Black Ribbon Award

THE LEAST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HUMAN INTEREST STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

OMEGA MILO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

APOCALYPSE TBD

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Traveling by air used to be a wonder. Then it became a tedium. For me it has always been nerve-wracking. But in the span of a weekend it has become politicized on top of all of that. Donald Trump’s authority has made it so. Under the auspices of his new office, he placed fresh dung on a much older dunghill, having imposed an order temporarily blocking the admission of people from select countries in the Middle East, whether they are refugees from Syria or green card holders visiting Somalia, or wherever. In response, his many opponents have descended on numerous airports to protest any detention or expulsion that may take place.

Trump’s orders are unacceptable. Legal grounds and moral grounds are glaring, but perhaps preeminent over those are the grounds of sheer operative expediency. That which has united the bickering cliques seems to be the brashness by which President Trump hands down his orders filtered of the clouds of procedural clemency. The amount of chaos and confusion he imposes upon an already confused bureaucracy, and his apparent indifference to any of it, is staggering even to sympathizers; as if the dunghill was also a wasps nest. Evidently taken with the trappings of his Twitter celebrity, Trump seeks to project them outside of the internet bubble. His orders are as he has stated them, with the implication that his “followers” are all instantly aware of its utterance and its intent. Secretary Mattis, Director Pompeo, and the border authorities didn’t have their notifications on is all.

Donald Trump, in a style similar to Hugo Chavez, has fully embraced the politics of contention, and thus positions himself in such a way that he will usually win. Opposition, strident opposition especially, may hinder him in the short term but validates him all the same. This is partly due to Trump’s love of dramatization, as if he’s using the presidency to restage King Lear. But even that is mostly a glittered paint job over the driving force that is his administration’s searing sense of principle, one derivative of Enoch Powell’s in ideology and temper, being similarly welded to its truth, hardened and determinant, and unwilling to compromise an inch. Now subtract Powell’s political isolation and basic respect for process and you have an executive leadership of righteous empowerment and bottomless contempt.

It is a politics that is new only in the sense that we may not be able to move on from it as we have been able to from Obama and Bush, as from Palin, Nixon, Johnson, Wallace, and on and on. Trump would much rather that we not, that we remain fixed in his drama and in the roles that he assigned us. I don’t know how to overcome that. I can only approximate where we should go from here. But it is not as simple as going away from Trump.

Trump has flouted the rather bizarre tradition of being asked what presidential or political biographies he has read in the lead up to taking office. “I never have. I’m always doing a lot,” he told the Washington Post when asked the inevitable question. But predictable anti-intellectualism has not shied from history. Indeed, someone is aware of the precise dimensions of Trump’s moment. Amidst the flurry of executive orders, Trump found time to have a portrait of Andrew Jackson hanged in the Oval Office. It is a twisted irony. After debating who might replace Old Hickory on the 20-dollar bill, we installed someone into the White House who believes his presidency, if not himself, to be the renaissance of his vision. Ironic, but fitting.

This has not gone unnoticed by any means. It would make sense that supporters would find parallels of a strong populist executive just as it would make sense that detractors would see the mercurial architect of Indian removal gleaming in eyes of the nuclear-capable visionary of Muslim and Mexican exclusion. “Jackson’s authoritarian will, his eagerness with the veto pen, his unprincipled use of federal power against non-whites, and his ugly patronage schemes changed forever the character of the Republic,” Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote. All fair and accurate, but Jackson’s example also reveals the genealogy of American power. Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, but Indian removal as a policy originated with Thomas Jefferson who had been enacting his own removals as early as 1802, breaking land treaties in the process.

Jackson’s Indian removal was far more brutal, leaving thousands dead out of tens of thousands expelled westward in the prototypical act of modern ethnic cleansing. Trump’s tribute invites consideration on the kind of bold decisiveness he seeks to emulate. On the campaign trail, he broke taboos on what can and cannot be expressed as pursuable policies: Muslim registries and bans, a revival and even more liberal application of torture, mass immigrant deportation, and so on. None of these are quite new in our policy, however; they just never took center stage. Torture, bombing raids, deportations, and executive overreach either existed upon discovery or were announced under the most clinical circumstances but less like an item on a to-do list more like a stage in digestion.

The sub-debate beneath the overriding debate, then, is between short-term and long-term aims of moral correction. It seems productive only in the sense of illustrating how the moral-political landscape is shifting under Trump’s national guidance. The short-term and more obvious goal, as supported by libertarians and leftists, is cutting Trump’s decrees and other enactments at the knees. While the long-term aim, urged on largely by paleoconservatives and other leftists, seeks to reverse the brute imperialist mindset that makes these policies and their consequences habitual. Both positions are correct. Both positions are difficult for their own reasons, but both are beneficial to each other and to the American people.

During Donald Trump’s first week in office, sales of 1984 spiked, probably for the first time since the signing of the Patriot Act. Though the circuitry of this moment is only broadly applicable to the tone and political context of Orwell’s prophetic satire, it shows a certain willingness to cope, or to attempt to cope, in the midst of an oncoming crisis. We will not be Winston Smiths. Yet the prospect of a boot stomping our face forever seems comforting compared to the prospect of coming out on the other side of it. And maybe that’s wise, that thinking is not as prevalent as assessing the immediate effects of Trump’s Crazy Eddie Jacksonianism. But the moment beyond Trump is something worth contemplating, though not because it is comforting.

I suppose most people have their own idea of the Trump apocalypse. Most of them seem to tilt a certain way; though for the moment, sales of The Road remain unremarkable. But the Trump apocalypse, as I see it, should unravel within the traditional meaning of the word: of uncovering rather than destruction.

For all of his taboo shattering, Trump as the icon of American mutation and standing alone athwart a tide of corrupt and ineffectual busybodying does little to show how engrained Trumpism is in the American mindset. He has indicated as much himself, it is in his words. “I am your voice,” he proclaimed at his monumental convention speech. It seemed arrogant to detractors and refreshing to supporters, but in the end may be simply accurate. Trumpian drama seems now like King Lear 2, but over time may come to look like Scotland, USA, with Trump cast as the Porter and the Americans in place of the Thane of Cawdor.

Macbeth did not handle his ascension to power very well, and his play’s adaptors like to dwell on that. But Macbeth, as Harry Jaffa wrote, “is a moral play par excellence.” Far from relishing in tragedy, it serves to show why it needs to be abated. This being America, no one will agree to what the moral order restored will look like. (In a way, the key is not who is Macbeth, but who is Banquo.) For those thinking in the immediate moment it is a simple fealty to justice. For those thinking further toward the epilogue it is a fealty to sanity. Sanity is a broader, harder ask, however, and rings like a pained history lecture. More accurately it is a call for modesty in a time when it is not wanted. It is hoping that the “shining city on a hill” becomes the house at the end of the road: shuttered and quiet, cordial and kempt, empty of old secrets and uninterested in those of others. We just need to be able to move there.

AGAINST INDIFFERENCE

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I spent a good portion of the summer of 2016 trying to write something that should never have been written.

For much of the year, many of my friends and a few publications with which their sympathies were aligned, in one way or another, were burning rhetorical funeral pyers for liberalism. Some on the left erred on the side of tragic heroism, but only barely; while many on the right were more triumphal, perhaps a little too much. But those slight differences did not diminish the force of illiberalism’s oncoming tide. And having resolved to take Trump’s candidacy seriously upon watching his extremely persuasive convention speech last July, my concern that liberalism was imperiled had become similarly resolute, and required defending. And of course the person to defend it was myself. Never mind the fact that I’ve never written for a liberal publication, that I don’t count very many liberals among my friends, and that I spent much of my 20s bemoaning the vanity politics with which Aaron Sorkin, Jon Stewart, etc. had infused it. I was John Dos Passos in the ambulance coming to liberalism’s aid on the ideological western front; or more provocatively I was going to be liberalism’s Joseph de Maistre thundering fire, brimstone, and blood for the old order. Whatever the case I was very stupid and I’m sorry I even brought it up.

Summer lurched into fall, and it looked quite plain that no amount of written persuasion was going to prop up liberalism, or what was broadly being called “liberalism.” And to be frank, little was indicated to me that it was deserving of my or anyone’s energy for its reinforcement. It wasn’t so much that its most popular media avatars, having been so long emboldened by their opposition’s cluelessness that they were caught off guard by a new opposition that just didn’t care about their “norms,” but that there wasn’t much there for me to defend with a straight face. Liberalism is not without merit. Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Wayne Morse, and Jimmy Carter are people I consider positive political role models; men of principle, sincere paragons of peace, freedom, and American moral authority. They were also tremendous failures.

Instead Bill Clinton harvested the fruits of liberal power, completing what the rest of his political generation started in the 1970s: its transition into a kind of secular prosperity gospel. The success of liberalism, henceforth, was inextricably linked with economic plenty and hazy “triangulation.” Though it had well-meaning roots in the antiwar movement and the blowback against Nixonian paranoiac excess, its political adulthood had the heart of Henry David Thoreau and the brain and muscle of William Graham Sumner. That, anyway, is how I’ve come to understand “neoliberalism,” a premium plan for Voltairean enlightenment; on-demand Millsian “experiments in living.” And the Democrats were wrestling with that legacy. In fact for the first half of 2016 I was convinced Hillary Clinton was going to coast into the White House solely on the ‘90s nostalgia of my parents, pining for a time before anemic job markets, empty McMansion developments, and heroin.

Earlier last year, Azealia Banks burned through all the good will she earned from her critiques of Iggy Azalea by endorsing Donald Trump in a series of tweets. It generated an expectant amount of outrage, and her Twitter account has since been suspended for some unrelated controversy; but of course the attention did a disservice to what I actually saw on her feed. “I am very pro-Africa and pro-africana,” she tweeted, “but American exceptionalism and the American paradigm is super fascinating to me.” She goes on: “I have no hope for America. It is what it is. Capitalist, consumerist, racist, land of make believe.” And finally: “I think Donald trump [sic] is evil like America is evil and in order for America to keep up with itself it needs him.” Donald Trump’s election has been celebrated and scorned as a revolution, what Jeet Heer called “regime change … at home.” But Banks’s subversive endorsement saw it differently, not as revolution but revelation. Trump was a lifting of Lon Chaney’s mask on a national scale, revealing the scarring of policies long predating Trump, which had been on the radar of libertarians, the left, and some conservatives, but not Clintonian liberals.

The outrage was understandable. Given that the Clinton campaign was framing itself on earnest optimism, irony, let alone suggesting America was evil, was flatly unacceptable. Perhaps evil is not the right word. After all, Clinton’s proposed criminal justice platform admitted that “more than half of prison and jail inmates suffer from a mental health problem” and that a Clinton administration “will ensure law enforcement is properly trained for crisis intervention and referral to treatment as appropriate.” The problem here, however is that criminal justice reform is not centralized, and that some states will be harder to bring to heel than others. Such as Florida, whose abominable treatment of mentally ill prisoners was laid bare in the New Yorker last spring:

When Krzykowski told her that she’d heard “guys aren’t getting fed,” Perez did not seem especially concerned. “You can’t trust what inmates say,” she responded. Krzykowski noted that complaints were coming from disparate wings of the T.C.U. This was not unusual, Perez said, since inmates often devised innovative methods to “kite” messages across the facility.

Krzykowski mentioned that she had overheard security guards heckling prisoners. One officer had told an inmate, “Go ahead and kill yourself—no one will miss you.” Again, Perez seemed unfazed. “It’s just words,” she said. Then, as Krzykowski recalls it, Perez leaned forward and gave her some advice: “You have to remember that we have to have a good working relationship with security.”

Banks’s breakdown of American exceptionalism was one of the more salient points made in a noisier than average election year. It echoed Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me. “I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously,” he writes, “subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists … an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.” Though he, too, uses the word evil, and clearly there is a case for it, I’d again argue for something different. Being generous, I’d go with naivety, being less so I’d say indifference.

Talking about the election with committed supporters of Trump or Clinton was identically challenging. Particular issues that concerned me—war policy, the perpetual and many-leveled institutional rot, etc.—were of little interest compared to the moments the election of these individuals would usher in. Certainly each campaign was broadly geared toward bringing outsiders in from the cold. But their ideas of outsiders were abstract and conflicting. The Trump order sees itself in the mold of a Zarathustran Caddyshack 2, the Clinton order sought to be more like a Unitarian Burning Man. My interests were really not going to be heard. And so despite numerous egregious (and probably unsolicited) shame attempts by Democratic sympathizers, I voted for Gary Johnson.

In seeking to defend liberalism, I became less interested in calling into question the sentiments of illiberalism, and more into pushing back against the Sorkinization of American democracy, which both campaigns embodied, though Trump’s was the more effective one. It’s not a new gripe, to be sure, but one I wanted to counter with a call for humility and mercy in the face of mass indifference to suffering, to the brokenness and disorder of our system which can’t quit seeing its mentally ill as a storage problem, or any number of other broad interest groups as threats or burdens. More ambitiously and more quixotically I became interested in making the moral, and not merely practical, case for communitarianism as a boon rather than a barrier to inclusion of people any of the campaigns considered “outside society.” I wanted a liberalism less concerned with grand exceptionalism or vision and more concerned with the thankless task of living with one another. After a while I came to see my defense being further away from liberalism and much closer to Christianity.

Whether this project would ever have had legs shall remain forever a mystery. But with the funeral procession for liberalism behind us, I come away with it somehow more hopeful than when it was in its death throes. Maybe hopeful is still too strong a feeling, but, again, taking the claims of the most earnest Trump supporters seriously: that this moment is the positive unseating of elite control on the gears of power allowing for more popular influence, as opposed to a nationwide suicide mission, this would lend much weight to my hope that we may get beyond the stultifying left-right binary in favor of more experimental concoctions of social existence. (Such as what we’re seeing with the emergence of pro-life feminism.) I could also be very, very wrong. I’m no seer, and it’s much simpler to predict everything crumbling into ashes. But this should no longer be about the ugliness or brilliance of one person, as it should never have been to begin with. We’ve moved beyond liberalism into uncharted and (possibly) more fascinating territory.

Again possibly.

 

PET HATREDS

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I live amidst two and a half bustling metropolises. Granted, the shadow of one imposes itself over the others from across the river, but none should feel any less validated as promising, if not ideal, centers for any manner of proclivity towards youth, urbanity, or some arranged marriage of the two. I visit them whenever I am able. They are where everyone I know and care for make their homes and earn their wages. Certainly they have their downsides of varying degrees, but they are more than enough made up for by the upsides as to warrant mostly splendor whenever I am there, less so in transit to and from them, however.

I suppose I am a part of this world. Even if certain obstacles keeping me from being in them more stably on my part are hard to overcome. They are places much maligned at present, though, in light of events construed here as unfortunate. A whole way of living has come under notable scrutiny. Urbanity, it has come to be seen, has some weaknesses made evident in months previous. Or rather, it has willful insulations. City dwellers have constructed around themselves a “bubble,” to protect against any odd thing that gives them offense, while foisting outward any number of their own values—tolerance, inclusion, polyamory, Westworld, goat yoga, and so on. By virtue of the designations of our electoral map, their judgments and their scorn are doubly fortified and more pointed, irrevocable as any biblical edict from on high. It is, in other words, open season on deplorability, on the avowed Trump voter. Open season to be what, precisely, I can’t say. Mocked? Very possibly. Ostracized? Foreseeable. Organized against? On it. Systematically oppressed? Deplorable sympathizers accept it as granted. But I do not hasten to venture one way or the other in any general sense. In fact I would like to be able to put these concerns to rest. I find it hard to accept in totality that anyone I know who heeds closest to young urbanite stereotype can harbor such ill intent. Not, of course, because that by not seeing it myself that it is not there, but that because in every sense they lack capability. I would know.

To loathe the Trump voter is no hard task. Indeed, it is a source of catharsis and glee. Whereas some may seek pleasure in skydiving or world travel or posing, for some reason, in the presence of sedated beasts, or professing interest in any of these things to impress the opposite sex, such joys are mindless and trivial compared to pouring out all available reserves of bitterness, rectitude, rancor, and ill-feeling onto the ones who’ve invested all hope in American Greatness and pulled the lever for our president. There is, presently, no known science to detect conclusively any one who voted for Donald Trump; one knows one when one sees one, presumably. The musk of retrograde is as distinct as any putrefaction. It is unyielding in its intensity, this effect they have, whether they know it or not. And it erects existential walls of considerable thickness and height between them and me. They are not inhuman, but unhuman, ulcers that have escaped the bodily confines to walk among us in red hats. By day I envision how to bring about a social order where such people are politically, psychically, and somehow visually beneath my gallant gait. By night I concentrate as much mental energy as possible to have dreams of being secluded in a cavernous black castle, streams of magma flowing cleanly from its center out into a moat, and surrounded on all sides (or at least as far as Staten Island zoning ordinances will permit) by head after enspiked head, crookedly jutting like lawn flamingos. Alas, I dream of rainbow-colored claymation ponies frolicking in fields of licorice whip. Or my teeth falling out.

This might surprise people who know me, at whatever level of intimacy, as a man of seeming good-nature: polite, nice, kind, overall inoffensive to a degree that might seem pathological. Which, I guess. I’ve enough cognizance in manners to see value in everyday civility and, moreover, to know the variations rather than the overlap of politeness (functional), niceness (decorative), and kindness (deceitful). I err on the side of politeness, scorn niceness, and hold kindness at arm’s length.

Kindness is not bad but it is tricky. I know some people who are very much my opposite in presentation, who exude untold intensity of spite and curmudgeonliness in any direction, yet when confined more intimately have shown kindness so endless in depth that if my heart was literally made of ice they would have melted me into a happier oblivion. On the other hand, I’ve met people who, though outwardly kind (that is, not just affable but warm, cheerful, amiable, and active), have a talent for vexation. It comes out like sweat in exercise and is no less pungent. Meanness is not a mood or an emotional cast, but a kind of aesthetic pose at best and a moral entitlement at worst. When the meanness is concentrated and sustained, as the righteousness to which they aspire, it wounds like a blade, when it is spontaneous and directionless it lacerates like shrapnel. I suppose neither camp would readily count me among their number, so I will say that I respect and envy the curmudgeon but commune among the “kind.”

But to commune does not necessarily mean to commiserate. For I do not seek so much as to place pride upon my meanness as to merely not deny it, to state plainly its existence and its manifestation in the current climate. It is doubtless possible that by admission of having directed my hatred towards people who voted for Trump, I will be applauded. I will be an exemplar of acrimony, a mentor in vitriol. To that I can only say that so long as we are free they may applaud. But I do not choose necessarily to hear them, as I don’t see much point in applauding something so innate in me, that is conveyed in natural feeling, with the automation of breath, a prejudice so inborn as to be as infinite and fine-formed as the soul. Such a thing cannot be turned into craft, nor can it be made to fit properly into a moral frame or projected through a social prism. Imagine instead a stray animal that meets you at your doorstep whenever you go out and hasn’t moved an inch by the time you come home; mangy, noisome, ceaselessly hungry, and diseased enough to be visibly repulsive but not physically debilitated or debilitating, not yet anyway. It is something that you yourself must choose to tolerate or see about putting down, it won’t go on its own and it is not something whose responsibility extends to anyone else. And it grows and hungers in unforeseen ways the longer it is left to be.

This pet hatred is an extension of myself, my makeup, my passions, and my sins, not the world in which I move. My world, to whatever extent it will have me, does not know me as I know myself, it does not hate as naturally as I hate, nor does anyone hate me as much as I hate me … er … fuck it.

LETTER NO. 10: ON THE MEANING OF LIFE

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Dear Grandpa,

I was a bit blindsided by your request to for a letter on the meaning of life. I’ve tackled several subjects since the beginning of this month, but none seems more susceptible to bumbling headlong into a quagmire of platitude within the strictures of this medium than this one. And with more indulgence it risks sending all involved into an existential tailspin. But I’m thankful to have caught upon my self-centered error quickly. Of course you would ask me about the meaning of life. You’ve probably mulled it over countless times in the course of your career. How many humans have you personally brought into the world? Hundreds? How many of them are on the cusp of retirement age? Have you not supplied an entire generation of northern Floridians? I admit I never considered what it would be like to witness, time and time again, first breaths being drawn, umbilical cords being cut, or to be depended upon to help perpetuate family trees. Maybe I’m being a bit operatic here, but this is not something that I have properly appreciated, I admit, and it certainly helps serve as a contrast to where I intend to go here.

There was a video game released in 2008 called Euro Truck Simulator. Available for Mac, PC, and Xbox One, the player would travel the digitized continent by truck and earn money by picking up and dropping off cargo from country to country. I’ve not played it myself but I’ve seen demonstrations of it on YouTube. Its realism is something to behold. The player is literally a truck driver, possessing powers limited by those of the vehicle they drive and their ability to drive it. Their obstacles would seem to be the traffic conditions and laws to which any other European driver is subject. I’ve not seen what happens when these obstacles prevail, but I can’t imagine they reach Grand Theft Auto levels of excess.

I have a friend named Sarah who wrote a book on the ethics of childbearing and suicide. It is a largely empirical study, written in the analytic and moral tradition of John Stuart Mill, albeit with a degree of wit that was impossible for Mill. In it she asks “If human life were a video game, would anyone choose to play it?” The question may have been put rhetorically, but the answer, it appears, is quite literally yes, as Euro Truck Simulator has not only spawned a sequel but also German, British, and American spinoffs. But not everyone is suited for gaming, and Sarah’s book is a fascinating study of the motives of and moral questions surrounding those who are even less inclined to it. More than that, though, the book asks the reader to consider whether a child “might be harmed by just being created.”

I don’t know if you’ve heard of antinatalism, but had something of a moment a little over two years ago when True Detective first premiered. Frankly I can’t imagine a choicer sounding board for bleak philosophy than the purred drawl of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust “Life is a Flat Circle” Cohle. “I think about the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this meat,” is one of several such lines, which are echoed from a treatise by horror writer Thomas Ligotti called The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. On the map of the humanities, antinatalism is more of an overgrown, under-lit detour than a proper destination. But it has a genealogy, a canon, and a set of principles, prime above all being that the preference for existence is not unanimously accepted as granted. Though pronatalists are not naïve to the inevitability of human suffering, the antinatalist solution proposes the ultimate radicalism. “Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way,” Ligotti wrote. “It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun.”

In mentioning this it is not my intention to shock or to stake my place in one position against the other and rule on it. But I think it necessary background to be better transparent about how I think.

When it comes to thinking about life, or really any other subject, I have a habit of never being of a single mind about it. I credit Mom and Dad with this to an extent, neither of who ever clung willfully to the abstract. As I see it, belief for them came out of those things material and tangible, whatever could be put to use or which could produce desirable results. I mean this as a compliment. It is a thinking that has served them well in building a life and in most respects I and the other three are the richer for it. But at the same time, as a wider way of thinking, time has not proven it to be very flexible. As times of stability gave way to uncertainty, certain people (me) had begun to lose a great amount of faith in the contingency of contingent thinking. But using the method instilled in me to see nuance in absolutes, I have over time begun to use it against that thinking. It has allowed me to approach ideas as a mechanic would approach spare parts, which in this case are pessimism and realism.

Ideas like antinatalism, and its nearest relatives depressive realism and antihumanism, do not offer me a concise system for living, let alone inspiration for programs to be implemented on a wide scale. They are part of a tapestry I have been making for myself for the last 15 years meant to convey what I think a person is responsible for. As I write this, civilians in Syria, regardless of age or gender, are being “shot on the spot” by its military, while civilians in other parts of the world live in fear of drone attacks. In the United States authority figures and those they protect live in fear of each other. And we’ve amassed enough nuclear arms across the world to vaporize it entirely. Whether from civilized institutions or rogue actors, the successive generations are going to come of age with an understanding of horror totally alien to our own. To get to the meaning of life, it is first worth pointing out how brilliant humanity is at bringing about death. “That man is the noblest creature,” G.C. Lichtenberg wrote, “may be inferred from the fact that no other creature has contested this claim.”

I’ve come to see the optimism in which I had been raised as a bug rather than a feature. And to perpetuate it now would be as egregious as any act of war, because hope is as strong an enabler of war as fear is. I would like it, in fact, if we as a race all stopped thinking as we do. If we stopped thinking that existence has a clear endgame rather than, if not a totally absent one, then at least a mysteriously defined one, and that that end is anthropocentric. Moreover, if we stopped thinking that goodness, while right and true, is not a default, let alone an entitlement. This past year has had talk of new emerging “countercultures” and “revolutions,” but the only revolution that remains to be waged is the self-removal of our species from its pedestal. Not as an act of self-denigration but of self-abnegation. From there a whole reordering of priorities would take place. But the contradiction of human life is that even this thinking is fanciful. So it lives in my head and makes scant appearances in my acted ethics.

John Gray wrote that “other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” Aim, of course, is different than meaning, and possibly a greater demand. Few have the time or the opportunity to see much further than what is in front of their faces at a given moment. Another friend once said that culture today is overweaned on meaning and underfed on mattering. He was talking about the predominance of criticism over art, but when I think of John Gray’s question I can see it fulfilling a different purpose.

If there is a balance that can be achieved between the grand tragedy of humanity and the rougher reality in which it lives, it is to accept and even embrace a world in miniature. There isn’t much wonder in a life bereft of significance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there can’t be joy where it can be gotten. One does not need a grand plan to get out of bed in the morning. For my part, I have no idea where this life is going; I’ve come to expect mostly curveball after curveball. If I have gained any solid truths in the process they are these: friendship is like bread to the starving; family is like a foreign language that is beautiful in cadence and tangled in grammar; and peace is something we go out of our way not to deserve or want but which we need in increasing, perhaps critical, doses.

***

This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.

LETTER NO. 9: ON AGGRESSION

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Dear [REDACTED],

I suspect that your choosing of the topic of aggression for me to write about is, at least in part, linked to my ongoing—possibly misguided—attempt to synthesize the intensity and culture of punk with “the life of the mind,” so to speak. Of course, this could just be my natural obsessiveness and/or my rank opportunism speaking. It may be that I am overlooking with cruel indifference a longstanding fascination with the theme that eats away at you every bit as much as my own projects tend to eat away at me. So in going about this it seemed only appropriate to erect in my mind a Thunderdome for these two possibilities to settle this amongst themselves. It was a short cage match, alas, and regretfully any spirit compelling you toward aggression unrelated to mine must lurch back to its crypt with its participation ribbon. Because giving out participation ribbons at a theoretical Thunderdome makes total sense.

But, to be sure, exploring the subject on my own made me realize that I’ve long had an odd relationship with aggression. Or at least what I think is aggression. Truth be told, as a first in this series, I actually felt the need to look up the word; and by “look up” I don’t just mean “typed into Google.” I sought it out in the physical Webster’s dictionary I acquired through some kind of family book collection osmosis. “Aggression” is a word I’ve heard and read in a number of contexts. I have a taste for aggressive music. America is an aggressor against international peace. Canadians are aggressively polite. An unanswered text message is a blatant act of passive aggression. There are also microaggressions, which I had forgotten about until now. Aggression has a fluidity that rivals “obscenity.” Something is aggressive when it speaks unequivocally to our distaste. Yet it’s not as acute as rage, as confused as frenzy, or as inescapable as violence. It is a provocation and an atmospheric shift, but one that steadily lowers the temperature as much as raises it. Aggression’s ends are seldom clear, neither are its targets locked, even when it’s being put to use with full awareness.

Though I’ve been entangled in punk for the length of an entire childhood, I’ve actually never attended very many shows. I wouldn’t call myself an armchair (or cafeteria) punk, but the twisted physics of the shows most worth seeing being at once the hardest to access and the most draining to endure affected me pretty heavily. I’d say the last real show I attended was ten years ago when I saw Converge supporting Mastodon at Irving Plaza. And when I did it was always at the edge of the action, my closest encounter with mosh pits being entirely involuntary. Watching The Locust open for The Dillinger Escape Plan in Philadelphia in 2004, a pit teeming with bandana-masked Circle 9 members erupted a kind of solar flare into my corner of the venue, knocking me and a college classmate to the floor. The Locust could barely tolerate it before they couldn’t, stopping the show to call the moshers out, and in the insect costumes tightening around their rail-thin frames (people apparently do not eat in San Diego), it looked terribly silly.

But the moment framed a conflict as familiar in punk culture as it is unresolvable, striking, in fact, at the culture’s beating heart.

To say that punk is aggressive is not to be reductive by any means. It would take a cocktail of cynicism and credulity the potency of which only Dick Cheney could withstand to look anyone in the eyes and say that it is a culture of peace. It is more of a half-truth. If there is one goal that unites all or nearly all of punk’s branches it is the possibility of a just aggression. Youth is collectively within its rights to bite back at the antagonisms of adulthood, whether petty or oppressive, with all the negative energy it has in store, free of mitigations by decorum, subtlety, or compromise. This doctrine, if you can call it that, is its main source of resilience, but it is made complicated by conflicts that arise between performer and audience. The chaos engendered by call-and-response—or rather, appeal-and-condemnation—was mutually beneficial. Punk bands and their masses validated one another through negative reinforcement, both verbal and physical, like an inverted détente, each giving more or less as well as they got. But that would come to a head soon enough.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Judge, it’s kind of deep time even for punks. Founded in 1987 amidst the then-burgeoning New York City straight edge/youth crew scene, the band were a peculiar reaction to the critical flak their peers such as Youth of Today were getting for their willfully generic sound and uplifting but dogmatic message. Judge was more of a living straw man of unabashed militancy than a hardcore band, making explicit the menace that was otherwise implicit in the minds of the punk press, and taking the dogmatic into the reactionary. “A beer, a joint, like a gun to your head,” goes “Bringin’ It Down,” “The price that you pay is the blood that you bled.” As a rejoinder to Maximumrocknroll moralism it was quite clever, embodying Jonathan Swift’s desire to “vex the world rather than divert it.” But it was not so clever as to anticipate attracting outré demographics, like white supremacists. “When you’re in a position where you can write something, and people are going to listen to you, and you don’t take it seriously, ” singer Mike “Judge” Ferraro recalled, “you could cause a lot of damage.” The backlash put them on the defensive, killing the band, and sending Ferraro into a kind of exile upstate.“They wanted an excuse to fucking hurt somebody. And I was their excuse.”

It seems fortuitous that Judge came into existence the same year as Fugazi, whose heresy that punk is as much as refuge for the vulnerable as it is a forum for the aggrieved has proven compelling even outside of the indie world. But Judge’s legacy is every bit as calcified, only less for its satire and more for its righteousness. It’s been taken to earnest extremes by bands like Racetraitor, and Earth Crisis in particular, the vegan straight edge band whose signature song “Firestorm” calls for “violence against violence, let the roundups begin.”

But to hold up even the most problematic examples of punk would mean risking overstatement. Though it was a curious item on news magazines in the ‘90s, there are no roving gangs of straight edge vigilantes beating down on anyone drinking pale ale. Nor were Hatebreed or Converge fans responsible for burning down Woodstock ’99. I don’t even know why I thought it was a good example when there are so many more inexplicable and unsettling forms of aggression vying for our dread. I speak insensitively of ordinary people for whom aggression is, at best, a taxing solicitation of their time and energy, but which in any case seeks the end of wresting some amount of control away from them. With punk, there is at least the sense that its worst outcomes were unintended or at least unforeseen as possibilities. It was a response to rather than an embellishment of the Hobbesian reality outside the venue. CBGB’s Sunday hardcore matinées became too violent, and so to fix that it stopped hosting them and sent their patrons … back out into the city. “Your sun is setting/And your day grows late,” goes Judge’s “Warriors.” “As we walk home/This wasted land of hate.”

There was something deeply subversive in a band like Judge that was and remains rare in American punk. Maybe in the end it’s not just aggression’s case that punk is trying to make, but, in some perverse way, aggressive pacifism’s, or perhaps aggressive communitarianism’s. If there’s any value in my ongoing project to wring critical sense out of this thing I’ve spent the equivalent of at least three graduate school programs observing, it’s in teasing out the alternate ethics it engenders. More than aggression, punk seems flexible and accommodating to any disposition so long as it comes out the wrong way, so to speak, be it intelligence, irony, romanticism, piety, aestheticism, vulgarity, or what have you. I’ve been unable to find anything quite nearly as accommodating in American culture. Perhaps in religion there is something almost similar, but that always seems to risk either trivialization or invites co-opting.

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This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.

LETTER NO. 8: ON SUFFERING

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Dear [REDACTED],

It probably would not surprise you that one of my most worn-through books in my collection is the Penguin Classics edition of Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer. I bought it maybe six years ago. Whether it speaks to the book’s fragmented construction or to the brisk clarity of its author’s style, it’s not one I formally read through, but picked up and dug into whenever the mood struck. That mood is hard to describe, something combined of boredom and glee, but with the latter more or less overcoming me once I’d read. For all his grumpiness and hatred, Schopenhauer is not a dour writer. But perhaps you know this book, or at least the books out of which the writings collected have been culled. Perhaps you know that the opening essay is called “On the Suffering of the World,” and perhaps you assumed that that would be the first thing to which I’d turn in preparing to write to you about suffering. In that case you’d be right. I did take the book out, I skimmed through the essay in question, and left it at my bedside for about a day and a half before putting it back, having realized this little German could not help me.

Schopenhauer is one of those writers you don’t read so much as nod along to as though he was expressing long-held convictions of your own. John Gray is another such writer. Hume is probably one for others. These writers are like costuming much in the same way that eyeliner is costuming for Robert Smith. If Schopenhauer is instructive at all in informing what I know about suffering, it is that I actually don’t know all that much about suffering.

I wonder how many people flock to a writer not for the richness of his philosophy, but because they see themselves reflected in him. In this case they are likely to see an entitled upper middle class wretch, a primordial Grumpy Gus, convinced of the suppleness of his mind while at the same time deeply afraid of pain and discomfort, and with a disinterest in death that whittles itself down the more death catches up. Or maybe it’s just me.

This personal admission, such as it is, is important. With this letter you ask me to venture into a territory with which I have no familiarity. I am a homebody as much in mind as I am in my actual home. I’m comfortable with angst, with dread, with despair, and with anxiety. In other words I know very intimately what I consider to be the pretense of suffering. I have few birthrights outside of the affectations of oncoming catastrophe passed down from my Mad Men-era foreparents. But I should count my blessings that this territory is mapped, at least in the kind of hieroglyphic language of pop culture I know more or less to a fault at this point. (It is very likely you already know the examples I’m going to give, so bear with me if so.)

In 1960, Michael Powell released his film Peeping Tom, which centers on an aspiring filmmaker who souped up his camera with a blade in one of the tripod legs and a mirror underneath the lens. So when he goes out to kill women, he not only is able to document their deaths, but also their literal facing down of it. Tautly written and filmed in the brilliant color one would expect from the director of The Red Shoes, it completely derailed Powell’s career when it was released. I mention it because this was the first thing that came into my mind—after Schopenhauer, anyway—in thinking about the subject. Horror films deal with suffering to degrees of various extremes, but often in ways that make it kind of beside the point. When we watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance, are we concerned about the screaming woman tied to the chair or are we dazzled by the frontier grotesque that surrounds her? Peeping Tom is controversial because it is so far the only horror film to put hard emphasis on the victim’s suffering. It is not just frightening, but cruel and not a little bit creepy. But even here it is deficient for me. The methodical execution presents the film more as a thought experiment than a narrative, made either by misogynists or feminists depending on how you look at it. You may argue with its lack of utility here, but my scope is much wider.

Come and See is a Soviet Union film released in 1985—and made after an eight-year struggle to gain government approval. At two and a half hours, it is remembered as much as a horror film as it is as a war drama, placing nightmare and fairy tale alongside history. Set in 1943 during the German occupation of Belarus, it follows two teens, a boy and a girl, through the literally scorched earth of their country. Throughout the duration, they witness or succumb to village massacres, live burnings, minefield explosions, rape, apocalyptic battles, etc. The events take a severe physical and mental toll on both, and the end of the film depicts the boy as having aged several years. It remains a film unequaled in its unrelenting harshness, so much so that ambulances were allegedly called to some screenings and that surviving German soldiers were said to have attested to its accuracy.

Whatever value these examples have from case to case, they help remind me that I’m of two minds on the common subject. On the one hand I’m reminded not simply that I have not suffered but that the prospect of suffering is not something to be welcomed by me or to be inflicted upon others. And if you do inflict it upon others, few other things are more than likely to reciprocate. Suffering, as I see it, is something akin to a psychic natural disaster. Job being tested by God is the signature model, but more often than not it is just man being used by man. It need not always be that, certainly, but I see it as the most worthy of consideration. It is, in a word, oppression. It is the loss of your freedom in exchange for the reinforcement of your weakness, the confirmation of your insignificance. It is the comfort of your particular station in life becoming dramatically less comfortable for whatever reason, perhaps no reason at all. It is more than being humbled, but being degraded. In this sense, my real cultural example should have been Trading Places.

On the other hand, I’m prone to think that some people haven’t suffered enough. And here is where it gets dangerous, where the blob of nuance comes oozing around the corner. Because these are the simple bitter thoughts that come up from me like poisoned food, wherein I tend to see people as sentient cardboard cutouts who, through their own cushioned entitlements, make the world a stupider and more miserable place for people they will never meet. But this sentiment isn’t entirely unique to me. The existence of a film like Come and See is not taken so seriously as to give people pause or to consider the option of not enforcing cosmetic alterations, however seemingly required at first, on human flourishing. Things will be different this time. And the next. And the next. And so on. I want nothing more to upend that dynamic, whether to achieve a kind of balance or catharsis. Of course people have taken that task upon themselves and we see what happens when it does.

I am playing at moralism, clearly, but more bedside than armchair, as there are currently things on my armchair that I refuse to move for some reason. Moralism is a kind of suffering in itself, for the moralist and the moralized. To wit, see me apologize profusely all the while fanning the flames of your burning house. But suffering is more than just suffering. With it you have to account for fear, anger, cruelty, revenge, lust, absurdity, and every other conceivable weakness one human being has at the ready to make able demolition tools against another. I’m not purely logical when I contemplate it. I’m a meat-based engine fueled by fear—and sugar—and it is an embarrassment to me some times, to drop it naked at the feet of the people you admire. Then again, it wasn’t such an embarrassment for Thomas Hobbes or Edmund Burke, far more practical on suffering, the tolls of suffering, and the fear of suffering than Schopenhauer could ever be.

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This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.