The Glorious Subversion of Tabletop Roleplaying

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As you probably know, Stranger Things is quite the thing these days. For once, a popular trend I can thoroughly get behind to boot. I haven’t indulged in any television commentary since what is probably my largest entry, on Deep Space 9, as very little TV is interesting to me or overlaps with topics worth going into detail over if it is. But I really don’t want to go into detail about Stranger Things in particular so much as use its reflection of one of my hobbies and the greater societal reaction-at least initially-to that hobby.

The shows seasons, so far, depict a time before I was born (even if the second season is only months away) and yet still so accurately depict the tabletop roleplaying middle schooler world which I was part of over a decade later. Before the internet was fast enough to reliably have all forms of entertainment on command in a convenient package, the tabletop roleplaying game served the multiplayer needs of those seeking dynamic, impromptu role playing experiences with friends. Of course, it still does, and its popularity if anything seems to have grown in time even with the greater convenience and sophistication of the electronic forms of gaming in the role-playing field. In addition to the obvious bonus of it being better to set mood and tone in person, it also seems like the tabletop can provide a greater level of authenticity and a break from so many of our indoor entertainments.

It wasn’t always so. In the mid-80s time that Stranger Things depicts roleplaying games, especially Dungeons and Dragons, was new and innovative. While recruiting agencies for child actors quickly saw the advantage of a dynamic rules-based system for innovation, on the spot problem solving, and basic tactics in teamwork, numerous hypochondriac parents saw a terrifying moral panic. DnD and other games were linked to Satanism, suicide, and criminal behavior-without a shred of evidence-in a first round of cultural wars waged perpetually throughout American history by the recurring trend of willful know-nothings of American conservatism. This was in congruence, of course, with the famous pursuit of out of touch politicians (chief among them the Gores) against heavy metal and hip hop as well. But while that campaign is rightly infamous in history for its ridiculousness and naivete, many people forget about the even more hysterical movement against roleplaying games in general.

There was a certain extra emphasis, in the time, of the danger of DnD and similar games that went outside just the casserole-quaffing church ladies and easily sensationalized news-manipulated suburban parents. It was a more general phenomenon, sucking in the apolitical and the ostensibly progressive as well. Keep in mind that the 80s was the decade where Baby Boomers first started becoming one of the more politically powerful constituencies, which in turn mean a lot of ageing ex-hippies. In other words, many people who thought the ideal youth was ‘peace and love mannnnnnn’ had to confront that subcultures existed where children fantasized about becoming characters they invented, going underground (or wherever) armed to the teeth to slay scary monsters. Nevermind that this had been a significant part of both children’s literature and mythology since probably prehistory, an imagination used for something other than relentless positivity by children older than was normally considered acceptable to ‘play pretend’ was a dangerous imagination.

But games like DnD did more than become a creepy new fad to fuss over for navel-gazing parents. They challenged the entire world view of what was fast becoming the new dominant political culture of the times: neoliberalism. Whereas the 80s and 90s would be about rampant individualism, faith in market forces, and the belief that society was running forward to a new and glorious cosmopolitan and global future, many fantasy settings show a world filled with crumbling ruins of civilizations and technologies too numerous to speak of which all in the end collapsed. The treasures of the past are the only way to circumvent a rigid class system or regional poverty, and require skill and the facing of danger to unearth. Rotten monsters crawl in formerly glorious ruins either as all that remains of past civilizations or perhaps simply the first scavengers to arrive at the charnel house. In such a world, only teamwork, group solidarity, and risk taking can possibly succeed for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Ibn Khaldun would be proud.

Spoiler Alert: it turns out this was a more realistic vision of the future than the one pushed by that era’s political and cultural elite. Perhaps this was the reason that it struck so many as a heretical and threatening activity, at least on a subconscious level. After all, policy makers had the ability to see that less money was being spent on public infrastructure, and that crime was spiking to record breaking levels. What they lacked was the ability to see that perhaps it was they who had more responsibility for that state of affairs than some kids seeking to escape the first stages of Hellworld currently then being fashioned by their elders. After all, a world filled with monsters the luck of the dice and some smart character building can slay is a world far more filled with hope than our own for many people.

So, why don’t we sell the line that RPG’s are a recruiting tool for critical thinkers and those to challenge the status quo? I mean, younger generations are far less into individualism and capitalism than anyone previous since the Great Depression, and now people are used to the cyber realm having all sorts of things but largely confined to slactivism. After all, groups of young people, meeting in ‘meat space’ in shadowy locations to learn communal action against the odds—all while a show that popularizes the idea that adults and authority figures are either clueless or malignant and it’s up to the youth to take action is popular-could be once again labeled as a threatening thing. And if it was so…its coolness factor would increase exponentially like an album with an explicit content label and the inevitable reaction from the perpetually out of touch would be at least hilarious, if not further engaging to recruitment for those opposed to them.

As Dustin said in Season 2’s finale: ‘If one member of the party is danger, the whole party acts’ (from memory, not exact quote). And as the newest member of the party, Max, showed, you have to earn your place by fighting for the community and showing your outsider status…but once you do…

And we can always hope that on a future season of Stranger Things, Jerry Fallwell or Tipper Gore is the monster.

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The Death Dealer, because

The Unexceptional Hubris of Exceptionalism

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I recently got back from Alaska, which as you can tell from the picture above was quite nice. Naturally, while I was there I had to continue my now two years on reading quest into speculative materialism. One of the works I was reading was ‘Unthought: The Power of Cognitive Nonconcious‘. Though not strictly in the canon of that school of philosophy, the overlaps were palpable-especially when it came to combating the trend of human exceptionalism in western philosophy. Katherine Hayles dives into multiple fields, from biology to technology, to show how so much of what we do-by far the vast majority-is running on autopilot. That is, in effect, running on instinct. This has large and obvious questions for our definition of consciousness and its status in other animals as well as in increasingly complex automated systems we ourselves create. Good timing with that Blade Runner sequel, by the way.

Just a few days ago, PBS Nature had an excellent documentary on how red foxes are thriving like never before due to canny adaptations to human civilizations. Most people know rats, cockroaches, mice, and other animals benefit from our existence, but larger more independent animals like the fox are often overlooked. Perhaps even more remarkable is the story of the coywolf. In addition to being the name of a band I like, the Coywolf is also a remarkably successful wolf/coyote hybrid who, taking advantage of the coyote’s impressive success in the human era, has been migrating steadily eastwards and then southwards for the past few decades, becoming a new dominant land mammal predator throughout much of North America and fueled not in spite of, but by human civilization. One can hope a larger more aggressive hunting animal can also take advantage of too-numerous deer in the east and get them moving again, saving much of eastern flowering plant life and reducing overall lyme disease rates. Nature needs its predators, and as part of nature, so do we to even keep our systems running at peak performance.

What is nice to see is how so much of speculative materialism is clearly striving not only against bad European philosophical ideas but a common human hubris that most likely was engendered by the rise of monotheism itself, and certainly exacerbated by certain trends in modern and postmodern thinking alike in more recent times. We should, in some sense, be able to view our own species with the detached study of instinctual behavior we often only reserve for wild animals. Perhaps, one day, we will be doing the same thing with robots. Robots who will be programmed to behave as if they have a consciousness and thus cause us to question our own ideas about consciousness and what it really is. Many Speculative Materialists would answer, ‘the small self-aware tip above the water line of a very, very large ice berg of automated processes.’ And there is an excuse for another photo, even though its of a glacier and not an iceberg:

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So many of our presently debilitating blind spots, be it climate change, sustainable resource extraction, or loss of biodiversity come about by a human hubris that makes one question the utility of the level of self-awareness we have. It is becoming increasingly clear as hurricanes batter the shores, sea levels rise, and honey bees enter a critical terminal phase that our hubris must be scaled back to see our impact objectively. One of the more harrowing things I have seen is the boat pilot for the trip pictured above pointing to where the glacier *used to be* when they started running that route 17 years ago. It was a loss of over a mile.

This hubristic exceptionalism can be broken down into smaller more humanistic units as well. A country earnestly and honestly believing in its own special providence certainly strikes me as one of the more dangerous things that can happen on the world stage. Though revisionist powers seeking a re-orientation of the balance of power in their favor is hardly new, the utter calamity of German and Japanese exceptionalism in the Second World War, fueled by ideologies of nations with a unique and inherent destiny of supremacy, made the process a far more horrific affair then even the already terrible cost of conventional war alone necessitated. In the Cold War both major powers held themselves in high ideological regard, but as they competed for the ‘third world’ they had to make themselves accessible and attractive to do well. But with the fall of the U.S.S.R. checks and balances were removed, and the United States began to believe it had won the future and the world itself through virtue and being ‘on the right side of history’ alone. But since then American Exceptionalism has brought us over-extension, endless war, a rise in religious fanaticism, and a power so successful it has crossed the dangerous threshold into having its policy making elites actually believe its own propaganda. Much like humanity and man-made environmental crisis, this is to court disaster through hubris and complacency alone. When you think you are the solution, its hard to see how you might also be the problem. The outside perspective is needed, and that becomes almost impossible to achieve under hubris.

In Tlingit and Haida mythology the lines between humanity and the rest of nature was extremely blurred, with shamans that could transform into animals and animals that could masquerade as people. While not literally true, this kind of dethronement of self-centering certainly could have its uses.

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Odious Romanticism vs Material Victory

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I want to talk about some Civil War generals, and no, not the rightness or wrongness of their statues being in public spaces.

What I have always found bizarre about the myth of Confederacy is not its blatant rise with attached romantic artwork convergent with the last gasp of segregationist politicians in the public sphere-that is perfectly logical in its own way-nor even the memorializing of the United States’ greatest act of treason by segments of the population most chauvinistic and flag-waving on most other issues (though that is bizarre), but rather the myth of Robert E. Lee himself as this amazingly seminal general and leader of men. This is often combined with a myth of the Confederacy as a uniquely impressive battle against the odds akin to Finland’s Winter War or the Norman rise in Sicily.

In a time where America realizes it still must reckon with the painful wounds of its past by bringing up the public status of Civil War era issues, I feel it’s time to turn a critical gaze to the military part of this odious romanticism.

Let us begin with Robert E. Lee. A great tactician, surely, but as the ghost of Hannibal could tell you, this does not necessarily equate a great strategist. Lee’s rise to prominence came about first by skilled junior officer actions as an engineer in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1848, and then by accurately reading the psychology of General McClellan as he advanced on Richmond in 1862 and pummeling his forces with offensives to cause the famously timid general to retire despite getting the better of most of the engagements…convinced as always he was outnumbered. So far, so good.

We then can witness Lee run roughshod over several ineptly led Union armies. Despite the poor quality of leadership of these forces, we can still give Lee a hefty dose of credit in this period. And yet, amongst this time of Confederate triumph (in the east anyway) came Lee’s first botched invasion of the north, which undid many of successes when he was checked at Antietam (by McClellan, of all people) a battle whose strategic implications enabled the Emancipation Proclamation which in turn would fatally undermine the southern war effort by both enabling Union armies to legally liberate slaves in secessionist states as well as sabotage British and French efforts to directly aid the Confederacy.

Even including Antietam, up until now it would still be a fair point to consider Lee the best general of the American Civil War, but the Union was just getting started-and it would be there that the best leadership would actually emerge. It was also, in 1863 and flush with hubris after Chancellorsville, that Lee would once again commit the mistake of invading the north.

As someone whose favorite army in history is that of the medieval Mongols and whose favorite navy in history that of late 16th Century Korea, I am hardly the one to take a universally critical view of taking the offensive when your forces are outnumbered if the opportunity looks promising. The problem with the Civil War context is that Lee himself had proven time and time again that this was an era where defense held clear battlefield advantages. Indeed, superior Union industrial and material strength were for much of the war totally offset by facing the most difficult challenge of having to reconquer a third of a continent in an era of defensive primacy. It had been such on the battlefield starting in the Crimean War, where a Russian army armed with outdated firearms and a piss-poor logistical system had managed, at least temporarily, to stymie two of the best armies of the time, even if they lost (barely) in the end. It would remain thus until the Brusilov Offensive in WWI when that same Russian army would innovate the interplay between offensives and artillery use to restore mobility to the battlefield-a process later honed by the Germans and then perfected by Foch and Allenby. Even Lee’s boldest moves in previous battles had been often paired with a key defensive element. His smaller army could move faster to seize the better terrain, and in an era where the minne ball merged with the last gasp of linear field formations, this made a huge difference. And in Gettysburg it was the Union who held the high ground and the defensive posture, and it was the Union that won. Soon after, Meade was superseded by Grant, and Grant would be the superior general to Lee. Not because he was a brilliant commander nor because he simply ended up winning in the end, but because he was a general of the times who truly understood the nature of industrial warfare. Lee’s many victories could be undone by a few missteps, but Grant could suffer multiple reverses at Lee’s hands and still win the campaign.

The true genius of the war, however, was Sherman. William Tecumseh Sherman understood the material nature of war in the industrial age like Grant, but had a much greater sense of terrain and maneuver. His command of the western front, once Grant moved east to take command there, was the true decisive campaign of the entire war.

The west had been the mirror opposite of the east from the start. Union forces performed generally better than their enemies and capably used riverine naval forces to advance consistently along the vital Mississippi River. Winfield Scott (in my opinion, the greatest of all American generals, but that is another story) correctly saw that blockade and securing the central river systems of the continent were the key to victory in the war, rather than a quick advance on Richmond. Generally, Union forces under both Grant and Rosecrans at first (in Appalachia) made advances in this theater wisely using ships and a less pro-Confederate population in general. Yet, not until the fall of Vicksburg did this front’s decisiveness manifest itself.

Sherman up until now had been a subordinate commander of no great distinction. But when turned loose on his own to command the west in 1864 would prove to be the stand-out general of the war and, in my opinion, the second greatest of all American generals. Unlike Lee, Sherman did not set out to win set piece battles, but rather to crush the Confederacy’s ability to resist. Granted, Lee did not have the numerical option to do such to the Union, but that is precisely why he should have stuck to a more Longstreet-type plan of cautious attrition as the only realistic path to southern victory was exhaustion through casualties of the north. Where Lee gambled rashly, Sherman coldly calculated.

Sherman also maneuvered with the big picture, rather than individual battlefields in sight. As he advanced out of Tennessee and into Georgia through immensely difficult terrain and against the skilled defense of Joseph Johnston, he became the master of flanking movements to dislodge Johnston from favorable terrain and forcing him to open up more and more of the vulnerable heartland of the Confederacy. Even after battlefield reverses, Johnston would be forced to retreat by maneuver, gradually driving him towards less formidable defensive terrain.

By the time Confederate forces were entrenched around Atlanta, Sherman had already won in a way. While the disposition still favored the defender, now the Confederacy’s most industrial city and arguably second most important (after New Orleans, which had already fallen to the Union navy) was locked down on siege mode and its ability to assist the war effort already partly curtailed. And then the leaders in Richmond made the most fatal error they could have, they assigned John Bell Hood to replace Johnston.

The successive offensives against Sherman’s army led to disaster for the Confederacy at every step to the point where the previously defensible Atlanta had to be abandoned. Raw militia and crack units alike were thrown against veteran Union units increasingly starting to be armed with breech loading weapons like the Spencer rifle and carbine which held trenches and field works. Knowing there was no way to avoid being crushed by Sherman after a few of these failed battles, Hood tried to pull a reverse-Sherman and drive north in a bid to take Nashville. Of course, with a beaten and demoralized army this would have opposite the intended results and his entire army would eventually be liquefied by reserves sent after him.

Atlanta fell, and burned. Sherman cut his baggage train and took off across Georgia, feeding off the enemy territory and crippling their food production and morale all at once. He ‘marched to the sea’ and took Savannah before the end of the year. Concerned for their families, soldiers in the Confederate army began to defect in record droves from all fronts. The lowlands-gulf south was cut off from the east. Then Sherman turned north wreaking devastation across the hotbed of secession itself, South Carolina, before taking a more moderate tone towards the conduct of his pillaging troops in North Carolina-which was a less gung-ho about secession state.

By the end of the war he would make it to Virginia, where the looming advance of his forces played no small role in Lee’s surrender in the east.

It is easy to play up the Confederate romantic mythology here and state Sherman’s material and often numeric advantages. This is to ignore the far greater challenges of waging a truly continental scale long-form campaign of offense in an era that favored defense. This is also to ignore Sherman’s full grasp of total war, and the desire to crush an enemy in as many ways at once to create a collapse of both morale and logistics, which are the true sinews of war. He was in many ways the first great modern-industrial general. He fought not for flashy victories to be studied in microcosm but rather for war ending long term objectives. He accurately assessed the enemy’s weaknesses and responded accordingly. There have not been many generals or admirals in history who have so thoroughly understood how to crush the opposition-which is exactly a general’s job.

And that is something worth considering as a million Fox News Dads send up a simultaneous howl of ‘don’t erase our history that we can only apparently learn from statues, how will people at West Point learn tactics if they can’t idolize Lee?’

The answer is not to waste your time studying Lee when you could be studying Sherman instead. Hell, if you need a Confederate general to study take Forrest. Sure, the politically correct *really* won’t like that, but if your point is battlefield command ability…The problem is, most Fox News Dads and Basic History Bros don’t even know any commander who is not famous-and therein lies the problem of romanticism over materialism in the study of history.

Axis of Evil II: The Revenge

 

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Much as the obvious partisanship of American foreign policy continues, with conservatives who would likely be deriding alternative universe Clintonian hawkishness on North Korea now singing Trump’s praises as he threatens ‘fire and fury’ on Pyongyang while liberals in the media currently panicking about nuclear war but which would probably have been applauding ‘strong leadership’ as Hillary prepares in an alternative universe to once again ‘run up the gut’, I think there is a thorough bi-partisan criticism that can be made right now involving weapons of mass destruction and our perception of their proliferation.

In other words, the party leader here is not a significant factor in a country’s likelihood to use weapons of mass destruction as a bargaining chip, but rather the overall mainstream trend of recent US foreign policy. This is a process that began a long time ago, when George W Bush gave his now infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ speech in which, using the militarism of the immediate post-9/11 world, he justified a singling out of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as major threats to world stability and the proliferation of WMD’s to non-state actors. This speech was likely intended to assist paving the way on the many causes belli being constructed for Iraq’s transparently imminent invasion as well as to use as a talking point against the other two states. In the end, it would fail spectacularly on all of these fronts.

First, Iraq had no WMD’s of note. Delusional fantasies of certain tortured conservative nerds aside, Iraq had been effectively neutered by Gulf War I and the subsequent No-Fly Zone. Having wisely been left by the first Bush administration as a rump buffer against Iranian influence, the invasion by US and Coalition forces only succeeded in removing this buffer and giving Iran a free hand in the region. The inevitable chaos that followed, and Iran’s newfound ability to directly strike at US forces using its own proxies and spec  ops meant that the US would also be too bogged down to do anything effectual against the Iranians. Additionally, they temporarily ratcheted up their nuclear power program as a bargaining chip which would serve them well later. North Korea, which had been previously working on getting nuclear materials from Pakistan then decided to speed up their own weapons program and loudly proclaim its successes (something which was quite debatable at the time). They saw it as actually because Iraq had no WMD’s that it was subject to a regime change invasion. Against the immense power of the United States on a rampage, only such weapons could provide the necessary deterrence. North Korea, wisely and rationally, became a nuclear power for the same reason anyone would-it becomes a guarantee of regime survival and sovereignty. It was either that or keep their existence by sacrificing autonomy to Beijing in exchange for more overt protection.

So in the end it was USA vs Axis of Evil, 1-2. Axis victory. Iran gained significant power in the Middle East, and North Korea got a ticket out of the threat of imminent invasion. Given this track record, it was no wonder that many small countries that felt threatened by the US gave their moral support to Iran and North Korea in the early and mid Oughts. Zimbabwe and Cuba jumped on the bandwagon overtly, and Pakistan started accelerating its dangerous double-game in Afghanistan. The problem was that none of these countries really posed a direct threat to core US security interests, yet the many in the media, think tank world, and foreign policy establishment who can think little outside of a certain framework of reference in strategy built them up to be gigantic threats. All of this was done by ignoring that much of the increased saber rattling on behalf of these countries was given a boost in the wake of the Iraq War and the subsequent bogging down of US effort in the Middle East. This was a process that would only accelerate after the Arab Spring, which was made doubly noteworthy due to the fact that no policy maker talked seriously of regime change in Libya before they gave up their chemical weapons stockpiles, but the Arab spring happened after. In that instance the two issues may not have been connected, but to many observers it would certainly not seem so. And another country whose present predicaments make we wonder how much of its population wish it had not disarmed its stockpiles is Ukraine, for obvious reasons.

This is not to say that North Korea’s upping the ante to this extreme is good or wise. Far from it. By firing missiles into Japanese sovereign waters they have been tempting pan-regional fate with a cavalier attitude which deserves some response and castigation. But their actions are no more irrational than anyone else’s in this current standoff.

In my time as an academic I engaged with many theories of International Relations from a variety of directions. On base, the one I found generally most useful for explaining what was going on in state-state interactions was Neoclassical Realism-a theory that postulates that regime survival by the governing elites is the key to understanding decisions made in foreign policy. Usually this requires an understanding of the history of a country, the issues its people consider vital to the security and integrity of the state, and how the ruling class legitimizes itself. In this case, North Korea’s governing elite holds the stalwart battle against American hegemony on the Korean peninsula as well as resistance to Japanese regional power to be part of its core justification with the masses. In Pyongyang’s eyes, they are what stands against attempts to bring the North under the same ‘puppet’ regime as the south is under. It is important to keep this in mind. It is also important to keep in mind that sometimes the way Washington behaves acts as a catalyst for nations seeking sovereignty guarantees in the form of nuclear weapons. Regime survival drives most actors, and the more unstable or comparatively weak the country, the more it will drive them.

The problem comes up when a country’s key legitimacy policies start to conflict with its actual interest. I would say that North Korea’s blatant testing affecting waters not their own is truly a dangerous catalyst which once day they may not be able to contain. But I would also point out that as the reining hegemonic power, the United States has very little to gain from picking these fights with countries whose weight on the geopolitical scale is almost nil. There is a Lanyard Class that reaches for military solutions to everything first, but why court such risk when diplomacy from a position of strength can do more with less danger? The military in such a hegemonic position should be reserved as a conventional deterrent and not a first option.

Personally, though I see little desire in either Beijing or Washington to deal with this issue in the long term as it might mean sacrificing their influence on each half of Korea, but it is my hope that one day both powers can come to a far-sighted agreement regarding the Korean peninsula. I believe this would entail a reunification under the South but with the North’s political party left as a legal entity and a declaration that Korea would be unified as a neutral power, securing China’s landward Pacific border by the withdrawal of US military presence and also ending the threat of a PLA invasion from the north. The unified Korea would have a painful development and integration process, so the space of neutrality between powers would be welcome for them. This neutrality would have to allow in foreign investment and trade as that would be the pay off for both powers giving up more direct forms of influence. A Switzerland of sorts in th East Asian Littoral.

I think this could be done, given the political will. But its that, on all sides, I find lacking.

In the meanwhile, try not to get caught up in the…Crossfire.

All Politics is Dominance Politics

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In grad school in International Relations Realists and Marxists always got along, especially at the expense of the Postmodernists and the Liberals. Even right-realists, though in my experience as time moves on into an era of neoliberal dominance realists as a whole move left to adjust to such euphoric theorizing. This is because both groups understand the reality and necessity of power.

The New Republic, like The Washington Post, is largely famous these days for being an old anachronism that largely rest on past laurels, and for championing every ill conceived war it could. Unlike the WaPo, however, TNR doesn’t really do on the ground reporting or even footwork to among the elites to rumormonger. It merely editorializes.

Its newest little number, by Jeet Heer is something I have been expected for awhile. Chapo Trap House is the only non-horror fiction podcast I like. I am hardly a good example of its average fan, being from a decidedly realist rather than solidly left position, but its intelligence combined with ruthless humor fits me perfectly. It also, like myself, despises the ‘acceptable’ political positions of mainstream liberals, centrists and conservatives alike as terribly obfuscating and self-delusional, especially when such people claim to have an objective view which is, if anything, based in their lack of ability to critically appraise the very system they live in and whose proclamations they automatically take for granted. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before someone like Heer noticed and reacted in a bit of pique. Such op-ed columnists are either of a class of clueless ‘common sense’ prognosticators or (more likely and proportionally) an impoverished and desperate group of sycophants who one day wish they could pull a Brooks or Freidman and be payed six figure salaries by joining said class in order to be fashionable and wrong all the time.

In affect, his entire take on a single phrase accurately stating that the mainstream of the Democratic Party is utterly lost, confused, and obsolete and should take guidance from its strategic betters is to tone police. The Lanyard class, which is related to and among its older members probably directly spawned the vampire castle dwelling tumblrwokes, is all about form over substance. Tone policing is the favorite way of such people to make an argument. ‘Check your privilege’ replaces any actual substantive critique of the point made on Chapo. Not to mention that no actual human being talks in the right and proper homilies of the Neocalvinist wing of evangelical liberals and that insisting everyone speak as such just turns most people away. Humor is a weapon. If the author can accurately state that Chapo is a runaway Patreon success, does it not speak volumes about their approach versus, oh I don’t know, the Democratic Party?

Heer criticizes what he labels as ‘dominance politics.’ How dare someone seek to project their will onto others? But this is politics. Stripped of niceties it is no exaggeration to say that all of politics from the dawn of the human race through now is deciding which form of power projection benefits some over others, and how the alliances fall when trying to figure that out. Literally, (a word liberals are fond of using incorrectly) politics is dominance, always and forever. In order to enact change or refuse to change a regime must be in power. A regime is a government by monopolizing the use of force within its core territory for large periods of time. If you want to make policy over a territorial entity you must have the ability to disproportionately coerce (what power really is), and to do that you must have an in-group and an out-group. Alliance building is impossible without enemies and unstable without an internal hierarchy. Someone, often many someones, must always bend the knee for an order to exist. To deny this is to deny all of human history.

The fact that Chapo Trap House, a comedic entertainment podcast, recognizes this while a writer for a ‘respectable’ publication such as TNR does not is an overt condemnation of how ahistorical back patting has replaced actual deep historical analysis. No government in history has ever seized and held power by nice and equitable methods. The American Revolution itself, often held up as an ideal by technocratic SensibleSerious™ types , was extremely contrarian and very, very brutal. It was justifiably so, as was the later French one. The treatment of the British Loyalists after the war was a necessary measure to ensure some domestic stability in a war ravaged land, and we all know that Brooks and Will and the Clintons would have been Tories had they been there then.

I have long had a theory that the pet causes of pearl-clutchers in politics are often the bugbears of their personal sexual pathologies. Last decade when the GOP was trying to keep its relevance by being ‘The Anti-Gay Party’ it seemed not  a week could go by without another virulently homophobic conservative being outed as massively queer. Reckers, Haggard, Craig, Pence (OK not yet on that last one but you know its coming) basically created the idea that public homophobia=suppressed attractions. With the liberals and centrists (who are increasingly indistinguishable) harping constantly on being made uncomfortable by understanding power dynamics or the ruthless nature of politics rooted in power and applying fears of sexual-based domination onto anything they criticize I have to wonder…are all wokes secret bondage addicted Gorean LARPers? There is some legit Larry Craig toe-tapping in the bathroom stall going on with these hot takes and I just have to wonder if self-flaggelation at the hands of the ghost of Joe McCarthy is whats dancing in the heads of these people now. ‘Other me! Objectify me! Make me your exotic Oriental!’

But if that is the way it goes then here is an analogy to stick: left or right, authoritarian or libertarian, top or bottom, dom or sub, no matter how you take your own ideals, you will never enact them without power. And that is one of the few universal rules of politics. And I don’t care if thats ‘problematic’, because you were born a human, and human life and consciousness is by its nature ‘problematic’, so get over yourselves.

For now, lets (maybe) do Heer a disservice and assume this article is largely representative of what the cast of Chapo would call ‘Lanyards’ or ‘Lanyard Ghouls.’ This is a loose term to describe people who are overly committed to policy wonkery who often let their worship of a system that usually exploits them cloud their judgement on that actual cost/benefits of said system. You know, people who think the whole world can and should function like its portrayed on ‘The West Wing.’ I work in an official capacity myself, and thus wear a lanyard, so I admit to more than normal levels of familiarity with this class-but the difference is that I never wear mine on the *inside*.

If one was going to do a liberal-style ‘discourse analysis’ here of this class one would be forced into the following conclusion–that the people who have the most socially acceptable (and thus often least critical) views on the political system think its impolite to disagree with them and question the elevation of their ideals. Why, its simply uncivilized. The reason they think this, of course, is because they sit atop a vast pile of economic, military, and other systemic forces that monopolize their power so much they do not even have to reckon with the fact that they reflect a power wielding class. They are simply ‘reasonable people’ who can win any debate in good faith with ‘the right means tested facts.’ But, by virtue of being atop that pyramid of socially acceptable ideological privilege, they are utterly unable to see that people outside of these socially accepted norms of polite uncritical discourse obviously do not benefit from engaging with their assumptions…and so why should those others bother? New dynasties are not built by wandering the dust between long deceased Pharaohs.

In short, we have spent the last few decades bowing the knee to these people and they are so used to it they didn’t even notice. Considering their many, many failures I think its only natural the time should come that they bend the knee to us.

Otherwise its just like listening to more of this, period adjusted, for every damn era.

The Allure of Battle: A Review

the allure of battle

The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won or Lost‘ by Cathal J. Nolan is no trite and glib accounting of heroic genius and blundering foolishness like so much of published military history.  There is no romance to be found here. Only the stark appraisal of a materialist looking at many of the conventional wars of the modern age and asking those who casually study military history (actual scholars usually-but not always-know better these days) to smash the myths and look at the bloody truth: Its societies and their logistics that tend to win more than leadership. When leadership is important it can only work when harnessed to a communal effort that enables it to thrive.

Nolan implies he understands it was not always so. Medieval and tribal armies were often the sum total of defense their societies could put in the field. Surely, few could argue with the military dominance of the Eurasian nomad to centuries. (One also of course could say Eurasian nomads had the best logistical system of all time, as they took everything with them on campaign at no mobility sacrifice, I suppose). But with the increasing importance of centralized states, fortifications, and gunpowder came larger armies and more territoriality fixed states. After a brief introduction to bring us up to the 30 Years War, Nolan really gets going with his main case studies. He seeks, and largely succeeds, in gradually building a case that in the age of firepower starting in the 17th Century and leading through at least the Second World War if not through today, the age of firepower has been the age of attrition and not grand romantic decisiveness.

One can go back before to find obvious examples of supposedly brilliant generals who lost entire wars only a few years after winning one or more truly ‘decisive’ victories. Hannibal gave us the term ‘Cannae’ after all-named after one of the most successful envelopment in all of military history. But that and other brilliant battlefield tactical level performances did not change that the outcome of the war was a decisive defeat for him and for Carthage. Scipio on the other hand could learn from Hannibal tactically but brought an understanding of the enemy’s weakness behind their armies that led all his campaigns to really count in the long term. But as is so often the case with military history, the glamour of the takes eyes off the drudgery of the staff room and the logistics trains. Now, this is not really a new or mind blowing perspective for those of us who have given the research of military history quite a lot of thought, but it has never seen such a concerted case for its making as this.

Showing consistently how gunpowder actually extended the operational over the tactical in conventional war, Nolan takes us through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and up until 1945. He has a wide array of history to work with, so he focuses on Europe and modern Japan, where the cult of decisive battle seeking was the strongest. He has some choice words for some famous generals, respectful criticisms of others, and some praise for a few who normally do not get the praise they deserve. Part of the joy of the book is to find out what his take on a ‘great captain’ might end up being. Some common wisdom is overturned.

All throughout Nolan shows us how ‘the captains’ and even sometimes the armies themselves were secondary to the ability of states to wage war until the exhaustion of the other. Combined with these straightforward and mostly objective observations also comes the author’s poetic humanity, which never fails to bring forward the suffering of common people, soldier and civilian, in often pointless and frivolous wars for marginal gains. He never loses sight that he is a historian of tragedy and broken lives, even as he sets forth the seemingly brutal case that mass numbers, grueling campaigning, and institutional and organizational superiority often overcome where flashy battles do not.

One major reason he gives for the popularization of the concept of the one decisive battle or campaign right when warfare was moving exactly in the other direction was a cut of the offensive stemming from victory disease. His two most detailed case studies, Victorian-Early 20th Century Germany and Japan, were resource insecure revisionist powers who sought to use military force to establish regional hegemonies. Their first wars, often against foes in more dire straights than they, were successful enough in their objectives to inspire a bland self confidence not just in military solutions to international problems, but also that such solutions could  and must be brought about rapidly before superior coalitions resources could be brought to bear against such aggression. ‘Shock and Awe’, much later generations would call it. These actions are contrasted quite negatively with Allied adaptability after initial massive defeats, and greater ability to re-tool to play the long game to reverse the tables against enemies who were too wedded to very specific victory plans. As Von Kluck and Moltke the Younger melted down over the failure of the Shleiffen Plan (something Nolan refreshingly doesn’t even praise as a potential concept given the dire diplomatic ramifications and lack of enough vehicles to really exploit the speed necessary) Foch was learning to abandon his commitment to previously faddish offensive doctrine and look for a nuanced grand strategy that did not have to win or lose in an opening move. A similar thing would happen throughout World War 2, most egregiously in the Pacific with the Japanese failures to bag the American carriers and prepare for full scale logistical war on their new empire by submarines, making all their many resource rich and defensible consequences become rotting branches on a dying tree. Operation Barbarrossa might be the largest scale example of this type of thinking, itself moved up in expectation in timetable due to a miss-reading of the tea leaves that came with the unexpected ease which France fell-seemingly confirming the cult of the offensive and enabling it to grow yet more over-ambitious. In so doing, by failing to win decisively in Moscow it condemned its soldiers to lose in time.

The author does not forgo the important or morale or leadership but simply undermines their cardinal place in the hierarchy. Though to me group solidarity is a very important part of not just battlefield success but also logistics and mobilization at home. That feeds directly into staying power which in turn feeds into production and sustaining the effort.

While I loved this book stylistically and historically…I do have a couple of quibbles:

-I do understand needed to limit oneself on such a massive topic, but throwing in more countries outside of Europe than just Japan would have been nice. Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance stands out as a great example of the author’s thesis points. So does the Second Boer War and even the century long succession of conflicts known as the Ashante Wars. The Safavids often coming off poorly against the Ottomans would also just barely fit into the time frame but illustrate the point, as would all around more views on the naval aspect of conflict (where battles do tend, proportionally, to be decisive as fleets are more expensive than armies and can be more thoroughly destroyed in defeat).

-The author constantly and rightly alludes to the American Civil War as far more instructive to the future of war than Konnigratz or Sedan, whose proximity to London and Paris made them models for future armies to follow-into disaster. But he never actually talks about it. I feel, considering even his admittance to its importance at looking at how war was evolving technologically, especially towards the end of the conflict, that he could have had a chapter on it to further his points elsewhere. Not only did the western campaign’s slow and stead progress on geographic and logistical targets prove the decisive part of the war, but commanders like Lee are often held up as neo-Hannibals when really their actions, impressive in single field engagements as they were, failed to further actual achievable strategic direction.

-While the author does mention Soviet Deep Battle strategy as a positive development against both purely positional grinding and wild pell-mell and often petering out Blitzkrieg, he never actually goes into it. This is a shame as few people do, but it has a truly impressive historical record as a battle doctrine and also shows that one can wage limited decisive campaigns building on each other to grind down an enemy with maneuver without risking everything on a single throw of the dice and wounding their behind the lines logistics while doing it. Personally, I am I big fan of looking at Soviet Deep Battle as an example of how conventional mechanized wars could operate as a starting point. I felt it getting a shout out without proper analysis was a real missed opportunity.

Definitely a must have for the military historian. Now, let’s just hope we don’t live to see another conventional outbreak.

NeoCalvinist Identity Politics and the American University

puritans

Pictured: Evergreen College today.

I know I am late to the ball game here, but as a former academic haven gotten caught up to the Evergreen College thing (sorry for the Vice but the video really does get to everything I am about to discuss) I feel its worth extrapolating what this is. You see, I have first hand experience with these people through living in and among them. It was the worst year of my life, naturally. It is why when people get offended that I equate performative wokeness and diseased Tumblr liberalism with right wing evangelicals I have to shrug. I have experienced both personally, and I find them far more similar than different. Evergreen College it seems has gone into full Bob Jones University mode. Perhaps it always was and I simply wasn’t aware.

I saw the first hand self-censorship of children who were instructed not to know better in a Christian elementary school, and I spent my first year of university at what could be considered the East Coast equivalent of Evergreen College and found myself surrounded by a similar phenomenon. It was so horrible I left that university to go to another which was as demographically different in every meaningful way I could find. Life got better. My education did too. It was also infinitely more ethnically and economically diverse. Funny, how schools like Evergreen are so demographically…well…I call this ‘The Portland Effect’.

But if you see this clash of hypersensitivity and demand for self-censorship in *learning institutions* that are (ideally) supposed to challenge you and make you have to actually have a defensible reason for believing what you believe rather than copy/pasting your parents or the first media commentary you liked I have some harsh words for you. The fact is, many people with college degrees often end up influencing policy, either by making it or by thinking they do via selective media consumption. They help create the context for what craven politicians will one day pander to, so its worth looking at this phenomenon. Sure, undergraduates will grow up. I grew up a hell of a lot from my former libertarian self in college to the hard realist self with a domestic socialist tinge I am now, thanks be to college in part and also the ability to debate those worth exchanging disagreements with.

But I think we are missing the fundamental and underlying problem here. The differences between Neocalvinist Left and Neocalvinist Right is not in base an actually political one. Sure, their views on any number of issues except virtue signalling, hating on video games, and having to raise awareness about Joseph Kony are not really in congruence at all, but those differences are obvious. What is more interesting, and terrifying to me, are the philosophical and quite possibly theological assumptions they both share which clearly show that they are two branches from the same common ancestor: Puritanism.

When Oliver Cromwell took power in Britain after The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, more commonly known as the English Civil War (despite starting in Scotland and ending in Ireland) he decided he would remake his new ‘Protectorate’ along the lines of a quasi-theocracy reflecting his puritan religious views. Holidays were banned, the theater was banned for promoting ‘immorality’, persecutions of dissenters reached a fever pitch not seen in centuries. Many were executed, many more were shipped abroad as indentured servants. A similar thing had happened before, under the theocratic mullah-like council of the Covenanters in Scotland before Cromwell had taken them out too due to their pledged conditional loyalty to the Stuart line. Having already turned Edinburgh’s Grassmarket-a traditional site for hangings-into the busiest it had ever been, the Covenantors caused even many of the Scotts to view Cromwell as a liberator. But he was only just getting started. Soon, he would take their project to all three of the kingdoms.

It was this rule of fear and theocracy, ‘The Rule of the Saints’ as it was known in the north, that would turn the kingdoms into something much like Saudi Arabia is today. You might even say Cromwell was the archetype of the ‘Moderate Rebel’ that has become such a punchline regarding Syria.  It couldn’t, and didn’t last. The Stuarts came back because after Cromwell’s death the country was nigh ungovernable. It was, no matter what people say, a liberation. The new government stripped many sectarian fanatics from their posts and re-appointed loyalists to the monarchy or people who had been sidelined by the protectorate. A middling degree of religious tolerance was restored and the single faith rule of the puritans was put to an end. Misunderstood heroes like Bluidy (bloody) George Mackenzie made sure to stamp out the bizarre wahhabi-like ideology and undo the damage caused by it.

Naturally, as Christians do, getting ones come-uppins was proclaimed as oppression. Never mind that nothing done in retaliation to the puritans and covenantors even held a candle to their various reigns of terror. Them not getting their own way in all things and dictating all discourse was trauma enough for them. They wanted a safe space. They left.

And settled in New England.

What followed was witch trials and genocide. Metacom, also known as King Philip, heroically tried to stop this plague which was born in Britain and invaded America to find its true home. He almost succeeded, and likely would have, were it not for the powerful Iroquois League, who viewed him as more of a threat than the colonists, which he likely was at that time. Naturally, this saving of their hides failed to change the attitudes of the colonists towards even the Iroquoian natives. They were all unsaved, folk far from God’s enlightenment. Just as they took the agriculture they learned from the Algonquians and then displaced them, so too would the descendants of the puritans do the same centuries later to their once Iroquois allies who had ensured their survival. If anything, King Phillip’s War had merely shown them that they had to more thoroughly persecute heresy within in the form of witches and warlocks. It wasn’t their land grabbing and unfair dealings with Native Americans that was the problem, and it wasn’t the Iroquois who saved their ass…it was a lack of virtue in thought and spirit. It was an abundance of sin. It was their entirely socially constructed cultural baggage that was the problem. In this way, these sad pathos-ridden people could easily take charge of their destiny, cast blame, and-often untaught in American schools-use such pretexts to seize each others property. But that last thing wasn’t the main intention, *of course*.

These people, if people indeed they can be called, would leave a dark fungus growing inside the American character for a very long time.  Their trauma of having no one like them on both sides of the Atlantic would become a perverse strand of religious fantascism and anti-intellectualism which would eventually migrate westwards and southwards after burning out at home. They were so wretched that when a gathering of far wiser individuals founded a new country in North America they would write laws based on fear of the mob, religious sectarianism, and the dark past they wanted to leave behind. They hearkened in civic thought as well as architecture to a saner classical world (in addition to the obvious enlightenment contemporary ideas of their times) whose values predated Constantine where civil virtue was understood to be paying into society at large in order to get something back. Respect was earned, or even bought, but where it was not an innate spiritual virtue.

Much like in 20th Century Turkey, this noble experiment would have to struggle against much of the populace. It would have set backs and victories. Eventually, beginning with the evangelical infiltration into politics in the 80s and up through recently, it would even hijack the government itself. Much like the AKP under Erdogan does now, the evangelicals came into American government and wreaked an internal destruction not seen since John C Calhoun. And they did it not to make anyone’s lives meaningfully better, nor out of a sense of real civic virtue, but rather out of a sense of identity politics. A sense to publicly show they were right and everyone else was wrong. Only they could save us. It is a kind of thought that stems directly from the protestant, and in particular calvinist, understanding of what good and evil are. It is a world understanding that holds only individual intangibles as worthy of human effort. And naturally, those who have these intangibles must show them publicly. The original humblebrag, now as policy.

These people reached a level of power never seen before under the Presidency of George W Bush, who appointed many unqualified people from unaccredited universities to run positions in the government. The government began to make noises about supporting young Earth creationism at the same time the economy had to gear up to be world-competitive in the tech sphere, then wondered why American students perform so poorly. Abstinence-Only education began on a large scale and showed time and time again to be an abject failure. But results didn’t matter, intentions did. Blind faith in American rightness and morality led us into complacency and Iraq. Really, though the potential is no doubt there, Trump still has quite a way to go to equate Bush and the rule of the traditional conservatives in sheer ideological incompetence.

A reaction to this was needed and necessary. At first it was great. To be a priggish social conservative went from the top of the political hierarchy to the bottom almost overnight. Humor got meaner, which I think was a good thing. People lost an unquestioning fawning over power they had inherited in the immediate post 9/11 world. But sadly, the dark fungal stain of puritanism would infiltrate the reaction as well. Years of pathetic right wing whining that colleges were persecuted Republicans, people who were pro-Israel, and Christians led to a university movement that decided colleges were also *really* persecuting someone else: people who hold their opinions and self esteem so lowly that they shatter from sheer fragility if challenged. People too young or too stupid to remember when it was right wingers who held the reigns of mainstream discourse, the importance of being able to buck assumed trends, and the need to protest a monoculture. Assuming that society was moving inexorably in one direction, something implicit in their liberal world view but decidedly unhistorical, they assumed that those dinosaur like conservatives were just holding up utopia with their mean words. Their virtue signalling was all wrong, as opposed to the right kind.

So professors, subject matter experts mind you, began to be criticized for holding views contrary to the students. This can be legitimate. A professor can say something totally out of line or unfitting for a class. But assigning literature with disturbing themes for a literature class is not one of those things. That is to be expected unless one is illiterate. Not scrubbing historical documents for present day sensibilities is not one of them. Not talking about the very real and very scary effects of the legal system or policy actions is not one of them. Yet all these things became the targets of liberal evangelicals. It was under the same basic puritan assumption that social conservatives operate under: ‘What goes contrary to my world view is evil, it is evil because I am good. I am good because I have an innate rightness which manifests through the positions I am psychologically biased to have. How dare you question my lived experience?’

Postmodernism obviously also played a role in popularizing this ridiculous and anti-intellectual individualism. But the American strain of this virus is in particular Christian and Calvinistic-no matter who holds it.

You will notice that at almost none of these universities are these protests held for better wages for staff workers, or better dorms considering the exorbitant sums payed by students. They aren’t even about environmental issues which affect us all. Materialism, (the only real and thus worthy basis of a political philosophy) is gauche. Much like the social conservatives too, the obsessions of these people gravitate inevitably to issues of a sexual matter, saying far more about the people fascinated by them than by anyone else. Wokeness is the rage. Look like you are doing something but actually don’t have to do anything. You are, after all, on the elect.

Performative virtue signalling is indulged, ironically, by neoliberal capital’s takeover of education. Since higher education is now a mostly for-profit enterprise, students are now ‘consumers’, and as anyone like myself who has ever worked in retail knows, customers can be real entitled shrinking violets…and store policy is usually that they are ‘always right.’ As customers, students (and their parents) except good grades and validation. They are paying for a piece of paper and a social promotion, not to actually *learn* anything.

Granted, not most students. This isn’t meant to be a ‘rah young kids’ rant, as generally I prefer the general opinions held of people younger than me to people older. I know these types of people, like evangelicals, are really not a majority. But in their case specifically they have come to see the university as validation rather than a challenge. Its performative, much like their actual views and much like the conservative views they often despise.

The irony is if we de-capitalized the university system, these types of people would not exist at all at the student level. But sadly, because of the curse America carries, the general anti-intellectual trend would remain in other fields.

But I have no doubt, as with all pathos-ridden ideologues, that the children of social justice neocalvinists will grow up to hate them and reject their ideas, and thus they will complete the circle by wasting away into elderly irrelevance…much like the conservative Christian movement is about to start doing demographically. I also have little doubt that much like the George Reckers/Ted Haggart/Dennis Hastert/Mark Foley wing of the old school conservatives, the new university and social media woke-reactionaries have an obscene amount of personal baggage and buried hypocrisy just waiting to be teased out to discredit them. No people that into moralism have ever *not* been hypocrites.

But can we stay sane long enough to outlast them? Or does the future Rick Santorum have blue hair and a Tumblr to support their run for office?

triggered mini