Black Ribbon Award

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“Many of the children at Eastern are chronically mentally ill. They’ll never see what we see, hear what we hear, think in ways we do.” This is narration from the Academy Award-nominated documentary Children of Darkness, produced by Richard Kotuk and Ara Chekmaya and which aired on PBS in 1983. It explores the lives of young people who struggle with mental illness, of the institutions that house them, of the parents who place them there, and of the counselors who treat them. I’ve mentioned this film in previous posts, mostly in passing and almost always in tandem with likeminded works such as Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies and Geraldo Rivera’s exposé of the Willowbrook State School. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to explore the film in detail. But then I forget that this is an era in which impossibility seems less and less rare. Sooner or later I would be given this blessing, and I was, as it so often seems to be, through Twitter.

“This is what happens when you add the voice over to an old documentary about mental illness to video of SJWs,” reads a tweet posted by Jenna Abrams. “And it actually makes sense.” Below the text is just that: a video mashup of the most comical tantrums of left wing protestors set to narration of Children of Darkness, the aforementioned lines included. I suppose it’s hard to argue, on some level, that it doesn’t make sense. Ideology-as-disorder is a reliable cudgel. It’s certainly not easy to let go of with the advent of the “social justice warriors,” whose largely emotive and performative brand of persuasion lends to them an air of hysteria. And so to wield the cudgel effectively, one must go big or delete one’s account. As of this writing, Abrams’s tweet has over 6,000 retweets and over 10,000 “likes.” And it’s a clever bit of media manipulation to be sure, almost pop art-level. But people seeing this on their timelines are left to wonder if the SJWs are being framed, as the mentally ill tend to be, as either threats to order or as pitiable. Perhaps by actually watching the film, which is available through Kotuk on YouTube, we might be able to surmise the intent of the tweet.

Viewers of Children of Darkness will find the following: Brian, a schizophrenic patient of Eastern State School and Hospital in Trevose, PA who is prone to violent, indiscriminately directed outbursts; the Elan School, a private treatment center for affluent teens with behavioral and substance problems and whose “no bullshit” approach is barely distinguishable from psychological torture; an autistic boy named Billy at Sagamore Children’s Center in New York who must be restrained to a bed for hours so as to prevent him from harming himself; and a Staten Island hospital fraught with deaths of patients due to neglect or harsh procedures. And those are just the framing devices.

“I was trying to kill myself so I could be with my mother,” says Denise, a teen patient of Eastern. “I love her a lot, and I don’t even know her, that’s what’s so funny.” Jerry, a patient at the same complex with muscular dystrophy, had not seen his parents since being dropped off two years before. “Three days after [being dropped off] … I was trying to call them at home and got somebody else who moved into our house, and six months later they wrote me a letter saying they were in Las Vegas, and they enclosed it with a check for $20.” By film’s end, both are out of the hospital, Jerry struggling to find a job and live on his own in Philadelphia, Denise’s whereabouts unknown. Children of Darkness runs the gamut of suffering, not just from patients but also from parents who are still present. “Why is this child? Why did God create it? That’s all I’ve always wondered,” says the mother of the autistic Billy.

Through Kotuk and Chekmaya, mental illness is not one easily comprehended condition, but one with many hues and intensities, never requiring the same approach to management. This is shown by the counselors in Children of Darkness, who are given substantial screen time. The Elan administrators, for instance, are direct in their harshness; students who act like “a baby” are “screamed at,” students who act “a mature adolescent” are “talked to.” The staff at Eastern are more overrun and beleaguered, both by the demands of their patients and the outside indifference that had brought them under their care.

Children of Darkness is also a film steeped in little details: Billy’s protective Giants football helmet, the charming Australia t-shirt worn by a near-catatonic Denise, an Elan student wearing a bunny costume as punishment for trying to run away, Brian smiling while his father talks to him during an outside visitation. These moments, great and small, form a parasitic attachment onto the viewer. Children of Darkness is at once irresistible and difficult to watch, and all for what it is not. It eschews the aloofness of Titicut Follies and the grandstanding of Geraldo’s exposé. It is not a work of gothic nonfiction but of colorful, unavoidable reality.

But merely expositing a film doesn’t take us very far in answering why mental illness is used in political rhetoric at all. Contrast it, perhaps, against the use of cancer in political rhetoric. When describing an opponent’s views as “cancerous to the body politic,” or some such, the metaphor speaker seeks to render them as dangerous to the point of being fatal if not neutralized soon. Mental illness, however, doesn’t work like cancer. It is not something that a sufferer can be entirely excised of in treatment. At best it is manageable. Saying one is mentally disordered by ideology, then, implies that one is hopeless, cannot be reasoned with, and so whose ideas are out of step and ultimately invalid.

When writing about Sarah Palin’s incoherent endorsement of Donald Trump, Slate’s Katy Waldman said that the apparent stream-of-consciousness nature of her speech was reminiscent of “clanging, a verbal symptom of schizophrenia in which the patient compulsively rhymes words that bear no logical connection to one another.” Rather common, almost harmless, language. But Sam Kriss, also writing in Slate, uses Eric Garland’s infamous game theory tweetstorm to turn the tables:

Game theory models human actions on the presumption that everyone is constantly trying to maximize their potential gain against everyone around them; this is why its most famous example concerns prisoners—isolated people, cut off from all the noncompetitive ties that constitute society. One of its most important theoreticians, John Nash, was also a paranoid schizophrenic, who believed himself to be the target of a vast Russian conspiracy. (Emphasis added.)

“But I digress,” he adds. Whatever one’s quibbles with the academic validity of game theory, they don’t seem to matter because John Nash had a screw loose. Neither, it seems, does Nash’s Nobel Prize.

Keeping with the metaphor, then, what are the “symptoms” of the social justice warriors? Possibly they are lazy, less interested in being challenged by any one theory or line of argument than they are in finding the view that best fits existing moral precepts. They may also be arrogant, believing rules and manners as such do not apply to them because their truth renders them moot. At worst they are just not very intelligent. Though more likely they wildly overvalue how personal the political truly is. These don’t ring like objectionable points of critique. Indeed, they are far and away more preferable. For they do not absolve those “diagnosed” with disordered ideology of responsibility for their own actions and thoughts. They do not enable the progressive’s penchant for politicizing the therapeutic nor do they elevate self-diagnosis to a kind of craft hobby. But to indulge those arguments would seem inconvenient. Because the same symptoms that drive special snowflakes to disrupt campus speakers are also found in “free speech activists” who disrupt play performances.

But the attributes of activists do not interest me as much as the mindset that causes people to look at depictions of mental illness to find primarily, perhaps exclusively, opportunities for scoring political points. I hesitate to pinpoint what attitude propels the mindset as it does. If I’m not generous I’d say cruelty, though it may more fairly and accurately be indifference, a common enough source of woe in human failing; the readiest to indulge, the easiest to ignore, and the hardest to reverse. But on this I have flimsy authority. I only know with certainty what the mindset is not, and anyone who watches Children of Darkness can find precisely what I mean.

One of the film’s stops is the Sagamore Children’s Center, which treats young people with autism. Employed there at the time of filming was teacher Joe Romagna. He is one of the “stars” of the documentary aside from the patients, and it’s easy to see why. He works in a classroom with numerous severely autistic adolescents. The camera almost struggles to keep up with him as he moves from desk to desk trying to give equal attention to each student, some lacking basic communication and motor skills, some hyperactive, some languishing under the side effects of medication. “What I hope for for them is that they can be happy and be taken care of all the time,” Romagna says. “I don’t have hope for all of them [that] they’ll be like you and me, I don’t think that’s possible at this point.” Not that this realism deters him, in fact Romagna’s lack of deterrence is almost superhuman. “So much effort for so little,” his interviewer comments from behind the camera. “A lot of people say that,” Romagna replies with a smile and a nod:

It’s not a little to me. A kid, you know, is a kid and he deserves a chance to be here like everybody else and deserves a chance to get better, to enjoy himself. The kids need to have somebody close to them. And it’s important to me while I’m doing what I’m doing, that I’m close to the kids, too. … I have no plans to do anything but this for the rest of my life.

The viewer may feel drained while watching this segment, but more so than in other sections, which are certainly no less draining. Where we might be able to create distance between someone with schizophrenia and ourselves, we cannot do the same with Romagna, who stands as a direct challenge to the competent. His energy, though extraordinarily boundless, even for a teacher, is dedicated to the hard work of care. His constitution, moreover, refuses to see certain types of humans as burdensome or abstract. To do the opposite of this, that is, to take a condition and form it into a rhetorical construct or bogeyman may or may not be altogether indicative of cruelty or even basic wrongheadedness. I just know that it is not good.



SCENE: An empty road at the edge of a desolate forest, a man is hammering a large sign in place. Another man enters carrying a fire extinguisher.

Man 1: Hello.

Man 2: Oh dear, hello! You startled me.

Man 1: Sorry. May I ask what you’re doing?

Man 2: Oh, of course. I’m just putting the finishing touches on this sign. How does it look?

Man 1: It looks like a sign.

Man 2: Well I know that but does it serve its purpose? Is it clear? Here … let me step back and have you read it.

Man 1:DANGER!! … Entry beyond this point may put you at risk of exposure to any or all of the following: Skinwalkers, Amazon Queens, the Children’s Crusade, or variations of Chimera. Please consult your most recent edition of the Contingency Map for the nearest point of safety.”

Man 2: I was worried that the double exclamation point would be rhetorically excessive.

Man 1: I would change “point of safety” to “safe area.”

Man 2: You would?

Man 1: It’s more efficient, I think.

Man 2: Oh … yes, of course. I agree.

Man 1: I have questions about all this stuff here.

Man 2: Oh … such as?

Man 1: Like, what is it?

Man 2: Perhaps I should explain.

Man 1: Please.

Man 2: You know when, in the early days of the catastrophe, the Contingency Committee saw it fit to color-code the terrain?

Man 1: Yeah.

Man 2: Green for an area that was safe, red for an area of precise danger, and orange for an area of indeterminate danger. There were no problems with the first two. Green, red; pretty clear-cut. But orange was more ambiguous. Some people didn’t know if it was the same as red, other people thought it was basically okay, and went in none the wiser with little good coming of it. And since the Contingency Committee is more or less in dispose, I took it upon myself to clarify the matter.

Man 1: So you’ve been going in and letting people know of the danger?

Man 2: I haven’t been going in exactly.

Man 1: So how do you know about any of this?

Man 2: Well … I don’t, technically.

Man 1: You made this stuff up?

Man 2: Not so much as “made up” as “deduced through a painstaking qualitative analytical process.” No one knows what’s behind this sign. So, given the various events since the initial catastrophe, I sat down and thought of what could possibly exist within these territories, and gave them names that I thought had really good branding potential. You know, stuff that really sticks in the memory.

Man 1: Okay, so what are they?

Man 2: Ah, very glad you asked! Let me just get out my notebook here. Ah! So … Skinwalkers. Skinwalkers are roving gangs who set traps in the woods hoping for a poor sap to wander in and ensnare him or her for their sustenance.

Man 1: Cannibals?

Man 2: Yes! And not only for digestive but also for aesthetic sustenance, replacing conventional textile adornments with the hides of their kill.

Man 1: And who are the Amazon Queens?

Man 2: Ah, yes. The Amazon Queens are an all- or predominantly female offshoot of the Skinwalkers.

Man 1: Roving female cannibals who eat only men?

Man 2: Not at all! They are a vegetarian group who use men in elaborate rituals to assure bountiful harvests. They also take certain trophies, so to speak, as tokens of good fortune. But as the soil is infertile and no one has any fortune, they do, much to their considerable regret, resort to cannibalism.

Man 1: And the Children’s Crusaders are also cannibals? But children?

Man 2: Gah! Get your head out of the gutter. Of course not. They are a puckish cohort predisposed to capers and schemes, which largely entail the fleecing of green zone rations. But they cannot, or will not, be held down by the strictures of green zone protocols.

Man 1: Sounds kind of charming.

Man 2: I mean, yes, if you cross them they will use your head as a rugby ball.

Man 1: Rugby?

Man 2: Very impromptu and idiosyncratically guided rugby, but still!

Man 1: Ah ha. And dare I even ask about the Chimeras?

Man 2: Mutant beast hybrids! Very imposing and powerful.

Man 1: Why can’t the cannibals just hunt them?

Man 2: Are you crazy? The Chimeras rule the night, come in unpredictable combinations, and are more than novice at camouflage.

Man 1: My mistake.

Man 2: I excuse you of that error. It’s a very complicated ecosystem I’ve devised.

Man 1: And they all live right over there?

Man 2: I can’t say for certain, nor will anyone else be able to, because even before revisions this is the perfect deterrent.


Man 1: Is there something wrong.

Man 2: It’s weird, you haven’t disappeared.

Man 1: Pardon?

Man 2: You are a parabolic figment of my imagination, right? Sent to tell me that this is all going to work out?

Man 1: No, my name is Kurt.

Man 2: Oh. Well, I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you with your car trouble then.

Man 1: Oh I don’t have any car trouble.

Man 2: Then what’s that fire extinguisher for?

Man 1: This is not a fire extinguisher.

Man 2: What the hell is it?

Man 1: It is an eraser!

Man 2: What?

Man 1: I am Kurt of the Eraser Brigade. You see, like you, we had the same concern that the coding system was flawed, and also like you we took it upon ourselves to correct it. But unlike you we decided to just turn the orange zones into red ones, spreading the Pestilence to whatever the hell dwells within them. It’s more efficient, I think. Frankly I’m disappointed you hadn’t also “deduced” us. Ah well, maybe the element of surprise is better.

Man 2: Probably yeah.

Man 1: Well, I do appreciate you saving me the trouble of having to go further in than usual. You’re right that that’s some scary shit. So I’m going to need you to move back for me.

Man 2: Back?

Man 1: Yeah, a little scooch.

Man 2: Like this?

Man 1: A liiiiitle more. A little bit more. No, like, behind the sign.

Man 2: Behind the sign? But—

Man 1: Yes, exactly. Now let me just … [straps on gas mask] … There we go. Alright. [pulls pin and sprays diseased solution]

Man 2: Hey, what fu— [hacks and chokes]

Man 1: Very good! Now walk in that direction if it’s not too much trouble.

Man 2: I feel kind of fuzzy all over.

Man 1: That won’t last.

Man 1 packs up his things as Man 2 stumbles into the forest. Standing before the sign, he takes out a marker, and writes “point of safety safe area.”



1990 stands in history as the last time the English were well and truly mad at us. True enough, there may have been moments since when we as a nation had perturbed them for one reason or another. But in such occurrences there is something trifling, they are like misunderstandings in comic error, careless blunders that inevitably extend from countries being countries. What I’m thinking of is altogether more momentous, nigh on unforgivable. It is an instance of trust betrayed, boundaries callously breached, an affair’s bliss wholly upended into cruel tragedy. Between the two nations it may not, on the surface, bear any lasting effects, but I find no event more revealing of their respective characters and ultimately their irreconcilability.

“Mudhoney are not the pig-fucking sulphate-rotten greasy biker Viking stormtroopers with one foot in the grave and the other in a nun’s entrails their music suggests,” wrote NME’s Steve Wells. “If Mudhoney had been sent to Vietnam,” he goes on, “they would have all been Radar from M*A*S*H. Mudhoney are geeky motherlovers, all matchstick arms and legs and horn-rimmed glasses and small bottoms and boyish fun. They are far too intelligent as individuals to believe in the rock ’n’ roll woah, they seem to be making a career out of one huge elongated piss-take.”

That probably needs some context.

In 1989, American media was an unfriendly place for independent music. If an underground act wanted any substantial exposure, it was much more likely to be gotten in the United Kingdom. Understanding this arrangement, Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman wanted to maximize coverage for its roster in the burgeoning grunge scene. And they were willing to stake their precarious solvency on it, flying Melody Maker’s Everett True to Seattle, wining and dining him and giving him full access to bands like Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana. It was perhaps the first indie rock presser, and it was a complete success. According to Michael Azerrad, True wrote “a glowing, if slightly condescending, roundup of Sub Pop’s roster.” Pavitt suspected that Seattle’s “white trash” garage lumberjack aesthetic would only sweeten the appeal. The rugged Americans, like the raccoon-skin cap pioneers of yore, were authentic representations of the colonial spirit: beer-sodden, half-crazed forest dwellers who perhaps confused their guitars for chainsaws. Things worked out well for Nirvana in short order, but Tad and Mudhoney did not fare so well. As soon as it was discovered that Tad Doyle was a university-trained musician and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner also had college degrees, the mystique had been lifted, revealing, as any Irish writer had done in so many centuries past, the prime defect of Englishness: the mood that sours on finding a joke they are not in on.

Though it can’t be said that Arm, Turner, or Doyle suffered at the hands of English turnaround, the drubbing they took must connote some measure of sacrifice meriting even modest declamation of heroism. For this was not a simple matter of executing a flawless troll but also, by some measure, a stance of principle in defense of the most enduring American ideal: tastelessness.

Perhaps on the part of the English press there was some wishful thinking in its discovery of grunge. But in defense to them it was thinking rooted in safe assumption rather than in wrongheadedness. America’s culture is flat even while its geography and its society are not. There are no heights anyone may climb so that one may see farther out than anyone else or breathe more rarified air. As such, vulgarity of so authentic a type as to border on spiritual is often assumed to be every American’s default setting. Refinement in America is a kind of put-on, a commentary; Jay Gatsby staring at his stupid green light.

But if there are no cultural peaks there are also no cultural valleys. We accept that Dwight Macdonald had failed in his crusade against “Midcult,” but I don’t believe we ever understood quite in what way he failed. Macdonald typified middlebrow as the leveler of the refined high culture and folksy low culture. But his trifecta rests on the assumption that American culture can comfortably accommodate it, and keep its components at arm’s length at all times. It rests moreover on the assumption that Americans have the wherewithal—indeed the moral obligation—to resign themselves to this imposed boredom. This is not so simple. Susan Sontag wrote as much four years after Macdonald with “Notes on Camp”:

Aristocracy is a position vis-á-vis culture (as well as vis-á-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is the history of snob taste. But since no authentic aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-elected class … who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.

She goes on:

The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.

Sontag had initially singled out homosexuals as the primary “self-elected class,” but real estate on the American flatland is rather limitless, and people of all stripes have as much opportunity to refine and play with the contents of their culture, and to do so as slyly and subtly as they wish, free of airs and agitprop. The English see Americans as being tone deaf to irony, and are shocked when they see us practicing it like a natural, if not fully aware, rhythm. Jay Gatsby is putting us on, ball culture is putting us on, the Kennedys were putting us on, Sub Pop was putting us on. Put another way, there will never, and should never, be an American Roger Scruton.

Though the flatland is vast, it is also not safe. It is as subject as anything else to development schemes. Even if one, like Macdonald, cannot build upon it, one can dig into it with much greater ease.

Vulgarity is talked about as if it is monolithic, but it is not without its own hues and dimensions. Vulgarity can be crass and ignorant; it can also be impatient and indifferent, clumsy and obvious, or just really dull. These types have gotten beneath our sensitivities in various combinations, though never to the point of suffocation. If at times they seemed on the verge of being totally pervasive there have always been escape hatches if one knew where to look. It’s an arrangement one can appreciate in hindsight, however, as vulgarities now seem to be in active and bitter competition with one another for our space. They are large, lumbering creatures, offensive to the ecosystem but with callused, impenetrable hides.

One is quite well known, serving as our national advocate, an unenviable position that also offers much leeway in how it is carried it out. Donald Trump’s style is one of familiar carelessness and idiosyncratic awkwardness. This had always been singular in his gold-plated personal presentation, which was not so much a natural tackiness as a piling on of clarifications. If Donald Trump fears anything, it is being misunderstood, a common enough worry but one he chooses to focus on the most obvious fact of his life. It makes him at turns irritating and relatable. It has carried over into his propaganda aesthetic, consisting of “poorly-edited digital content in which serious and significant subjects are given bad color treatments, low resolution, and carelessly incorrect accouterments.” And as with anything Trump does, the line separating intention and incompetence is debatable, but the Trump White House’s visual style was picked up on by Tim Heidecker well before Trump even declared his candidacy. Heidecker’s skewering of Trump’s public access populism (rooted as it is in his mockery of Herman Cain) has become an elaborate obsession—his Decker series, itself a spinoff, has produced spinoffs of its own—but is instructive in highlighting the opposing vulgarity, from which it stands refreshingly apart.

Much controversy has been swirling around Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar for this year’s Shakespeare in the Park. Caesar has been unambiguously modeled on Trump and the play features an assassination that is said to be notably violent. Right wing media has been in a fury over it in the past week and corporate sponsors such as Delta have withdrawn support. I suspect the fallout was an intended, or at least expected, outcome, even if “notably violent” is relative in Shakespeare, let alone in his immediate successors. Nevertheless, critics assure the play’s quality. It is “mind-crushingly good,” according to Jessica Vanasco, “in no small part because it speaks precisely to our times. Images of the Constitution and the American Founding Fathers loom over the set. … Protesters wear pussy hats and ‘Resist’ armbands and wrangle with the police in a ‘Black-Lives-Matter’-style. Those police are clad in riot gear.”

Eustis has defended his production not as an attack on Trump, but as a warning to the public that, if they just so happen to want to unseat someone who is perceivably tyrannical, they must do so wisely. The play may indeed be adequately staged and performed, and certainly this is not the first Shakespeare production to be skewed for contemporary commentary, but Eustis’s didacticism on and offstage is revealing in what little faith this production has in the intelligence of its audience. As Richard Loncraine, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Joss Whedon, Andrew Fleming, and Steve Bannon know, there are many levels at which Shakespeare can be modern. This past November, as Noah Millman positively cites, brought a less explicit but still recognizable update of Coriolanus[1]. Eustis’s Trump framing, however, makes this Julius Caesar rather claustrophobic to the imagination. Perhaps that is the point. Trump, having seemingly state-mandated the lowbrow has put culture in crisis mode, and the Trumpified Julius Caesar amounts to a Patriot Act for the creative class. Subtlety, playfulness, even joy, are suspended to make space for relevance and utility until further notice. As much as we cannot overlook the challenges Trump poses with his day-to-day idiocy, cultural agitprop poses its own, at once overstating culture’s use and undercutting its possibilities. “The ‘universality’ of [The Crucible],” Robert Warshow wrote, “belongs neither to literature nor to history, but to that journalism of limp erudition which assumes that events are to be understood by referring them to categories, and which is therefore never at a loss for comment.”

Eustis is at least correct to place onus on the people for things being as they are and for those things to be righted. But the people, even on a good day, are a confused lot. Politics buckles under confusion; culture is sustained by it. When the latter is made subservient to the former, particularly to a generalized and abstract variation of it, it circles the drain. To be sure, proselytizing that culture remains vibrant, ironic, and porous is far easier than maintaining it, and doing so would not solve political conflict. In fact it may just as easily worsen it. But to determine what does and does not edify a people, to effectively erect a dam in culture’s stream, is tantamount to saying that the people’s personality is its own worst enemy. To my knowledge no one’s life has been given a new lease by having heard “Jack Pepsi,” but a culture, mature and confident, knows that “Jack Pepsi” is a fact of the American situation, and could not be of any other.

1 To be entirely fair, Millman saw and liked Julius Caesar, finding insights on power and violence in its most controversial direction.



Over at First Things, Mark Bauerlein, senior editor and father of a son on the verge of adolescence, has assembled a list of films and television shows meant to serve as a bulwark against the intrusions of modern commerce and culture that flank his son and other boys in all directions:

Every time he encounters a television screen (we don’t have one at home), hears a hip-hop song blasting out of a car creeping down the street, spots a billboard or posters peddling clothes, new movies, the NBA and NFL, or automobiles, or goes to the web and catches ads for the latest games and videos of scandals and embarrassments, he observes bad behavior and bad words and bad values.

His solution, then, is a steady diet of media, dating largely from the early-to-mid-20th century studio system, which reinforces proper masculine attributes and moral attitudes. That is, “courtliness, strong silent types, men of substance, or sprezzatura” as opposed to the current youth culture that encourages being “loud, sarcastic, effeminate, touchy, vain, smart-alecky, and raunchy.” To his credit, his selections don’t seem to evince much of the latter. 1939’s Jesse James is “short on history but long on character.” The List of Adrian Messenger shows “the resolute pursuit of a killer without all the lurid silliness of today’s murder mysteries.” Yul Brynner’s portrayal of the Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments “is a living lesson in the pitfalls of stubborn authority.” And so on.

Having only seen the very good Get Smart series I cannot quibble with the rest of its contents, though Dad Movie completists might be scratching their heads at the omission of Bridge Over the River Kwai or, say, Tender Mercies (which my own father claims is the greatest film ever made). That said, I’ve taken it upon myself to do a list of my own, because why not? As I am not a parent I’m not going to step in and tell other parents what their children should be watching. So I turned the concept on its head and developed a syllabus for adults.

“Adulthood” has become a confused term this day and age, as Bauerlein might agree, but I’ve decided to revel in that confusion a bit, embracing nuance in theme and time of release, finding examples which address different questions and instill different lessons. Some films depict the relationships between adults and children, some address society at large, and some are youthful TV shows that have stood the test of time. There is more than enough opportunity to point out my own omissions—It Follows, RushmoreThe Candidate, etc.—but hopefully these works are sufficient in their own ways. As with Bauerlein’s list, I offer them in no particular order.

Repo Man (1984) – I’m not sure if the greatness of this film can be attested by Alex Cox’s casting instincts or Emilio Estevez’s lack of range, perhaps a bit of both. While someone like Sean Penn or Patrick Swayze could finagle the role of the spiritually and materially bereft Otto into a second-coming-of-James Dean star turn, Estevez instead gave us the boorish, immature, awkward, clueless, and, therefore, most accurate portrayal of teen aimlessness in recent memory. This film is perhaps the most sympathetic to Bauerlein’s own argument, depicting southern California as a wasteland of apathy, sterility, greed, and burnouts. Also aliens. It moreover depicts how that aimlessness drifts into a dark, preemptive critique of mentor culture under Harry Dean Stanton and his band of blue-collar misanthropes (all named after cheap beers) at the repo lot.

The French Connection (1971) – I watch William Friedkin’s cop drama every Christmastime. I suspect because it prepares me for the brutal New York winter it renders with greater starkness than any violence. And it is a violent film, fumblingly and disastrously so. While its contemporary Dirty Harry depicted a central detective with the moral fervor of Martin Luther and the procedural scruples of a Jesuit, French Connection’s “Popeye” Doyle possessed even less of the latter and none of the former. Indeed, it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what Gene Hackman’s Doyle is after aside from chasing an obsession at the expense of property and life, let alone justice.

The Long Goodbye (1973) – In which Robert Altman takes Leigh Brackett’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s greatest novel and spins it into a kind of Rip Van Winkle tale. Phillip Marlowe embodies classic manhood and morality somehow adrift in a Los Angeles that is freer but also more brutal and corrupt than he seems able to comprehend. Elliott Gould’s proto-slacker portrayal is blackly comic as he stumbles in and out of danger as a pawn in entangled schemes with all the bewilderment of being on the outside of a cruel in-joke.

Hardcore (1979) – I never could get into Taxi Driver but I’ve always liked Paul Schrader’s voyeuristic, under-the-radar morality tales. George C. Scott is a Calvinist business owner in the Midwest whose daughter disappears into the porn industry, and who’s resolved to gain entry into its grimiest corners with a spiritualist sex worker sidekick, and extract her, come what may. That plot, a pornographic fantasy all its own, serves as a dressing for Scott’s descent from his bubble and seeing just how fallen the fallen world can be. It is a lot like The Long Goodbye, only Scott’s outsider has a safe place to escape.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) – Charles Laughton’s debut film was so despised upon its release that it became his only film. To be fair, it does make some sense that no one at that time would be chomping at the bit for an English outsider to turn the American countryside into an expressionist battleground between good and evil. But he did, and we are the richer for it. Good, in the guise of the pious Lillian Gish, triumphs of course, but not before getting the full measure of Robert Mitchum’s satanic Rev. Powell as he relentlessly pursues two children of an old cellmate unknowingly hiding a fortune. It is a story of innocence as well as a dualistic rendering of the wonder and mystery underlying America’s inseparable religiosity.

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) – In the decade that brought us Kids and Doom Generation, it’s hard to imagine that those might not have been the darkest youth-themed films of the time. Not that it wasn’t for lack of trying. Though it contains no drugs or sex, and in fact presents itself like a harmless quirky teen comedy, Todd Solondz’s indie classic is wholly unrestrained and far more wrenching in its portrayal of the very painful and lonely trials of female adolescence. We follow Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener as she is ignored at home and tormented at school. Gawky, socially tactless, and generally unremarkable, Dawn seeks to overcome that common desire to be anyone other than who she is. Solondz offers her no respite, but no comic expense either, trading exploitation for empathy, which he would carry into subsequent films to pedophiles (Happiness, Life During Wartime), anti-abortion extremists (Palindromes), and the man-child archetype (Dark Horse).

The Last Days of Disco (1998) – While I’m happy that Whit Stillman finally achieved his dream of adapting an actual Jane Austen work with Love and Friendship, I’m of the opinion that he was at the peak of his powers with this film. The Last Days of Disco is Stillman at his most fun and most realized, and perhaps least off-putting to people who aren’t wealthy or naturally wry. Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny exude enviable chemistry as newly minted young urban professionals trying to maneuver early-1980s New York City with mixed success. It is a more mature and more lasting generational rejoinder to Reality Bites; indeed, it may be Stillman’s remarks to the graduating class of whenever.

The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1992-1996) Nickelodeon never seemed entirely sure of what it had with Pete and Pete. Outwardly, it is a kind of starter kit for cult obsession. It is the first show, at least among people of a certain age, to instill the notion that not only was it okay to be a bit weird but that almost everyone is. In fact Pete and Pete subverted Nickelodeon’s “kids rule” marketing of the time by portraying adults as well-meaning but misunderstood, whether it be parents, teachers, crossing guards, or the ice cream man. Airing just prior to the internet’s dawn, the show never gained a network post-cancellation, but fans always manage to find one another as if by some strange unseen tether. And it is a joy when they do.

Daria (1997-2001) – For a while, Daria was living in the shadow of the show from which it spun off: Beavis and Butthead. Daria now lives in the shadow of its own protagonist, by no fault of its own, of course. Coming in as fans of Pete and Pete—and Clarissa Explains It All for that matter—were entering high school, precocious teens with misanthropic but hyper-vulnerable streaks were few and far between on television in the late Clinton era. The Daria type is well known even to some who haven’t seen the show, and viewers can identify with it with some pride. But that is to overlook the depth of the show’s world, which like Pete and Pete found empathy and humanity in even its most vacuous characters. And it was not reluctant to call bullshit on Daria’s own cynical affectations.

The Innocents (1961) – Depending on who you talk to, this ambiguity rich Truman Capote adaptation of the already ambiguity rich Henry James short story “The Turn of the Screw” is either gothic horror or psychological thriller. It is either the story of a godly governess trying to protect her charges from the menace of two dead lovers or of Victorian repression embodied trying to wrap her head around the notions of sexual agency and children being sinister entirely of their own cognizance. I mean, it’s a masterpiece either way you split it.

The Go-Between (1971) – The final of three collaborations between Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter, The Go-Between seems to go hand-in-hand with The Innocents. Though ostensibly a period romance and a coming of age story, based on the L.P. Hartley novel, the film also functions as a kind of prelude to a ghost story. A boy of low social standing spends the summer at his much wealthier schoolmate’s family estate where he develops and infatuation with his friend’s older sister (Julie Christie) and befriends her lover, the rich but common neighbor (Alan Bates). The two use his naivety to coordinate their affair. That should end well. Anglophiles are welcome to savor the pitch-perfect aristocratic gentility provided they can withstand the slow burn of traumas being passed on and lingering without end.

Morvern Callar (2002) – Admittedly I could put any Lynne Ramsay film on this list, but Morvern Callar seems to me her signature achievement. Samantha Morton is a Scottish supermarket drone who finds an escape by replacing her dead boyfriend’s name on his novel manuscript with her own, road trips in southern Spain, and gets a £100,000 publishing advance. That’s about it, really. Lynne Ramsay is one of the best filmmakers working today; Morvern Callar establishes her mastery of visual lyricism. It also has an aces soundtrack. Think of it as the timeless and understated Other to the dated and garish Trainspotting.

The Brood (1979) – The Brood is not David Cronenberg’s best film, but it is his most personal, something uncommon for a filmmaker otherwise thought to be rather aloof. In addition to its satirical commentary on experimental therapy, The Brood is an illustration of the traumas of divorce and the perpetuation of patterns of abuse in that typically graphic Cronenbergian style, in which a father in a custody battle over his daughter must protect her from homicidal childlike creatures asexually birthed from his ex-wife as an embodiment of her rage. “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic,” Cronenberg said. Roger Ebert initially wrote off the film as an “el sleazo exploitation film,” but The Brood declare’s Cronenberg’s vision that the personal is every bit as horrific as the otherworldly, in fact more so.

Little Sister (2016) – Addison Timlin plays a nun in 2008 New York City on the verge of taking her first vows, who returns to North Carolina to face old family traumas, including a brother deformed by the Iraq War and a suicidal mother. I’m not sure the backdrop of Barack Obama’s election was necessary other than illustrating something that seems so long in the past, but the low-key indie film was a hopeful bright spot in the wastes of 2016. It demonstrates that depictions of family and faith need not be saccharine or cynical in SXSW cinema. It is also worth noting that it features Ally Sheedy as Timlin’s mother and Barbara Crampton as her Mother Superior.



Host: Okay guys. Guys? Trish can you turn the music down? Thanks. Guys? [puts microphone against speaker]

Audience: [howls at feedback]


Host: That’s better. Uhm … so this is our third Justice Action assembly. So on behalf of the Omaha chapter of Food Not Bombs I’d like to thank you for taking your time, taking the interest, and wanting to make real change possible. Give yourselves a hand, I guess.

Audience: [politely claps]

Host: I’d like to thank Mootopia for providing these excellent, excellent vegan doughnuts. Oh, uhm, announcements. The signup sheet for the resistance demonstration next Saturday; we need a rough headcount, we also need transportation volunteers, legal counsel or people who know legal counsel. So just make a note next to your name if you have those or any additional qualities I can’t think of right now. The Black Hundreds need a place to crash for Friday’s show.

Audience: [boos]

Host: I know, I know their reputation. But Lance has vouched for them—

Audience member: Lance is a shithead.

Host: Anyway, we’ll also be passing around a donation bucket for rental fees, gas money, and general upkeep so … please be generous. Demos are not donations, people.

So tonight’s speaker … uhm … it might be better to have him tell you. His name is Brad. He’s a freelance … activist. He came in from, I think, Des Moines … maybe? Anyway we heard about him because he made a stir out there and has an important presentation on maximizing our grassroots impact. Anyway, please give it up for Brad.

Audience: [claps politely]

Brad: Thank you. [pause] For the past couple of months I’ve been going around to groups like these. Meeting in venues, in community centers, basements, and occasionally—often regrettably—in bars, and I’ve been talking to people about indifference. We know all about indifference. We are here because we have to constantly confront it or maneuver around it. It’s very powerful to exercise on a mass scale. And that’s kind of how it works, doesn’t it? The more power you acquire, the more room you have to turn your gaze any way you wish. It’s a nice cold reality check. Because power always looks away from the same direction: away from the broad and toward the narrow. And if you happen to be in the narrow it’s fantastic. But, to varying degrees, we often find ourselves behind institutions. Government is indifferent, the schools are indifferent, the police—on a good day—are indifferent. The family, too, may be indifferent.

So what do we do here? Each of us has different terms, different applications, and different methods to battle mass indifference. Resistance, opposition, progress, liberation. Action, generally speaking, but I prefer care. It’s sort of a better contrast. True, care is kind of a nothing term on the surface, like niceness. If it means anything it means something babyish and coddling. Think self-care, whatever that is. It takes a lot of tenacity to scrape off the liberal lacquering over such language, but once you do something entirely unrecognizable but entirely arresting is shown to you. There’s something awesome about care, something even devastating about it. When you care for something or someone, or when you or your cause is cared about, even on some passingly trivial level that the caregiver is soon to forget, it means the world. It sometimes even shakes someone’s assumptions to their foundation and must then be rebuilt with new schematics.

Having those sides established we like to think we know where we stand. And that’s generally how these talks go, right? We care. And we affirm our caring ways using tidied up platitudes from a generation that might as well be from another universe, we take them out into the streets through engagement, awareness, dialogue, demonstration, and so on, and the cycle perpetuates. How does that feel when you do it over and over to the same effect? Whatever good intentions and principles these acts started out with, over time they wear down gradually until they become yellowed kitsch items that we rediscover at an estate sale and hang up to accentuate our personal space for added authenticity.

I blame no one for this degradation. Indifference is among the most easily communicated viruses. But that doesn’t excuse the obligation to confront and accept one’s indifference to, if not the stated goal at hand, then any wider vision or consequence on which any goal might depend.


Audience member: And?

Brad: I don’t actually know.

Audience member: What?

Brad: I never could quite nail down the rest because by that point the audience would revolt and run me out of the venue. I guess this was one way of saying I was bringing the wrong message. You see, I came from back east with a sudden but vague sense of affecting change from the dregs up. I didn’t know what compelled me to do so at the time. I had never done this before and had only a hunch as to where I was to go to do it. So it’s been haphazard to say the least. It was not until just last week that I had found out what the right message was. My last attempt to speak in Des Moines went expectedly south. With nowhere to go I washed some dishes at a diner and holed up in the warmest corner I could find at the bus depot. I was woken up at two in the morning to two cops dragging out someone who claimed had lost his ticket and was soliciting donations for a new one. He was giving some resistance and they were giving back. My original instinct was to do the acceptable thing and pretend nothing was happening, but this time was different, and I can’t explain adequately what caused this. But I got up and sought to deescalate the situation. Or at least pay for the man’s damn ticket.

This didn’t go well, because it was only a matter of seconds before a white light came over me. Then I found myself walking in the middle of what I think was I-95 in what looked like a summer traffic jam. There were cars lining every lane in both directions but they weren’t moving, because they were empty. The silence was absolute, no motors, no horns, and no voices, not even from birds. I looked up and saw a blanket of red come above and block the sky. It came over like a wave and came down like a swarm, but of rose pedals, covering every inch of the earth. And then a great wind gusted and blew everything away, clearing the road. I awoke in a cot in the break room. I’d been tazed, apparently. Maybe people who get tazed see this all the time and think nothing of it, but I couldn’t let it go. On the bus to the next city I pored over every detail I could recall. And by the time I had reached Omaha City limits I’d come to what I accept to be the appropriate conclusion.

Audience member: Which is?

Brad: Peace.

Host: Our task is to work for peace?

Brad: Yes.

Audience member: Like … inner peace?

Brad: Peace in total. Peace for humankind and from there, the earth.

Audience member: Okay, sounds good. How?

Brad: I have no idea.

Audience: [howls and boos]

Host: Hold it, hold it. Shut up! This isn’t looking like much of a talk.

Brad: Well it’s not quite so easy. You can talk about justice because justice has substance. You know what you’re getting and you sure as hell know what you’re being denied. But peace is impossible. Sure, there have been movements for peace in the past, but stopping war is not quite the same thing, good though that is. Peace in its own way is terrifying. What does it mean? To make all of humanity quiet. But what does that entail? Often it just means a more equitable indifference. I need to tread carefully.

Host: So why speak on peace at all? Why not just justice? That seems more within our realm. More manageable.

Brad: Because maybe justice is only a part of it. And maybe it’s not enough. Maybe peace is so immense that justice is a kind of parasitic appendage. It’s minutiae. Anyway I come telling you what I am told to tell you.

Audience member: Who tells you?

Brad: I’d just as soon not say.

Host: It’s not Robby Mook, is it?

Brad: No! Fuck off.


Audience member: Holy shit. Is it God? Daryl did you bring a cult leader here?

Host: Okay, hold on. Hold on.

Brad: See, this is what I was worried would happen.

Audience: [jeers and swearing]

Audience member: Get out! Fuck off!

Brad: So what if I am? [pause] And you think I enjoy this? You think this is something I just woke up and decided to do? To leave my job as a video editor and my friends and family for dumb fucking Eat, Pray, Love vision quest? Fuck you. It’s not a new t-shirt I put on, or some gift I willingly received. It’s really fun ending every day with vomiting fits and night terrors.

Host: About what?

Brad: About consequences. It’s like I’m being shown all the ways this thing I said or that thing I said gets twisted into some monstrous new form and perpetuates the very pain I’m trying to undo. Not out of malice but out of simple habit. I don’t know if being conscious of that makes it better. I hope it does. But really, beware certainty and self-confidence, they are blinders. The false visionaries are easy to spot. They are not the purveyors of sinister intent or impure principle, but of coziness in the knowledge that what they do may be precisely what people want or need now, but doesn’t ultimately make any difference hereafter. Affirmation without responsibility is no good answer.

Audience member: You’ve given us no answers.

Brad: There’s no one answer.

Audience member: Pray?

Brad: That’s a start.

Audience member: Abstain from sex.

Brad: If that’s what helps.

Audience member: This is bullshit.

Brad: Look. I was originally of two minds with this. Part of me wanted to take what I had been told and craft a eulogy around it. Let’s decline, yes, but with dignity and solemnity. Even love. It would have been easy to profess just piggybacking on what I had essentially always thought. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t need to think like that. It came to me while sitting at a Dairy Queen in between bus rides and seeing a mother corral four children on the next table. I think it really hit home when one of them flung their blizzard spoon at the side of my head. Maybe we could be saved. And maybe that it’s best not to think of it was something we get to be and something we ought to be. And that we ought to be doing this in unison. Thinking of it in the abstract makes it daunting. But thinking in steps we make toward this common end makes it achievable. And make no mistake; I want this vision to cast a shadow over the whole country and then some, even if that means consigning more than a handful of people to misery.

Audience member: So why tell us? And not, like, church people.

Brad: Because eventually you’d listen. And eventually you’d talk, even if unfavorably, to anyone who would hear. And you will keep talking and take what I said more seriously than others. Whatever the source of the directive, we are our own experts. We are ever at each other’s mercy, and a lot of the time the wrong people are the ones most aware of that. [pause] Oh, I think, technically, I was supposed to follow up my proposal with the warning that if you don’t heed the proposal that untold suffering and toil will be in store for us all. But I made a judgment call and thought that might be a bit redundant. But … still.

Audience: [politely claps]

Host: Thanks, Brad, that definitely gave us something to consider. Oh! A reminder, Wednesday’s self-defense seminar will have a special tactical tutorial for the demonstration. We’ll be talking pepper spray remedies, the buddy system all that. And also, The Ain’t Rights had to cancel, obviously, so we need a new opener for Friday, leave your demos with Trish, please. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Thanks everyone for coming. Goodnight.



In the late-1980s, the BBC aired a show called What’s That Noise, a musical education program geared towards children. It is not particularly well known in the United States and might not even be very well known in the United Kingdom. But to its credit, the show assumed a great deal of curiosity in its audience of the variety and sophistication of aural culture. This was most infamously evident in a 1989 episode, wherein they decided to take the show’s title literally.

After a pitch-perfect opening performance by a children’s string orchestra, then-host Craig Charles walked onto the set grinning impishly. “A little bit too angry for me, a bit too aggressive, a bit too doom-laden, a bit too subversive,” he says. “So let’s lighten the mood here a little.” The camera then cuts to a band of four scrawny men with faces enshrouded in shoulder-length (or longer) hair. They play a song called “You Suffer,” which lasts for one second and has only four words (“You suffer, but why?”). The band is Napalm Death, who had just released their second album From Enslavement to Obliteration. The segment lasts under three minutes, featuring a reserved, awkward interview with a game Charles, and one more, slightly longer, song. The BBC was said to have received numerous complaints about the episode, with many thinking the band was fabricated as part of a prank. But alas, Napalm Death was and is still real, though even at that time they had no more original members[1] and only one of those remains in the band now. The incident, which of course is memorialized on YouTube, is as instructive as it is amusing.

The grindcore movement that first emerged in the mid-1980s is, in the wider world, best left unheralded. To do otherwise, even casually, would risk having to hear it. Napalm Death’s appearance on a publicly funded children’s program was as unwelcome an intrusion into polite space as any band of that kind would ever commit. But few introductions to so unusual a sound have not been more perfect to virgin ears. Though most historians credit Flint, Michigan’s Repulsion as its originators, the Birmingham, UK band crafted grindcore to such refinement that it has been surpassed only seldom. It is incomprehensible to many and a revelation to a fervent few.

Grindcore is at turns marveled at and reviled for its sonic extremes. Of melding the primitive speed of hardcore punk, the precise speed of thrash metal, and the art damage of no wave. But those are nothing without the tonal and philosophical extremes it embodied as first principles. Though the genre owes a steep debt to the metal-punk pair bonding of Slayer, Discharge, Motörhead, and others, theirs amounted to little more than selective borrowings—and outright distortions—when compared to the pure synthesis of sound and idea that Napalm Death achieved. The political content of punk is not always its best asset. For all their clever radicalism, bands like Gang of Four and Dead Kennedys, did not venture very far beyond liberal norms. But out of the more coherent and earnest visions of Crass and Killing Joke, grindcore was able to better articulate punk’s political geist, not only seeing farther than the already extensive plain of vision of those bands, but also doing so in less time. And to the extent that it is more than political.

The concept of prophecy has taken an odd turn in our long flight from biblical antiquity. Perhaps accepting its intrinsic value, we’ve opted to reupholster it in more pristine leather instead of jettisoning it entirely with the spring-cleaning we’ve done for, say, alchemy and sorcery. On separate occasions Reinhold Niebuhr and Christopher Lasch have been called the “American Jeremiah.” Allan Bloom has been dubbed a “prophet of doom.” Cornel West has made the label central to his work. And of course it clings to the less credentialed but still rarified James Baldwin and Bill Hicks. We shouldn’t deny that these people on their own are rightly prized as independent, strident, and obsessive thinkers. Some of their work—namely Lasch’s and Baldwin’s—is currently enjoying a moment in the eclipse. But even at their most condemnatory, the status of these figures only rose, or at least never critically diminished. In a part of the world that prides itself on tolerance of dissent, prophecy, even if it is merely elevated Real Talk, is honorific. After all, as De Gaulle put it of Sartre during the 1968 uprisings, “you don’t arrest Voltaire.”

And you don’t, obviously. But every so often there might come someone having a vision to impart but no sheen or accreditation undergirding it. A vision that is bleak, with a style that is repulsive. It runs exactly contrary to the tenor of the moment at which it is heard. The true prophet shows an indifference to tact and boasts a deprivation of moral authority. He or she is counter-authority. For this there might not be harsh persecution, but there may be loud offense-taking, mockery, derision, feigned ignorance, very occasionally “constructive” criticism. Of course that makes it all the easier for any loafer with pangs of #decline to assume the mantel with pinch hits of profundity, but to say that they have not been out there would confirm that more genuine articles do exist. “I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” That is God warning the Israelites and Judeans through Jeremiah. Now imagine that set to a blast beat.

At best Napalm Death were a curiosity, an uncommon metal band that didn’t seem to think in centuries. In fact no one could quite pinpoint exactly in what time they were thinking. From Enslavement to Obliteration came into the market at the opposite end of punk’s and Thatcher’s codependent ascension. The pessimistic upheaval of the former and optimistic upheaval of the latter had given way to a stasis that cancelled one another out. Amidst the complacency, Napalm Death’s anger was untimely but not backward looking. Forsaking the easily responded-to sloganeering of their predecessors, Napalm Death buried their message under then-vocalist Lee Dorrian’s dual action indecipherability, switching between either guttural or throat-searing growls. Read on their own their lyrics are telegrammatic. “A chronic complaint of dimness/Prevails your profound ideology/A romantic vision of a ‘master race’/Attained through coercive forms of authority,” goes “Unchallenged Hate.” “What’s perspicuous on the surface/Is artificial inside/When views are merely symbolic/Of an image you hide behind,” Dorrian screams on “Lucid Fairytale.”

From Napalm Death, grindcore spread rapidly throughout Europe, North America, and Asia. And while some bands have managed to reach a distinction around the level of their catalyst, even a well-trained ear will not always detect those variations immediately. Grindcore is the most monolithic rock subgenre ever created. Most of them, to paraphrase one critic’s hilarious assessment, are barely distinguishable from a water faucet going at full blast for 30 seconds. There is design in this, certainly, with the prophetic rather than the artistic end in mind. Grindcore broke through the great contentment of the ‘90s with in a collective ominous blast. If there is one unifying theme of its sound it is urgency. At a time when most people thought life was beginning anew, the grindcore prophets countered that time was actually running out. Written off as vulgar and barbaric, it would be difficult to argue now that they were not simply foretelling of unforeseen but oncoming barbarism, of a stark shift away from calm functionality, away from eloquence, away from reason. As Brutal Truth put it on their 1997 classic Sounds of the Animal Kingdom: “The art of the deal/Numbers feed, life surreal.”

“The Trump Era” is a phrase that take writers have been trying to make stick since the beginning of primary season if not earlier. It is their shorthand for the culmination at the end of the steady freezing over of political and social civility over the last 15 years. But it was only going to stick if its namesake was going to win. No doubt this honor is incentive enough for Trump to persevere in his otherwise frustrating transition to public service. Lending his name to objects, after all, is a large part of how he earns his income. What greater object is there than the entire zeitgeist?

But that ownership is slippery. The failure of the experts to foresee Trump’s victory even as they tried to mark his rise gives his moment an air of novelty. But it is less impressive to the dregs of the world’s dingy clubs and basements. “The clowns are now the ringmasters backed with the arsenal of the economy,” said Assück in 1991. “Our ears are plugged when we speak the tongue of reality/Failure to accept the truths, we speak of peace but push civilization to the edge.” They understood early on the rising tensions finally giving way, and will no doubt comprehend Trump’s breakneck sense of urgency and brute intuitive approach to decision making. Grindcore saw the kind of culture that would create superweapons as objects of pure terror and knew it wasn’t a particularly radical leap to think it will actually get used. “Super powers/Threat of war,” goes a Terrorizer song released, rather hysterically, in 1989. “World wide peace/Dream is gone.”

I admit that “The Grind Era” lacks the branding punch that “The Trump Era” has ignominiously gained over the past year. But sticklers for accuracy will doubtless find the exchange an amenable one. It is, of course, no mark of triumph for us to acknowledge the reality of the visions we chose to ignore. Or at least to laugh at. More notorious than Napalm Death’s children’s broadcasting debut is Cannibal Corpse’s gross out comedy cameo. Grindcore bands still exist, some of them are even quite good, but its peak had long ago past. The medically obsessed Carcass, founded by early Napalm Death guitarist Bill Steer, had sowed controversy in the ‘90s by signing to a major label and daring to explore nuance. But this is not to say that the messages have stopped coming.

Amidst the ensuing chaos of the Roman Empire and the persecution of early Christians, someone named John on the Greek island of Patmos composed the controversial concluding chapters of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. It contains some of the most disturbing images ever committed to writing, even if one is not reading it literally, describing an all-encompassing conflict with evil that nonetheless ends in the ultimate triumph of God:

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

Following his departure halfway into the recording of Napalm Death’s first album, guitarist Justin Broadrick formed Godflesh. Described by writer Dave Thompson as “Pornography-era Cure on Quaaludes,” Godflesh was far more punishing than any conventional grindcore band, going drudgingly slow, favoring agony in place of urgency. Following its demise 14 years later, he founded Jesu, which followed Godflesh’s pace but not its tone, borrowing increasingly from shoegaze and ambient with each release. This, too, has been met with derision, though largely from metalheads this time, much in the same way the Revelation was thought heretical among some early Christians. But the trend shows little relent, as clearly shown by complimentarily named Deafheaven, who straddle the line between the earthly and the ethereal in the space of a single song, and Liturgy.

This is perhaps to read too much into an otherwise natural progression of the decades-long activity of a musician going into middle age, but it’s one worth observing all the same. The call for calm is a repeat one in our history. We long for it. It often does not come cheaply. Whether we can avoid such a payment I can’t say, but it should not be billed to a single person.

1 Napalm Death’s lineup is so unstable that even on their debut album Scum only one member, the drummer Mick Harris, appears on both sides.



[Note: This is a continuation of a previous post.]

PBS presents

(Shit, I can’t see anything.)

Where’d he go?

(I don’t know he just went off.)

What’s the matter?

(My light is fucked up.)

[distant screams]

(Wait he’s over there.)

A film by the Evergreen Culture Collective

Oh hey guys, nice of you to join.


Will you shut up? Oh my god, what a tool bag. Listen. Listen! You gotta calm down. This hurts me as much as it’s going to hurt you. I mean, it might hurt you a little more, but everything’s going to be fine. You’ve been training yourself for this moment your entire adulthood. And you lost. And that’s something we’re all gonna have to live with.

What was that all about?

Fucking gym rats, always think they can outrun me.


Okay guys, this one’s for the legal team.

[Wait … wait! No!]




So this bar’s around the corner?

Yeah, I think it’s under a different name from when I remember it. But same nice outdoor setup, same shuffleboard amenities, same doo-wop music. Same pumpkin spice poutine if you’re into that.


Hey, so I think someone’s been following us.


Like he’s right there by the dairy.

Oh shit.

Is that a hunter?

Worse. Don’t loo— … Too late.


What. What do you want? How did you find me?

[Who are these guys?]

These are just people I’m helping out for a project.

[Cool. So … I was wondering about that thing … we talked about.]

What is there to talk about?

[Like, helping you out with … stuff.]

I’ve been pretty clear that I don’t need help. And don’t think I don’t know what you’re getting at.

[I don’t see what’s so wrong about it.]

Because it’s not worth it. I assure you. I’m not saying this to be exclusionary. I don’t need this shit on my conscience.

[Whatever’s left of it, anyway.]

Petulance is not a good look for you. Don’t you have a dissertation to work on or something?

[I’m a software programmer.]

And you’re going to stay that way. You’re going to walk away from here and have a contented life. Greeting the sun every goddamn day because that is what contented people do.

[And what about when your symptoms start showing? And you can’t hide in plain sight anymore?]

I think I’ll manage.

[Not with the way you’re living.]

Did it ever occur to you that you are already a vampire? Like, of peoples time and energy? I’ve heard that’s a thing, go crawl to a coven if it means that much to you.

[Whatever, dude.]

Oh, and if I see this shit on Xanga you hear from me. Boundaries, Dustin.


Nothing. You’re not gonna use any of this, right?



(Beth. … Beth!)


(We’ve been following him for an hour. Where are we going?)

Okay, hold on. “Ted” … “Ted”!


Why are we here?

I thought you wanted to go here?

Why would we want to walk on the Staten Island Expressway?

I guess a scent took me here.

A scent?

Yeah, it happens sometimes, when I go without eating for a while.

You ate four hours ago.

Really? That feels like forever ago.

Jesus Christ, you’re teeth.

Sorry … sorry.

(So where’s the scent taking you?)

I think I lost it actually.

(Are you fucking kidding me?)

I … look, I don’t know where this takes me sometimes, man.

No, no. Dave, chill out. It’s fine. It’s fine. We can just get an Uber or a taxi or something. We’ll say we broke down or got stranded. That’s not weird, right.

(No that’s not weird at all.)



Hey, Dave.


I was looking for a charger and this falls out of your bag.

(Hey … hold on …)

(Is that a stake?)

What the fuck? We had a deal with this guy, we were building trust.

(Wait, are you totally sure about that?)

Are you questioning my instincts?

(Well I mean … )

(The harvest festival thing.)

No one asked you, Lance.

(But no one will intern for us anymore.)

Hey, what’s up?

Shit, sorry. We thought you were asleep.

I was.

Did we wake you?

No, it’s just after dusk and I have a kind of biological clock for that. Oh, so that’s what you were talking about.

We can explain.

Let me look at it.

On behalf of the crew, I apologize and assure you that we are not vampire hunters.

(It was only precautionary.)

Dave. I got this.

Oh I know. You think vampire hunters come with Nerf guns like these? Where did you get this?

(At Prospect Park the other night.)

Of course you did. As whittling it isn’t bad, I guess. But it’s not going to do you any good. In fact, I’ll let you demonstrate.


Yeah, I’m game. Dave, put your camera down and come stand in front of me.

(But … I—)

Don’t worry; nothing’s going to happen to you. Think of it as fact-checking.

(O- … okay.)

Wait … wait. This is nuts, you’re implicating my crew directly in—

Listen, I wanna get this out in the air. Think of it as a favor. I owe this to you. For putting you through so much else this week.


Okay, let me do this. I, “Ted Cruz,” hereby consent to have …


Dave—thank you—stab me in the heart with his artisanal stake. And I absolve him and you of any responsibility over its consequences, however monumental or meager. Okay? Okay. Now, Dave, you know where the heart is, right?


Good. Have you ever stabbed someone?

(I gutted an elk once.)

Not at all the same thing. So on three you’re going to thrust that with all your strength on this point, where my finger is. All right? Good. Get ready. One … two … thre—

Oh my god … oh my god.

(Get back!)

(I’m gonna be sick.)

(It’s fucking everywhere. Why is it so black?)

(Wait, is he … did he die?)


(No you check, shithead.)

Shut up, both of you. “Ted”? Are you—

[laughter, hacking]


There’s a mop [hacks] in the corner, and a sink at the bathroom is down the hall. You need some practice, Dave. E for effort, though.



[Distant howls]

(What the hell?)

What do you think it is?

(I don’t know.)

Go on, Lance, everyone is thinking it anyway.

(Wer… werewolves?)


(You’re shitting us.)

Who’s to say? It’s a crazy world out there.


Makes you think, I guess.

Are you guys kidding me? That is obviously a fox.

(Oh, come on.)

(That’s not funny.)

No it’s not, and you should be thankful to people like us.


Just because that’s not a werewolf doesn’t mean that there might not be one elsewhere.

What do you mean?

I can’t say for certain that we got them all.

The vampires were at war with the werewolves?

I wouldn’t say war exactly; war implies a mutual aggression. I have no idea how the werewolves would have felt about us, but we have kind of an … arrangement with werewolf hunters where if we sense a herd of them or a den or whatever the fuck they call their squads, we send the signal and they root them out.

That sounds like genocide.

Look, I don’t want to get bogged down in semantics here. They were a problem once, they are no longer. Everyone, basically, is happy.

(That’s so crazy.)


Guys, I’m fucking with you. Werewolves literally do not exist. Listen to yourselves.



Arthur Marks’s film The Roommates premiered in 1973 exclusively to drive-in audiences. It is one of several films Marks released—whether as director, writer or producer—in order to tap the lucrative market otherwise neglected by major studios. Other films included Class of ’74, The Centerfold Girls, Bonnie’s Kids, A Woman for All Men, and Linda Lovelace for President. As indicative of that last title, Marks was riding a wave born from Deep Throat, released a year earlier. But unlike Deep Throat, Marks’s films were not X-rated. They contained the bare minimum of passably titillating nudity (read: breasts), next to no profanity, but plenty of innuendo with all the grace and poise of thunder. It was not porn, but porn-esque, better known as porn chic.

The Roommates, seemingly by default of having been uploaded to YouTube several times, has been made a banner example of this form. It follows five roughly college-aged California women, each beautiful and with an assigned archetype—the cut-up, the prude, the ice queen, the naïf, the black one—who travel to Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains for a summer of mostly carefree, little-to-no-strings-attached sex and possible romance. To be sure, the film is largely a mess, the jokes are flat, the acting flatter, and the writing is careless. One character appears to switch personalities halfway into the film, and a murder spree subplot, carried out by a woman just running around the woods in a dark dress, just barely escapes the realm of non sequitur. This is to say nothing of an affair with a teenage camper that would be predatory and manipulative in any other context. The film’s miraculous survival is rooted more in its camp, the aesthetics of its cast, and its bizarre ambition.

“All those women libbers where are they from? It must be the Victorian age. They’re so anti-fun. I mean I believe women should have basic rights. Like 60 percent for women, 30 percent for men, and 10 percent for the other kind.” So says star Marki Bey at the film’s opening scene. In many ways, The Roommates carries itself in a mode of manifesto, depicting the utopia that the Sexual Revolution was supposed to usher in after Griswold v. Connecticut, Deep Throat, and the Republican Party’s implosion. The film was not simply by and for men, but for women, for swinging couples, and conceivably for anyone else freed from the shackles of repressive hang-ups, eager to get into far more fun kinds of shackles. “Well I am [a liberal], politically. But I’m against everything,” star Laurie Rose declares in a shower scene. It was the defining statement of the New: The New Casual, the New Maturity, the New Freedom, suffocating the old hierarchy, its old mores, and its old shame. Certainly most of us still hear the signal it transmitted.


The MTV reality show Are You the One? can seem rather confusing if one, like me, stumbles on it in the middle of a season. The show is ostensibly about single people—10 men and 10 women—looking for love. It claims to rely on experts and the latest “science” to determine the “perfect match” among the competitors, who are left to figure out how the pairs break down. Drama ensues, hearts are broken and mended in the span of an evening; also there is a cash prize. Frankly, even starting from the beginning of a season makes one long for the days of pencil grips and training wheels.

The fault lies predominantly with the show itself, which is conceived as a patchwork of other shows: the voyeurism of The Real World, the exotic locales and competitive edge of Road Rules, and the basic premise of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. The show is currently in its fifth season, set in palatial home in the Dominican Republic, which no one is permitted to leave unless they and their partner at the moment win the opportunity to go on a “date” at an exotic location of the producers’ choosing, like a waterfall or something. Much of the time, however, is spent mingling, which ascends ever possible level of physical intimacy in a short period. In fact in the most recent season, two people are filmed in the process of sleeping with each other before the end of the first episode. To watch it, then, is to watch spring break stretched out over the course of two months. But it works.

In the era of Bachelor/ette shame-watching, a show so much more mercenary and debased would seem like pure intellectual self-mutilation. But while it does not have the ratings share that the Bachelor shows have, it is not without its committed and gleeful following. The blog Are You the One? Math, for instance, provides episode recaps but also “grids, burndown charts, strategy, and an explanation of the blackout rule” (which really does need explanation). This includes mathematized probabilities of perfect matches; one episode proffers 84 possible combinations.

But the show is as much aspirational as it is logical. The contestants cover most if not all of the conventions of contemporary beauty. Even if they are there because of difficulties with relationships in the past, which tend to repeat themselves here, they are largely unimpeded by them thanks to their basic but firm grasp of social skills. Though one contestant might be notably naïve and another might by notably manipulative, they are on equal footing in their ability maneuver the elasticity of modern social mores and their sensory pick up of social cues. They are comfortable in their own skin and want (or want to want) to be vulnerable. I cannot think of a show more suited to the Tinder-ized landscape in which we find ourselves, and one that embodies the app’s mix-and-match-driven aims while providing catharsis for its myriad drawbacks—such as when a couple is not confirmed as a match but are so convinced otherwise that they stunt the game through refusal to separate or emotional paralysis.


In his critique of Thomasine Christine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvärd’s novel Two Ages, Søren Kierkegaard spoke of society in two modes. One is revolution, one that is “essentially passionate,” it is a “revelation by a manifestation of energy … and does not deceptively change under the influence of conjectural criticism concerning what the age really wants.” It is an age “obliged to make a decision, but this … is the saving factor, for decision is the little magic word that existence respects.” The other mode is reflection, one “stealing down the furtive corridors of ambiguity and equivocation.” Reflection is ever linked to a society of listless conformity and “mathematical equality” which causes every individual to congeal into a single amorphous unthinking mob.

However familiar one is with the context of Kierkegaard’s argument*, we are never unfamiliar with these modes. Some of us are even lucky—depending on how you look at it—to have experienced both, albeit in a more Hegelian framework. Revolution gives way to reflection. The excellent adventure begets the bogus journey. The declaration of The Roommates cauterizes into the begged question of Are You the One?. And while some revolutions have no problem cauterizing, the Sexual Revolution was ever one to be self-conscious of the limits of its own vitality. Culture-warring helps some, but sanctimony, even in earnest, is a diversion from the fun it is defending. Something more proactive, but somehow more affirmative, needed to be done.

“Once upon a time things seemed pretty real. Then, gradually, things started seeming totally phony,” Sarah Perry writes. “Some people were more sensitive to the phoniness than others. It was a lonely time for a special snowflake. The good news is that now, you, you yourself, the only one who sees through the facade, must go and find the real.” What Perry means here is authenticity, a term some of us may hear more often than others. It can either consist, as Perry puts it, of “rejecting existing categories and attempting to break down orders of abstraction” or “creating new orders of abstraction and signal.” If the Sexual Revolution’s original liberation was something of the former, its reorientation would have to lean toward the latter.


In the summer of 2016, MTV premiered a show called Suspect. The show is hosted by Nev Schulman and iO Tillet Wright, a self-described “artist and activist.” In each episode, Nev and iO travel across the country helping people with friends or family members whom they suspect are hiding a serious problem. People who were once vivacious have become sullen; once outgoing, now withdrawn. And so on. Wright’s work is often geared towards gender identity and its fluidity and reflects the identitarian social progressivism MTV has lately embraced. Many of the episodes feature suspects who simply haven’t come out of the closet yet, or who are transitioning between genders. Whatever the case, iO’s overall design is clear: “All my work is about making people excited about becoming their true selves. Which is exactly what Nev and I hope to accomplish with this show.”

From sexual revolution—of liberation, play, and upending norms—to sexual reawakening—of empathy, earnestness, and creation of new norms. If the former was less welcomed in its time it was also more successfully asserted and entrenched. For the latter, however, the opposite seems to be the case; at least with this particular tack. Suspect did not get renewed for another season. The reason given was Nev’s well-publicized parental leave. But there is also the possibility that the show was not well-liked. Some thought the show was too formulaic; some didn’t like the chemistry between the hosts. Though its biggest problem seemed to be same one that haunted its predecessor Intervention, as one IMDb reviewer put it: “[T]here’s no shaking the feeling like maybe I shouldn’t be watching this. … Even if these people give consent, it’s really about delving into the private lives of … people in very sad circumstances.” “Very sad” might be debatable, but even good intentions can’t quell the overriding voyeurism that compels reality TV viewership.

Fortunately for Nev and MTV, Catfish has premiered in its sixth season. In fact its Wednesday 8:00 PM time slot precedes Are You the One?’s 9:00 spot. This arrangement, however brief or convenient, is instructive.

Like Are You the One?, Catfish is about young people pursuing love, but where the former is aspirational, the latter is cautionary. The participants, whether those being catfished or those catfishing, are steeped in loneliness and low self-worth; and that’s when any of them aren’t being underhanded, malicious, or simply creepy. Where Are You the One? is aesthetically homogenous, Catfish is heterogenous. It might even be the most diverse show MTV has ever broadcast. It crosses lines of race, sexual orientation, class, and body type. But for once such diversity counts against it, particularly in one respect. “Most episodes of Catfish could be called So, I Am Secretly Fat,” Margaret Lyons writes in Vulture. “That’s by far the most common lie, and it’s one that some of the catfishees themselves lie about, too. … And while the show reminds us over and over that it’s bad to lie, it also subtly confirms that most of these people were right to: Nearly all of the catfishees, when confronted with the information that their catfishers were overweight, changed their tune about how in love they were.” Poverty is similarly skewed on the show: “The unspoken answer to ‘why haven’t you guys ever met?’ is often ‘because neither of us could afford a plane ticket.’”


Normalization is never an explicit policy objective in any liberal scheme. To say what is normal is to go against liberal guiding principles of maturity and self-definition. But normalization asserts itself anyway as the schemes become more pervasive and accepted and liberalizers are left to delineate what is abnormal for the sake of custodial maintenance. Abnormality is distinct from authenticity, or even basic weirdness, in its lack of cohesion. We are all individuals under the liberal dome, but it helps to have the right attitude. The abnormal, in other words, are not so much the willful enemies of liberalizers, but the naïve signers of the social contract who did not read the fine print, or who merely skimmed the user’s manual.

Normalization is not enforced in any systematic way, but hangs as a kind of thick dust cloud from a knee-jerk reaction to any form of abnormality. Even if Nev’s and Max’s intentions on Catfish are humane, few of the show’s viewers would have an easy time saying they watch it for reasons other than self-distinction. A harsher example would be the application of autism. Terms like “autist,” “aspie neckbeard” or “sperg,” a verb meaning “a tantrum about a perceived injustice, a la someone with Asperger’s,” are recurrent insults used against people with inelegant beliefs and/or appearances. They have been used against libertarians from the right and the left. The left went into overdrive applying it to gamergate supporters, however. So much so that Laurie Penny had to call bullshit as she saw it. But this tack has little to do with actual autistics and everything to do with semantic clumsiness and aesthetic biases.

“Are you fed up with looking like a regular, law-abiding citizen? Need to add a little bad boy to your style? A little bit of dangerous,” asks comedian Jon Lajoie. “Try rapist glasses.” Lajoie’s parody commercial takes the cheap, clunky thick-framed eyewear of recent antiquity and rejiggers it as edgy. “Ladies love the bad boy look, and you can’t get much worse than a rapist.” The commercial, uploaded in 2007, was likely poking fun at American Apparel’s mid-‘00s temporal appropriation of ‘70s and ‘80s kitsch. But he’s also tapped into a sensibility of aesthetic regulation wherein the low rent and awkward is recast as sinister. Hipster culture did tap into that unseemliness, some with more dedication than others. And Lajoie made a sequel to the video expanding the line to include the “pedophile beard,” “the public masturbator trench coat,” and the “there’s-got-to-be-something-wrong-with-that-guy hat.” But Lajoie slyly adds that “you don’t have to be a convicted murder/public masturbating rapist pedophile to want to look like one.” Indeed.


Saying that the Sexual Revolution, and liberalism more broadly, has run aground is purely masturbatory if its detractors do not concede the circumstances of its birth. Norms of all stripes overstay their welcome, or become corrupted by arbitrary application. Panic begets reaction begets revolution, and so on and so forth. And it’s not like they don’t have a framework with which to comprehend it. The great social wave being surfed by Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Steve Bannon has authoritarian echoes of the one once ridden by Roy Jenkins, Pierre Trudeau, and William O. Douglas. And those who concede this as an emergent counterculture only serve to tailor liberalism. Much in the same way that liberalism tailored reaction.

Over the course of watching The Roommates, one is struck by its unambiguous, even chivalrous, heteronormativity. Though it makes gestures towards a widening of personal agency and recognition of mutual respect and dignity toward all people, its social strata is a familiar one. At Lake Arrowhead, and beyond, the men are masculine and the female are feminine. They are attracted to each other and no one else. And the otherwise bewildering murder spree subplot proves crucial to the point of being prophetic. The hero turns out to be a tall, rugged—albeit black—cop while the killer he stops is not a woman but an emasculated and repressed man in disguise.

The Roommates is just a dumb drive-in movie that likely never broke through the audience wall of bored young men. But the film’s vision, however unintentional it was, is perhaps the most uncannily precise depiction of the liberal ideal as it is executed. It is political aims descended into aesthetic correction, created and perfected only by those with the time available to do it. More bluntly, liberalism is an inside joke. To answer it by simply trying to frame a better, more inclusive inside joke would be to miss the broader point.

The liberal revolutions were bold and brazen claims on human conduct. A true revolution against their stagnation must be equal in their boldness, going back to the root of what is most meaningful in being a social person. “As regards sexual morality,” Br. Urban Hannon (née Michael) writes, “we have reached a point at which it is no longer sufficient for us to criticize modernity’s poor answers. Like our Lord in the gospel narratives, we must also correct its terribly impoverished questions.” Hannon’s proposal, though in agreement with the Foucaultian idea of sexual orientation as a “social construct,” makes a sharp turn away from the “postmodern nihilistic libertinism” so far engendered. “[W]e proponents of Christian chastity should see the impending doom of the gay–straight divide not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity.”

Whether or not the Virtuous Revolution can be carried out along those lines depends on a lot of factors. A resurgence of radical Catholic orthodoxy over America’s predominant Protestantism and secularism, its non-Christian faiths, let alone regular Catholic orthodoxy, for instance, seems unlikely. But if nothing else the framework has been laid down for other proposals, similarly bold and substantial. Indeed, let us raze the drive-ins—what few are left standing anyway—and usher in new cross-country forums, where people do nothing but talk over the most pressing stakes and lay forth their most ironclad principles. What a far better option to while away a weekend.

*I credit Matthew Schmitz for inspiring the formulation for my own purposes.


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.”



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 at 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 was 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.