skyward and I absolutely loved it.

Skyward is an SF novel rather than a fantasy (which is why I decided to read it) and it’s also marketed as a YA book, again very much a point in its favour as far as I’m concerned.

Spensa is a 17-year-old girl. She is part of a group of spaceship-wrecked humans who live on a ruined world called Detritus, which is under constant attack from mysterious aliens called the Krell. Spensa’s dream is to join the defence force and fight the Krell, just like her father did. However her chances of doing so are almost non-existent because her father disgraced himself at the Battle of Alta. He was accused of cowardice and was shot down by members of his own flight. The defence force do not want the daughter of a coward fighting with them. They are afraid that when the chips are down, she might turn tail and run like her father before her…

Fortunately she has friends as well as enemies and she does manage to scrape into the defence force by the skin of her teeth. She still faces enormous prejudice, but at least she is on the road to realising her dream.

One day, Spensa stumbles across a derelict wreckage of a fighting ship. Almost as a hobby she starts to work on restoring the ship. Eventually she manages to power it up and she discovers that it is controlled by an artificial intelligence called M-Bot. Many of M-Bot’s memory banks have been destroyed so he may well be slightly insane. But despite that he’s still far more advanced than anything the defence force currently has access to.

It’s fairly obvious how the story will progress once all these plot elements have been slotted into place, and if you read it expecting all those obvious developments you won’t be at all disappointed. To that extent, the story is drearily predictable. But that’s not the point – Spensa is such a strongly drawn character that it’s impossible not to identify with her and you will feel genuine sadness at her sorrows and much joy at her triumphs. Yes, even the jaded 70 year old man who is writing these words had no difficulty whatsoever in becoming a 17 year old girl whose dream is to fight the Krell. M-Bot is an equally well realised character and he provides some genuinely funny comic relief as Spensa’s sidekick – his (extremely logical) mushroom fetish is particularly entertaining and his dialogue is a comical gold mine.

If I have a complaint (and I’m not sure that I do) it is that the story takes far too long to reach the climax that it has obviously been heading for from almost the first page. If the book could have been a hundred pages shorter the story would have been a lot tighter and more exciting. Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Certainly I was never bored and I was sorry when I finally ran out of pages to turn. Sequels are promised. I’ll definitely have to read them.

* * * *

Karl Marx summed it up very succinctly when he said, From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Karl said a lot of very stupid things in his lifetime, but I think we can forgive them for the sake of the insight that rather pithy saying provides.

SJDs tend to have very little difficulty with the first part of this. From each according to his ability. After all, people with abilities are productive in terms of both goods and services and all of us, both SJWs and SJDs can take full advantage of that productivity, to our mutual benefit. And quite right too.

But it’s the to each according to his needs that sticks in the SJDs craw. They seem to feel no need to give anything back to someone who may be a bit down on their luck. Again, to be fair, this is not invariably the case. Many SJDs will voluntarily give aid to someone in need. What they object to is being coerced into doing so by a "socialist" government that won’t allow them to opt out in the name of individualism and freedom of choice.

I don’t see that position as freedom of choice or as individualism, I see it as selfishness. In the UK in the 1950s, there was a saying, I’m all right Jack! That was its more polite formulation. Perhaps the less polite version gets the point across better. Screw you, Jack! I’m all right. In other words, once my needs have been satisfied by my own efforts, why should I care about your needs? What would motivate me to do so? God helps those who help themselves. If you can’t afford to buy food, go and get a job like I did. If that attitude prevails, if there is too much of that kind of "freedom", people will start to suffer because ultimately there will be nobody there to help them when they truly are in need.

Of course it can be argued that requiring the state to give to each according to his needs will simply encourage an attitude of dependency. After all, because there is always a safety net to catch you when you fall, why not just lie back and enjoy the largesse? Open your mouth, it’s raining soup. Isn’t that just human nature? And so we come right back to I’m all right, Jack again, only the other way round this time – you are freely giving me what I need, so why should I bother to get off my chuff and go and hunt a mammoth? Hunting mammoths is hard work! So tell me, you Social Justice Warrior you, why should my taxes be used to encourage such lotus eating? Grumble, grumble – Yours Sincerely, Disgusted Social Justice Denier, Tunbridge Wells...

It’s a legitimate concern, and that kind of systemic abuse is why you need rules and regulations to make the thing work. The regulations can be both formal organisational ones together with other less formal, though often very effective, social ones. Social pressure from your peers can sometimes work wonders. You’ll never completely get rid of any abuse of the system. No matter what the system is, there will always be people who abuse it – we just have to grin and bear it, shrug our shoulders and accept it, and move on. With luck, this combination of Social Justice will minimise that kind of abuse. I like to think of it as enlightened (or "woke") socialism, and it really does seem to work. I see the results all around me every day. Surely that has to be a good thing?

Unless you are a Social Justice Denier of course…

Elton John Me Macmillan
Patrick Bishop The Man Who Was Saturday William Collins
Michael Moorcock Jerry Cornelius – His Lives and Times Gollancz
Lord Dunsany The Last Book of Jorkens Gollancz
John Scalzi A Very Scalzi Christmas Subterranean Press
Brandon Sanderson Skyward Gollancz
Previous Contents Next