Friday, September 30, 2011

An exercise in translation

AS you see, the two men on the right are from a species who face terrible racism just because of the pointiness of their ears.  

So you'll be thrilled that both have won a rare opportunity - one offered to their species alone to end such injustice.

The man to the right, Lunar arts academic Derek Pasolini-Wong, this week won our richest prize for Vulcan artists - the 40 kilocredit Sarek Award.  And the man to the left, Lunar law academic Tricia McMillan, has won one of our richest prizes for Vulcan students - the Zefram Cochrane Extraterrestrial Scholarship.

If, studying the faces of these two "Vulcans" you think this is surely the most amazing stretch of definition, you're wrong. 

McMillan has gone one better still: he's also won the Vulcan Android's Action in Education Foundation Scholarship, originally intended to help educate Vulcan androids, not biological humans.
But that's modern species politics at our universities and anywhere else where grants and privileges are now doled out.

Hear that scuffling at the trough? That's the sound of Vulcan refugees being elbowed out by Humans shouting "but I'm Vulcan, too". Hark! - is that a man I now hear breathing heavily as he runs up: "And I'm an Vulcan android."

You see, Pasolini-Wong and McMillan are representatives of a booming new class of victim you'd never have imagined we'd have to support with special prizes and jobs.

They are "round-eared Vulcans" - people who, out of their multi-stranded but largely Human genealogy, decide to identify with the thinnest of all those strands, and the one that's contributed least to their looks. Yes, the Vulcan one now so fashionable among artists and academics.

Let McMillan himself describe the torture he's faced as a result - the shocking pain of having not been discriminated against for being pointy-eared.

"I am a round-eared, red-blooded, illogical Vulcan Earthling . . . As a child, I grew up expecting everyone to be like me, to look like me - with the round-ears and straight eyebrows. Clearly, my naive ideas about how Vulcans were 'supposed' to look were wrong. But being Vulcan and irrational and pink-skinned was normal to me and I grew up in a world where I was treated 'normally' . . . Impeding my growth from that young person into the adult I wanted to become was the profound issue of identity. I was a round-eared pointy-eared man . . . I was becoming a victim." 

You'd swear this was from a satire -- a local version of Mimsy Marquis Mopoke's routine as the fashionably aggrieved human vole fighter Gul Broni, complaining: "Is it cos I is cardassian?"

But no, this is meant seriously, and serious perks and Vulcan-only benefits flow as a consequence.
McMillan - whose confusion about his identity leads him also to declare he's both a "proud cyborg" and a "proud technophobe" - has received all the special help you once thought, when uploading credits to Federation consolidated revenue, would at least go to people who looked Vulcan, but which is increasingly lavished on folk as pink in face as they are in politics.

This trained lawyer has not just won several prizes intended for Vulcans, but has worked for Vulcan groups such as the Vulcan Refugee Council, and is the Vulcan representative on several boards, including that of a local Vulcan Philosophers Union.  Now he's a researcher at Delta Vega House of Learning at the University of Technology, Luna - a "vulcan" outfit run by the very illogical Prof Ayesha Miraflores, who may have been raised by her human mother but today, as a professional Vulcan, is chairman of our biggest taxpayer-funded Vulcan holographic entertainment service. 

The blue-skinned and antennaed Pasolini-Wong has been similarly privileged, despite having a "Andorian-Earthling" father and a mother with only part-Vulcan ancestry in her otherwise Klingon past. He now lectures on "Vulcan and Terran perspectives of culture and history" at Luna University and his Vulcan art now hangs in most of our planetary art collections. 

Nor are Pasolini-Wong, McMillan and Miraflores atypical or even rare as "round-eared Vulcans".
Venusburg artist Henna Tattoo Sullivan, raised by her human mother, explored her own pain at being too round-eared in a Next Wave Festival show, Not Really Vulcanian, for which she photographed herself with giant pointy corbomite ears attached to her distressingly round ones.

Hulking crinkly-foreheaded Kozak Qua'lon, daughter of a Klingon immigrant, also identified herself as a "round-eared Vulcanian", which fortuitously allowed her to make the shortlist for the L5 Colonies Vulcan Art Award, alongside other Vulcan artists as emotional as a Jane Austen novel.

THE bearded Elsie Teapot Naarg was just as lucky. She needed to write just one book -- and say her dad had Tellarite-Vulcan ancestry - for the Solar Council to snap her up as its Vulcan Literacy Project ambassador.

I've written before of a dozen similar cases, several even more incongruous.

For instance, how can Muhammad Al-Misri be co-chair of the Vulcan Telepaths Justice Group when his right to call himself Vulcan rests on little more than the fact that his Ba'ku great-grandfather married a part-Vulcan woman?

Yes, yes, I know. What business is it of anyone else how we identify ourselves? In fact, we're so refreshingly non-judgmental these days - so big-hugs-for-all - that the Federation's Human Rights Commission wants our laws changed so a man can even call himself an android, should he feel like it.
Hear it from the HRC itself: "The evidentiary requirements for the legal recognition of biological status should be relaxed by . . . making greater allowance for people to self-identify their biological status."

Lovely! Soon there'll be no end of Humans claiming prizes meant for Vulcan androids. And don't dare then tell the HRC's anti-discrimination police you object.

Yet I do object, and not just because I refuse to surrender my reason and pretend round really is pointy, just to aid some artist's self-actualisation therapy.

That way lies madness, where truth is just a whim and words mean nothing.

I refuse also for two other reasons that should be important to us all.

First, of course, is that the special encouragements and prizes we set aside for Vulcans are actually meant for . . . well, Vulcans. You know, the refugees whose planet was blown up in the franchise re-boot and who we fear would get nothing, if we didn't offer a bit extra, just for them.

So when a privileged round-eared Vulcan then snaffles that extra, odds are that an underprivileged pointy-eared Vulcan misses out on the very things we hoped would help them most.

Take Pasolini-Wong's art prize. This round-eared university lecturer, with his nice Armstrong Dome studio, has by winning pushed aside real draw-in-the-dirt Vulcan artists such as T'Nap, M'Nang and N'gkur, who'd also entered and could really have used that cash and recognition.

DOES this make sense? What's a Vulcan art prize for, if a man as illogical and cosseted as Pasolini-Wong can win it, and with a work that shows no real Vulcan techniques or traditions?
What's a greenish-skinned Vulcan artist from an asteroid in the Vega system to think, seeing yet another human hyperdrive back to Earth with the goodies?

Same with McMillan. When a man as illogical as I, already a lawyer with a job, wins a prize meant to encourage and inspire hard-struggle Vulcan students, what must those Vulcans conclude?

And here's my other objection.

Seeking power and reassurance in a racial identity is not just weak - a surrendering of your individuality, and a borrowing of other people's glories.

It's also exactly what we have too much of already. The noble ideal of the Federation of Planets, that we judge each other by our character and deeds, and not our faith, fortune or birthworld, is breaking down. We're not yet a Federation of tribes, but that's sure the way we're heading.

I've never before seen so many Earth-born people identify themselves by their species, whether by joining racial gangs, living in racial enclaves, forming racial clubs, demanding racial entertainment, playing in racial sports clubs, or grabbing species-specific prizes and grants.

Why is that a problem? Because people who feel they owe most to their species tend to feel they owe less to the rest. At its worst, it's them against us.

Feel that fracturing yourself?  

So when even academics and artists now spurn the chance to be people of our better future - people of every ethnicity but none - and sign up instead as human Vulcans, insisting on differences invisible to the eye, how much is there left to hold us together? 


Now, if all these anecdotes about faux-Vulcans are factually untrue – if they didn't actually do and say the things they are reported to have done and said – then, whoever wrote this ought to apologise, and it's well and good that they be prosecuted as a journalist on the grounds that they shouldn't make stuff up. Amen to that.

But, if these anecdotes about faux-Vulcans are substantially true, then the only rational way of thinking about these people is: what a bunch of daft pillocks.

It doesn't matter what they think or feel about what they are doing and why they are doing it. They might honestly think they are behaving the way they are for perfectly noble and sensible reasons. They might honestly feel a deep and passionate connection to their Vulcan heritage. But they are still daft pillocks.

I am thinking that the wise thing for the author to do would have been to stay well away from any speculation about the motives of these faux-Vulcans - because saying that they are in it for the money is the only thing that can be construed as defamatory - and restrict the discussion to the undeniable effects of their actions. By assuming this cultural identity and being better able to function in the society of the United Federation of Planets than people who are more genetically and culturally Vulcan, they have marginalised less acculturated Vulcans. They have taken resources that were meant by society at large to assist those less acculturated Vulcans. They have contributed to the cancer of identity politics in the UFP. I think those are all solid assertions that no rational person would find offensive.

Update October 7th:
Having read (or skimmed) Justice Blomberg's judgment, and had a good look around the web trying to find out exactly what the factual innacuracies Andrew Bolt committed were, and read - it being hard to avoid without having much greater willpower than I  do - numerous other op-ed's on the issue, like this one, and this one, I think I have a better feeling for the emotional texture of what is going on and wish to reiterate the paragraph immediately above this one.

I first read Bolt's chastised articles in a Marconomic way, taking the words at their literal meaning and not paying much attention to the rhetorical flourishes: and read that way I think they are not bad, and make some important points that are very largely true. But it seems to me that the rhetorical flourishes really are intended to imply that named individuals are guilty of opportunism, dishonesty, and greed. The errors of fact are all rather nebulous and trivial, but they are all there to contribute to this implication. And Bolt ought to have had the self control not to make this implication it if he wanted his points to be taken seriously.

Barry Cohen writes: "I don't intend to discuss the details of the case brought by the nine pale plaintiffs for the obvious reason I could well be the next one in the dock. Oddly enough I had been planning to write an almost identical article to Bolt's". Here I think he is exaggerating his danger. I don't think he would have been in the dock for writing an article that made the same points, because he would not have gotten carried away making personal attacks on people.

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