No matter how tenuous the justification for putting it here is, having written about the importance of table top role playing games in understanding macro-scale events exactly one year ago, I feel it is perfectly fine in light of the announcement of a new or upgraded edition coming in 2024 to have a post ranking Dungeons and Dragons editions. I promise, given the order I plan on ranking them in, that nobody but myself and a few others I personally know will be happy with it.
Before starting, I want to point out that DnD is not my first, second, or even necessarily third favorite game. This is specifically a ranking only of official DnD editions lest we get bogged down in Old School Renaissance discussions (my preferred way of playing the game). We will start with the best and decline to the worst as if heading from the safety of town into perpetually gloomier bowels of peril much like that of a dungeon. Now, with that out of the way…
1. First Edition
This is no grognard nostalgia at work here on my part. The one edition that predates my very birth into the real world is actually the last edition I ever got to start playing. I am recent convert to its simplicity, deadly peril, and extremely evocative amateur art, having only begun to experience it about three years ago. (Something worth noting is how much of the art has a party quaking in fear, dying or running away rather than looking like confident superheroes like they would in the art of all subsequent editions, more on this later). Coming in both advanced and basic versions, and easy to house rules (a necessity for anything DnD), it is the first official rendition of the game that gives the best play experience all these years later. Characters do not start out as superheroes. A lot of them will die embarrassing and miserable deaths. Loot gets you experience points, not monsters slain. This coupled with the greater emphasis on player (rather than character sheet) agency and cleverness really brings forth what a tabletop game should be-and shows how much more fun it is when not structured around the limitations of what computer game-influenced expectations have imposed on the genre. Creative and unconventional problem solving rule when rules are tough but not omnipresent. What you get is a game whose rules play like how Sun Tzu conceptualized warfare; something to be avoided whenever possible but, if unavoidable, need to be gamed with clever and unexpected thinking. This worked well considering the game’s culture was all about constructing the strangest most mind-bending adventures possible.
This is real tabletop gaming from a time of non-Euclidean interior décor, hideous jellied party food, and ‘fancy’ overcooked dinners at the Steak and Ale®. Jimmy Carter might have made it famous as the ‘Malaise Era’, but there was nothing but the bounce of a vibrant disco subculture in those deadly dungeons. It is a style of play that, outside the old school modern spin off scene in TTRPGs, is best encapsulated by PC games like Darkest Dungeon-or it would if that example had zany roleplaying and psychedelic funhouse settings.
The Basic versions are to be preferred over Advanced, for what it is worth.
2. Fifth Edition
Having 1rst and 5th both at the top end is enough by itself to make this list controversial. The oldest and the newest editions fans tend to view each as the polar opposite. How fast things change. When 5th first dropped it was often hailed as a welcome return to old school sensibilities for its simplicity and cutting away of the endless amounts of math fat that had grown in the intermediary editions. And rightly so. The game is popular for a reason. In fact, its only real mechanical flaw compared to the first is both a greater amount of mechanical bloat (gotta sell those splat books!) and the lack of danger. Without house-rulesing its almost impossible to kill a player character without breaking the game’s balance, ruining the dramatic tension of encounters. This ties into a questionable design philosophy of starting out the PCs as de facto superheroes that began back in 3rd and was never stopped up through the present day.
The real drawback of 5e is really in its generic nature. Trying to be everything for everyone means it is kind of for no one whose tastes expect more than the generic. Though no fault of the game itself, this does mean it has the (second) worst fan base of any edition. Being a Zoomer-hugbox-friendly game, it tends to attract a fandumb very much integrated into the present Postmodern-Protestant monoculture and its ever-shifting labyrinth of zeitgiesty-yet-sterile human resources department derived ideologies. Most annoyingly, this tends to manifest as people caring more for lame podcasts about playing the game than, you know, actually playing the game themselves.
That and the game system being built for cornball high fantasy over the sword and sorcery weirdness of 1rst Edition is what keeps this perfectly fine game at second place. But is still perfectly playable and has brought many people into the hobby so credit goes where credit is due.
3. Second Edition
The middle position usually delineates ‘average’, but there’s nothing really average about 2. It’s a grab bag of terrible and awesome. Mostly, the actual system is an overly complicated hot mess version of 1 but at least maintains its sense of perilous play and player agency. However, you need more types of dice than there are kinds of legos for it to work at all. Unrelated to the system but worth mentioning, this was the system that had the best PC game adaptations (Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, etc) and the best pre-made settings in general like Dark Sun and (regular) Planescape. But since I always make my own campaign settings myself this doesn’t really affect me. Sadly, it was also the first to come after the 1980s Satanic Panic that had really attached itself to 1, and thus came with this weird squeaky-clean veneer that robbed the game of much of its edge. A loss it has yet to really fully recover from even today. NEXT!
4. Fourth Edition
This is a weird one. A noble experiment in some ways but just an utter failure in execution. They wanted a very tactical and well balanced game…and they got that! Its just…it came in 2008. Long after PC games could deliver exactly that far better than a tabletop game could. So…you could effectively play a computer game on the table and have to do all the math yourself. Really just misreading what makes tabletops still so good even in the era of advanced electronic gaming. This is most people’s least favorite edition and for good reason…but the fact that it was so combat focused ironically meant the non-combat portions of the game could be played old school style since they weren’t rules’d out to death. Its just a shame it took half an hour for a party to fight one small band of goblins. To add an ultimate level of irony, this system, that would have worked great in PC adaptations, never got a major PC game adaptation! But hey, it was still better than…
5. Third Edition
Do you like mass market monoculture superhero movies? Do you like character creation that feels like doing your taxes? Do you love rules-layering and meta-gaming? How about reading novels worth of ‘feats’ that ‘give you so many options’ but in so doing show how little player agency exists off of the confines of the character sheet? Than OH BOY DO I HAVE THE EDITION FOR YOU!
3E, and its different company pseudosequel Pathfinder, [more like Mathfinder, amirite?] have got to be not just my least favorite edition of DnD, but among my least favorite mechanical systems in all of TTRPG-dom. Feats? Ugh. In an action oriented game with stats and classes rather than skills as focus you should never have to read paragraphs to tweak numbers off your core stats. Do you want to be skills based 3? Then get a better system for it! Do you want to be class based? Then keep it simple! The bloat becomes offensively bad the longer you play, with both friends and foes spiraling up like a bad shonen anime power up sequence that never stops but without the entertainment value of them screaming each other’s names (though I suppose you could roleplay this if you wanted). High level characters don’t even have much in the way of random elements from the dice as modifiers make the tossing of the D20 a mere formality of turn taking. Spellcasters (that class of nerds) are even more ridiculously overpowered than usual, turning all late game encounters into WWI artillery duels between them with everyone else getting to be the obsolete and sidelined horse cavalry.
Couple that with the fact that the people who still like this system like to loudly proclaim its nonexistent virtues with a healthy side of ‘you’re just not smart enough to play my High Fantashire Turbotax Simulator’ and its just beyond me how anyone could ever enjoy this game. This game I once had to run an entire campaign in for a bunch of players despite my objections to using such a terrible system.
But I suppose it will get its second wind when future President Incel_Sniper1488 sets up a game of it in the Oval Office in order to DM for the First Waifu Pillow and the hapless members of the Secret Service who haven’t resigned yet.
By both being very modern and somewhat old school, the future and whether 5.5 or 6 or what have you will be better or worse remains open to question. It won’t really matter to me, since I have already decided my ideal monster-bashing table top system is Shadow of the Demon Lord, but I do like to wonder. Will the exploding OSR scene cause the largest role playing property to take another hard look at learning from its avocado colored furniture on orange shag carpet disco original core? Or will the next iteration be in all pastel colors, replace deadly damage in entirely with ‘literal trauma’ and conduct character advancement via ‘lived experience points?’
Just a quick post for today to sum up something I haven’t been able to get out of my head since first brooding over the term ‘NPR-American.’
Is it worse for a person to be a little bit informed than to be not informed at all? I ask this because I keep seeing and having interactions with people who are extremely confident in quite questionable if not blatantly myopic views whose confidents stems from a certainty that they are well informed people. Anti-vaxxers are the most obvious form of this (a group whose danger I called back in 2010), but that is almost too obvious now. Other groups would be NPR listening zeitgeist-chasing people who criticize foreign countries for having state-run news services without any acknowledgement as to what most media they consume is. An intense irony considering that the entire self-conception of NPR people seems to be being a kind of critical thinking cultural elite who is objectively informed about the world. Point out examples of them being low information voters and they will rage like you attacked their mother. Cable news and mass entertainment consoomers often believe themselves to be informed on the truth or at least able to make inferences about it despite being monstrously ill-equipped to do so. The disaffected, who I am normally sympathetic to, proportionally tend to slide into bizarre extremes that range from unproductive to downright insane.
Is this worse than the honesty of sheer ignorance? There is something to be said for the incurious who say ‘not my problem’ or ‘nothing can be done about it anyway.’ But those who aggressively try to insert themselves into discussions without doing the requisite learning to contribute as anything but a Rush Limbaugh ‘dittohead’ circa 1998 are dragging everyone, ignorant and learned, down alike.
To my knowledge, the phrase ‘Low Information Voter’ first became popularized in the Bush Administration, when Karl ‘Turd Blossom‘ Rove (the only member of that crew who did his job successfully) said he was explicitly appealing to such people with emotional buzzwords and knee jerk social, religious, and jingoistic causes. Democrats immediately latched on to the admission as proving the GOP was for stupid people (correct) but quickly showed themselves to be just as happy to engage in the same behavior with the rise of their own inverted form of evangelism, Russiagate, and ‘muh norms and decorums’ during the late Obama years on through the present. Guess they were for stupid people too.
Needless to say, if you believe that culture war largely exists to whip up mobs against each other (and redirect them away from actual centers of powers) as I do, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Low Information Voter is probably the single most anti-intellectual, politically dangerous, and all around miasmic segment of the modern public. Utterly mindless products of the media they consume, they amplify the most odious and corrupt establishment interests and do so without even drawing a paycheck. Their confidence and aggressive insistence on inserting themselves in discussions they are not equipped to handle does almost much damage to civil society as neoliberal austerity or the unchecked growth of the mass surveillance state. And the solution cannot simply be just more education, as the continual ideologically imposed rot of higher education is likely to make more of these people. The more that go through a university system that has given up all pretenses at being anything but an establishment laundering mill the more of this phenomenon will occur.
So we are left with some questions moving forward:
How can engagement with public issues be taken out of a place where the Low Information Voter is the primary driver of the discourse?
How can we increase the prestige of dropping out of having opinions entirely so that more of the ignorant choose that option instead?
What are the most effective ways to discredit official and reliable seeming sources that are anything but (high prestige legacy press, etc)?
What is the most effective way to turn away from the ‘get more people engaged’ model which has been such a disaster and pivot instead towards one of getting the interesting, curious and nuanced people engaged without the posturing rubes outnumbering them?
Should we consider the possibility that complex events and ideas being distilled into extremely simplified soundbites (the Voxplainer, for example) is actually a net negative for discourse rather than a positive triumph of public accessibility?
A turn of quality over quantity is desperately needed.
“I’m so hungry I could eat the balls off a low-flying goose.” –Joe Biden, according to Andrew Shaffer
Lord Dismiss Us is a 377 page novel by written in 1967 by openly-gay British Peer Michael Campbell. It is a tense, sexually-driven novel about young men coming to terms with their sexuality amidst an administration’s religiously-motivated witch hunt to purge deviants from the boarding school in which the story is set. It is fraught with desire, unrequited love, and the problem that every man wrestles with in Western society—is a quick pump and dump the closest thing gay men can have to experiencing love and fulfillment? If I were to write a review of it I would give it four stars out of five. It’s really good, I highly recommend it, and you should read it instead of Hope Never Dies, a 301 page novel written in 2018 by Andrew Shaffer.
If my choice of opening quote (pg. 112) is anything to go on, I promise you that my comparison to Lord Dismiss Us is not snarky or random. It is intentional, and I am sure by the end of this review you will fully appreciate why. Because for 301 pages, Andrew Shaffer desperately wants to write a slash-fiction of former President Barack Obama and former Vice President, current President, Joe Biden. He wants it very, very badly. The problem is that an explicitly pornographic fan fiction would probably have been better than what he actually turned in to his publisher. I have a lot of criticism of Shaffer’s ability to tell a story, as well—it’s not just the wannabe slash-fiction that makes this bad—but I really need to hammer home just how much Shaffer wants Obama and Biden to Pete and Chasten Buttigieg. To do this I will present to you a brief passage from Chapter 43:
When I woke up, I found myself in the middle of the cemetery. I was lying on my back, with the sun beating down on my face. A gentle breeze was rustling the unmowed grass. Far away, I heard a thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Like racing heartbeat. The louder it grew, the more distinct it became. It wasn’t a heartbeat at all. It was the trotting of hooves. Big, heavy horse hooves. I sat up just as a white horse emerged from over a hill. A faceless rider snapped the reins and flew down the slope of the hill, dodging broken tombstones and barren trees. The hooves pounded louder and louder, as if the sound was coming from inside my own head. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump… The closer the horse came, the more indistinct its shape. It was so white that it was glowing. Looking at it was like staring into the sun during an eclipse; I was forced to look away. Just when it sounded like the horse was about to run me down, the animal came to an abrupt stop. It was so close now, I could feel its warm breath on me. I was vaguely aware that I was dreaming, but every sensation was so vibrant. I desperately wanted it all to be real. “Need a hand?” I peeked at the figure on the horse’s back through cracks in my fingers. My eyes slowly adjusted to the light emanating from the horse, and the figure came into focus. It was Barack Obama, clad in a white toga.
Take all the time you need to revel in that afterglow. It’s honestly a surprise to me that this bodice-ripper wasn’t given some kind of GLAAD award or picked up as a multi-season crime drama on Logo or VH1, wherever RuPaul’s Drag Race is currently being hosted.
To be fair to Shaffer, this steamy Obama-as-Greek-god scene (turns out it’s a unicorn, not a horse—seriously) is meant to evoke a symbolic foreshadowing of the once bosom-buddies to their pre-2016 status quo. The overriding emotional theme of the story is that, since Trump’s inauguration in January, 2017, Obama has been out gallivanting around with celebrities while Biden eats ice cream at home, neither one has kept in contact with the other, and now Biden is insanely jealous that Obama is holding auditions for a new best friend. This tension defines their interactions throughout the book. Told in the first-person from Biden’s perspective, this tension is necessary because Biden just isn’t a tough cop act. He can’t just go swaggering in and solve a murder—oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to tell you this wanna-be porn show is actually a murder mystery. Let’s back this up a little bit. Face down ass up, right into daddy’s lap.
Biden is at home one night, feeling jealous, when his dog gets all feisty to go outside. Biden sees the orange glow of a cigarette in the dark trees outside and goes to investigate. Turns out Obama is hiding in the woods waiting for Biden to make an appearance, and he’s back on Marlboro Man’s good graces. Shaffer tips his hand very, very early in the text and gives us a sprawling four page description of Obama being the coolest dude in the locker room. The jock everyone looks up to, desperately wanting to be like him, the familiar feelings of latent homosexual longing that most young men experience at one point or another but only a select few will ever go on to actually experience. I’m not even kidding about this. The actual text of the story begins on page eleven, and every single thing that happens over the entire first chapter is either Biden scowling at how cool Obama is or Obama channeling serious James Dean energy:
“He rose to his feet, a slim figure in his black hand-tailored suit. His white dress shirt was unbuttoned at the neck. He took a long drag off his cigarette and exhaled smoke with leisure. Barack Obama was never in a hurry.”
You smoke after sex, Shaffer, not during foreplay. Jeez. Anyway, Obama lets Biden know that he heard about Biden’s friend’s Anna Karenina moment (read another book, Potterheads) and hand delivers a printed map to Biden’s house that was found in said dead friend’s apartment, setting off the mystery for Biden to investigate. In a normal murder mystery, we’d have Sherlock or Poirot or even fucking Bond running off to begin the investigation. Instead, because Obama and Biden aren’t your normal crime-fighting duo, we need to set the stage a little more elaborately to really dig into the how’s and why’s of a former POTUS and his VP actively investigating a death without any public or legal sanction to do so. This gives us more time to elaborate on just how salty Biden is that Obama has friends other than him. This goes on for several chapters.
After deciding that Finn (Biden’s stiff) didn’t Anna Karenina himself into that train and was actually put there Spaghetti Western style, he gets squirrely and decides he should Uber home with some flowers for Jill. When suddenly:
A black Cadillac Escalade pulled up to the curb in front of me. The truck-sized SUV sat there, idling. Was my ride early? If there was an Uber sign on the dash, I had no way of knowing—I couldn’t see anything through the heavily tinted windows. Suppose this wasn’t my ride. Suppose it was some enemy of the state, some deranged lunatic fixated on a former vice president. Suppose Finn wasn’t the one who’d left the printout of my address behind on the train… My heart rate began to ratchet up. I had no Secret Service protection anymore. No private security. I didn’t even have my pistol, because who brings a gun to a funeral? The vehicle just sat there, towering over me. There was nothing stopping a passenger from rolling down one of the windows and poking me full of holes. I was a sitting duck, with no wings to carry me away. I inhaled sharply and squeezed the bouquet tight. Water dripped out the bottom and onto the cement. The tinted back window lowered. “Need a lift?” Barack Obama asked.
Again. Afterglow. Also, Shaffer’s version of Biden has one single romantic fantasy, and that’s to be plucked away and carried off by the in-shape, bronze Adonis of his dreams. Now, I’ve read a LOT of Russian literature. It formed the backbone of the college degree that I, like most millennials, am not actively using to pay my bills. (Shaffer’s acknowledgements page literally just says “Thanks, Obama,” a sentiment that I, for no reason related to the 2008 bailout and its aftermath, would like to echo now.)
I understand the intended symbolism of Biden’s tension feeling like he’s about to get capped by Cornpop being relieved by Obama just rolling up all cool-like being mirrored later in the story when Biden is finally getting back to where he feels the most fulfilled. I get it. But, this is not a dense symbolist tome from 1880’s Russia. We do not have a Myshkin and Rogozhin from Dostoevsky’s The Prince debating the ethics of murder on a train as the set up for the payoff later of actually killing someone who is otherwise suicidal at the end of the novel. The only actual investment anybody involved has with the dead Finn is just that Biden happened to ride the train that Finn happened to be the conductor of. And Obama doesn’t know how to express his feelings because men apparently don’t have friends. The set up and pay off for these highly symbolic parallels at the beginning and end of the book does absolutely fuck all for anybody. And this, more than the porn, is what makes this a terrible fucking book.
Andrew Shaffer does not know how to actually tell a story. This book only exists to be pornography for blue-tick twitter nerds who think the term “policy wonk” is a compliment instead of a warning. Spoiler alert: Finn was not put in front of the train. He did, actually, Anna Karenina himself. Like Anna Karenina, he got himself too deep in something that he couldn’t handle and didn’t see a way out. Biden, always the plucky boy from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who lived most of his life in Wilmington, Delaware, just can’t wrap his head around the evidence that his friend—who, again, was not his friend, but just the conductor of a train he happened to ride—could have been somebody that he didn’t know very well, gosh darnit! Biden inserts himself into an active criminal investigation, is told off by law enforcement and Obama’s Secret Service agent, almost dies in the process, and gets a DEA agent murdered. All so that he and Obama can be friends again. Awwwww!
I actually stopped taking notes after a while because, once Shaffer gives the whole “Will they, won’t they” shtick a rest and gets into the groove of actually telling a murder mystery, there isn’t much to report on. His mystery proceeds as one would expect. Obama and Biden go poking around and find out that Finn was living in a motel. They go to check it out and gasp! A lady is there who gives them the slip! A clue that leads them to a Waffle House—sorry, Waffle Depot; also Shaffer calls a pawn shop a “pawn store”? Who the hell calls them that?—where they learn that Finn had a duffel bag sometimes. Finn’s family doesn’t know anything about a duffel bag. So who is the mystery lady and where is the duffel bag? The head of the investigation steps in and tells them it’s a suicide and they need to go home and stop playing cops and robbers. There’s tension between Obama and Biden! What are they going to do? Biden’s cop friend feeds them leads here and there. Turns out the mystery lady was a private investigator for the insurance company. She fills in Biden that she’s going to say it was a suicide. Biden and Obama finally have it out and Biden tells Obama they aren’t friends anymore! Oh no! Maybe Finn was a dirty drug pusher after all! But wait! A letter from Finn admitting that he’s a drug mule! Biden is off to tie up loose ends. The duffel bag! What’s this? Cop friend? Oh noes! Cop friend stole the dope! He was Dirty Harry the whole time! Oh no! A big bad biker dude is helping Dirty Harry! Biden literally has fisticuffs on a moving train, gets thrown from it, hangs on for dear life, and gets pulled back in by the biker dude! Lucky break! Biker dude was actually an undercover DEA agent! What a time to blow your cover right before you’re thrown off the train at-speed and die. Dirty Harry isn’t unconscious at all! The train has come to a stop! Quick! What do? Let Dirty Harry off the train, apparently! And then…whack! Dirty Harry is hit by a train going in the opposite direction. But wait! Shit! Somehow being hit by a 120 mph Amtrak Acela at-speed does not kill him. Because he gets back up, shoots Biden, gets shot by the Secret Service agent (oh yeah, Obama came back and showed up right at the nick of time—such belabored imagery, Shaffer), and Biden’s life is spared by his Presidential Medal of Freedom that he just so happens to carry in his pocket because reasons.
So. To summarize. Biden’s friend Finn dies by train. Biden refuses to believe it wasn’t murder. Biden inserts himself into an active investigation and it turns out that everything the police were saying about Finn was absolutely true. The only thing Biden did was uncover a dirty cop. The experience brings Obama and Biden closer together and now they’re besties again and can emote to one another like mature adults.
This isn’t a murder mystery. It’s not even a buddy cop story. It’s literally a romantic fictionalization of the twee DC liberal ideal of the Obama-Biden white house that is framed as a murder mystery, not the other way around. If you subbed in any other mystery solving duo for these two and expunged the obvious slash-fiction tropes, this would be a halfway decent first draft in need of some serious workshopping. It reads like fanfiction because that is precisely what it is.
A December, 2021 article by Vox points out the serious problem with Obama-era pop culture and how almost all of it is a projection of the world according to Hillary Clinton. As cringey as Vox itself is, they get the cringe of Harry Potter, Hamilton, Parks and Rec, et al to a T. After reading Hope Never Dies it is astonishing to me that this did not make it into their analysis. Because, at the end of the day, their analysis applies to this book, as well (and not just because of the many belabored references to Hillary in Biden’s narration of his worldview). The Obama years were never about Obama in the ontological worldview of these people. The Obama years were always about setting up Hillary to win in 2016. The people that hitched their wagons earnestly to Obama so that they could serve as the vanguard for Hillary eight years later see the world as being solely there to service Hillary. And Andrew Shaffer is no exception. “An Obama Biden Mystery” this ain’t. It’s pure Freudian, psycho-sexual projection. The twenty-four hour news cycle may have murdered the part of the American brain that is still capable of healthy sexual relationships, but it hasn’t murdered the part of the brain that still wants to fuck. And it’s the policy-wonk mentality that is used as a substitute for smashing genitals into various orifices for fun. So while my understanding of the English language leads me to define pornography in a particular way, I also know that society takes all kinds, and for a specifically loud and influential segment of our nation’s elite, Hope Never Dies should be sold at gas stations with a black bag hiding the cover art.
In my entire life I have only ever thrown two books across the room once I was done reading them. Hope Never Dies is one of them. Twilight was the first.
I have a personal history with George Romero entirely separate from the fact that I met him once at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It was back in the last few years of the 1990s, when I was a tween, that I got really into low budget 70s and 80s horror movies. Introduced me to what Perfidious Albion once called ‘video nasties‘ through the last years of the video rental store. The favorite of mine adjacent to this genre was the original Dead Trilogy, my favorite film trilogy of all time to this day. Night of the Living Dead, both its original and 1990 remake (both were made by Romero hence the lack of usual decline in quality of remakes) got me hooked, and the totally apocalyptical conclusion of Day of the Dead was an apt and surprisingly Epicurean conclusion to the series. But the real stand out was the middle entry, Dawn of the Dead. My favorite movie of all time to this day. I still remember the night I first watched it. It was the week of Halloween, 1997 and I was home alone. Despite the movie already being twenty years old, I had never seen gore like that, nor such a perfect blend of bleakness and comedy. I was a kid and coming into an awareness that shopping malls were the nexus of social interaction still for the time (though this would be the last decade that would be the case), and did not like that, and so thoroughly enjoyed the thorough pisstake of consumer culture the movie represented. Not to mention that soundtrack with what has to be the most iconic (to me) main theme of any movie. I had yet to be acquainted with Italian synth-prog-rock band Goblin, now, thanks to the Giallo film subgenre, a general staple of my life- but unknown to me then. More importantly, I liked that human society still exists at the start of the movie, despite being a sequel to Night, but gradually fades in the background before utterly unraveling by the end, leaving only disparate groups of people to fight over resources while they still hold off the zombies.
And if you thought this was cynical, in 2006 Land of the Dead rolled around and we got to see civilization’s reboot quite literally eat itself once again due to an inability to deal with class inequality.
But while the Dead Trilogy may be Romero’s best faire, it is one of his other movies, The Crazies, that we should turn to foremost in the era of Bungled Pandemic. While definitely not one of his best movies as an artistic production, and mildly irksome to my inner military history nerd due to the ubiquity of M1 Carbines shown in the 1970s army, it remains an exceptional take on government, bureaucratic, and small town bungling and miscommunication and is tied only with It Comes At Night for my favorite pandemic movie.
In The Crazies, a bioengineered virus by the Department of Defense is accidentally released due to a plane crash over a town north of Pittsburgh. The virus, codenamed Trixie, drives people into violent and irrational fits of behavior making them murderous and/or suicidal. The town is already half descended into chaos by the time the army arrives and begins setting up a quarantine. The initial response was badly bungled due to the need for secrecy, and just when the state forces are beginning to start fixing the situation the people begin revolting. As scientists are given the correct amount of leeway to do real work, the bungled edifice around them crumbles at the moment when it can do some good. The damage is done, a heavy handed government response is too deadly and the people no longer believe nor seek to obey state decrees as too many have been killed or detained.
And here is where the most interesting part of the film comes to play. Unlike the Dead Trilogy, there is no way to tell who is infected with Trixie and who is merely reacting due to stress and mass panic from societal breakdown. The movie shows us multiple massacres and gunfights between the army and the citizens where it is entirely unclear if anyone is even infected with the virus at all. The main band of townies we follow is entirely sympathetic when we see them storm an army occupied house and massacre the soldiers there. But when it becomes obvious part of their party is infected we also see that the main military figures we are following are also sympathetic as the existence of the virus is in fact quite real.
Meanwhile, the monotonous military drum roll music that provides most of the film’s soundtrack goes from annoying but perhaps reassuring and authoritative to increasingly farcical as the entire setting and containment operation collapse under multiple factors of bureaucratic clashes and incompetence. Additionally, the use of amateur actors and locally recruited extras (a common in Romero films) is actually a boon as real life people in a crisis behave like amateurs and not actors with prescribed roles. The heroic Dr. Watts, played by the memorable Richard France, is too rushed to tell his aide the details of the vaccine he is developing and then, right as he completes his task successfully, is caught up in a stampede of detained townies and killed in the resulting mob rush, his work lost. The last surviving rebel local that we followed is finally captured after everyone he sought to escape with has been (rightly or wrongly) killed. It is clear he has natural immunity and even knows it, but he elects to stay silent out of spite once under government custody. Whether this situation is handled well considering the its chaotic and unprecedented nature becomes irrelevant as a new outbreak is reported in Louisville.
This leaves us with some important questions: Did the virus only effect a few people and the rest was all resulting panic? Who was really infected and who wasn’t then? These questions are never answered. It is worth noting that the 2010 Crazies remake, while not a meatheaded disaster like the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake was, makes it obvious who is infected and who is not, which fundamentally undermines the core ambiguity of the original film.
Once again, like in Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s filmmaking is an intense and personal-to-small group view into societal breakdown while, like in real life, feeding incomplete information from rumor, hearsay, and a dysfunctional media. Romero was no fan of unrestrained capitalism or the carceral state, and I can’t help but think he, along with other later-tier Silent Generation directors and writers, saw something in the coming Boomer zeitgeist that would lead to only the most farcical of societal breakdowns. A plague of mullets and hideously colored clothing and interior decor that would usher in a chaotic new dark age of misinformation, confusion, and mass panic.
This is going to be a brief and unstructured post as I have a vaccine-breakthrough case of Covid-19 and thus am not at the height of my mental faculties.
But while I linger here in inglorious self-isolation, I have been reading the collected philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. I am not finished yet and I do not mean to give a comprehensive take, but it is worth mentioning that I came to this task via a book I recently read for work that compared and contrasted various historical definitions of the concept of sovereignty. I knew Spinoza by some philosophical concepts but had no idea that he was a thinker on such relevant (to my interest) political concepts. The ideas that I read about in that book made me want to know more.
Spinoza is most famous today for his metaphysics and his radically materialist concept of a pantheistic god, rather than a spiritualist and religious one. This interests me much less than his politics here, but serves as a fascinating example of materialist thinking in a deeply spiritual age. He comes across as similar to an early Tantric thinker with elements of Vedanta philosophy but in a 17th Century Dutch context. His god, such as it can be called such, is really a combination of the will of energy serving as the connective force for all of matter. To Spinoza, this matter is the same everywhere and thus the creative energy may as well be ‘god’ because this is the only way things may happen by forcing change and interaction. Of course, we know now through the hard sciences that matter can indeed change its nature in many circumstances and that it can be converted into energy. This punctures his need for the god language, but was information that was unavailable to him in the time of his life. Therefore, we get an interesting example of a fully materialist god with the characteristics of the theology of the Dharmic religions. Good and evil are pointless, as is faith. The majesty of being leaves no use for the simple moralism of man. And it is the simple moralism of man that the Abrahamic faiths, of course, hold as supreme.
No wonder Spinoza’s Jewish community in Amsterdam excommunicated him. Then so did the Protestant Dutch municipals of that city. After death, his writings would be banned by the Catholic Church. Cancelled by three different religions, now that’s a guy I can respect! He would never end up joining any faith community again and lived the rest of his life as a private tutor and lens grinder, apparently content and with his own circle of friends from many outlier communities. Honestly, he sounds like a cool dude.
While his attack on the specifics of the Abrahamic God, (a being much more like Miura’s Idea of Evil than Spinoza’s omni-nature) and his creation of a deterministic world view of moderation and autonomy in service of living with nature while also exploring it would be his most famous contribution, what I really find interesting in his political philosophy.
Spinoza is an extremely interesting contemporary and counter-point to Thomas Hobbes. Both believed in the ultimate sovereignty of the state as the enabler of human thriving, particularly in societies that had grown large enough to have dense populations. Both sought state control over religion to quash sectarianism and outside societies interfering in domestic affairs. Both looked down on violent rebellion but left themselves each specific escape clauses when the situation became dire. Both, most interesting to me, upheld the right of different countries to have different political systems based in their own culture and untampered with by the designs of others…even if their personal preferences were for different kinds of systems. Both were aware of one another and Spinoza at least read Hobbes’ work.
The differences are more interesting, however. Whereas both Spinoza and Hobbes saw a strong state as the most effective way for maximizing human flourishing, Spinoza emphasized the state’s capacity to uphold freedom of thought, religion, and the press whereas Hobbes viewed such things as potential dangers to the state. Hobbes also sought a centralized state whereas Spinoza sought a more decentralized one, where the dynamic tension of regions and their differences sparked an engaged citizen-culture that would, over all, actually strengthen the state against outsiders. Hobbes’ personal preference for monarchy also contrasts with Spinoza’s personal preference for republics. But both, I will re-iterate, did not believe there was one universal best form of government for all places and peoples. In fact, Spinoza was insistent that a political system will always be regionally and situationally unique. He was also even more of a realist than Hobbes when it came to social contracts, finding that power, not safety, was the true ultimate determinator in who got what. And that power came not from ideas, but by living within nature and understanding it enough to get the most out of it.
Here we have a thinker who denies progress, teleology, and idealism for a fully deterministic and materialist world view, yet comes to support freedom of the press and secularism in service of a republican civic virtue. Is Spinoza a liberal with all the stupid bits cut out? Or a realist with a modern sense of nuance lacking in Hobbes? Or both? Nevertheless, you can see why I am interested in him.
To create an artificial binary here, I am probably more personally close to Spinoza’s world view than that of Hobbes. However, I will maintain that so long as certain caveats such as adding economic security to the Hobbesian bargain are done, that Hobbes might still be the more relevant thinker on sovereignty for much of the world. Why? Because the dynamic tension of Spinoza is often preferable but too dangerous to work in fragile or besieged societies. A very strong and secure society can afford a level of decentralized experimentation, but a weak one cannot. Hobbes wrote in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war and its resulting fanaticisms in his home country. Spinoza wrote exposed to fanaticism as all in 17th Century Europe would have been, hence his desire to relocate from region to region to avoid antagonists, but also in a society at its financial and military peak. The Dutch Republic was in a far stronger place than England in that period. It could afford to be experimental. The British would only shift to a more mixed political system once they pulled ahead of the European pack.
We see this today in the world’s conflict zones. Embattled states either fail or become more Hobbesian to avoid failure. And so, as I am want to do, let us bring in Ibn Khaldun to add a third corollary here: the passage of time matters. Personal bonds create a new ruling elite, the ruling elite, if successful, creates a Hobbesian (or Chinese Legalist or whatever) state focused on survival and establishing itself as the dominant force in a territorial unit. Then, the Hobbesian state can (and possibly should) morph into a Spinozan state, strengthening itself by more fully integrating its citizens into its body and allowing dynamism to survive the loss of the original solidarity provided by security needs. The cycle will eventually repeat itself again, of course, but the transition to a Spinozan state could delay the inevitable decline in the final phase, meaning while upheaval is still inevitable, it is less common. This is not to ignore, of course, that a state could go from a Spinozan position to a Hobbesian one as a matter of necessity due to security concerns and internal division. Indeed, this is to be expected as well. But if the state survived the crisis by doing this, it could always pivot back to the Spinozan position once things clamed down.
And now, because that is the most effort I have been able to put into anything for the last couple days, let me leave you with a Spinoza quote that I think sums up both his metaphysical and his political views quite well:
‘Whenever then anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have only a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence of the whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason; Although in fact what our reason pronounces is bad is not bad in regards to the order of laws of universal nature, but only in regards to the laws of our own nature taken separately.’
I have a long term and ongoing research project that continuously, if in slow-motion, has been unfolding in the background of my life since 2019. It means that the proportion of books that I read about Native American history is at its highest point since the topic was the subject of my undergraduate thesis back in my final year at Rutgers University. I just completed ‘The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America’ by Stephen Warren today and felt it was one of the stronger and more unique entries in the topic I have read for some time.
Warren is the author of multiple books about the Shawnee nation, but this is the one that goes back the furthest in time. Tracking the likely beginnings of the tribe as we know it in the Ohio River Valley as Fort Ancient people who saw rampant Eurasian diseases devastate their populations and settled lifestyle, the author takes us through the story of the dislocation of 17th and 18th Century Eastern Woodlands America. While the Shawnee are no doubt the primary focus of this work, they are taken to be an especially strong example of this time of chaos rather than the sole subject.
Warren shows how mass death and economic re-orientation around ‘Mourning Wars’ (the quest for population replacement captives) as well as access to European trade goods necessitated huge lifestyle and locational changes for many tribes. The Shawnee come in as the best example of this considering the sheer level of adaptability and willingness to travel that they encapsulated. From starting as one of the most sedentary cultures north of the Rio Grande to famously itinerant travelers across Eastern North America, they would be dubbed by their sometime rivals and sometime senior partners the Haudenosaunee as ‘the most traveled people’.
The Shawnee (and others) first traveled east in order to acquire guns to give them more of a defense against marauding bands of better armed nations such as the Haudenosaunee. They would then serve as mercenaries on the frontier for the colonies before retiring when settler pressure became too intense. Bands of Shawnee would go south to the Carolinas, east into Pennsylvania and Maryland, and west into Illinois. Divergent bands, likely descended from different Ohio River villages, would scout and acquire knowledge and goods. Then, after 50 years of wandering, begin the process of returning to the original Ohio Valley homeland in alliance with other displaced tribes to set up home again from a stronger position than it had been once they left. This was the core that first the French, then the British once the French left, tried to set up a Great Lakes Indian state around.
Warren does an excellent job showing how many tribes broken by European and Haudenosaunee power politics adapted and often coalesced into new formations. It is truly an underdog story of Darwin’s maxim that ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives but the one most responsive to change.’ Considering the sheer scale of epidemic die off in the region, not to mention the extinction of so many tribes, this is no small feat. It is for this reason, as well as the intrinsic historical value of the text, that the book is so useful.
I do have one complaint, however. The text feels like its building up to explaining the Northwest Indian experience when pan-Indian identity really started to take off with the attempt to have a sovereign Ohio valley native nation. The text, however, ends in the French and Indian War and stops there. Warren’s other book appears to pick up in 1796. That leaves out this most formative period of Shawnee history from Pontiac’s War up through the Northwest Indian War. I would hope the author would consider another book to cover this time period considering it is in some ways the culmination of many of the experiences talked about in this text. While the Shawnee became more sedentary again in this time (before being displaced by the U.S. government later and moving to Oklahoma), its a period I would have loved to have seen the author cover considering its importance in showing situational adaptation for an outnumbered and outgunned people. It was the Shawnee after all, along with their allies the Miami, Lenape, and others, who would score the biggest battlefield victory, proportionally speaking to forces engaged, over the U.S. army in all of history.
Warren’s book can be recommended to anyone interested in North American history as well as those interested in the history of migration and anthropological adaptation.
For my road trip through much of the Allegheny Plateau, I planned to be there near peak fall. A freak late season heat wave prevented practically any vibrant colors from coming out in most places I went to it turned out, but the rest of the journey went off without a hitch and I hit all of my target stops but one.
I had the good fortune to be doing this trip while reading the book (that I am still reading as of now) When They Severed Earth From Sky, which is about how prehistoric and premodern myths often reflect distorted accounts of real world events. Often natural in origin. The book postulates that in a non-record keeping culture, it is easier to pass down information from one generation to another if human intention and romantic flourish is added to the account. This ensures that future storytellers will want to tell it and tribe members will want to hear it.
One of the reasons I went on this trip is to do ‘research’ of a sort. Since 2018 I have been writing on ongoing fiction short story series about a post-United States (but not post-apocalyptical in the environmental sense) future centered around this region and the new cultures that grow up in the void left by the parting of the old society. The technology level is kind of rustbelt modern, akin to the STALKER games, but with a heavy dose of folk horror and sword and sorcery. Given the propensity of people to claim to see strange creatures in this region, and my past experience road tripping in West Virginia, it made a natural choice. Also, around this time the disastrous Fallout 76 came out, which I avoided and whose release time was coincidental with my own development of this setting. But it kind of challenged me to do the region better, as I knew I could. So far, I have used many of the Appalachian cryptids (as well as less modern folklore) to help round out the stories. The overall vibe kind of comes across as a hybrid between something Laird Barron would write and the game Dusk.
One wonders what it is that makes this region so good for spooks and haints. I imagine the deep religiosity (but for a Manichean monotheism) clashes with the brooding forests and broken hills. This is creature country. Not the desert of the Bible. The desire to treat this still very wild land in the traditional sense of the devout English or Ulstermen fails. But the desire to see something memorable and folkloric remains. The failure to take in enough of the preexisting Shawnee mythology leaves a void that the distant and blandly universal god of the Bible could never truly fill when it comes to regional identity. Point Pleasant, at least, has a petroglyph of an Algonquian water panther, though my picture of it is not good enough to bother uploading here. Anyway, they have their own local creature since the 60s and the tourists it draws in has brought the downtown back from the brink.
With the coming and going of coal and industry, the region feels like its slipping back into something premodern. So why shouldn’t it be a pioneer in re-mythologizing itself? Sure, the Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster strike me as large birds, especially owls, seen in low light conditions and mistaken for giant humanoid monsters since perspective and distance were off. But they represent a very real desire for re-enchantment of the world. Not in the generic occidental monolithic religious way we are used to, but in a localized way that differentiates some regions from another. Much like the Jersey Devil does for my current region or the Kushtaka for coastal Alaska. They are mascots as well as something else. Something specific.
If we lived in a world were Carthage had beaten Rome and our western-Eurasian maritime culture had ended up being a Carthaginian-Celtic-Hellenistic hybrid (one can dream) I can imagine two things: 1. more syncretism with the native traditions in North America upon advent of the colonial period, and 2. local shrines and temples to strange sightings. I imagine this is how gods got started in the first place anyway. My favorite thing about being in Japan, second only to heated vending machines, is the localized nature of Shinto temples. Imagine a Mothman or Jersey Devil or Coyote temple, laid out open plan. Multiple buildings built around natural features for a seamless regional experience that reflects the land that myths arise from, as well as the myths themselves.
Seen in this light, the ruins of the region are not just testaments to a past sinking into entropy, but also a fountain for new myths for the future. A reinvigorated folklore for a changing culture could be born here. This is true for many other similar places as well. As Ibn Khaldun teaches us, its often the neglected and sidelined places where solidarity is re-forged first, and thus where the impetus of history can shift towards. This is how I view a future-oriented trek to the adaptations we need to deal with living in the Anthropocene, a process I have previously written about as The Black Longhouse.
Near the end of my trip, I hiked down the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike towards Sidelong Hill tunnel. One of three abandoned hill-traversing tunnels from a section of the highway that was dropped from use in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, what I found there was a local youth shrine of sorts. Graffiti and messages, many sloppy, some funny, all of them speaking to the power of this place to communicate outside of oneself and for those of certain dispositions to congregate.
I walked deep into the gash in the earth, into the bowels of the Allegheny mountains. At about the halfway point, when both exits were distant smudges of light, I stopped and shut off my flashlight. In the perfect damp darkness I stood. I clapped, hollered, and sang. My own voice came back to me a hundredfold from every direction, amplified and distorted.
Ancient shamans would have killed for a better otherworldly experience.
Take a little trip back to the Dark Bush Days with me. I’m talking peak chauvinist American hooting. 2003-2007 in particular. If you are too young to remember, just humor me here. No matter our opinions on the Iraq War, we all appreciated Baghdad Bob. The Iraqi Information Minister whose hyperbolic claims of American defeats at the hands of victorious Iraqi Army forces in 2003 came in the face of obvious and mounting evidence that his government lived on borrowed time and that he was either willfully or ignorantly shouting a propaganda rear guard action into the howling void of events beyond his control.
Fast forward just a year or two later. The general consensus among everyone not on the political right or center at that time was that our own government was made up entirely of Baghdad Bobs. If you lived through this period, you might remember that liberals back then were kind of cool, even if you already knew you weren’t really one of them. We were all in the anti-neoconservative boat together, those who thought ill of Bush and company. Humor was meant to offend the delicate Christian sensibilities of republican wieners. The Daily Show had yet to lose its teeth and was a better critical news source than network TV, and Stephen Colbert was playing an amazing parody of an ironic hyperbolic conservative (the only kind you saw back then) who had yet to slip into his more depressing current phase of playing an unironic hyperbolic liberal. In general, liberal culture (though not politicians) were kind of cool. They were at least playing at being anti-establishment. Common things you would hear from them would be phrases like ‘You can’t trust intelligence agencies, its their job to lie’, and ‘Obviously the government lies all the time, so you can’t trust what they say about foreign countries.’ The most pertinent to those of us- like myself- fighting for gay rights and to defend secularism at the time was ‘the government is overrun by religious ideologues, and therefore must be treated with skepticism.’
Such sentiments are common place in most parts of the world. But not the North Atlantic. Most people are naturally suspicious of their own government first and foremost and it is a testimony to a few centuries of riding high that Anglos don’t often share this vital skepticism. And, as we have seen since about 2014 if not earlier, this brief moment of Bush Era liberal clarity was lost. What events like the Iraq War taught the tastemakers that occupy the overlapping space between mainstream media and the military is that the yokels don’t need propaganda to whipped up against foreigners. Wave a cross and a flag around and holler about foreigners marrying their daughter and they are good. No, the section of the population you really need to convince is the fence-sitting highly educated liberal elite. Gain them, like in 2001-2, and you gain the media. Lose them, like after 2004, and you lose the information war. Obama was the master of manipulating these people, hence why the media tacitly dropped coverage of the Libyan War once that went as bad as Iraq did. ‘Reasonable People’, you know the type: Doonesbury, NPR, Saturday Night Live, Hamilton, etc, never became bothered about Libya because the media effectively covered up the failure there. An unprecedented effort was unleased to sway these people, especially about foreign countries. Something pioneered by their most trusted news sources, PBS and NPR. These are, to use a term introduced to me by Shant Mesrobian, the NPR-Americans.
These people, who once let out tiresome sighs when people around them were too patriotic, suddenly began to take up the mantle of American Exceptionalism with the coming of Trump. They were the true guardians of the republic, and thus they stood against him. When he said (falsely) that he would scale down the military interventions abroad they opposed it reflexively. When he said he opposed giant free trade deals, they announced they were for it. When a newly resurgent paleocon right became one of the factions pointing out we were on the same side as Al Qaeda in Syria, they took this as evidence that blockading and occupying Syria was now good. The one time they praised him was when he bombed Syria in a pique of virtue signaling by cruise missile. Perhaps it reminded them of the Clinton Administration. Granted, many had already imbibed those opinions from their Tulpa, Hillary Clinton’s super hawkish campaign promises the year before.
But what was the reason Hillary lost to Obama in 2008 (in a campaign far nastier than the 2016 primary against Sanders)? That she was too much like Bush and McCain. Of course, so was Obama secretly but he hid it at that time. These opinions had passed the point of heyday. Liberals no longer fought the Bush establishment, they had become it. Makes you wonder how much of that old Gen X coolness they had in 2005 was all just show. Do they really just believe in Team Blue Yay, Team Red Boo and not care about actual policy? It is looking more and more like it every passing year.
Could an average liberal today hold those same positions about distrusting the media and intelligence agencies that they once had? After staging larger protests for Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions than for any actual substantive cause they believe in that was trampled on then, the answer seems to be no. Question any state narrative and you are a ‘conspiracy theorist’ as if uncritically reported false claims about Tonkin Gulf, Iraqi WMDs, and Libyan Viagra Militia never happened.
The ultimate article of faith for these people seems to be RussiaGate. A farcical conspiracy theory in its own right but one supported by influential actors within the state. It is constantly used as a litmus test to affirm loyalty to the state and to what is considered respectable discourse in the media ecosystem. I have consistently and since the very beginning called these claims either exaggerated or fully bogus, as can be seen going through the archives on this site. A clearly designed program to ingratiate liberals and democratic party partisans into being a strong support base for neoconservative policies and spending priorities they once would have opposed. Last week, this story that was hyped for years finally and obviously collapsed. Granted, if you had read the book ‘Shattered’ back in 2017 like I had, you could have predicted this turn of events easily, but apparently most had not or missed the part where its revealed Podesta and company cooked up the whole thing to excuse their epic, historic, and humiliating surprise loss to a carnival barker.
There have been no mea culpas from the RussiaGate obsessed media for this. Not even from the supposedly objective news organizations that Very Serious People take as objective purveyors of truth. There has only been a constant doubling down akin to faith based sectarianism, as much with the NPR set as with the cable news people. Russel Brand, of all people, brought up the collapse of Russiagate and faced an immediate swarm of liberals denouncing him and comparing him to Alex Jones.
These are not the liberals I grew up with.
Often I think, maybe its me that has changed. Liberals are the first to accuse people they used to get along with of changing when they no longer tow the BlueAnon line, as I have seen happen to the few journalists who have kept their sanity amid a profession riddled with Trump Derangement Syndrome. I have, in fact, changed a lot since then myself. But the core of me is not that different. I was then a realist (if far less sophisticated) of a socially libertarian but still community policy oriented bent who really *really* hated neoconservatives and theocrats. Those things are all still true today. My only really big change are my views on economics, which have become far more left-wing now than they were then. This means the liberal canard that everyone who crosses them is a secret conservative now cannot possibly carry water. Sure, I am philosophically if not politically ‘conservative’ (anti-progressive would be a far better term for me) in many ways, but this was also true back then. So it is they who have changed. For the worse. This makes it far more difficult for them to keep making that ‘lesser evil’ argument they are so fond of. At this point, Pompeos and Cottons aside, I fear more about their vision of the world than the other guys on more than a few issues.
I blame supposedly trustworthy news organizations like NPR more than most things for this shift. The ones with a supposedly objective front who lie via omission and selective fact presentation while being unaware that what they think is sensible is an ideological as any other position. Gwen Ifill’s death removed one of the last straight-up great reporters and the space she left behind has been filled by utter mediocrities and occasionally outright malignancies (such as the apparently Thalmor-named Yamiche Alcindor who serves, perhaps, as the ultimate example of a commissar figure in the guise of an objective reporter). I will always champion the right of PBS to exist, with its excellent science and nature documentaries, but every year since about 2016 it has continually lost what once made its news section great. NPR, with its strange frenetic jazz and morphine addict-sounding monotonal inflections, has always been a waste and could be cut for the benefit of taxpayers. Add on to this the ultimate irony of the fans of these state-funded media enterprises being the first criticize foreign countries with powerful state media organs as always being suspicious or illegitimate and…well, you get the point.
While it is one’s credulousness that is ultimately responsible, the unholy alliance of liberals and media sets the tone for so much of the cesspit of dialogue we are forced to wade through regularly today. This has an extra and hysterical quality because it is becoming increasingly apparent that, philosophically speaking, the 21rst Century has not been kind of the ideology of liberal-humanism. America’s special role of spreading its mode of government and its ideals around the world have led to instability and sectarian conflict, as well as given its rivals strong cards to play as reactive oppositional forces. Inevitable results of overreach for any hyper-expansionist state, regardless of its self-proclaimed ideology. Populist causes of both substantive and non-substantive issues rebel constantly at home. Supposed expertise leads to nothing but decaying infrastructure, declining living standards, and perpetual imperial expansion to benefit only defense contractors and ideologues who wish to play missionary. The market does not liberate but enslaves. Social media no longer serves a counter-cultural role as it did in the Aughts but is now a rigid tool of world wide homogenization into Anglo-American culture wars. The liberal dream is dying because it succeeded. We are now atomized little market-humanists screaming into echo chambers and regulated by human resources rhetoric.
They weren’t supposed to be the bad guys. History wasn’t supposed to keep going. But they are and it did. They cannot allow themselves to question the ideology they have buried so much of their life into, so they lash out, defiant and angry. How dare the very real forces of the disaffected interrupt brunch? Don’t those unwashed masses know that it is the liberals who are always on The Right Side of History?™ Steven Pinker is there to provide the citations to the thesis, you know.
And Baghdad Bob would be so proud of them for holding the line doggedly in the face of reality.
Running themes on this site are historical trickster figures, explorations of books on relevant subject matters in detail, and past parallels to present challenges. Here, I will bring you all three in addition to some original ‘artwork’ from myself at the end.
Despite being primarily interested in other eras and parts of the world, it should be obvious to regular readers that I have developed a recent fixation on 17th Century Europe and in particular Britain. This is not because it conflates with most of my actual historical interests, as it mostly does not, but because it is the time that is so culturally similar to our own and thus demands closer examination. Those with little to no historical knowledge have a tendency to reach for over-used and often ill-fitting periods, such as the Great Depression and World War II, but the world we live in looks nothing like the Inter-War era in actual substance. This is merely hyperbolic rhetoric from neoliberals who have no comparison point to the fairly regular occurrence of localism re-asserting itself against internationalism.
Today does, however, look a lot like Europe of the Thirty Years War and the Britain of the era of its civil wars. Indeed, the ideologies and struggles of that time plague us still. Our present era, I would argue, is a very Cromwellian one. For those of us who oppose this and find it the potential start of a new dark age, it becomes relevant to familiarize ourselves with how this happened before and how such a time was overcome and displaced. Having already dealt with the lessons that can be learned from the Thirty Years War before, I now wish to move towards the British origin point of so much of present ideological pathologies.
Since the analogy is obviously imperfect, (there is no conventional war yet, for one thing) it should be understood that I am more focusing on the cultural and philosophical life of political society rather than claiming an exact parallel in events. Nevertheless, you may find yourself surprised by the overlaps between then and now. Wokeness, Christian evangelism, universalist liberalism, creationism, and many of the other afflictions of the Anglophone world were born or revived in this time. And now, as the cultural dominance of that world begins to recede in our present era, it comes forth once again with full force and with a cacophonous death rattle…knowing the time to remake the world in its image has come to a close but seeking one last great push.
The Commonwealth and Protectorate’s Messianic Endeavor
‘If He that strengthens your servants to fight, pleases to give your hearts to set upon these things, in order to His glory, and the glory of your Commonwealth, besides the benefit of England shall feel thereby, you shall shine forth to other nations, who shall emulate the glory of such a pattern, and through the power of God turn into the like.’ ~Oliver Cromwell
The British Civil Wars began in Scotland and ended in Ireland, though they are often erroneously called ‘The English Civil War’. In the end it would be England dictating the peace for the others. The union of the crowns that had begun with James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England upon Elizabeth I’s death had finally brought inter-state warfare on the British Isles to a close, but sectarian and domestic political struggles would tear the country apart under his inept successor, Charles I’s rule. Parliament would emerge victorious in the resulting civil war, and then eject various other groups from power in Ireland and Scotland. Charles I would be executed, his family driven into exile, and an attempt to set up a republic would ensue. Cromwell himself would end up shutting down parliament and ruling as a dictatorial “Lord Protector” not long after this.
Paul Lay’s ‘Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of the English Republic’ is an Anglo-centric yet nevertheless engaging read about the state that existed between the fall of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II. He describes a state that began with so much experimental promise but descended into factionalism and moralistic hypochondria. Something akin to if the American Revolution had been immediately co-opted by an alliance of Cotton Mathers and Tipper Gores right after the Treaty of Paris.
Sadly, this could not have been a surprise. Even before the war was over it was soon apparent that, demographically, the Parliamentarians were far more puritan than ‘leveller’ (the term given to people who wanted a universal male franchise). In a situation that should strike familiarity with anyone who has followed the Syrian Civil War, what looks on the surface like a noble cause can in fact be nothing but a sieve for fanatics and sectarians. People throughout Britain soon learned this as a government that was supposedly committed to freedom of religion began to persecute anyone not clearly of the Puritan ilk, including former allies of theirs like the Quakers.
Messianic regimes, especially new ones, cannot justify themselves without outward expansion. And so, the powerful military edifice built to win the Civil War would be turned onto Spain. In particular, its enormous New World empire. But the invasion of Hispaniola ended disastrously amidst tropical disease and local Spanish soldiers who knew the terrain. As a consolation prize the defeated English swept into barely-defended Jamaica. It would be their only gain from an expedition with dreams of driving the Whore of Babylon out of the New World and introducing a new Protestant reign for Central America.
In a pattern all too familiar to moderns, failure abroad led to a bizarre rise of extremism at home. Cromwell entered a kind of existential crisis. He had not failed in such a way. Surely, it must have been the nation itself that had yet to repent for its wickedness. And so, loyal generals were appointed as satraps throughout the country with explicit instructions to crack down on irreligion, drinking, the arts (especially theater) and even folk festivals. A life simmering within unadorned churches would be the only publicly sanctioned form of culture for the masses. It was this that made the people turn against the government in large numbers. But living in a literal garrison state, there was nothing they could do but grumble. Lay has a particular section that describes the goals of this society which is designed to strike us today:
‘The concept of a tirelessly interventionist and inescapable God might be compared to social media, resulting in comparable levels of anxiety and paranoia. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are realms of round-the-clock surveillance, where one’s thoughts and actions, beliefs and appearance are posted and preserved for all to see and subjected to constant comparison and judgement. The shame, vindictiveness, and piety that social media generates would not have felt out of place among seventeenth Century Puritans. But one can opt out of social media, however addictive. There was no such option in the world God had created, nor in the next.’
The various sects denounced each other constantly. To borrow a phrase from Angela Nagle, ‘competing over a scarcity of virtue’ in order to prove who was the most humble and the most ideological pure. Cromwell himself cared only that people were Protestant, but the forces and style of governance he had unleashed catered to only the worst and most extreme of ideologues. Fortunately, this government did not survive Cromwell. His ineffectual failson and chosen successor fled the country as the disputes between Generals and ex-Parliamentarians threatened to tear the islands apart again. But no one wanted a sequel to full blown civil war. A compromise was reached, if the exiled son of the late king would sign on to acknowledging the existence of Parliament in government, he would be invited back to bring the country together and avoid calamity.
The Restoration Undoes the Era of Hysteria
‘The King spent most of his time with confident young men, who abhorred all discourse that was serious, and, in the liberty, they assumed in drollery and raillery, preserved no reverence towards God or man, but laughed at all sober men, and even at religion itself.’ ~James Butler, Duke of Ormond.
‘He spends all his days
In running in plays
When in his Shop he should be poreng;
And wastes all his Nights
In constant delights
Of Reveling, Drinking, and Whoreing.
~Anon, ‘Upon His Majesties’ Being Made Free of the Citty.’
One would have expected had he lived the life planned for him King Charles II would have been a diffident, if witty, failson not unlike Richard Cromwell. At least he wasn’t that other and most cursed Charles II. The problem with monarchy is the sheer sheltered entitlement it breeds in those growing up expecting to inherit it. Due to the Civil War, however, Charles did not have this luxury. He fled the country, tried to rally support in Scotland only to be held hostage by the fanatic Covenanters and forced by Archibald Campbell, their de facto leader, to sign away much of his powers to them. Then, Cromwell had defeated the Scots (largely due to religious fanatics firing their most experienced commanders for ‘drinking and whoring’ on the eve of the Battle of Dunbar). Charles had to flee again. Crossing much of the country in disguise as a commoner and having many close calls, the heir to the monarchy slept outside, hid in trees, and developed a knack for socially integrating himself with common people he otherwise would not have. Once he made it out of the country, he would end up living an impoverished yet interesting young adulthood in the Netherlands, France, and Spain. Largely existing as leech on related aristocratic families in those countries.
When he returned to England he did so to a totally changed country. But not more changed than himself. In her book ‘A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game’, Jenny Uglow documents how Charles’ unconventional and roguish new skill set served him well to meet this particular moment as the restorer of the monarchy in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Charles II had a victory procession of sorts, but it was not simply pomp. As he disembarked in the country that had once tried to kill him, he was met by crowds of people relieved that there would be no civil war or continuation of Puritan rule. Formerly powerful general submitted to his authority, and he used his political capitol to disband the radical-infested army. This not only removed his most dangerous enemies, but also freed up immense amount of finance for the state. The regicide parliamentarians were hunted down for execution or driven into exile. Archibald Campbell found himself publicly executed in Edinburgh, and Cromwell’s body was disinterred for a mock execution and display.
But what followed this score-settling would be even more interesting. Charles was both a monarch who liked to throw massive court parties, indulge in the arts (which he of course re-legalized and came to patron) but also was an accessible ‘man of the people.’ He was at ease with people of all backgrounds and often struck up conversations with random people he met on the street when walking his dogs (of the breed now named for him). Rumors that he ‘rolled from whore to whore’ incognito as a commoner abounded and seemed to actually increase many people’s affection for him after the dour Cromwellian cultural revolution. When the Great Fire of London threatened to engulf the entire city, he not only led the response in an official capacity, but was smeared in ash and smoke, working the firebreaks and hauling buckets of water with the crowd at the worst of it. I can personally attest from years living in multiple locations in the United Kingdom that there are many pubs named after him to this day. And, of course, there is that Horrible Histories song.
But Charles was not simply a people’s partier. He was actually a fairly competent monarch in his own right. His diplomacy showed immense flexibility and his limited naval wars, though often considered indecisive or even losses by conventional historians, did encapsulate his move towards international trade access and naval power. The gains made in this conflict would, in fact, end up with the acquisition of New York and New Jersey, unifying the English colonies in North America into one band of coast-the first springboard for a future great power Britain. These pickups were made possible by the money he made selling indefensible colonial outposts in other places like Tangier and Calais. A keen eye for geography, and the centrality of the offshore stance in Europe but expansion elsewhere, showed the way of the future for an island nation. People back then didn’t know it yet, but Charles II’s reign would lay the seeds of Britain’s future at the expense of its (then) more powerful rivals in France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Charles would make some major errors too, most importantly designating his thick-headed brother as his official successor knowing it would cause another sectarian crisis. Some people have said this sympathy for a Catholic brother stemmed from Charles’ own secret conversion. But Charles, it seems to me, cared little for religion and made this conversion to gain war subsidies from Louis XIV of France. After all, he did get the money and didn’t even convert until he was on his death bed. He never ended up converting the court, meaning he got one over on his superpower cousin. But the point here is not to say Charles II was a perfect ruler to whom we should aspire, but rather that he was a cultural force. The right counterbalance at the right time. He singlehandedly ended Britain’s first Woke-Evangelical Era not with frothing reactionary policies, but through levity, pragmatism, and disdain for all kinds of cultural extremes. In so doing, a hot mess of a country prone to regular bouts of rebellion and sectarian strife began to transform itself into a future financial and industrial powerhouse.
For a time anyway. All gains are, after all, temporary. Something the Puritan can never understand.
Accepting the Hobbesian Bargain
‘The obligations of the subjects to a sovereign is understood to last as long and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them…the end of obedience is protection.’ ~Thomas Hobbes
‘The losers are the real victors. The victims are the real winners.’ This was the sentiment of puritanism, and it is the dominant sentiment in the Anglophone world today. So much of our present-day culture war (which was declared by and waged in service of the right before it became the lefty cause du jour of the present moment) is an all-pervasive and multi-ideological trend. But it is a trend that can be defeated. This can be accomplished by the marriage of two things often not thought of as partners: the marriage of state power and the levity of humor.
Anyone who has ever interacted with ideological cliques such as anarchists knows that it is often the people who fear the state who are the most authoritarian and censorious people imaginable. Radical cliques often degenerate into cults where people psychologically abuse each other for clout and differences between people are not tolerated. Individualism is ineffective for every cause, so when one does not believe in the arbitration of the state, one must create a sect to compensate. The sect, ironically, often tolerates less dissent and divergence than does the state. This is because all they have is ideology, whereas the secular state (whatever form it takes) is a more situational and territorial arbiter. Its concerns (when it is working anyway) is to maintain the peace over its sovereign location and to maximize its autonomy vis-à-vis other states. This is true for all states and state-like entities no matter their internal ideological and traditional structure. Though states that forget this are very likely to degrade the sanity and effectiveness of their governing class and become more like those sectarian cults that spring up in their absence.
Let us return once more to the 17th Century. Thomas Hobbes was an intellectual and instructor who had royalist connections. He missed the civil war due to his job as a private tutor having taken him to France beforehand. When Charles II was in exile in France, Hobbes became his personal instructor. It was at this point that he published his most famous work, Leviathan. Leviathan’s blatantly irreligious, pragmatist, and materialist nature would cause scandal in the Stuart court-in-exile…despite the fact that it made an implicit argument for the Stuart style of governance. Fearing retaliation from religious cavaliers, he fled to Cromwell’s Protectorate. He reasoned, rightly as it turned out, none of the members of that government had yet read his works. He also made it clear that the necessity of government he wrote about could apply to any form of statecraft. Sovereignty was not held by divine right, but by power over the land and the execution of the prerogatives of the state itself.
When Charles was restored, he invited Hobbes to enter the court. It was there that the already old man, known today as a dour sourpuss due to the nature of his thought, made himself indispensable through his wit, jokes, and ability to disregard superstition and religious dogma (Hobbes himself was almost certainly an atheist in private). This is when people really began reading him.
Hobbes’ political thought lacks the subtlety of Han Feizi or even Confucius. In his concept of the mediating sovereign which protects individuals and groups from each other, he is far too supportive of the idea that the subject must support the sovereign no matter what-so long as their security needs are met. He wallows in constant fear of rebellion for obvious reasons given the times he lived in, but the long view of history shows plenty of rebellions that replace an inferior sovereign with a superior one. He does not grapple with the problem, innate to his thinking, of sovereign capriciousness from one head of state to another upon succession and which is particularly common in monarchies.
All of this being said, Hobbes is worth engaging with as his primary observation, that society can only thrive under conditions of sovereignty where a state is the primary mediating influence between actors, is correct for any society larger than that of the tribe. It is also, though this was not Hobbes’ intent, a better model of achieving freedom of conscience and securing the ability of divergent people to live with each other than more ideologically motivated models of conversion. Leviathan, it turns out, is a better guardian of private liberty than even the ideal of private liberty itself. Just ask any non-Islamist and non-liberal Syrian today, especially if they come from a minority group.
In his book ‘The Two Faces of Liberalism’, John Gray examines this lost liberationist aspect of Hobbes. Most useful to us today, he makes a case that the best of liberal values can be saved only by rejecting the worst of them. Specifically, the freedom to live one’s life as they please in the cultural and lifestylist sense by sacrificing liberalism’s tendency towards universalism and messianic behavior. These two impulses which are endemic in the philosophy are at war with each other, because universalism cannot abide competitors and those who opt out of it, and, on the other side, divergence requires a morally neutral pragmatist state to balance interests without adopting a mission of its own aside from the survival and maintenance of the state itself. This restricts communal projects to the realm of necessary material needs for a community like security and infrastructure.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a very liberal society. And so, to convince those in power to change policies, we must all be liberals to some degree. Gray’s reappropriation of Hobbes is a way to do that which makes the messianic culture war obsolete. Indeed, Gray admires Hobbes’ Leviathan as a model which could ‘Extend the benevolence of indifference’ to issues of private lifestylist and social spheres so long as the political order that upholds this indifference is not challenged by the subject. He points out that such arrangements were the norm in the ancient and classical worlds, before messianic religions took hold, and are often still the norm in places like East Asia, were they never came to be powerful at all. They also tend to exist in early modern states like the height of the Ottoman Empire, and, most obviously and perhaps at its greatest extent, in medieval states like that of the Mongols. For a modern example, he cites Singapore as a country that guarantees freedom of religion but bans missionary activity. The liberals did not invent toleration, they merely invented a form which was a successor to the Christian world it was rebelling against. But as such, this toleration inherited many preexisting problems.
Despite liberalism being the pervasive default setting in the Anglosphere, but not in these other examples, Gray wishes to learn from such arrangements as ways to have a collective civically minded state that does not engage in enforcing ideological or cultural uniformity but still maintains a civic unity. I contend that, in order to appeal internally to this Anglosphere’s tradition and common historical experience, that the reign of Charles II serves as a potential in-house model for such an arrangement. Not because I am a monarchist (I am definitely not) but because it came from a similar age of hysteria and ended up dissolving many of the problems it inherited. While Charles II is a bit too establishment to fit my mold of previous historical trickster figures, he had a similar personality as those past examples and thus can cross the bridge of communicating these issues between more outsider and insider persuasions. This, naturally, applies to the international system as well as the domestic. Whatever ways we find around our present impasse will differ from the solutions of the past, but we can certainly learn from events that preceded us nevertheless.
Modus Vivendi, as Gray calls his proposal, is not only the acknowledgement that no one way of governance can work for everyone, but that the very idea of political hegemony through one ideology is a potential declaration of war upon much of the domestic population of a state and thus cannot exist in a world where pluralism is the natural state of things. Two Faces of Liberalism is a short book and worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t mass quote it here, but there are two passages in particular I wish to conclude with:
‘Modus Vivendi expresses the belief that there are many forms of life in which humans can thrive. Among these are some whose worth cannot be compared. Where such ways of life rivals, there is no one of them that is best. People who belong to different ways of life need have no disagreement. They may simply be different. Modus Vivendi is liberal toleration adapted to the historical fact of pluralism.’
‘…When liberals set up one regime as a standard of legitimacy for all the rest, pluralists and liberals part company. For pluralists, a liberal regime may sometimes be the best framework for modus vivendi. At other times a non-liberal regime may do as well or better.’
Context reigns. Acknowledging that means there is something we can learn from the experiences of all types of governments. When the chips are down I consider myself more in favor of republics than monarchies, but should I therefore dismiss the experiences of all monarchs or all kingly states? No. Just as it is no great scandal to learn strategy from thinkers of all backgrounds why not also governments? It is this intellectual flexibility that keeps us from falling into the farce of Manichean culture war. That and the right kind of King Charles style levity that acknowledges that while running the state might be serious business, there is no reason it has to be too serious. Platonic absolutes do us no favors here. And those who are interested in working out the practical can do so with anyone else, regardless of that other person’s inner life. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the only times I take part in culture war is defensively or where there is a codified legal imbalance that needs to be adjusted. If people do not seek to inflict their preferences on me then I have no need to do the same to them. But I have never been so insecure as to seek to convert others save on issues of real and pressing policy that affects the entire state. Those are the true structural issues that affect everyone-economic, foreign, and infrastructure policy. And those are the issues that supermajorities of people could, theoretically anyway, come together much more effectively if they were prioritized over the social. Obviously, those content with the status quo therefore have a vested interested in fueling rather than dousing the culture war and its attendant surveillance and cancelling network. But bad policies of the state cannot be challenged by disregarding the state itself, but by coopting or replacing it with another state.
And if for some reason you do think it would be nice to have a monarch once again with this personality type, may I recommend the fashionable and party boat owning King of Morocco?
The uniformity of pro war sentiment in the U.S. media is not unique to this week, but is especially on display now. Across the ideological spectrum, mainstream media voices lament the end of a conflict as much as they tend to advocate the start of new ones. If you point this out, a certain clique will bristle with umbrage and accuse you of being a conspiracy theorist because, for some unfathomable reason, it’s considered a mark of culture to blindly trust giant for-profit (or in the case of PBS/NPR, and BBC, state run) news outlets who have been caught lying so many times it cannot just be error.
This pro war sentiment has both financial and ideological reasons. Journalists are often eager-beaver types quick to ingest national mythologies about exceptionalism and teeming masses of unwashed peasants abroad yearning for freedom. Most legacy publications have deep financial ties to defense industries and rely on the good graces of politicians for access. This pro-war bias is nearly omnipresent and it ignores what a supermajority of the public wants as well as the results of prior similar policies. The New York Times has never once in my lifetime advocated caution or restraint and has always championed war. Judith Miller led the charge of convincing the public, especially the liberal anti-Bush public, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed an imminent threat to the United States. It’s worst columnist even advocated an alliance with ISIS. Television news is orders of magnitude worse even than this, and caters to different partisan loyalties but always, ultimately, to the same power interests and policies like blind faith in military leadership and intelligence agency aligned commentators being taken at face value. This is no different than the restrictions placed on Russian journalists by their government when they report on the Donbass, but done more cleverly and often with the active collaboration of the journalists. Considering the nearly uniform failure rate of post 9/11 military operations, one would expect a press in service of the taxpayers would demand better results.
True dupes and conspiracy theorists are often those who work in establishment journalism and the rubes who believe them. Their shock and horror at the eminently predictable should underscore this. The establishment press, especially the Beltway (and London) based press, is not your friend. They are stenographers for centers of power first and foremost. This is why despite all their reach and resources (or more accurately because of this) their consumers are often woefully uninformed about the world while also operating under the false assumption that they are informed. This is the intention. Hence the incessant cries of the educated and supposedly worldly class of ‘we must do something’ which ignores the reality that often enough the tragedies such people are responding to are the results of past efforts to ‘do something.’
Right now most of those journalists are covering for military and intelligence apparatuses that have failed despite insanely lavish budgets and all the good will propaganda can buy. They are not just doing this to remain in the good graces of their sources, but also to avoid coming under scrutiny themselves for the role they played in manufacturing consensus around a series of deadly, expensive, and ultimately failed policies. The military and intelligence agencies knew Afghanistan policy was a failure, and lied to cover it up. The majority of the journalistic class was too indoctrinated and servile to challenge these narratives, and thus also lied by proxy. The dumbest ones most likely believed what they were being told, which to me is far worse than willfully lying for political or tribal reasons.
It is not a conspiracy theorist mindset to be extremely skeptical of the reporting of the establishment press. It is the opposite. They are often the conspiracy theorists who perpetuate lies to manipulate others. The clear-eyed perspective is a default skepticism towards the narratives that those with money and power wish to push and an understanding that many journalists are mercenaries in their employ. The mainstream media’s response to the end of the Afghanistan War is a particularly stark example. This is one field where the media literacy of those in the undeveloped and developing world tends to be far in advance of the overly-credulous in the developed world.