Black Ribbon Award

Month: February, 2017

LEO STRAUSS FOR LOSERS

strauss_cigarette_mediumJeet Heer is on the warpath again. As ever his target is Leo Strauss, a man who has been dead since the Nixon administration and is barely heard of by most Americans but whose ideas supposedly permeate our waking lives. Indeed, what started out as a curious intellectual lark, kicking into high gear around 2014, has grown into a full-blown mission from God, so to speak. This is not without bad reason. Though Straussians of one stripe or another have been dotting around public life with varying degrees of influence, Straussianism itself seems to have taken center stage in our national melodrama. It comes in the form of Donald Trump, or so a particular strain of Straussianism hopes to in light of his election:

The West Coast Straussians are nationalists who believe the U.S. needs some mythical sense of its own greatness, which explains why they were so quick to jump on the Trump bandwagon. The East Coat Straussians are more cosmopolitan thinkers who believe that such myths are not necessary (or perhaps that more elegant myths are needed), and that politics is more a matter of cultivating wise elites; this is why they have remained wary of Trump.

Of course for Heer, this is not a simple case of Heidegger syndrome run amok in the American experiment. His tack reads like a Frankenstein’s monster of Freudian psychology with Star Wars Manichaeism. “The West Coast/East Coast Straussian divisions cuts along lines of sexuality and politics. The Incel/Volcel distinction is relevant,” Heer tweeted. “Key disagreement is should that homoerotic education led to sex? Sure, if you want, say East Straussians. No, says West Straussians. West Coast Straussians are the ultimate volcel cult. They think Western civilization depends on them remaining volcel.”

If you, dear reader, are already confused I don’t blame you. Leo Strauss’s ideas have been propagating in the United States for almost a century since the Jewish thinker fled Germany in the 1930s. It seems odd that a seemingly shy man who relegated his public presence to gallantry no higher than academic conferences should inspire so contorted, confused, and downright gossipy permutations in the academic salt flats. Chalk it up, I suppose, to compelling lines of scholarly inquiry with quirk that teeters just on the precipice of crankishness, pursued with an almost strident moral assurance, and not a little introverted charm. There is a certain air of sorcery to it inherent in all the great idea cults, whether of Karl Marx, Ludwig Wittgenstein, or Ian MacKaye. Jeet Heer and I are of the same mind in finding Straussianism fascinating even if we don’t see it in the same light.

I have written on my journey with Leo Strauss before. This piece was written to hopefully build off of that dumber excursion. Certain things have changed in the last three and a half years. I have written and read more widely, and I have also encountered one or two Straussians and several others with at least a deep and considered understanding of Strauss. I am also, steadily and with inconsistent humility, becoming a better writer. Even so, the main view remains unchanged.

There is much to dislike in Straussianism, particularly the west coast variety. And one need not have to wade into carnal sewage to tease it out. Harry V. Jaffa was a compelling and forceful writer. As one of the earliest American students of Strauss, he had direct knowledge of his teaching and personality that pretty much everyone else, save Harvey Mansfield, Jr.[1] perhaps, lacks. Still, Jaffa had carved out a niche for his own interests that has taken on a form of its own, and which go beyond mere locus of study. In his memorial essay of Jaffa, Edward J. Erler writes: “Strauss wrote in the context of the ‘crisis of the West.’ Jaffa extended his teacher’s analysis to the ‘crisis of America.’”:

Indeed, it was his contention that “the crisis of American constitutionalism” is “the crisis of the West.” This view, which he vigorously defended in the 1990s, seems particularly relevant today as America enters what some scholars have called the “post-constitutional era” and the West lapses into paralysis, seemingly uncertain of its purpose and unable or unwilling to defend itself against its enemies.

Since Jaffa’s death in 2015 at the age of 96, Heer and others have focused on Jaffa’s prolific missives on that crisis’s enabling via homosexuality. These are indeed ugly and obsessive, but my favorite Jaffa writing is “The Declaration and the Draft,” (collected in American Conservatism and the American Founding) in which he used the principles of the Declaration of Independence to effectively trash Vietnam-era conscientious objectors as enemies of freedom. But even if Harry Jaffa’s views were more empathetic or dovish, I’d still be prone to avoiding him. Jaffaism is as much a temperament as it is an interpretation. It is one of certainty, rigidity, devotion, and at times ad hominem. It is the intellectual case for unending culture war. Its ascendency in the Trump era, however aligned it may or may not be with Trumpism, is well timed.

That said, I could see myself living in an alternate timeline Earth as a mediocre east coast Straussian; they of the more nuanced, skeptical, and aloof bent. Straussians of this stripe like Thomas Pangle, Werner Dannhauser, Walter Bern, and Stanley Rosen especially, are not particularly uniform in how they apply what they learned from Strauss. Nor do they or their followers on the whole seem altogether convinced of the efficacy of Claremont’s highbrow #MAGA project. Or at least they take issue with the Jaffa-esque tendency of picking and choosing what they see as key founding American principles. Heer cites this passage from Pangle:

Here we find the American tradition portrayed as the direct heir to classical political philosophy and in particular to the Aristotelian tradition. Dominating the epic is a Lincoln painted in such a way as to obfuscate the historical Lincoln’s clear-sighted commitment to a specifically modern, egalitarian, and individualistic conception of the Rights of Man.

Not that this strain is altogether perfect. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was published 30 years ago and became a surprise bestseller. Bloom’s fame remains unmatched among Straussians of any generation. Camille Paglia called it “the first shot in the culture wars.” It is at least the return fire. Anyway I could not finish it. Bloom’s book was born of his experiences of teaching at Cornell in the late-1960s, in which it had undergone a major student uprising. Bloom did not handle that well and as a result, Closing reads both as ambitious and petulant, as if to tell the entire reading public how they didn’t understand what he was going through[2]. “Marxists certainly do see that rock music dissolves the beliefs and morals necessary for liberal society and would approve of it for that alone.” Elsewhere, though a bit more substantially: “The [educational] reforms [of the 1960s] were without content, made for the ‘inner-directed’ person. They were an acquiescence of the leveling off of the peaks, and were the source of the entire collapse of the educational structure.” At times the difference between Straussianisms west and east is that of society breaking down and society completely demolished.

Still, this being what now seems to be the shittier timeline Earth, I work with what I have, and as far as I’m concerned that is Strauss himself.

As I’ve written in the lesser piece, Strauss came into my life at the right time, in which I had developed an interest in intellectual plains beyond the collegiate playpen. And again, I don’t pretend to get Strauss in a way that is just as deep but more unique than those who’ve spent time formally studying Strauss. Strauss was an elegant writer, but he wasn’t Thomas Paine. He rightly spurned the pyrotechnic lyricism[3] of Jaffaism. “To gain some clarity, let us return once more to the surface, to the beginning of the beginning,” seems a signature Strauss sentence. He was at once elevated and weighty—and subtle. I will be punched in the face for this but reading Strauss is actually a lot like listening to Sunn O))) or Deafheaven for the first time, wherein one is first overwhelmed by the surface volume and the spectacle and later attuned to the intricacies beneath the surface. Strauss—along with his colleague Willmoore Kendall—was among the last master of the lost art of the page-long paragraph, each to be read slowly. Few works are less amenable to binge culture than Strauss’s.

My favorite of his writings, however, remains “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” For many it is the centerpiece of one of his key projects of uncovering the esoteric meanings beneath works of philosophy. Esoteric writing, the Straussian line goes, was how the eternal truths of philosophy were passed through into historical realities wherein they were unfashionable, even dangerous. There is debate as to precisely how true Strauss’s findings were with his own examples. Even Murray Rothbard, no slouch in crackpot theories, thought he was something of a crank. Still, history and the good are not always copacetic. Okay, says Strauss, problem solved:

We can easily imagine that a historian living in a totalitarian country, a generally respected and unsuspected member of the only party in existence, might be led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion … He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants. Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and therefore was approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit.

Strauss’s words wash over like a cold shower for those touting the need for “resistance” in today’s political milieu. Not unfair. Even before Donald Trump’s rhetoric turned political language up to 11, Americans were never well suited to subtlety as an aid in fighting social toxicity. And with events moving quickly to ends of ever elusive certainty, it doesn’t seem rightly practicable. But Strauss’s careful unpacking of the power still to be found in writing is at least worth some credence. For people geared less toward resistance and more toward subversion, “Persecution and the Art of Writing” reads like an intellectual Anarchist Cookbook.

But, as before, Straussians are welcome to take issue with this if they happen to read it, assuming they deem it worthy of response at all. For my part, I don’t seek to claim Strauss for my particular politics. Strauss doesn’t seem altogether applicable to any one form of politics. If certain lines of his thinking enflame extremism, certain other lines just as easily appeal to its abatement. His work speaks to the primacy of morality in public life while not overlooking its messiness when it comes into conflict or is corrupted. Leo Strauss spent the whole of his career studying the flight patterns of ideas through the erratic winds of human progress. Some read his work as cartography for utopia. I would prefer to read it as a guide for survival.

Though as Heer has reminded me, Mansfield never studied directly under Strauss.
2 This piece by Matt Feeney suggests to me that the problem with the book might be one of structure. Though whether the book’s red meat front-padding is derived from editorial instruction or Straussian misdirection I have no idea.
3 There were notable lapses, to be sure. Such as this passage from an essay titled An Epilogue, which does in four sentences what took Bloom an entire book: “Only a great fool would call the new political science diabolic: it has no attributes peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.”

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INTERNAL DISPUTE CASE FILE NO. 3776

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TO: the Assholes
FROM: Marcus
RE: Not inviting me to Trivia Night
CC: other Shitheads

Dear Madams and Sir,

I hope you will pardon, or at least understand, my formal mode of address in this memorandum. I believe we all remember a time, one not so distant from now, in which we were on more casual terms; perhaps even friendly terms. A time in which we were free people, free and peaceable, free but equal, all the same, in our collective position as masters of the Dominion of Accounts Receivable. I remember it as a time of sweet harmony and iron indissolubility. It seemed then to be perpetual, an unending spring of camaraderie and efficiency. I would go so far as to say that we were the pride of our betters and the envy of our peers.

And yet, the feeling is altogether absent as I type this. To wit, I detect a chill coming over, around, and even through me. Perhaps you, too, have felt it at some point. A great frosty darkness has descended upon this company in general and our department in particular. One that can no longer be ignored, one that I must get out from under or perish in a flailing and torrid madness. Gnashing my teeth, tearing out my hair, fat-frying it, and swirling it into my sweet and sour pork.

Why the fuck didn’t you invite me to Trivia Night at O’Shaunnasey’s? What unholy, tempestuous, insidious, perverse demon from the bowels of Hell collectively possessed you to flagrantly overlook my willingness and my ability to partake in this extracurricular activity? What invisible hand so scooped you into its palm and whisked you asunder from my cubicle, therefore preventing the appropriate knowledge of this event from coming even close to my periphery?

My first instinct is to assume negligence. Could it be that it had simply slipped your minds—all of your minds—to notify me of your plans? Perchance, did you forget until the last possible minute, and feared the awkwardness that might ensue if you asked and I could not go? I can assure you that no awkwardness would manifest itself; at least none compared to the utter betrayal of not being made aware full stop. Regardless of that, I cannot in good conscience assume your sloppiness, flimsiness, flakiness, or stupidity. I know these are all as far from your characters as can possibly be. So the only logical explanation is your explicit intention to not notify me.

What, then, was the nature of my transgression? What was the depth of my offense? Is it to be measured in inches or in meters? My head spins, my mouth dries, my eyes crust over in parsing the many instances of wrongs possible for me to commit. They seem endless. Was it my faux pas, Shitheel, in commenting on your newest nail pattern? Did I, for instance, misidentify your Mickey Mouses as Ms. Pac-Mans? Was I wrong, Fuckface, in defending your honor when Greg from Accounts Payable tried to swipe your red delicious for his slightly browner jonagold? Or Pusbather, when your DVR glitched and didn’t record This Is Us that one week, did it secretly agonize you when I honored your insistence that I not spoil it for you despite how good I kept telling you it was? I feel no amount of apology can reverse these misdeeds. All is awash in hopelessness.

Or perhaps it is something else. Not quite an offense on my part, but a mislaid assumption on yours. I wonder if you somehow got it into your heads that I was not up to snuff for you. That I would drag your team all quiz long. That I would slump in the corner of the booth, like a porcine monument of turds, inhaling two-dollar hot wings and siphoning half-off light beer by the piss pail? Have I not proven a willing conspirator in even our endeavors of mandatory fun? Did it not occur to you that I might be a positive contributor? That I might even have a team name? (It’s the Quiztopians, by the way.) Or, by contrast, did you assume I would be all too willing to participate? That I would seek to dominate the quiz by sheer force of intellect? That I would brazenly over-argue the point, split hairs, and, though doubtless victorious, kamikaze the fun square into the depths? I can only suggest that you take my word that I am as moderate as they come in these matters.

No matter, alas. For I see no possible route of return to the status quo after this. The spirit of our once jovial department has changed inexorably. Who are these bodies that are my coworkers? Not people, certainly; but neither animals nor even imps or other spritely forest tricksters for that matter. For all intents and purposes, for the sake of my productivity going forward, you are little more than man-size globules—perspiring, undulating masses of cosmic gelatin in cardigans and tortoise shell glasses.

I am a simple man at heart, and I am not one to bare my soul willy-nilly, but you leave me in a spot of unprecedented vulnerability. Ever since the events of the other day I’ve hourly had to take stock in just who I am and in what precisely I believe. When my bearings are gotten I believe in beauty. I believe in the primacy of military might. I believe that the power of love is just enough on a contingent basis. Paramount of all, though, I believe in forgiveness. I forgive you, Shitheel, Fuckface, and Pusbather, for failing to ask me for forgiveness.

I shall leave it to the shartographers in the appropriate departments to propose the best course of mediation or reassignment as needed.

Cordially,

Marcus

THE LEAST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD

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I have a great idea for a reality show. In which we take a selection of our country’s brightest minds and place them under the employ of a mercurial man who has been given a staggering amount of power. Their objective is to compete for the favor of this man using nothing more than their cerebral faculties. To accomplish this they will be subjected to a number of challenges that will test the limits not only of their ideas but also of their loyalty, integrity, creativity, and moral fortitude. There will be chaos and tension. The stakes will be high but not so high as to stave off backbiting and undermining. Never rule out gratuitous hookups. Of course in the end there can only be one, but the prize will be great, perhaps even timeless. Call it America’s Next Seneca. Sure, this has a small audience, but it is built in and tirelessly dedicated.

Intellectuals love to write about other intellectuals. They love writing about intellectuals they hate. They love even more to write about intellectuals they hate who have come into a position of power apparently through their own intellectual prowess. We who pride ourselves on our sophistication, our intelligence, our eloquence, or anyway our desire to be at “the center of the action,” endure this mindless spectacle again and again. Like the commercials at the Super Bowl, we relish the presentation whether or not we remember what is being sold. It is a practice fueled as much by envy as it is by schadenfreude.

This, anyway, was the vision in my mind when I first saw Michael Anton in the White House pressroom this past week, hunched off to the corner next to his then-boss Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor. If no one had pointed him out he could easily have sunk into Washington DC’s endless sea of bespectacled bipeds. But there he stood with a look that in all likelihood was boredom but struck me as an air of dread somewhere in between an Otto Dix portrait and a house centipede caught in the bathroom light. “From Carl Schmitt to Mike Anton,” William Kristol tweeted last week upon this revelation, “First time tragedy, second time farce.”

In September 2016, Claremont Review of Books published an essay titled “The Flight 93 Election,” named after the fourth plane hijacked in the September 11 attacks. The flight is remembered in particular for failing to reach its intended target. The hostages had rebelled against their captors and crashed the plane themselves away from wider danger. “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” the essay begins. “You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.”

The essay’s byline was “Publius Decius Mus,” a gratingly pretentious style of pseudonym popular among the writers of the Journal of American Greatness, ground zero for the Trumpist intellectuals. Having started as a piecemeal Blogspot, my first suspicion was that JAG was a layered joke. It was only when I heard its contributors were “Claremonsters” that I knew it was very much not. The Claremont Institute, home of the most furious, moralistic, and unsubtle of the Straussians, as I had long feared, found its Redeemer. “The Flight 93 Election,” then, was something of a coming out party for the nü birth of freedom. That Anton was so easily found out speaks to the distinction prose style still fosters in the age of content (and to their credit, West Coast Straussians are very generous, perhaps consciously so, to the lay reader), but the attention he has garnered since, while not exactly unfair, is something of a distraction.

Comparison to Carl Schmitt is loaded and complex; intellectuals love to use it to serve two lines of attack. The frontal attack links any rising brain trustee with the craven, opportunistic legal servant to Hitler’s deepest desires. As the “crown jurist” of the Nazi Party, Schmitt defended emergency powers, the Night of the Long Knives, and the purging of Judaism from all areas of German intellectual life. And he did so with an infernal zeal, though it was never quite as zealous as Himmler and his clique thought it should be.

Then there is the rear attack, which is less of an attack as it is reinforcement. It conjures the Schmitt of Weimar and postwar Germany, the sage whose rigorous and elegant books decimated liberalism at its foundation and also garnered admirers as ideologically various as Leo Strauss, Alexandre Kojève, Raymond Aron, and Jacob Taubes. His work has long outlasted the contexts in which they were written. “In the decade since his death Schmitt has become the most intensely discussed political thinker in Germany,” Mark Lilla wrote. “Hardly a month passes without a book about him or a new edition of his writings appearing there.” The same can be said for the English-speaking world, which keeps multiple titles, however central or extemporaneous to his most well-known thinking, in print.

Schmitt’s betrayal of his own abilities was tragic—albeit later redeemed—while Michael Anton makes a mockery of it by repetition. But the comparison is just as forced as it is loaded.

Michael Anton has a background in national security. He’d served the Bush administration as a proponent of the Iraq War, he’d written speeches for Rudy Giuliani. His most available oeuvre, however, is rooted mostly in cultural criticism featured in several right-wing publications like The Weekly Standard, City Journal, and, of course, Claremont Review of Books. He’s fond of Tom Wolfe as much as he is of Straussianism. He combined those fondnesses into his only book, The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style, which I cannot judge but suspect is very fun given the sprightly erudition of Anton’s cultural commentary. “I am rather smug about my sauces,” he writes in an essay on line cooking:

I am, for instance, the only person I know who still makes a true demi-glace, which takes three days … . I was once telephoned, through the White House Situation Room by the National Security Advisor, in the middle of this process and told to drop everything and come to the office. Down the drain it all had to go, the wages of divided loyalty. My duck dishes are said by others to be restaurant quality. This is inaccurate but nonetheless gratifying, as flattery often is.

“Flight 93” stands as a definitive articulation of political vision culminating after several years. It is, however, more of a work of agitprop than philosophy, echoing well-tread Claremont bugbears of the “Crisis of the West” with a more overtly populist twist.

Third and most important, the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle. As does, of course, the U.S. population, which only serves to reinforce the two other causes outlined above. This is the core reason why the Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties. Because they are.

“Flight 93” is by no means an essay without arguments to make, though they are mostly arguments that could be found anywhere else Trump support, intellectual or otherwise, was likely to emanate. “Flight 93” lives or dies by its tonal poetry, less as an act of persuasion and more a presentation of a state of mind. The aesthete has become the agitator, and his back—our backs—is against the wall:

This is insane. This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.

Reading just the title of “Flight 93” revolted me when I first read the essay. Not as a civil libertarian who always found something objectionable coming out of Claremont, but as a citizen. Specifically a lifelong citizen of the New York metropolitan area, with family and friends spread all throughout the city’s boroughs, as a dependent on Newark Airport, and as one who remembers September 11, 2001, the second day of my senior year in high school, with crystal clarity. There was something unseemly about the use of September 11 as a polemical device. Though it had been done before it had never been done quite with the same wide-eyed urgency and anxiety, as if Scorpio and “Dirty” Harry Callahan somehow got on the wrong sides of his .44 Magnum. This tactic, though cruel and tragic, nonetheless had a point, if not necessarily the one it was meant to make.

The ripples of September 11 are wide and continuous in American society. The rhetorical nod from George W. Bush and others that “everything changed” after the attacks was so frequent as to become hollow by the start of the Iraq War, much like its sibling phrases “never forget” and “mission accomplished.” But I did not disagree. The attacks on September 11 revealed my ignorance about the world and the need for it to be corrected. The optimism pervasive in the 1990s that was taken as granted and solid was in fact much more precarious. This required rethinking how to wield American power in a world of increasing post-Cold War complexity. For me it was a way that favored realism and prudence over the Manichean defiance and utopian patriotism that very quickly ascended.

To an extent, “Flight 93” reflects my call for new thinking in a situation still worsening before it gets better. But in illustrating the point, the essay culls from the more prevalent internalization of the September 11 attacks as an existential event, confirming preexisting prejudices and riling old fears. No one on United Airlines Flight 93 entered the plane with the expectation or desire of having to hurl it to the earth. The horror, desperation, and necessity of that moment of non-consensual sacrifice is impossible to fathom. “Flight 93” speaks less of the moment itself and more of its meaning in a political framework, creating abstraction out of the flesh and steel reality. “Flight 93” recalls, on the one hand, Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth. On the other hand, it more readily recalls the Kids on Fire School of Ministry, which depicted in the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp as not so subtly preparing prepubescent evangelical Christians for a final conflict with radical Islam. “This means war,” camp manager Becky Fischer chants to the children. “Are you part of it or not?”

Several people have argued with one another over the pleas and the vision of “The Flight 93 Election.” David Brooks honored it as one of the most significant essays of 2016. To the extent that it made any electoral impression beyond intellectual circles is a matter of speculation, though it is not very likely and it doesn’t really matter. “The Fight 93 Election” is a piece of writing that was always going to be written. That it fell to one author and not another, or that it crested at the exact right moment, isn’t really the point. The essay stands and will remain standing not for its pedigree but for its exhibition of American literary expressionism. It is an essay that feels more conjured than written. Every hex, every malady and aberration plaguing the United States wrung together in a coast-to-coast séance.

HUMAN INTEREST STORY

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[Note: The subject of this essay entails frank discussion of suicide and depression. It also contains film spoilers.]

On July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck went live on the Sarasota, FL television station where she worked as a field reporter and talk show host, read some news items, and concluded by putting a .38 revolver behind her right ear and pulling the trigger. She prefaced her act with a statement in her copy: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.” Station management thought she had pulled a sick prank. She died later at the hospital.

Ironically, Chubbuck’s death was not rebroadcasted, having been stopped at the source. The footage remained locked away, untouched and unwatched, by the studio owner and Chubbuck’s brother. Though references to Chubbuck appear in media moral tracts, novelty guides to “strange deaths,” and the occasional tabloid TV special. In a cultural atmosphere that finds any reason to drop a female cadaver into the middle of any situation, the Christine Chubbuck incident had been surprisingly stifled since it occurred. She was almost entirely forgotten by all but specialists and connoisseurs before two films about Chubbuck were released in 2016: Robert Greene’s experimental documentary Kate Plays Christine and the more conventional Antonio Campos biopic Christine, only the latter of which I have seen.

“[T]he crux of the situation,” WXLT news director Mike Simmons speculated of Chubbuck in 1977, “was that she was a 29-year-old girl who wanted to be married and she wasn’t.” It would be wrong to say that Christine is anymore definite in its protagonist’s motives. The film, like most biographical drama, is a mishmash of secondhand reconstruction and poetic license. Events, such as Chubbuck’s ovary removal that occurred a year before her death, were confined to a shorter timeframe. But at least Christine leaves open a more nuanced possibility. This is helped not so much by narrative chronicle as by the character study provided by Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck.

The film opens with Chubbuck alone in the studio taping herself giving a mock-interview to Richard Nixon. Hall’s Chubbuck is already one of evident intelligence, deep curiosity, and high professional standards. Chubbuck’s stories veer from the lighthearted to the wonkish. They are well liked as “positive” and “think pieces,” but are tacked on at the end of broadcasts in favor of more sensational stories, usually auto wrecks and petty crimes. Her hunger for advancement is entirely in keeping with her colleagues and her generation. But Chubbuck’s uniqueness comes from the teeming contradictions that obstruct the light of any of those attributes.

Her professional life is one of strident self-confidence and destructive self-doubt. She frets over her body language and reverses editorial choices at the literal last minute. Her job is reliant on screen presence even as she possesses remedial social skills. She is aloof with the colleagues who actively befriend her and clumsy with those she wants to befriend. She has next to no journalistic instincts. When she tries to appease her boss’s “if it bleeds it leads” demands, her results show like avant-garde PBS. “It was raw, and the man had an irony to him,” Chubbuck says to Tracy Letts’s news director of one of her misfired scoops.

Her personal life tugs violently between adulthood and regressive adolescence. She lives with her mother, whom she calls by her first name. She pays the brunt of the rent and decorates her room like a teenager. Their interactions veer from chattiness to browbeating to petulance. She is painfully shy and romantically inexperienced. Her ovarian cyst makes her incapable of giving birth. Her erratic mental state makes her incapable of being a mother. Among the most wrenching scenes are the puppet shows she gives to disabled children which decline from charmingly stilted to solipsistic, with Hall’s face taking up more and more of the frame with each scene. Watching Chubbuck faceplant whenever she tries to connect with the wider world is generally disheartening. A self-help exercise turns into a painstaking admission of every setback she’s experienced and every reason why she cannot overcome them. When she finally admits that she is a virgin turning 30, her partner in the exercise looks at her as if she was a burn victim. When the final advice is to “manage your expectations,” Chubbuck looks somewhere in the realm between perplexed and inconsolable.

The “humanizing” root of Rebecca Hall’s performance of a woman in the final throes of depression is how it simultaneously captures how depressives often see themselves: as sentient corrosives. Just as brilliant is the film’s counternarrative depicting what depressives are often oblivious to: the pervasiveness of misery. Sarasota was a fringe market with a low-rated network affiliate. It was, and in all likelihood remains, a prime Florida shithole. The studio is drab, the management is frayed, and the staff is mediocre. It is like Anchorman flashing its pathos from underneath its comedic trenchcoat. Michael C. Hall’s charming, hypermasculine lead anchor is held together by bland self-help nostrums. Timothy Simon’s weatherman is only slightly more competent than his character on Veep. Chubbuck’s fawning camerawoman is better skilled and more amenable to compromise and inadvertently vaults over her. The working world of the 1970s was one in which Human Resources came from the inside.

***

On January 22, 1987, State Treasurer of Pennsylvania R. Budd Dwyer called a press conference. Amid a bribery scandal for which he was tried and found guilty, he was expected to announce his resignation. Before the reporters, Dwyer read a 21-page statement railing against the system that was oppressing him. He described his presiding judge as “Medieval” and his prison “an American Gulag.” “I am a modern day Job,” he claimed. The spectacle was at turns described as a “rambling polemic” and a “long-winded, sad event.” This was before Dwyer had pulled out a .357 Magnum revolver, placed it in his mouth, and fired it. He died instantly. “This will hurt someone” were his final words. The cameras were still rolling when Dwyer shot himself. Footage just before and after the moment had aired on network television.

Two things occurred in the wake of Dwyer’s death. First, Budd Dwyer was largely vindicated. Though by no means a political novice, having served the legislature for 16 years before becoming State Treasurer, Dwyer was something of a naïf. “Budd was too trusting of people,” a colleague said in the Dwyer documentary An Honest Man. “Budd would see everybody. A guy would get out of prison, and was a constituent, he would come to see Budd and Budd would see him!” The bribery scandal in hindsight plays out like a happenstance tragedy of error, of a shifty lifer of institutional corruption playing the rube from Meadville like an out-of-tune violin. Indeed, decades later, the primary witness against Dwyer admitted that he had perjured himself and misstated Dwyer’s intent in order to get a reduced sentence.

All of this was eclipsed by the second occurrence: Dwyer’s ascendance into legend. It was claimed that Dwyer’s act was partly pragmatic, an attempt to retain his pension for his family before his prison sentence nullified it. In exchange, he became an icon of the post-Cold War culture of morbid detachment, alongside David Koresh, the Unabomber, and any number of serial killers. Dwyer’s face of death was all anyone thought of when his name was mentioned.  “Tasteless or not, [Dwyer’s suicide] was a dazzling gesture,” Jim Goad wrote in ANSWER Me! magazine in 1993. “Rather than rot away in the pen with fifty dicks up his ass, he went out blazing, theatrically, on his terms.” Steve Albini wrote a song about him for his band Rapeman in 1988, followed later by tributes from Faith No More and Filter. It is alleged that Albini played the video for Nirvana during the In Utero sessions. More recently, Austin t-shirt company Sex and Death created a shirt depicting Budd Dwyer’s final moment.

Any connection made between Dwyer and Chubbuck, while inevitable, seems to point out more contrast than comparison. Chubbuck was denied iconography; Dwyer was denied empathy. Dwyer’s cultural context makes it all but impossible to see through to the truth: that he was the right person in the wrong place. Though we cannot fully understand or know Christine Chubbuck, what fleshing out we have been given mostly indicates that she was, for whatever reason, the wrong person in the wrong place. “You’re not going anywhere and I’m not going anywhere,” Chubbuck says to Letts in their final meeting in the film with a smiling fatalism they both seem to intuit. Chubbuck’s force of energy and integrity was unrelenting, but ultimately a hindrance when she couldn’t produce acceptable work. “It wasn’t supposed to be different,” she seethes, “it was supposed to be good.” More than a dark timeline Anchorman or Mary Tyler Moore, Christine recalls the 1977 horror film The Sentinel, in which another depressive woman finds the world around her entirely antagonistic to her personal agency, and which she must sacrifice in order to keep that world stable.

Though perhaps for Chubbuck, hers is more a story of a misfit in a world that would just as soon forget her. Whether that’s true or not is a matter of conjecture that will not always be fair. It is to its ultimate credit, then, that Christine is so distinct from its protagonist: warm, understated, and patient. But this is not to say that it offers anything approaching comforting or satisfactory closure. In fact one might come away from the film feeling either examined, indicted, or in some kind of hopeless medium. It is the ultimate human interest story, which bares rather than polishes over those things most human and most interesting.

OMEGA MILO

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One of the funniest stories in American history was when William Cobbett robbed Thomas Paine’s grave in 1819. Paine had been a hero to the man and, perhaps in light of earlier (untrue) rumors of Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s neighboring Pantheon caskets being raided by reactionaries, Cobbett hatched a plan to dig up Paine’s grave in New Rochelle, New York, take the remains with him to England, and give him a triumphant burial befitting that of a forgotten Founding Father. Cobbett obtained the bones and made it across the Atlantic, and stopped there. When Cobbett died in 1835, Paine’s remains were still in his possession. They have been lost ever since.

The humor of this incident works on two levels. One is quite obvious, the other more subtle. William Cobbett, like Paine, was a savage polemical scribbler, who wrote about political issues of the day in a ferocious simplicity easily comprehended by the most abject public house wretch. If he remains famous at all today it is for his depictions of rural England, his attacks on the Corn Laws, and support for Catholic emancipation. His prose was of such fury that it landed him in prison for libel and forced him to flee Great Britain several times. But early in his career he was more reliably conservative. William Pitt wished him in his employ, and in post-Revolution America, he toed a pro-British line. He attacked and slandered Paine and other Founders without relent: “How Tom gets a living now, or what brothel he inhabits, I know not,” he wrote in Paine’s later years. When Benjamin Rush sued him for libeling his medical practices, he fled back to England.

For a mind like Cobbett’s, the line between impassioned conversion and overcompensation is spider web-thin. Perhaps that’s not very funny to everyone. Fair enough. Though it is the first thing that comes into my head on those few moments I occasion myself to think about Milo Yiannopoulos.

I make it a general rule not pay much mind to someone like Yiannopoulos. This is not so much out of pseudo-patrician detachment, some notion that he as a subject is beneath me (though I can see where one might get that idea), but mostly out of futility. What is worth saying about Yiannopoulos that hasn’t already been said by anyone else, let alone by Yiannopoulos himself? He is a political commentator of remarkable exposure. Highly sought after despite and because of his bombastic style and personal contradictions. I feel bad for the editors trying to hold back an inbox deluge of pitches from hungry freelancers, both nascent and seasoned, convinced that their words alone could ANNIHILATE Yiannopoulos with Sub Zero spine-ripping finality. Provided, of course, they know that this is his design.

The fact that Yiannopoulos can stir up hysteria in college campuses to a level not seen since The Rites of Spring before he even sets foot on them is indication of legendary status. That, with his support for the 2016 election victor and his total disregard for the peace of anyone he significantly disfavors, has earned him entry into posterity’s ground floor, filling at least a few scholarly papers on rhetoric. But as Cobbett shows, there is still much outdoing to be done. And rather than just spit fumes as others surely will over this or that rank utterance or obscene gesture, I prefer to speculate what his next steps might be. It is a task as daunting as it is fanciful. Yiannopoulos is nothing if not shrewd and may have reams of composition notebooks filled with possible reinventions—escape routes, if you will. These may be modest in comparison. Forgive me.

Reinvention no. 1: 21st Century Swift| Yiannopoulos may not seem like he is willing or able to author a masterful work of literature that volts him to the highest reaches of posterity, but let us not discount him so easily. Though his forthcoming book may be little more than performance art, Yiannopoulos, unlike his troll peers, is more rooted in writing. Like Swift, he has an ear for provocation and getting heard. Like Swift, his work is a mix of the postmodern and the conservative. And like Swift, his poetry was not well received in its time. Sure, the Dean was never quite comfortable in his own skin, his work was in some way morally balanced by the Church of England, and his rage was far more potent, but Yiannopoulos is young yet. He may well find his situation in need of an imaginative lashing out of Gulliver-level proportions that will dazzle children and amuse honors students even has he digs himself deeper and deeper into a miasma of excrement, petty grudge-mongering, and misanthropy.

Reinvention no. 2: Myra Breckinridge| Yiannopoulos’s current trajectory actually makes this the most plausible. Last year, Lauren Southern had her gender legally changed to male in accordance with Canadian gender ID laws. Yiannopoulos, ever enterprising, almost certainly must have considered ways in which this could be outdone. Perhaps this is not feasible in any practical sense, but it would not shock me if Yiannopoulos went into a long, unexpected seclusion, wherein a new blonde contrarian comes on the scene, outpacing Lauren and Tomi in all quantifiable data, becoming the Raquel Welch to Donald Trump’s John Huston.

Reinvention no. 3: Salò-on-Thames| Though Yiannopoulos may have a definite future in American media, America may have use for him yet in his home kingdom. As Trump seeks to carve up the European map he’ll need reliable allies, and if the United Kingdom’s current caretakers can’t cut it, Trump seems like he could finally fulfill that presidential pipe dream of getting his own pet Prime Minister. And why not Yiannopoulos? As a political amateur flogging a similarly eclectic neopopulism, they have much to discuss. And provided Yiannopoulos does not obstruct whatever Trump’s larger vision is, he has free reign to jolt Britannia into the new normal: expelling Scotland, turning Wales into a penal colony, turning Cornwall into a red light district, and turning Ulster into a weapon testing ground.

Reinvention no. 4: your friend| This might not be something Yiannopoulos has in mind per se, but something maybe you yourself have intuited somehow. Maybe you felt you had bitten off more than you could chew with those around you last year. Maybe you asked too much of them. Maybe you gave more than they were able to receive. Maybe your preening psychological vampirism has taken its toll on the people in your life: your friends, family, that dog you definitely weren’t ready to adopt. Maybe in needing a way out they finally found one. Maybe they see some overlap between yours and Yiannopoulos’s iron extroversion and yours and Yiannopoulos’s tireless need to be seen and to exist. Maybe there’s a match worth making. Maybe the two of you together will form a bond of monumentally indissoluble codependence. Maybe you and Yiannopoulos will forsake the demands of daily social life for the digital Grey Gardens of Slack. Maybe mundane niceties of “identity” and “agency” start to slip. Maybe you were never two people to begin with. Maybe you were never real in the first place. HIS NAME WAS ROBERT PAULSON. Anyway, something to think about with your 2017 to-do list.

Reinvention no. 5: New York Times op-ed columnist| The Gray Lady seems like a place that will try anyone at least once. Yiannopoulos will dedicate his platform to restaurant reviews, man-on-the-street hosannas, and how Hamilton fosters communal bonds and civic virtue.

Reinvention no. 6: socially liberal, fiscally conservative| The arc of the ideological universe is long and bends toward maturity. For some it is longer than others, and for Yiannopoulos it may seem unreachable. That is by no means a bad thing for him now. Few have ever encountered someone so well suited for the temper of the present moment. But we’ve also learned never to discount the man even when the temper shifts a certain way, no matter how slight or extreme. Indeed, few if any of us are truly prepared for a time when the sky is an unending blanket of incandescent crimson, the earth is drowned in ash, and the shelters of human life are gnarled rusted husks; where there are no hero’s graves for Yiannopoulos to rob because the graves have robbed themselves, and where there is no one to troll because deathless mutated flesh-eaters have a simplistic politics. Okay, I kind of lost track of where I was going with this one.

HOW PUNK ROCK IS THAT?: A REPLY TO SETH MANDEL

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[Note: This was initially a letter to the editors of the New York Post in response to an opinion article they published by Seth Mandel on Green Day, but I thought Id share it here anyway. To be honest I’m posting more for motives performative rather than substantive, as the piece mostly condenses two previous posts (maybe three or four) on this blog, which you should read as Mandel’s editorial indicates that they are now even less superfluous. This piece probably reads better in its intended medium but, I dont know, enjoy.]

In the annals of hate-reading there are three distinct types: those that fill the reader with a heightened sense of superior glee, those that fill the reader with despair, and those that utterly confuse the reader entirely. Mr. Mandel might take some pride in having elicited all three of these types as I read his article from end to end, though it fell decidedly on the third type as I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or disappointed.

Let me be clear that Mandel’s central point about Green Day is correct. The band has long been a cultural nonentity, and the Broadway adaptation of American Idiot deserves triple the ire that Hamilton is getting. That said, Mandel’s rhetorical motorcycle self-destructs mid-bus jump in a flaming fury of what I think the forensics club nerds call false dilemma. Contrasting Green Day with the Sex Pistols is not unlike contrasting Suzanne Collins with J.K. Rowling. But that misses the larger point.

In criticizing Green Day’s shallow politics, Mandel could have benefitted Post readers with a contextual gloss of its roots in the punk movement. That over the course of the 1980s, Americans like Ian MacKaye, having seen the dead end of the Sex Pistols’ nihilism, saw fit to alter punk’s course that was, in part, influenced by the liberal Protestantism in which he was raised. MacKaye and others in cities like Olympia, Athens, and San Diego saw punk as a means of moral fortitude, of doing the right thing where an indifferent power structure could not. While the Sex Pistols floundered as a promotional tool for Malcolm McLaren, a baby boomer opportunist, Fugazi, Black Flag, and other American punks networked, started businesses, and perpetuated itself across the country. That that environment sometimes fosters complacency and sanctimony is unfortunate, but no one elected Green Day presidents of punk.

But Mandel is not interested in cultural context, just polemical cudgels to score political points. Fair, but futile. Never Mind the Bollocks turns 40 this year and it sounds like it. Punk rock as we have known it is slowly going extinct, as it should. It is a notch on the bedpost of the voracious force that is youth culture, and youth culture has found a new paramour.

This September, thousands of juggalos will converge on Washington DC to march in protest of the FBI’s crusade to designate the grouping as a gang. You might know the juggalos through their oft-mocked bombastic degenerate “gatherings,” their unlistenable music, and their ludicrous mode of dress. Sound familiar? Writing of punks in 1978, Auberon Waugh noted “how genuine punks go out of their way to make themselves too disgusting for the dilettantes. Punks ”remained essentially and exclusively working class though few, if any, of them worked,” and whose attitude turned the “proletarian triumphalism” of the 1960s into “proletarian defiance.” The juggalos with their communal permissiveness sound like history repeating itself, or the counterculture just moving forward at steady pace.

While it may be fun and cathartic to mock desperate middle-aged rockers, Mandel does so at the expense of American culture itself, which is far more vibrant and bizarre and unpredictable than it is given credit for by any office-seeker. Indeed, Mandel comes close to exhibiting as much contempt for American culture that he attaches to his politically correct foes. At the end of the day, who cares what punk is? Certainly not punks, who knew this sea change would come. That is not Mandel’s point, of course, but his point is moot.