Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On the Impossibility of Cultural Estrangement

Charles Stross writes on his excellent blog about the lack of cultural estrangement in far-future science fiction. His objection is that far-flung societies ought to be significantly removed from what is familiar to us; and yet many space operas present a future that is essentially the status quo, plus made-up technology:
The gender politics, religious framework, ideologies, fashions(!) and attitudes of today—specifically, of a type of Anglophone developed-world middle class lifestyle that lots of folks aspire to—has become a universal norm. And nothing else gets much of a look in.
He brings up two examples, one of which I am unfamiliar with; the other one is Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton, the first book in his Commonwealth series, of which I am a big fan. I have my own problems with Hamilton's writing, but they are not the same as Stross's problems. In fact, I was very surprised by his objections; and while Charlie is very good about engaging with his fans, the comment thread stands at 348 entries as I am writing this, and I just don't see the value of riding into the middle of the discussion on the back of a white rhino. So you get to read this on my blog instead.

My first counter to Charlie's objection is that he is guilty of this himself. He grants that Hamilton at least has a fig-leaf explanation, that the rich people who are the majority of Hamilton's protagonists have access to rejuvenation and their society is therefore frozen in time (in the later books, access to rejuvenation for the middle classes and working poor is also addressed). Yet let's look at Stross's own far-future books. He's come up with two compelling space-opera universes: that of the Eschaton (abandoned due to mechanical inconsistencies that bother Stross far more than they ever bothered fans), and that of Saturn's Children. In the latter, society is frozen in a sort of today-plus-ten-years, with middle-class aesthetics predominantly influenced by the Western fascination with Japanese pop culture which has - today, in 2014 - become thoroughly mainstream and is well on its way to being diluted into banality; and much of the rest of that world is a direct copy of the modern vintage hipster approach, co-opting the symbology that is already retro in his reader's time. Stross's fig-leaf excuse is that he is describing a rump society left over after humanity essentially ground to a halt, stopped reproducing and died out, all within a lifetime of the observer's now, and the remnants are compelled at firmware level to ape that moment in time when their creators perished. In the Eschaton universe, Stross goes further still - his god-machine takes various historical human societies, including quite recent ones, and deposits them around the universe in such a way that they would come into contact with each other simultaneously - but at different points in their own development. The compelling culture of the original Eschaton book is late-stage Imperial Russia, but with starships and lasers. The most distinctive culture in the second Eschaton book is literally Space Nazis.

Secondly, the most obvious retort: every writer is told to write what they know, and every reader consumes a story via their own perspective. For a human, fallible writer to create a universe that is fundamentally unrecognizable would be a neat trick indeed, especially if it is supposed to have developed from an existing modern one. Have any managed this? Answers in the comments, please...)

For the human fallible reader, that universe would be confusing and without meaning - the semiotic equivalent of opening a PDF document in Notepad. This is why the works of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells do not accurately describe real-life 2014-or-thereabouts. For even the best futurist to predict events more than a decade or two in the future, without firmly grounding them in historical precedent of similar developments, is a blind lottery: you might succeed accidentally and occasionally, but you can't pull it off reliably and repeatedly.

Thirdly, I think there is a counter-argument to be made to Charlie's assertion that a comparison of our present with our own past implies an unrecognizable future. Yes, the world of 2014 is incredibly different from the world of 1914; but that world is far less removed from 1814 in the view of the man on the street. And the world of 1714, in that same perspective, would be remarkably similar to the world of 1214. That's just taking Europe - a continent and culture that famously had a thousand-year chasm in its civilizational development, from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance; and if Hamilton's criminally familiar universe is set 400 years in the future, well - there are 400-year-old buildings a stone's throw from where I'm sitting right now, still perfectly functional. And if I go into a shop, I can buy food from farmers and artisans who use 400-year-old methods to produce a premium, higher-added-value product. I live in a country that is often lauded in global media as the world's most advanced digital society, but in this same country, heating your house with a wood-burning stove is still a perfectly valid infrastructural choice.

The classic SF soundbite about the future being already here but unevenly distributed applies at both the macro and micro scales. Parts of our lives are incredibly advanced, but transport a modern literary novel four hundred years back in time, edit it slightly for spelling and vocabulary, and I think it would still be readable to the people of that age, as one of those new-fangled notions in the style of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Fourthly, I think the grounding of far-future SF in modern culture is simply a normal part of the compact between the reader and author. The escapism that draws readers to space opera is about being a better version of yourself - not about associating with someone entirely different. From the days of "Utopia", it is understood and accepted that the author uses the expanded horizon of speculative fiction to make a relevant point, to say something about the society in which we live today. If the future they have described does not come to pass, the artistic value of the work is not diminished - we still enjoy Verne and Wells, and Asimov and Heinlein.

The best futurists are not the ones who have guessed right - they are the ones who have presented a future so consistent, believable and attractive that the generation of their fans goes out and builds it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

On Offense

K. says...

"So what is your take on "cultural appropriation"? Seems to be a hot topic on tumblr and instagram. Got to an argument about this on the last one."

The primary irony here is that this conversation about cultural appropriation is being had by white Europeans.  The secondary irony is that worries about cultural appropriation are being dismissed by people from a nation whose self-identity, self-worth, and history is almost entirely about its distinct culture.

The danger with cultural appropriation is that it dilutes cultural identity, which can be extremely important. (E.g. you know how American black people often have ridiculous-sounding names? This is an extreme backlash against the destruction of their distinct identity after forced integration into the white American cultural space. Similarly, Hong Kong Chinese are very protective of their mix of Anglo and Chinese names, as this gives them a cultural identity that is distinct from the Mainland.) This is very difficult to internalize for people who are generally part of a dominant, unthreatened culture.

The difficulty with explaining this to Estonians is that at this point, they are so starved for worldwide attention that cultural appropriation would not be seen as a necessarily bad thing - the first example I thought of was a Kanye West remix of Tõnis Mägi's "Koit", but I expect most people would go "that's awesome!". Let's try to think of something more impactful: imagine yourself in a conversation with a Soviet Union apologist who is disparaging the low level of specifically Estonian culture, with its dumb and useless music like Tanel Padar; whereas in the olden days, Estonians had access to the works of superior Soviet artists like Georg Ots.

TL;DR: Be aware that even if something doesn't seem like a big deal to you, it might still be a big deal to someone else; not everyone's experiences mirror your own.

That I get and agree with. Someone talking bad about a particular culture or insulting it. But at the same time, items in itself don't have any meaning. People give them context which is important, especially for me in this case. This was a really beautiful photo of a female caucasian wearing a feathered native american headpiece to advertise it. The company selling them gets these pieces from native americans who actually make them. For me it was kinda the wrong place to feel offended. There was nothing insulting there (unless you blame the model for being born white since some other white people now and many in the past were doing bad things). Especially if you think on those cheap Halloween native american costumes and all of the 'acting stereotypical' ways. For me the interesting thing was that the main vocalists in this case were white teenage caucasians from Europe. There were quite a few fully or partially native americans who loved the photo.
If someone who is a supporter of the Soviet Union and its actions is insulting Estonian cultures or traditions, I could care less since I will certainly not be able to change his mind. Getting offended would just be a winning situation for the one doing the insulting. Maybe if they burned something on a political note? But in this case, if someone is doing it in supportive and positive way, why feel offended? But... as an article I once linked sad... offendedness depends mostly on the person who feels offended.

Okay, several points:

In the situation you described, the most relevant aspect is that this is probably being *sold* to white people. And if it's being sold to white people in America, then yes, I can see how that would be seen as a terrible thing to do - marginalizing a culture that has already been severely damaged by your own. Instead of providing life opportunities and developmental aid to Native American communities, the buyers are behaving like tourists - looking and pointing at the noble savages, throwing them a few coins and bringing back souvenirs to show their friends at home. This is not necessarily the attitude of the buyers, but it could certainly be construed that way by the Native Americans. 

Neither you nor I get to decide what Native Americans should or should not be offended by. And this extend to other situations. You don't get to tell me I shouldn't be offended at an antisemitic joke. I don't get to tell you that you shouldn't be offended at a sexist joke. As long as I realize that there is actually some reasonable historic/cultural background to explain why someone of another culture/minority *might* be offended, then I am going to be extremely weary of setting limits on their behalf regarding what is and isn't offensive. (We can have a fascinating conversation about why one joke about Jews is antisemitic and another one isn't, if you're patient.)

Now, there's certainly a good argument to be had against meta-offense; offense on behalf of another minority. But...

The situation you described - I can understand why this would horrify Europeans. Again, Estonia is sort of unique here because the community and culture has existed on this piece of land ever since there's been human habitation, and has pretty much never been in an expansionary war (but I tell you what, the people at the tourist office in Sigtuna were *genuinely* upset at me when I asked them where was the site of the former great church that the Estonian raiders burned down). So Estonians have never had to apologize, as a nation, for being extremely nasty to another nation. Almost every Western European nation has had to do that - I think the Irish are the only exception? Whereas white Americans most certainly have something to apologize for - several times over - but are, as a stereotype, militantly refusing to admit that they've done anything wrong, or at least that they are supposed to feel bad about something that their grandparents did.

So I can certainly understand the sequence of thought that leads Europeans to be embarrassed on behalf of the Caucasian race at the behavior of white Americans.

(Side note: as a member of the linguistics student minority, I am deeply and personally offended at your use of "I could care less" in that form. :P)

As for not being able to change someone's mind: that is not necessarily true. It's *difficult*, but it does happen occasionally, and when it does, it's worth the effort. Mostly it happens with the help of a strong external trigger, but that trigger needs to land on a fertile soil of awareness that there are other ways of thinking out there, and that apparently rational people subscribe to them. The long-form treatment of this is the film "American History X" with Edward Norton, which I recommend highly. The short-form is the old quote, I think attributed to Margaret Thatcher... Anyone who is not a socialist when they are young have no soul, and anyone who is not a capitalist when they are old have no brain. 

Monday, October 27, 2014


So, there was a school shooting in Estonia today. A 15-year-old kid from a small town shot a 56-year-old lady teacher of German with a revolver. The teacher died. School staff took away the kid's gun; the police have him in custody.

His name and Facebook account leaked already, of course. No, I won't link it. He looks like a regular kid. Some of the stuff on his FB is disturbing in hindsight, but not more so than any 15-year-old boy's.

This is a terrible tragedy, but let's remember that outside of the context of what we've heard from America (and Finland, and Norway, and Canada), a disturbed 15-year-old getting hold of a gun and shooting a teacher is no more or less of a tragedy than a drunk 15-year-old getting hold of a car and running over a pedestrian.

What we need to do right now is to make the right conclusions from this. What society needs to do is to not completely freak out.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Teiter's Dream

A thought exercise, if you'll indulge me by participating.

Imagine that you are invited by the Estonian government (assume you are an Estonian resident and citizen) to participate in a survey. The purpose of this survey is to gauge the opinion of a small, but broadly representative, vertical slice of the population to a potential course of action in case of an impending crisis. The scenario is this: Russia is massing forces just across Lake Peipus, regularly violating our airspace, making loud noises about the treatment of Russian-speakers in Narva and Paldiski, and based on recent events it seems that an invasion and occupation is extremely likely. Our brave soldiers are in high spirits, but hopelessly outnumbered, even with their fourty-four used Dutch light tanks. NATO is grumbling, but the people who matter are not convinced that Estonia won't be sacrificed for a few months' further appeasement.

As a last-ditch effort, a loophole has been found in the Constitution, whereby with the concerted efforts of the President, cabinet, parliament and Supreme Court, Estonia can legitimately petition His Royal Highness Carl XVI Gustaf to become a province of Sweden. Assume for the purposes of the exercise that Sweden is prepared to accept this petition and incorporate Estland; their government and military high command are both convinced that they will have to fight Russia anyway, and would rather do it on our soil than theirs. Finland's leaders have been quietly notified and will most likely provide assistance. With the concerted efforts of what is starting to be called the Nu Kalmar Union, there is a respectable chance that while Russia may not be defeated outright, Estonia will at least become a sufficiently tough pill to swallow to force the Kremlin to look for easier prey elsewhere, a la Winter War. The cost, beyond the immediate hardships of a probable pitched battle between two modern mechanized armies, is the loss of Estonian sovereignty and incorporation into a united Scandinavia for the foreseeable future (the piece of high-grade paper with places for signatures on it includes the words "in perpetuity").

You are not a person of formal authority, but a representative of the population called in quietly to give some kind of veil of democracy to the proceedings while maintaining the vital element of secrecy and surprise. Your opinion genuinely matters, and has a weight that is far, far in above of what one person's vote would be in a referendum.

What do you say? Yeah or nay?

PS. For bonus points: replace Sweden with Germany.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Truth is Out There, but Not in the Middle

This is the full, long, somewhat too sarcastic and personal version of an article of mine posted on Estonian Public Broadcasting's English-language page. It is a rebuttal to this opinion piece.

In all that is going on around Ukraine, the thing that bothers me most is the occupation of sovereign territory by the army of a country that borders my own, closely followed by the increasingly real possibility of a shooting war in Eastern Europe. But being worried about that is not particularly original or insightful; that opinion should, and has been, expressed by far more relevant people than me. What I can speak of is the public perception and public opinion regarding the events in Ukraine, and the idea, expressed by Ekaterina Taklaja, editor of ERR’s Russian service, that the truth is somewhere in between. It may be in between, but it is not in the middle.

I have been following the (misleadingly named) Euromaidan since the start, since late November – partially through the mainstream media, mostly Russian with some Estonian and English sources thrown in, but mainly through social networks. Full disclosure: I have friends in Kiev, people I personally know, people who were out in the square, protesting, from day one. Some of them are faces you might have seen in news clips that have gone viral (if you are a Russian-speaker). Others were just there, posting short Facebook messages to coordinate with others around the city, letting everyone know that they were heading out or that they’d returned safely. More importantly, as a native Russian-speaker with an interest in politics, I have a wealth of experience arguing on the Internet that goes back to before our own Bronze Soldier riots. My venue of choice has been a popular but very strictly moderated one, heavily policed against ad-hoc attacks and insults; in the process of luring my opponents into indefensible positions, I have developed the skill of calmly looking at what’s actually there, rather than what I expect to see. In this kind of situation, people will very frequently look at something fairly unambiguous, but perceive it as something quite different. What you are hearing is not my words, but the voice inside your own head.

This, I fear, has happened to Ekaterina Taklaja after too much exposure to Estonia’s tabloids and their comment threads – bad places to get an accurate gauge of broad public opinion at the best of times.
First, Taklaja believes that in Estonia, there can only be one opinion on Ukraine; that “Yanukovych is a scoundrel, Putin always lies and Savisaar is the main enemy of Estonian statehood. Those who doubt it, are traitors of the Estonian state.” This mixes three very different issues into one, and attempts to force you into accepting or dismissing them wholesale. If one is true, then all must be true, and if one is false, then all must be false, right?

Yanukovich is indeed a scoundrel. He is a convicted felon twice over; he is a superbly corrupt politician, who siphoned vast amounts of money from Ukraine’s state funds to the private fortunes of himself, his family, and his oligarch cronies. He is also an astoundingly terrible president. He attempted to hang on to power in the face of dwindling popularity by dangling the carrot of an EU association agreement for something like a year, then arbitrarily decided against it; when a bunch of students and middle-class Kievans protested, he unnecessarily sent in the riot police against them (remember, the original 2004 Maidan involved no violence at all), sparking much more serious outrage. Even then he could have stepped back from the brink: after negotiating billions in loans from Russia, there was every chance that the Maidan would eventually disperse, and with the immediate economic crisis averted, those unhappy with him could have convinced themselves to wait until the presidential elections scheduled for 2015. With a year to prepare, Yanukovich could have either built up his popularity again, or taken the money and gone off to his own private island somewhere – all very back-room diplomatic, with the blessing of EU leaders. Instead he reacted with violence, leading to an escalation on both sides that claimed the lives of nearly a hundred people, then fled the country. Yes, the leaders of the 2004 Maidan also turned out to be unpleasant characters; that does not make Yanukovich less of a scoundrel.

Putin does not always lie, although he sometimes seems out of touch with what’s going on in his own country. He has concentrated ultimate power within Russia in his own hands; nobody can stand up to him; he is surrounded by people who owe their fortunes to him on the one hand, and are justifiably terrified of his wrath on the other. Like many dictators, he probably exists in a bubble of things he wants to hear. He did not create that aspect of the Russian mentality that considers the West weak and decadent and tainted, even if he has used and amplified it to great effect. And when he says out loud that the “little green men” in Crimea are not Russian soldiers, this lie is so blatant as to not be deception, but political doublespeak befitting a world leader. Absolutely everyone can read between the lines, even his own supporters, and those dumb enough to earnestly believe in the propaganda of Russian state media have nobody to blame but themselves.
Savisaar is not necessarily the enemy of Estonian statehood, he is simply very bad for the country. Ever since he was caught just as he was about to take money from the head of the Russian state railway, he has been lambasted in the media – traditional and social – for entirely domestic policies. Savisaar’s myopic populism does not have to coincide with Russia’s official position to cause outrage among those who care about Estonia’s well-being beyond the intensely personal issues of free public transport and a grocery store subsidized by taxes on someone else’s earnings. The mayor of Tallinn is perfectly capable of coming up with outrageously terrible ideas all on his own. It is his desire to take any position that is the opposite of the ruling government’s that leads him to spew the Kremlin’s propaganda. I don’t actually think Savisaar is an idiot, but to Putin, he is a useful one.

Savisaar’s statement that Ukraine’s new leadership is a bunch of illegitimate thugs is very easy to refute with facts – they are elected members of parliament, acting in lieu of the absconded president, and one of their first actions was to call new presidential elections as swiftly as reasonable. (I remain available to answer Taklaja’s queries in regard to whether I have stopped beating my wife yet.) In our democratic state, Savisaar is entirely free to express his opinion without being beaten up – unlike in Yanukovich’s Kiev – but he is the leader of a major political party, and an opinion he expresses on the record in an interview with a journalist is absolutely something for which he can be called to task by the people whom he invites to vote for him. Unlike, say, the remark of Foreign Minister Paet in an off-the-record phone conversation, where he does not express that Estonia’s official position is counter to reality, but in fact mentions a disturbing rumor he’s heard and encourages his colleague to investigate it. (A rumor since dispelled by the very person Paet says mentioned it to him.) Taklaja’s reaction to the tape mirrors that of many people in both traditional and social media, and it is the best example yet of what I mentioned earlier – listening to one thing and hearing another. Anyway, Paet has been condemned for his unfortunate, if private, rumor-mongering – he would have been a front-runner for the Prime Minister’s seat if the tape had not leaked.

Those who disagree with the majority opinions are not traitors to the Estonian state unless they are desperately looking for someone to say they are, so that they can feel the moral satisfaction of being persecuted without any of the practical inconveniences. This I say to Ekaterina Taklaja, in rebuttal to her article published in Estonia’s state-controlled media outlet.

Incidentally, if there has not been much demand in the media for the opinions of general Laaneots, then I wonder how Taklaja happened upon them. Were they dropped off at her desk, but refused publication by the traitor-seeking censors of ERR?

As for her counterparts she lists in Russia – well; has been gutted through the replacement of the editor-in-chief by a corporate spin doctor prized for his affiliations with the Kremlin, and that publication’s entire editorial staff is looking for new jobs. TV Rain (Dožd) was cut off by scared cable operators a few months before, on the pretense of an insult to the nation (a poll of viewers’ opinions on whether it was not better, in World War II, to surrender Leningrad rather than subject its population to the hardships of the legendary blockade); and is run out of Israel. Since Taklaja’s article was written, the Russian authorities have gone ahead with measures to block any website critical of Putin or Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including both news outlets and private blogs platforms. Echo of Moscow, which takes care to offer air time to pro-Putin pundits, is still ticking over, but its parent company is a division of Gazprom, and it exists entirely on the sufferance of the Kremlin. Don’t change the channel, we’ll be right back; or not.
Yes, there are uncomfortable facts about Maidan. It started out as a peaceful protest, but in the face of riot police, it called on anyone who had a fighting spirit, including football hooligans and far-right groups (although independent Ukraine’s history of racial intolerance is barely a blip compared to Russia’s own; possibly because there just aren’t very many people living there who don’t look interchangeably Slavic). Yes, when a protest turns to a melee, people will get hurt, and disarmed riot policemen will not always be treated well (although they have been treated so in a surprising majority of cases). Yes, the opposition bigwigs who formed the new leadership of Ukraine have murky pasts and occasionally still make bad or corrupt decisions, but let’s not forget that none of this seemed even remotely plausible six months ago. Remember the early 90s in Estonia? How long did it take us to go from independence to stability and a genuine rule of law? People born in independent Estonia are legitimately having children of their own these days, and we’d still rather support a Prime Ministerial candidate who used to be in the Communist Youth than a young and unproven one.

Taklaja dislikes that Estonia’s homogenized public opinion Ukraine lacks alternative options, and then dislikes that Estonian traditional media turn to Ukrainians living here for comments on the political situation. I find that to be a practical alternative option to leaving all the column inches and screen time to professional talking heads. Political scientists and think tank regulars may offer well-researched background information, but when it comes to a popular uprising, citizens are indeed legitimate experts on the situation, especially ones who dare to speak publicly on it. Taklaja knows a lot about what democracy isn’t; here’s something that democracy is.

I agree that there is a sense of fakeness in us putting Ukrainian flag colors on our userpics. You know those little Estonian flags that you can jam in car windows? I bought one, for road trips and rental cars abroad. Using it inside Estonia proper is gaudy, I think. I helped out a band with translating the lyrics for a patriotic song from Ukrainian/Estonian into English, and couldn’t bring myself to sign off an email with “Glory to heroes”, the shibboleth of the Maidan, because I felt like I had no right to use it. But that’s a matter of personal taste, and I won’t condemn anyone for feeling otherwise. I am reminded of an old book, where the general of one side in a civil war tells his troops to remove his family insignia from their uniforms: “Let the traitors mark themselves as something different; we fly the colors of our country.” I would much sooner fly the blue and yellow of Ukraine than the black and orange of the (misnamed) ribbon of St. George.
We do not believe Ukraine is a democratic country with no corruption; the point, Ms Taklaja, is exactly that it isn’t and hasn’t been – but now it has the chance to be. We do not know if the new Ukrainian government can be trusted, but we are impressed by the fact that the Maidan protesters haven’t the least intention of trusting it; they intend to verify, to monitor and control the new government, and in the social media that I read in Russian, there have been calls for the metaphorical head of this or that new official for inexplicable actions, even while one might expect the people to place their implicit and full faith in the government until the foreign invasion has been repelled.

And if alternative options and opinions are called for, then here is one: Crimea may have gotten its greater autonomy, its language law guarantees, and perhaps eventually even its independence through negotiations with a new Ukrainian government, one which was answerable to its people and committed to improving the fortunes of the entire country, rather than their own. In a lawful Ukraine, the already autonomous Crimea could have easily gone the way of Scotland (or at least Pakistan), and who’s to say that Kiev, eager for NATO membership, would not have ceded the peninsula as a way to resolve with one move the headache of having a huge foreign military base on its territory? I’m not intrinsically troubled by the idea of a Crimean referendum – as long as it is conducted without “little green men” patrolling the streets, without the beatings of opposition activists, and without turning away OSCE monitors with gunfire. I am writing this on March 14th, and I have a bottle of excellent Scottish whisky here that I am willing to bet on this Sunday’s referendum being called in Russia’s favor. Any takers?

A conflict is usually not black and white, but it very rarely 50% greyscale. Taklaja’s position is an easy and safe one to take, especially for a journalist who is trained to value balanced reporting. But it is also an easy path to a logical fallacy, that if two sharply conflicting opinions exist, then they are equidistant from the truth. The truth is indeed out there, but it is rarely in the middle. To quote an overly emotional wording that’s been going around the Russian-speaking social media in the last few days, some people believe the Holocaust happened, and some people believe that Jews drink the blood of Christian babies; and guess what? The truth is not somewhere half way.


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