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Racism bingo and respectability politics

I spent several hours today at the One Day Without Us stall in Bath. For those just tuning in, the basic idea behind this is that it’s a strike – immigrants withdrawing our labour in protest at the vile racism spewed at us constantly from the British government, opposition, press, and pretty much every other social institution in this country. What my morning actually turned into was a game of respectability politics and racism bingo. Here are some of the high(low?)lights…

The organisers of the Bath event seemed to all be white and British. A few other Western European migrants joined us later, but the core group was white and British. Not only that, but the message track they were going with was “Valuing the contribution of immigrants”. They even had templates for people to write “messages of support” and what they valued about immigrants in this country. Not so much a protest, then, as a neo-liberal love-fest.

(For the Migration Issues 101 crowd at the back, here’s what’s wrong with this message track. “Valuing” migrants for our “contribution” implies that those who are unable to contribute are worthless. Regardless of how nice you think you’re being by pointing to migrants’ work in the NHS or declaring that without us this place would be “boring” and “colourless”, the “contribution” discourse is a disposability discourse. My value – my humanity – should not be conditional on my work, or on you finding entertainment value in me.)

Then there was of course the popular “we are all immigrants” refrain. Sorry to break it to you guys, but no, we are not all immigrants. Frankly, even any Western Europeans under the age of 50 living in the UK don’t have half the lived experience of being immigrants that those of us who remember a time before free movement (let alone those to whom free movement doesn’t apply) have. For British people living in Britain to declare that “we are all immigrants” is insulting.

There were the attempts to make us more palatable to the Daily-Mail-reading public by dividing and conquering. “Oh, we’re not about refugees, we’re about immigrants.” Uh, guys, one is a subset of the other, I even brought a physicist who could teach you basic set theory. “Oh we’re not about opening the doors and having more immigration. We just want to celebrate the ones who are already here.” Yeah, thanks. With friends like you who needs enemies?

Backhanded compliments on my English are kinda par for the course for me, but there was also the fun of being exoticised by other (Western European) immigrants. “Oh you’re Bulgarian! I’ve always wanted to go there and see the rose harvest. I love the Eastern European flair, and the music, and…”

Several people also complained that there weren’t more migrants there. “Why won’t the Romanian workers at Primark come out? Why is the Polish sign holder from up the street not here?” You know why? Because they’re all working (sub)minimum-wage jobs. They can’t afford to lose a day’s pay to make your pet project more “colourful”. They can’t afford to lose their shitty jobs if their boss sees them at a protest. That’s why.

All of this was even before contact with the general public who kindly let me tick racist bingo squares ranging from dirty looks to “no mass immigration”, “radicalised refugees” and best of all of course “I’m not racist but”. Yeah hon, you are. I also approached a couple of Community Support Officers (oh come on, like you didn’t know that I’m a massive troll) who explained that they weren’t allowed to be “politically correct” on the job. That one gets the Freudian Slip of the Day award.

But the Worst Human Being of the Day award goes to a parent. Fairly early on in the day I approached a family who turned out to be a Spanish mother, a British father and their two daughters who looked about 11 or 12. The mother shared with me the frustrations of living as an immigrant in the UK right now and took one of my stickers. The father, when prompted to write a “message of support” looked at it blankly for about a minute before he decided he couldn’t do it. But by far the worst was when I offered the kids some stickers and he told me to not “politicise the children”.

Honey, I hate to break it to you, but your children’s mere existence is a political statement, and they know it. If you think those kids haven’t been on the receiving end of racism at the very least since Brexit but probably also before, you haven’t been paying attention. If you think they’re not worried about whether Mummy will be allowed to stay in the country, you are completely ignorant of the reality of your children’s lives. This officially qualifies you for Worst Human Being of the Day.

Threat reassessment

So I made a somewhat ill-advised flippant comment about Iain Duncan Smith’s latest commentary on the Article 50 court case on Twitter this morning and it’s made me think.

(IDS’s piece is linked from one of the embedded tweets in there, but don’t click, it’s Daily Mail.)

My tweet, as well as most other commentary I have seen on this article frames IDS’s comments about the courts and their relationship with the legislative and executive arms of the state as ignorance. Didn’t he learn in school about separation of powers? Well, of course he did. And as a former cabinet minister whose department got taken to court repeatedly for the harmful, discriminatory, and unlawful nature of his policies, he has intimate personal experience with separation of powers, and how in a democracy the judiciary is the people’s last line of defense from a malicious executive. As does Duncan Smith’s boss Theresa May.

IDS’s comments are not born of ignorance or misunderstanding. They are a deliberate attempt to undermine the judiciary, one that is fully sanctioned by this government. This has, of course, been going on for some time. The way it has previously manifested is through Brexit. “We don’t want European judges to tell us what to do! They might safeguard some immigrant scum’s human rights!” But as Brexit is becoming a reality, the government, helped along by the fascist gutter press, is seizing the opportunity to further undermine British courts too. The Supreme Court has been labelled undemocratic because unelected (a feature of the system), biased (untrue), and – worst of all apparently – dull (a court is not reality television). IDS’s comments are simply the sequel to the Daily Mail declaring the High Court “enemies of the people”. Except now it’s not just the fascist gutter press spouting, well, fascism, it’s a sitting government MP and former cabinet minister.

So let’s be clear: seeking to deliberately undermine the judiciary in order to increase the power of the executive is a feature of fascism. Let’s not minimise this as ignorance, dismiss it with jokes, or hope it will go away. We must call it by its name, and we must resist it and fight it. We must treat it as the clear threat to democratic institutions that it is.

Dear Austria: this is just the beginning

Norbert Hofer looking sad.

Today Austria has given the world a tiny glimmer of hope. It’s tiny in a variety of ways: Austria is not exactly the most influential country in the world, or even in Europe; Van der Bellen’s margin of victory is fairly narrow; and this was an election of a mostly ceremonial head of state. Nonetheless, following Brexit and Trump, and looking ahead at a possible Le Pen presidency in France and fuck knows what in Germany next year, the fact that one small country in the heart of Europe, with a history of fascism, today rejected the far-right is a glimmer of hope. (On a personal note, I haven’t shelved my back-up plans for statelessness – no I’m not joking – but I’m reassessing the probability and time horizon for them, and that’s a temporary relief.)

But here’s the thing, fellow Austrians: this is just the beginning. Well, if we’re being honest, the beginning was some time in the mid-90s, but we kinda missed that one. And the next several beginnings. Because, as I’ve said elsewhere, in Austria, we just don’t talk about politics. Which is how we got to a position back in April where leading up to the first round of the elections, my Austrian Facebook was electoral tumbleweed, and the day after everyone was suddenly in a panic because “OMG we accidentally a nazi!”

The good thing about all this is that we are now paying attention. People who have never been politically engaged in their lives were actively campaigning. Conversations were happening. Heck, I finally registered to vote despite not having lived in the country for 17 years. And the success of this is measurable. I haven’t seen full stats yet but from what I’m hearing turnout was up on May, and Van der Bellen’s majority, albeit still too close for comfort, is up ten-fold. This is what happens when we pay attention. But our work is not done. Our work is just beginning.

The nazis (because, yes, that’s what they are, that’s what they’ve always been, and I refuse to normalise them by using any other name) aren’t going to just give up because they were narrowly defeated in an election for a ceremonial head of state. In the 2013 Nationalrat election nearly one in three votes went to a far right party. This is the platform they are building on, and they will continue building for the 2018 election, and for any and all regional elections they can get their hands on.

We must not let that happen. We must not rest on our laurels, declare the fight won with the election of Van der Bellen, and go back to politely not talking about politics. The way the world is going, we must be vigilant every step of the way, lest next time we accidentally a nazi for real. No matter whether you’re a veteran suffering activist burnout, or someone who only got engaged in politics for this election, stay engaged, stay active, stay vigilant. Take some time to celebrate by all means, and replenish your energy. But then get back to work. Build communities; reach out to the marginalised and those under attack; support each other in any way you can; fight in every single election no matter how local, how minor; and above all, do no stop talking about politics. Have those uncomfortable conversations with you family, your friends, your colleagues. Do not go back to silence and indifference. We simply cannot afford it.

[ETA]

And just in case you don’t believe me, here’s what Marine Le Pen had to say:

(Congratulations to the FPÖ who fought with courage. The next general election will be that of their victory.)

[ETA]

One place where I would start right now is putting pressure on all parties (and particularly the ÖVP) to rule out a coalition with the FPÖ or any of its splinter groups and offshoots, at any level of government. #justsayin’

So now what?

So if liberals don’t have the tools to fight fascism, and fascism is here, what do we do? The below is hardly a comprehensive action plan – for a start we have no idea how exactly the next stage of this will shape up. We will need a hell of a lot more than this, and there are certainly other legitimate priority calls you can make. But I think these are things we all can do, right now, that may have an impact.

1. We need to realise the scale and scope of what’s going on. Charlie Stross outlines this here. There are a couple of things in there I could quibble with and a couple of things I think he’s missing but I’m not an expert on them either. Take this as a rough guide to how big and nasty this thing is. This fight is global. (Which is part of the reason I’m sitting here in the UK telling Americans what to do.)

2. I know I pointed you to Masha Gessen’s article and said institutions won’t help you. Past a certain point this is true, and we’re very close to that point in both the US and the UK. Other countries may still have a chance to stop the neoliberal erosion of democratic institutions, checks and balances, and individuals’ rights vis-a-vis the state that paved the way for what we’re seeing now.

For the US, I think there’s a couple of Hail Mary things that need to be prioritised. The one you have more control over is state legislatures. The Democrats must under no circumstances lose one because at that point the constitution is toast. I think it’s vital that some effort goes into this. The one you have less control over – but is definitely worth protesting, calling your representatives, etc. – is who Trump is going to put on the Supreme Court.

For the UK, our government has just passed the most extreme piece of surveillance legislation in a democracy ever. The companion piece to this, which would pave the way for censorship, is going through Parliament right now. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a measure to protect children from online porn, hidden in the new Digital Economy Bill. In practice, it enables ISP blocking of websites hosting perfectly legal content. Today it’s porn. Tomorrow, it’s this blog. The day after, it’s Liberty and Amnesty International. We need to stop this.

Elsewhere, fight for the independence of the judiciary; resist legislation which enables surveillance and censorship (while being aware of how power operates in both these areas and especially on issues of free speech); if you have elections coming up, get involved, campaign, vote, make sure we don’t get more Trumps out there. The ones I can see coming in the near future are the Austrian and French presidential elections, and the German parliamentary elections. (My view is extremely Eurocentric and thus flawed. There will be others, equally important, around the world.) Do not let Marine Le Pen win. Do not let Norbert Hofer win. Find a way to stop the AfD from gaining ground. Germany and France in particular must not be allowed to fall, because if they do, the European Union does. And while the EU has many flaws, in the face of global fascism we’re better off with it than without it.

3. I can’t emphasise this enough: do not normalise this. Do not let others normalise this. It’s going to make for some very uncomfortable conversations with friends and family, and I think we’re all going to lose long-lasting friendships over this, but we have got talk to people, we have got to keep naming the problem for what it is: fascism, white supremacy. Hold people to account, do not let them weasel out, do not let them tell you that “it won’t be that bad”. It already is.

4. We need to start systematically dismantling the myths of our countries that have allowed us to get to this point. In the US, that’s the American Dream, the Protestant work ethic, and the discursive coupling of “America” and “freedom”, both historically and now. Let me go into that last one in detail. It is the most white supremacist of ideas, and it is baked into the consciousness of (white) America and the world. The idea that America is synonymous with freedom crumbles at the slightest challenge even if we centre whiteness. From the House Un-American Activities Committee to Freedom Fries, these are not things a “free country” does. The minute you decentre whiteness, it becomes absurd. It’s a country built on genocide and slavery that needs to reckon with its past. But that idea of the “land of the free” (and see Colin Kaepernick on that one!) is built into the very language even “progressives” use. From Star Trek’s “space – the final frontier” to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the frontier those “aspirational” words refer to is the frontier of genocide. Genocide so normalised that organisations campaigning for human rights see no problem naming themselves after it. America is not free. Has never been free. If we do not succeed in dismantling the myth of American freedom, will never be free. Cat Valente wrote something similar here from an actual American’s perspective.

In France, it’s laïcité, among other things, which is enabling brutal Islamophobia. In Britain it’s the idea of Rule Britannia, the cheerful waving of Union Jacks every summer at the Proms, poppies, and the failure to reckon with a history of brutal colonialism and Empire, the refusal to admit that slavery is as inextricably woven into British history as it is into American history. In Austria it’s the notion that you don’t talk about politics, and the idea that once there was an Austrian empire upon which the sun never set, and the handwaving of what happened between then and now and Austria’s role in it. In Germany, it’s the false sense of security that surely we have reckoned with our past and nothing like this could ever happen here again.

Look at yourself, at your country, at what you were taught in school. Find the most cherished idea about your country, the thing you think of as part of your nation’s essence. Unpack it, take it apart, and you will see that it has been corrupted, that it serves as a tool of oppression. Question it, dismantle it, destroy it, start again.

5. On a more practical level, start sorting out an anti-surveillance infrastructure that works for you. I know it’s neither cheap nor easy and so many privacy tools are a pain to use, but trust me, the surveillance capabilities of the state are something the Trump administration, the May government, and other incarnations of global fascism are going to make extensive use of. Here’s a starting point on that front.

6. If you are a member of a marginalised group start organising, finding community, working out what other people are doing to keep themselves safe. If you are in a position to help the marginalised with time, skills, or money, listen to what they need and give it to them to the best of your ability. Do not dismiss their concerns, do not silence them.

Your “Welcome to Fascism” reading list

It’s becoming increasingly unwieldy for me to keep track of good analyses of and calls to action with regards to the epic clusterfuck that is the rise of global fascism we seem to be experiencing. So here’s my masterlist of stuff I have found useful, thought-provoking, and terrifying over the last week and a half. I’ll probably keep updating it for a little while. A large chunk of the below come with content notes for discussions of racism, misogyny, queerphobia, violence.

The comprehensive exit poll data. (The Education by Race line speaks volumes.)

A very early Twitter thread by @yeloson on how profoundly some of our lives may change as a result of this. [discussion of cancer and death]

Let we forget, within hours of polls closing, this is what it felt like to be a Muslim woman in America.

Thread on the radicalisation of white men in online spaces by @SiyandaWrites. (The threading on this is somewhat messy and some of the responses are violent.)

Thread on what the left needs to do to create a powerful vision and message by Sunny Singh.

The Mary Sue’s Internet Privacy 101.

And the EFF’s Surveillance Self Defense.

A reminder from @ab_silvera that there are more victims of US policy outside the US. (Follow-up tweets.)

Charlie Stross’s initial analysis of Trump’s election. This man is scarily accurate in his analyses, to the point where’s written himself out of job.

The tactics we’re seeing global fascism use emerged during the break-up of Yugoslavia by @JasminMuj.

@flexlibris on operational security and securing your comms.

The feminist classroom as a safe space post Brexit and Trump by @alisonphipps.

Sunny Singh again on how neoliberalism has improved the lives of many around the world, at the same time as being exploitative. There are no easy answers here.

One for Americans, on how your political systems works and what the best ways are of influencing it.

@HarryGiles on how bad things are.

@pookleblinky‘s thread on how fascism is an exponential process.

Me on the importance of not normalising fascism.

@yeloson again on cyberpunk, racism, humanity and Trump.

Safety pins? Here are some things you can do to actually make people safer, by @siliconphospho.

@alwaystheself on how white supremacy socialises us to dismiss and minimise the terror it inflicts.

@UnburntWitch on the safety pin thing and dealing with constructive criticism in activism.

@scattermoon on the Jo Cox murder and how media has been minimising and dismissing the threat of fascism since before Brexit and Trump.

Masha Gessen’s rules for survival in an autocracy.

The 14 characteristics of fascism.

@aurabogado on Obama’s role in maintaining the good immigrant/bad immigrant dichotomy.

@ChiefElk on tech and social media’s role in enabling fascism.

@DNLee5 on racist selective memories of the Civil Rights Movement.

Flavia Dzodan on white feminism’s inadequacies and our desperate need for intersectional feminism.

@mxbees on privacy tools and digital rights for those who most need them.

We have got to stop devaluing black women’s knowledge.

Me on how liberals without a lived experience of a hostile state do not have the tools to fight fascism.

Roja Bandari on the the normality of living in a religious dictatorship.

Kali Holloway: Stop asking me to empathise with the white working class.

Me on the discursive coupling of “America” and “freedom”.

And among all this, Britain passes the most extreme surveillance law ever in a democracy.

Pookleblinky again, on how fascism quickly accumulates power by putting people through a series of obedience tests.

@mcclure111 on the bullshit that is “post-identity liberalism”.

@jpbrammer on how white working class Americans see themselves.

@AndrayDomise on what we should be calling the people who call themselves the “alt-right” – his recommendation is neo-Nazis.

Sarah Kendzior on how to be a light in dark times. Contains the most chilling paragraph I have read in the last ten days: “Write a list of things you would never do. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will do them.”

Cat Velente on American greatness.

Charlie Stross on the scope of the fight we’re facing.

Laurie Penny on bargaining, normalisation and mental health.

Me again, with an action plan of sorts for starting to fight this thing.

Mikki Kendall on why white working class voters need to be held accountable for voting against their own interests.

A thread live-tweeting FeministaJones’s talk at UPenn.

What the First Amendment Defense Act will mean for queer people in the US.

And a thread on FADA’s impact specifically on trans women. CN transmisogynist violence.

@Asher_Wolf on treating Trump & co. like cranky toddlers.

Dear liberal friends: you do not have the tools to fight Trump.

Hey liberal friends. Yes, you. You who’s been telling people frightened for their lives that “it won’t be that bad”. And you who keeps posting links to obscure constitutional loopholes that might make Bernie president. And you, who told me yesterday with a straight face that May was the British Trump (and I agree that a case can be made here) and then proceeded to talk about how to disentangle our message from that of more left-wing, more diverse campaign groups. We need to have a talk, because I don’t think you have even begun to realise yet how out of your depth you are. You simply don’t have the frame of reference: you have never lived in a state that was openly, actively, viciously hostile to you, there’s nothing in your set of life experiences to date to help you process this. And that is a problem, because your cluelessness and flailing is playing into the hands of fascism and doing damage to the rest of us.

Here are three pieces of reading for you to help you build a frame of reference:

Masha Gessen’s rule for surviving in an autocracy. She speaks from experience, she grew up in Putin’s Russia. Rules 1 and 3 in particular are what liberals seem to be struggling with. 1: Believe the autocrat. When Trump says he will deport 3 million people, don’t even for a second think that he doesn’t mean it, that it was just an election soundbite. Believe him, he will do it. Think about what you can do to resist this, to help those he is targeting. 3: Institutions will not save you. The electoral college is not going to swoop to the rescue. Neither are constitutional loopholes going to make Bernie president. Instead, Trump is going to stack the Supreme Court his way for the foreseeable future, and if the Democrats lose one more state legislature, the Republicans, already falling in line behind Trump like ducklings, are going to eviscerate the constitution. These are the stakes. You need to realise this, and accept it, and work out how you can keep people around you alive.

Here’s pookleblinky’s Twitter thread on how fascism is an exponential process. This, frankly, is a terrifying read. But honestly, I’d rather work on this premise and be wrong than keep going with the “it won’t be that bad” narrative and be wrong about that. Some key points: for most of its gestation time, fascism is basically invisible and seems like a joke; by the time you see the exponential ramp of its growth, it’s ubiquitous and overwhelming; you are always playing catch up – by the time you think of a strategy to deal with it, that strategy is no longer effective; the time window of effectiveness for each new strategy is shorter than the last; last time fascism reared its ugly head, it had horses and telegraphs – now it has instantaneous global communication, nukes, pervasive normalised surveillance, and biometric databases of close to the entire population. I honestly don’t have a good answer for this. I can only reiterate: start working out how you’re going to keep people alive.

And finally, just in case you’re still not convinced that what we’re dealing with is the real thing, just in case you still think the fact that Trump and his staff don’t know anything about the scope of the Presidency will save you, here are the 14 characteristics of fascism. Trump and those around him exhibit all 14. May… is getting close. Disdain for human rights, obsession with national security, protection of corporate power and suppression of labour power, disdain for intellectuals… If those don’t ring a bell, you have not been paying attention. We also need to acknowledge that liberalism has enabled many of these. Something to think about if we come out the other side of this.

So, liberal friends. You simply do not have the tools to fight this. Hell, most of you still don’t even believe that there’s anything to fight. You’d better start believing it, and fast. By the time it gets so bad you can see it, people and communities more marginalised than you will be wiped out. So. Listen to those people, to those communities. Listen to black and brown women. Listen to Black Lives Matter. Listen to queer people – and to trans women in particular. Listen to migrants, documented or otherwise. Listen to those of us who have lived experience of an actively hostile state. Take your lead from us. And start figuring out how you’re going to keep us alive, because without us you’re lost.

Do not normalise Trump. Normalise resistance.

I am, to be perfectly honest, still reeling from the act of violence that was the election of Donald Trump. My thoughts are not particularly coherent. I have retweeted many more coherent, more articulate people over the last few days – take a look if that’s what you’re after. But as I try to piece my life back together, what strikes me is how quickly normalisation has set in. From US domestic as well as foreign commentators urging us to “give Trump a chance”, to world leaders dutifully congratulating him on his election, to the host of (mainly) white men who have told me and others terrified for our futures, for our friends’ lives that “it won’t be that bad”, we’re already moving into “business as usual” mode. Angela Merkel’s language was the strongest possible within the constraints of diplomacy, but in the face of what awaits us it doesn’t feel like anywhere near enough.

Here’s the thing. It absolutely will be that bad, and probably worse. But you (white, straight you) won’t notice. Not at first. Much like what we’re seeing with Brexit, the changes will be small, gradual, seemingly unconnected, and you will find other things to blame for them. Mass exodus of international banks from London? Well good riddance to those bankers, nevermind that the banking sector directly employs 4% of the UK population, with many others’ livelihoods tied to it. Sterling collapses? Damn those markets! Food and consumer goods prices rise by 10-20%? How dare Unilever not give us our daily Marmite for free?! And those are just the things Middle England sees and pays attention to. The sharp rise of violence against anyone who looks or sounds like they might be vaguely foreign, against LGBT people and other vulnerable groups; the complete collapse of any opposition, making the UK a one-party state for the foreseeable future; the steady, unstoppable progress through Parliament of a bill extending and legitimising mass electronic surveillance – those day to day horrors visited upon the already marginalised and the deep structural changes cementing this as the status quo don’t even register on the radar of white, straight Middle England. And this is precisely what awaits America too. (And frankly, America is too big to not have an impact on the rest of us.)

Here’s what the flipside feels like: the not cis, not straight, not really white enough side of this. A lot of us saw at least some of this coming. For us, this is just an escalation of the kind of violence that we’ve been living with for years. When I lost my shit back in 2010 over Gordon Brown grovelling to Bigoted Woman, it wasn’t because she’d called me a “flocking Eastern European”. It was because those words were being normalised and legitimised by the Prime Minister, and no one else seemed to think that there was anything wrong with that. When as a digital rights campaigner I’d been warning people of state surveillance for years, they always looked at me like they thought I should be wearing a tinfoil hat. Then the Snowden revelations broke and, honestly, nothing changed. When I spent the entire summer after the Brexit referendum waking up halfway to a panic attack every single morning, my partner’s father wrote me an email telling me it wasn’t going to be that bad. (Then Amber Rudd said employers should be named and shamed for employing filthy foreigners like me and I got a vaguely apologetic email, which still made light of things.) Resistance is othered. Questioning the status quo, warning of the pitfalls of fascism is ridiculed. Naming our oppression and the violence committed against us on a daily basis is dismissed. “Oh, don’t be hysterical, it won’t be that bad.”

There comes a point where this all adds up. Where it becomes a crushing weight. Where the thing you’re fighting begins to feel too enormous for you to tackle, because nobody else seems to even think that there’s a thing to fight. I am… closer to that point than I like to admit this publicly.

So here’s the thing. White people. Cis people. Straight people. Non-disabled people. Stop normalising fascism. Stop normalising Trump. Stop normalising Brexit. Stop normalising Marine Le Pen, and Norbert Hofer, and Farage, and the AfD. When those of us with a day-to-day lived experience of violent oppression tell you that that is what is happening, believe us. Listen to us. Don’t tell us it’s not so bad. Don’t question the language we use and dismiss it as hysteria and hyperbole. Work out what it is that you can do to normalise resistance, to protect those less fortunate, more marginalised than you.

Stand in the line of fire.

Nothing else is good enough.

Hey Austrian friends, we need to have a talk.

wahlkarte

[I posted this on Facebook on November 9th. Including here for the sake of completeness/easy reference.]

I’ll be the first to admit that this comes from a place of mild hypocrisy: I have never voted in an Austrian election. By the time I had the right citizenship and was the right age, I was no longer living in the country, and it seemed like a good idea to leave the voting to those who would actually be affected by it.

But, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and needs must. And thanks to court shenanigans and dodgy glue I have finally got my act together and have registered and received my polling card for the Bundespraesidentenstichwahlwiederholung. (Thanks, Patrick, for the repeated prompting, I really appreciate it!)

Now here’s the thing. Leading up to the first round of this clusterfuck of an election, you couldn’t tell from my Facebook feed that there was an election going on in Austria. Nothing. Political tumbleweed. It’s something that’s always bothered me about the country: the complete and utter apathy when it comes to politics. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the #Brexit campaign, or the US presidential campaign, but I’d rather have those than the complete silence followed by “oh shit, we accidentally a nazi” that suddenly (and briefly) flooded my Facebook feed the day after the first round. And what’s even scarier is that, with a few small exceptions, we seem to have gone back to that silence leading up to this third attempt at a run-off. But here’s the thing: we didn’t *accidentally* a nazi. Given the regularity this happens with in Austria, we should know better by now (and yes, that includes me). We should not be waiting until the nazi gets 50% of the vote before we wake up and briefly talk about politics before getting distracted by shiny things again.

Granted, the Austrian president doesn’t quite have the same global reach and impact as President Trump will. But large chunks of the world are lurching to the right, becoming increasingly hostile for any and all marginalised groups in society, and one more country in Europe, even a small one, going that way is going to make things significantly worse.

So get your act together and vote. Because if we wake up on the 5th of December with a nazi president and you can’t look me in the eye and say “I did my damnedest to stop this”, then you might as well have voted for him.

So there. Go. Do the thing. I’m fucking done with losing an entire day of productivity to drink the day after elections. I’ve done it twice this year already. Don’t make me do it again.

Dear “I’m not racist” Brexiter,

Honey, I don’t look angry, I am angry. I am mostly angry at the people who duped you and other Brexiters to vote the way you did, like turkeys for Christmas. But I am also angry at you and other Brexiters for continuing to stick to your guns long after every single thing the Brexit campaign said has been exposed as a lie (and they’ve admitted to it), long after that vote wiped out a significant chunk not only of the UK economy, but of the European economy and the world economy, long after it became clear that we are headed for a social, political and economic catastrophe. I am particularly angry at anyone who claims to be left-wing and supported Brexit because there wasn’t a single grain of that argument that was rooted in reality and what was even remotely achievable – and it’s given the Tories a significant boost, and put in power an incredibly dangerous right-wing woman, who will ramp up austerity and the sale of state assets, who will cheerfully take away all of your civil and human rights, and make you thank her for it. I am angry because this vote has given voice and legitimacy to the racism in this country that has been bubbling and building for years now, and all Brexit voters have to say is “we’re not all racists”. I am angry because as an EU immigrant in this country my own future is now incredibly precarious and uncertain. I am angry because both my partner and I work in higher education and academia which is already getting obliterated by Brexit. I am angry because the government this vote helped put in power is going to be even more actively hostile to queer people and women (both of which I am). I am angry because as a result of this vote People. Are going. To die. Brown people, immigrant people, queer people, poor people, disabled people, women. You think the Tories are bad? Try the Tories with no restrictions from pesky human rights and EU regulations. Try the Tories in power for generations because Scotland will leave and they’ve got England stitched up. Oh honey, you have no idea what’s coming to you. But here you are, all worried about how you’re being perceived and whether someone asked you to face the consequences of your own actions.

There are no magic fixes for academic publishing

Earlier this week, Rufus Pollock published a proposal for reforming academic publishing. I do agree with some of the basic assumptions behind this piece: that academic publishing is hopelessly broken and doesn’t serve anybody well except for-profit publishers, and that technology can play a significant part in the solution. (I have in fact said these things before.) But here’s the thing: this is a social problem, and social problems do not easily lend themselves to purely technical solutions. None of the problems Pollock’s proposed solutions address are the actual problems that need solving to make academic research widely available to the public at no cost at the point of use.

There are three factors we need to consider to better understand the problems we actually need to solve: 1. the traditional model of academic publishing; 2. open access both as intended and as implemented; 3. what academics actually get CV points for (which is slightly different to what we actually care about, but that’s a separate problem).

1. I’ll stick to the model for academic papers. Books are slightly different but similarly broken. Academic journals, which is where most academic papers appear, are traditionally run by one of a handful of academic publishing houses. Sage, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell and Taylor & Francis between them publish 50% of all academic papers. Their costs are fairly minimal. Most journals will have a paid editor and some production staff. Print distribution does happen but with the advent of electronic journals it’s in severe decline. Importantly, there are two big-ticket items that publishers don’t pay for: content, and quality assurance. Content is provided free by academics because that’s how we get CV points. Quality assurance (also known as peer review) is also provided free by academics because that’s how we get CV points/get to snark at our colleagues/arch-nemeses.

Getting hold of a single academic paper through this model costs the end user anywhere between US$30 and US$120. Subscriptions significantly lower the cost per paper, as do subscription packages – but most people don’t want to read every single paper in a specific journal over the course of a year, so subscriptions/packages only make sense for large institutions, mainly academic libraries. There’s another part to this system that Pollock picks up on, which is indexing, i.e. making papers discoverable. I actually don’t know how the indexing business model works but if I were to guess based on how broken the rest of the industry is, journals and libraries both pay subscription fees for anything other than maybe Google Scholar. (Google is in a different business and also only partially useful for indexing academic papers.)

2. It is a perfectly reasonable position to look at the above and declare it broken. It’s broken in several ways, but most glaringly in that both the people who create the content and the people who (indirectly, through taxes) pay for the vast majority of research to be done in the first place, can’t access the content without putting money in the pockets of large private corporations who have contributed, at most, a bit of branding and a bit of admin to the entire thing. And since we have the internet, it seems entirely reasonable to go “just publish it all online for free!” And thus Open Access was born. Except you still have massively powerful corporations in the system who aren’t going to keel over so easily and lose their nearly pure profit. So the first thing they tried was to discredit the system. “Oh, but if you have Open Access then who will do quality assurance? It’ll be a free for all!” And when that didn’t work well enough (it did do some damage to the credibility of Open Access unfortunately) they lobbied until Open Access got redesigned in a way that would still let them profit from it in much the same way as before.

This is how Open Access works: there are two levels – green and gold. Some journals operate both, some only one. There might even still be a few out there that offer neither. Green level OA works on time: the journal has exclusive distribution rights for a given amount of time (normally between 6 and 24 months), after which the paper becomes Open Access and can be accessed by everyone for free (which may or may not be hosted by the journal – but most UK universities now have their own OA research repositories where stuff gets hosted). Add 24 months to the academic publishing cycle, which can take several years in the first place, and by the time the general public gets to read “cutting edge research”, it’s based on ten-year-old data. In physics, where the speed of light doesn’t change that much, this is mildly inconvenient. In computer science, which moves at the speed of Moore’s Law, this system is not even remotely fit for purpose. (Let’s not talk about the arts and humanities, that’s an entirely separate rant.)

Gold OA simply shifts which university department pays the publisher: if you want your paper to be published under Gold OA, you as the author – or your institution – have to pay the publisher for the privilege. Depending on journal, field and publisher, we’re talking US$1,000 – US$6,000 per paper. Now, the assumption here is that eventually all academic publishing will transition to full OA so libraries won’t have to pay subscription fees to access articles anymore, and therefore the money that’s currently being spent on that can be spent on on Article Processing Charges instead, and universities won’t be any worse off. There are about six million problems with this. For a start there is what is now looking like it’ll be quite a lengthy transition period. Between nuclear fusion and full OA, my money is on getting nuclear fusion first. During this transition period, universities are stuck having to pay both ways. The people this screws over most are PhD students and early career researchers, particularly the ones not funded by research councils. If you’re funded by a research council, there may be some money as part of your funding for dissemination and OA publication. If you’re not, tough luck, Gold OA is something you can only dream about. Other people this screws over are increasingly casualised researchers (often also early career) and independent scholars who don’t have an institution or funder behind them (who, unsurprisingly, are mostly from already marginalised groups). To add insult to injury, people who don’t understand the gory details of OA tend to view Gold OA as vanity publishing.

And yes, there are independent academic journals which run entirely not for profit on the Green OA model, making papers available immediately. They are few and far between, those that do exist have to fight hard to establish credibility and reputation (because of the work publishers did to discredit OA originally), and of course this model relies entirely on people wanting to contribute to their community for very little reward. Some examples of this working well are Transformative Works and Cultures which is a fan studies journal run by the Organisation for Tranformative Works, and the one where the entire academic staff of one of the biggest linguistics journals told Elsevier they could stick it and started an OA journal instead. But in the vast majority of cases we’re still stuck with the big publishers.

But what about arXiv.org I hear you ask! Which brings us neatly to 3: what do academics actually get CV points for?

3. (This bit covers the more or less gory details of research funding in the UK, but the broad principles of prestige, peer review, and funding being tied to publication applies, with minor tweaks to the exact metrics, to anyone wanting to pursue an academic career at a Western university.) Research at UK universities is funded in two main ways: by the research councils, which tend to fund specific projects, and (in England) by HEFCE which allocates generic lump sums of money every five years or so. I used to know the percentage split of how much money comes in from HEFCE and how much from research councils but I don’t anymore – either way, the HEFCE money is a significant chunk for many universities. How much HEFCE money a university gets is determined by an arcane process called the REF (Research Excellence Framework), where every five or so years universities submit their research output to a panel (by subject) and the panel decides how good the research output is, on a scale from one to four stars (four being world-leading). Every star on every paper means a certain amount of money annually for the university. A four-star paper is worth about £10k a year, which means that if you have four four-star papers in a given REF period, your salary is more or less covered by the HEFCE money that brings in. Which in turn means you might be able to get a/keep your job for the next REF cycle. (It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.)

Theoretically the REF panel judges papers on their own merits, not on where they were published. Practically, the sheer volume of work they have to get through… Yeah. There’s a strong incentive to publish in established, high-impact-factor (don’t ask), for-profit journals. There is literally zero incentive to just chuck your paper on something like arXiv and run. The reason arXiv works for the community that uses it is that it’s a pre-publication archive: the papers, in slightly altered form, are still published in the big academic journals where they get their impact factor and REF eligibility etc. (Now, HEFCE has said that any paper published after April 1, 2016, to be eligible for the 2020 REF, needs to be in an OA repository. What this means in practice is that if your paper is still embargoed under Green OA, or is in a non-OA journal but is sitting behind a password on your institutional repository, your’re fine. Which is some great hoop-jumping for not a lot of direct benefit to the general public.)

So these are the actual problems any review of Open Access or any other solution seeking to make academic research available to the public should be looking to solve. Pollock’s proposed model doesn’t come near it. From what I can see, it eliminates peer review entirely. Now, peer review is broken in several interesting ways, but unless we fix how research is funded and academics are employed, it’s one of the less bad ways of doing quality assurance on academic research. Because all three of Pollock’s filtering/selection models eliminate the double-blind aspect of peer review, the system automatically becomes even less accessible to marginalised groups (aka the “try hanging out on Reddit as not-a-cishet-white-dude phenomenon”). Because it doesn’t take into account any of how research itself is funded and what the key stakeholders in this process (researchers, their employers and funders) actually care about, the model is completely unworkable. And because it doesn’t take into account the vested interests which shape the current system (for-profit publishers), even if it was workable there’s no clear path to implementation.

All of which is why requirements engineering is an art, and why you shouldn’t try to fix complex social problems with technical solutions.