Minimalist Worldbuilding and the Old School FPS

I am planning on a lengthy double sized two-for-the-price-of-one book review post in the near future, but that will be awhile off as it requires finishing one book and reading another. Not to mention that I tend not to read books on similar topics back to back so there will likely be another read inserted between them to break it up. So, for now and barring an unexpected need to opine on something topical, have a short different entry to serve as a tide-over until that is ready.

Old School first person shooters (often now called Boomer Shooters despite the fact that they are mostly made by and for Gen Xers) are my second favorite type of game. Only turn based 4X strategy beats them. There was a time when they were my favorite (Phun Phact: I was once one of the top ranked Day of Defeat players). Once I went to college I entered a time when I thought I had out-grown the genre, but my continued playing of old games of this ilk meant that I really hadn’t so much as the newer releases weren’t appealing to me. I came to realize shooters themselves had gotten worse but my tastes had not changed. The rise of slow moving, limited weapon carrying, regenerating health and cover based shooters, where you spend all your time squatting and plinking away at distant targets down iron sights, had really fucked with the genre. Boring military-propaganda games and frat bro Haloesque tedium just did not replicate the fast, fun, and dynamic experience of the children of Doom. Until very recently, the Boomer Shooter was a dying genre. Thanks to the rise of small developers though and a retro trend unleashed by the 2016 new Doom, this period is over. But the Aughts and early 2010s were a dark age for the FPS (as well as most other cultural products). There are now many great modern ‘Boomer Shooters’, such as Amid Evil, Ion Fury, Dusk, and more. Games where constant movement with a giant arsenal of unique and powerful weapons is your only ticket to survival against hordes of monstrously designed enemies in bizarre and otherworldly settings.

The late 90s was a particular high point of these types of games. It was a time right after the mastery of the genre had been disseminated to more developers than just Id and 3D Realms, and right before the nightmare of the Tom Clancy’s Call of Medals games came to assimilate the genre as the domain for ‘Deadliest Warrior’ watching neckbeards. Within a less than two year span of time, Quake II, Unreal, and Half Life would all come out. One of the things all of these games had in common was a seamless and uninterrupted level progression-something almost totally new at that time. You moved forward constantly, only breaking immersion in the first person perspective for loading screens. It really made you feel like an explorer. Most importantly, rather than infodump and tell you a story, you played a story where you indirectly learned about the setting through inference. In Quake II you were separated from your squad on a hostile alien homeworld and had to sabotage as much of its industry as possible. In Half Life you were caught up in a failed experiment at a top secret lab and had to escape. And then there was Unreal, which showcased this mode of play better than any game before or since.

Unreal was the first all 3D game I thought looked really great. Unpopular-opinion-having-child-me was impressed by Quake being the first fully 3D shooter of course, and I loved (and still love) that game. But did Quake and its most immediate successors look better than, say, high detail 2.5D sprite games? Not really. Back then I insisted that Build Engine games like Duke 3D and Blood looked better than early fully 3D games. In the time of the fastest pace of innovation of game graphics in all of history (compare games from 1990 to those in 2000, then compare the same level of advance for literally any other decade to see my point) this really wasn’t a trendy take on my part, but it aged very well. These days more people see the artistry in games like Blood (my favorite shooter overall) than many other technically more advanced games of its era. But Unreal changed that.

Unreal knew what it was. Its game box eschewed the normal practices of designed decal and custom box art for just plastering its surface with real game screenshots. It had the best lighting and detail of any non-pre-rendered game up to that point. It was the first FPS I ever played with impressive outdoor environments. But, more importantly for the sake of this post, it did indirect storytelling the best. You get no briefing or introductory cinematic. You simply wake up in a crashed prison spaceship and have to make your way out into the alien planet. From there, the unique graphics and soundtrack do everything for you with no briefings or dialogue required. Despite this (and more effectively because of it) you soon learn that the planet’s native population has been conquered and enslaved by a star-faring alien race known as the Skaarj who force them to work in mines and treat them brutally. You learn that the natives are a medieval-tech people with a messianic religion that claims that a stranger from the stars with deliver them from bondage, though certain hints imply their present pacifistic cultural stance was not always the case. In what then becomes almost an unintentional commentary on third world exploitation, you eventually stumble upon yet another alien race which is hostile to the Skaarj but who also lands ships on the planet to exploit the natives. These guys, The Mercenaries, are my personal favorite as their use of many of the player’s weapons and equipment options play like actual multiplayer deathmatch but without the need to be yelled at by real life racist 12 year olds. This is punctuated by discoveries of other crashed human ships, implying this planet is a Bermuda Triangle of sorts for human vessels at least.

The game effectively engages in multi-leveled and detailed world building without spoken words. Something that continues as you seamlessly make your way uninterrupted through the planet.

Needless to say, while I enjoyed all three of the 97-98 era big FPS releases, this is my favorite of them. Its engine and soundtrack composer would go on to make my favorite immersive sim of all time, Deus Ex, in 2000. And while the Unreal engine would leave an enormous legacy in graphics (through its descendants to this day), I feel like it never gets the credit it deserves for being what shooters *should* have been when it came to world building and storytelling. As much as I like Half Life, the fact that the genre took its future cues from that game more than Unreal in terms of things like level design, tone, and whatnot was not good for the genre. Immersion became too tied in with scripting, and not enough with non-linear set-pieces that spoke for themselves. In this way Half Life is kind of the Nirvana (the band) of games. A great band on its own, but its overall influence on music was almost entirely in derivative clones that ruined the entire genre. Unreal was like Vast, made a splash once but got overlooked despite being a superior model to learn from in the future. In the constant infodumping and breaking up the flow of modern games, I think we can safely say Unreal was the better path offered. Sadly, it was the one that was more likely to be ignored.

I had it in my mind for about a month to write something like this. But I was forced into it today because earlier this week I started another re-play of Unreal. Then, just days ago, one of the rare gaming channels I follow released an updated review for the game too. The stars aligned a bit too much to put this off any longer so here we are. If you want a proper take on the game and how good it is, I recommend watching the review.

It is also not entirely random that this post came out not too long after a previous one mentioning Master of Orion. Its my hope in the not too distant future to do a full review of my favorite game of all time and how it relates to the regular themes of this blog. And no, I won’t tell you what game it is until the review is up.

The Pastry Windmill People and the Scandinavization of Anglo-American Politics

The world quite rightly looks on at the continual self-immolation of political and civic discourse and even the diminishing capacity for self-government in Britain and the United States and wonders, ‘what is wrong with those people?’ It is a fair question. Though four centuries of unchallenged puritanism and excessive global expansion only now being reversed (debunking Anglo-teleological models of history and ideology in the process) do provide most of the answers. But present pathologies cannot be reduced to this political trend of extremist binaries fighting over very little actual material divergence being new. Anyone in the Seventeenth Century could have understood that rubes and dupes with little knowledge of the world but very strong opinions are useful pawns in times of state collapse and fractious decline. Indeed, its been my point for over a year now that trendy allusions to the Interwar Period are a flop propped up by the historically ignorant, and that our nearest historical parallel to the present moment is in fact the Reformation and the subsequently related Thirty Years War and British Civil Wars.

Looking at more modern time periods, however, it wasn’t the Anglos that at this political juncture first. Much like how people when I was a teenager said that Japan was the developed country that ended up ‘left out’ of the turn of the century, observers have the order of things all wrong. Japan, it seemed to me then, was not a lost country, but the future of the developed world. More alienated, carved into monopolistic fiefdoms, and unable to grow due to Boomers making the very act of reproduction economically detrimental. I think it is now obvious that I was right. Japan showed where the Eurozone and the U.S. both were going. Now, here we all are.

Lets pivot away from late service sector model economies into ‘the realm of ideas’. Another set of countries showed the path of political parties extremely similar in actual content but extremist in shrill cultural presentation politics that effectively go nowhere well before such a model came to the Anglosphere: Scandinavia. If there is one part of the world more utterly devoted to Protestant pieties and idealism as an exercise in virtue signaling, surely it is this. I am also going to include the Netherlands here, which is not a Scandinavian country, but ideologically might as well be. Its people share the same flat-yet-self-righteous affect anyway.

Since none of these Pastry-Windmill Countries matter geopolitically, it is often hard to sell the case of their ideological odiousness to people from parts of the world that actually influence global events. They are, after all, nice places to live. Some, like Iceland (who I am leaving exempt from my criticism here because culturally it remains quite distinct from the rest) and Norway are fantastic places to visit. Non-Germanic Finland I have a soft spot for because so many of my favorite bands come from there. I myself have been to all of them save Denmark and Sweden.

The reason these countries are nice, however, has little to do with themselves unlocking a magical formula for good living but rather having small populations on relatively large and resource rich pieces of land in a high GDP part of the world whose geopolitical security has been extremely well provided for by the United States since the end of World War II. This is niche exploitation that anyone could do in the right circumstances. These were effectively poor and rural countries just a few generations ago who received massive amounts of foreign capital and faced few outside dangers. Their economic rise is part and parcel of having the right friends at the right time, much like the Gulf monarchies in the Middle East. Therefore, what success they have are hardly due to factors that could just be replicated elsewhere with virtue, bootstraps, and gumption.

And yet, when one lives for time on Asia’s westernmost peninsula (also known as Europe), as I once did, one meets many Pastry Windmill People who are convinced that they serve as some kind of righteous model (the saintly elect) which other parts of the world yearn to be like. Or, conversely, one meets another kind of Pastry Windmill Person, one who believes their societies are so nice because they are innately culturally or even racially superior and no one else could ever replicate such development for all others lack the correct skull measurements. Oftentimes, a Victorian British style hybrid of both of these Pastry Windmill Types will appear, expressing both the missionary impulse to enlighten the foreign savage and also show superiority…by turning them into good Scandinavians of course. This is done through a process called ‘getting educated’ whose specifics are never addressed…and which also seems to ignore how many Pastry Windmill People go abroad for their own education.

We have here the general prototypes of the political archetypes that presently plague us in the Anglosphere. The left dominated by priggish busybodies who believe that true change comes from modifying behavior and language rather than material conditions, a right entirely dominated by literal howling fascists, and a center who believes itself a logical end point of history even as the world they promise gets sucked down the drain in front of all of our eyes. Sweden, the most obnoxious country of the whole lot when it comes to ideology, gets wracked with anti-Semitic riots and racist trouble on a regular basis. Norway had the most devastating act of far right domestic terrorism anywhere in the world so far in the Twenty First Century. Denmark is world famous for its racism (though it has the decency to not be so messianic as its neighbors at least). Political parties that agree on everything except cultural signaling must then dial said signaling up to 11 in order to express their divergence. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Personal Anecdote Time: I once attended an IR seminar where a Swede stood up and-totally unironically- proposed that there were such things as ‘Humanitarian Superpowers.’ Countries that, in her words, would wield predominant influence on diplomacy through virtuous example and commitment to liberal values. Two nearby people from the Netherlands clapped at this…display. It is a memory that haunts me still. And yet, perhaps to our misfortune, this attitude was merely ‘ahead of its time’, as that kind of sentiment would no longer shock me if I heard it coming from the Center for American Progress or a talking head on cable news today. You get a lot of this in U.K. media in particular these days, as that country’s days of global influence are so far behind it that this might be all that is left now. The Guardian is particular offender here. Get ready for a near future bombardment of ‘you can’t pull out of any endless war in the Middle East ever because of women’s rights’ to descend on all of us from this quarter.

Needless to say, this same ‘humanitarian superpower’ person was also the same individual who later attempted to mock me for skipping out on a boring meeting of wonks in an office that wasn’t required so that I could go to a local history museum instead. I retorted with just enough humor in my voice to take the edge off that she ‘was basic’. She was.

The funny thing about this originally Scandinavian pathology of exceptionalism is that it is somehow even more delusional than American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism might be a cargo cult of a civic religion with very real and damaging effects on diplomacy in the world, but it is at least based on the knowledge that a powerful country has disproportionate sway on world affairs (even if in such a way that compromises that very influence by triggering backlashes). The idea of tiny geopolitical nonentities thinking they are in some kind of drivers seat, or even thinking they are playing good ear-whispering angel to the bad angel of Turkey or Israel or whatever on America’s other shoulder, is laughable. A further irony, and one that really infuriates the Pastry Windmill People if mentioned to them, is that the ur-Kantian liberalism of their region is every bit as much a public education derived state ideology as the flag-humping trucker nuts dangling Humvee driving American chuds they believe themselves to be so much better than. Both people are just parroting the mythology given to them by the dominant media and educational cultures of their respective societies. And both those societies seek validation in being seen as uniquely virtuous across the globe. Both are truly the children of the Reformation. Much like how the Saudis are the children of the Wahhabi Reformation. No sane person abroad is actually impressed by all of this posturing. Especially when it comes from a place whose sanctioning of another nation might…increase the cost of Pastry and Windmill imports?

Pastry-Windmills will retort that perhaps living in a boring and severe country with terrible fashion sense is a small price to pay for such socio-economic security. Once I would have agreed. But even if we traffic in the absolute binaries the Germanic peoples are so fond of (we shouldn’t), I know now I would take an interesting place, within reason, over a secure one. I know that to this day the basket case of Italy is a far more interesting and culturally vibrant place than any Pastry Windmill Country could ever hope to be. I value indulgent art and vibrant giallo cinema. I do not value boring social realism and Ikea-like starkness. I don’t want my cuisine options to be the culinary equivalent of canned dog food. And I don’t want everyone around me to have the same damn boring homogenized opinions divided by tribe into two superficially extreme but functionally docile tribes of Witchunter Generals. Nazis vs Wokecels. It happened first over there, then it came here. They aren’t, in the words of a former president, sending their best.

The only hope I have for the North Atlantic world is that its (genuinely impressive compared to most other places) ability to take in large amounts of very culturally different immigrants continues, and it is able to demographically decouple from WASP inertia and pathology. Changes may be painful, but it is well within the realm of possibility that such shifts could work out in the end. But Pastry Windmill Country is the Germanic version of WASP Mecca. Or perhaps more accurately, its Salt Lake City. It will never change. What could be a phase for us is a thousand year long way of life for them. I say we have followed their trends long enough, and its time to leave them to their backwards ways. Our collective ability to engage in critical and contrarian thinking will thank us if we leave this jar of pickled moose knuckle behind.

But hey, I am genuinely thankful for all the metal. But these days even that has often migrated elsewhere.

This Galaxy Ain’t Master of Orion (or, why its probably not aliens)

Have you heard? Holy shit have you heard? The aliens have come!

But I ask you, what is more likely, visitors from light years away, or experimental and unfamiliar man made objects from here on Earth? The answer is pretty obvious, especially when you consider that the increased use of weather balloons and jet aircraft just so happened to coincide with the first spate of UFO sightings in the 50s, and the second round in the 90s was all about strange looking black triangles that just so happened to be a match for the F-117 and B-2 bomber. We currently live in a time of rapidly expanding drone capabilities. Just a year ago, Turkish drones supplied to the Azerbaijani army played a crucial role in Karabakh War 2.0, most likely setting off a top secret expansion of the drone arms race between all countries capable of fielding advanced flying death robots.

This is to say nothing of the fact that we have yet to prove it is even theoretically possible to move anything above the quantum level in size faster than light. The most promising path towards doing this, at least in terms of not breaking the laws of physics, is warp drive (by moving space itself rather than the ship), something so energy intensive we do not yet know its actual feasibility. For all we know whether the Milky Way is teeming with sentience or not, everyone might be confined to a fairly narrow range of expansion due to the simple speed limit of physics itself.

So once again, drones. Human piloted drones. Different powers experimenting and maybe even different branches of the same governments experimenting without each other’s knowledge. Either way, expect it to be referenced as a reason to increase the Pentagon’s budget again next fiscal year. Gee, how convenient.

But this brings me to a further criticism that goes a bit further. We often see people, even imaginative and critical thinking people, who seem to be operating under a Star Trek like delusion that its not just space that can be overcome into a waiting world of space-faring species…but time.

You see, too many people expecting to just be bombarded with alien life once we get that Cochrane Warp Drive online are ignoring the fact that the universe is already at least 13 billion years old. Heavy elements formed in the hearts of supergiant stars had already seeded space a long time ago. In the immenseness of the cosmos, almost certainly some worlds have proven amenable to the evolution of sentient intelligence. And some, maybe most of those, are already extinct or have yet to become space fairing.

The specific epoch which we find ourselves is on Earth-time. And even Earth time is already so ancient some can legitimately ask, what if we weren’t the first ones here? What if the first signs of alien life we find off of Earth is itself from Earth originally? And whether its origin be Earth or Tau Ceti, what if we need an archeologist before we need a diplomat? Or, conversely, any future sentient life bearing world we find just isn’t developed or even industrial yet? Since we have no idea how life evolves outside of Earth its quite possible we couldn’t recognize any of these categories even if they exist.

Just going into space isn’t going to be a shield from extinction. A species is still first and foremost primed to survive on the homeworld for gravity, pressure, atmospheric composition, etc. This is not the same as Polynesian emigration through the Pacific. And if something happens to the homeworld the colonies might die. Or if something happens to the sector like a nearby supernova, whole solar systems’ livability might degrade. So too might nanotechnology or some other artificial force go out of control. In older galaxies like ours, there just is no common time scale between systems.

The assumption that this is not a major factor in decreasing the likelihood of any contact is something I want to call ‘The Master of Orion factor’. In space-set 4X games (usually turn based computer games based around eXpansion, eXtermination, eXploration, and eXploitation) all of the space fairing nations start out at the same time and with roughly comparable technology. This is done for obvious game balance reasons, of course. But I can’t help but think this mode of fictional thinking has infiltrated popular consciousness along with the idea that we can take it for granted that greater technology will make breaking the light barrier inevitable.

Master of Orion II, as the best of the series (and the series in turn the best of the space based 4X-though not the best overall 4X, more on what game I think that is in a later post all to itself) has these conceits of course. Yet it still managed to work in an utterly alien non-player race everyone fights with *and* a playable silicate-mineral race whose playstyle is totally different from the rest and cannot engage in meaningful diplomacy. For 1996, this is pretty good. But we need to realize that in the real world, even if we do meet another species before we ourselves leave only ruins to be inherited by the sentient dolphins who came to replace us, probably will not be conducting too much discourse with equals but rather unequals in either direction.

Of course, there was another game that came out in 1996 that I happen to be replaying this month for the first time in decades that shows us who we can call if we do meet aliens and we don’t like them:

‘Nobody steals our chicks and lives.’

And that concludes what has to be the most 90s post I have ever made. That part was unintentional, but it kind of works as that was the last time people were really into aliens and UFOs. And I still regard The X Files as one of the greatest TV shows of all time (though it is telling that the more earthy monster episodes tend to be better than the alien ones).

‘The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World’- a Book Review

English language books having to do with the Golden Horde, the Mongol successor state that ruled most of Russia as well as parts of Siberia, the Balkans, and northern Central Asia and some of the Caucasus, are not uncommon. These do, however, tend to be divided between extreme specialist niche works on specific elements of the horde and general histories that focus more on the Russian experience as subject peoples rather than the Horde itself. A general audience yet still scholarly caliber work on Batu Khan’s empire with the focus on the Turco-Mongolian ruling elite rather than the Slavs under it was needed. And thankfully, Marie Favereau delivers.

In the past decade and a half, starting with Jack Weatherford’s book retelling the history of the Mongol Empire from a more positive direction, there has been a welcome re-engagement with the historical states of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples. (Fun Fact, I actually briefly met Weatherford when I was in Mongolia and before he wrote said book). The history field was moving in this direction, but with the release of the excellent ‘The Comanche Empire’ in 2008 there has been a larger and larger push to re-examine so-called barbarians as strategic actors capable to every bit as much planning, foresight, and civic sense of political projection as agrarian or industrial people. I myself got into the action with my own book, though this was from an overtly geopolitical and international relations perspective rather than a purely historical one. It is my plan to make at least one more such book along similar lines for indigenous North America when time permits and have already begun the archival and personal research to start the process.

But the book I speak of here is ‘The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World.’ Despite the title, which implies another general history of the Mongol Empire, Marie Favereau’s focus is overwhelmingly on the what is commonly known today as the Golden Horde, though it is also called The Kipchak Khanate, the Ulus of Jochi, and in this book simply ‘The Horde.’ She begins with a summary of the founding of the Mongol Empire, its unique quasi-constitutional form of government, and the expansion that brought Mongols and their allied nomadic subjects as far away from their homeland as the Danube and Anatolia. We see the rise of a unified empire that would not be surpassed in terms of scope until the 19th Century British and never surpassed anywhere in terms of speed of conquest on such a scale. For two generations after the death of Chinggis Khan, it would stay together despite the small population base of the Mongols and their nomadic allies compared to the people they conquered. But it is in the division of the empire into at first autonomous sub-khanates and then into fully independent and sometimes mutually hostile states that we really see the focus of Favereau’s narrative.

The Golden Horde was always the outlier. The given inheritance of Chinggis Khan’s eldest son Jochi (who may have actually been fathered by another man from the hostile Merkid tribe), it was mostly unconquered land that would be taken by Jochi’s son Batu in his lightening conquest of Russia and parts of Europe in the 1240s. Located the furthest from much of the rest of the empire in terms of space, and made up of the highest percentage of non-Mongols in the army (politically assimilated Turkic peoples), Batu Khan pulled off a wintertime invasion of Russia as the Mongols actually preferred that as their campaigning season in order to avoid mud and knowing many of their enemies were not prepared to fight in such a season. Russia’s lack of good roads actually made frozen rivers the most effective highway to those who had the capacity to use them, and a Mongol army all on horseback with a contingent of Chinese siege weapons and early gunpowder capabilities could roll from one river-side city to another, destroying those who resisted and getting new vassals from those surrendered.

It has long been my contention that Batu Khan is one of the greatest political leaders in history. His conquests are striking, but partially if not primarily belong to his top general Subedei Bahadur (who I consider the greatest general in history), but his political acumen was on par with his grandfather the Great Khan. Batu was not interested in direct rule of non-nomadic people, and having created Europe’s most powerful empire since the collapse of unified Rome, he constructed an imperial edifice where settled people were taxed and occasionally conscripted, but otherwise left alone. The vast spaces of his domain even led to autonomy between eastern and western nomads. The Mongols stayed on the steppe and controlled the trade routes, which was their source of income. The settled subject people lived in small principalities and had their disputes managed by The Horde. The Yasa, or Mongol law, set the tone for how the Khan governed. His subjects had a guaranteed postal service and freedom of religion. In terms of his vision of state, Batu really was the most faithful to Chinggis Khan’s vision of an empire where the nomads stayed nomads and unified the steppe and kept protection rackets of comparatively light touch over their other subjects. Even so, The Golden Horde built Sarai on the Volga, a city made by nomads where all could come and trade, even if the Khans usually didn’t live there. At the height of the state, it would be the biggest boomtown in Europe. Merchants flocked there from all across Eurasia and scholars would set up shop there as well.

The irony was of course that as much of the rest of the empire was centralizing and even partially assimilating to its conquered peoples. This would mean that Batu’s Horde, the most faithful branch of the empire structurally, would be the most renegade successor state. Batu himself clearly sensed this, and began increasing his autonomy while the empire was still united. Though he had a claim on the throne after the death of the second Khan, Ogedei, he did not push it, preferring to stay in Russia, use diplomacy to slowly increase his regional power, and play kingmaker from afar. His influence would be felt in Mongolia, but indirectly. To modify a modern day IR term, he was an off-steppe balancer focused on defensive survival and autonomy maximalization. A true neoclassical realist, one could say.

Shortly after Batu died, his brother Berke came to the throne and here is were Favereau’s narrative really picks up. She tells the story of how The Horde became hostile to Hulegu’s Ilkhanate based in Iran and Iraq over unequal splitting of territories between them in Azerbaijan, and how the two western branches of the empire became enemies. The Ilkhanate won the first round, but the Horde would generally have the advantage after this, its subtle and flexible diplomacy winning it foreign allies across Europe and North Africa. It used its diplomacy (and military supremacy north of the Caucasus) to gradually siphon off trade from the south, enriching itself with surprisingly little military effort. While the post-Hulagu Ilkhanate, great patrons of art and astronomy that they were, found their more blunt force diplomacy counterproductive as the Golden Horde in the north and the Mamluk Sultanate to their west hemmed them in and prevented further expansion. Whether in the near abroad of eastern Europe or the far abroad of the Middle East and East Asia, Batu’s state would always show a flexible and dynamic diplomatic agility that enabled it to outlast the other successor states and many of its rivals.

After informing her audience of the various political and cultural events of the Golden Horde, Favereau takes us through the eventual decline and splitting of the horde due to several overlapping factors. Ozbek Khan’s over-centralization of a regime that worked best when decentralized (to say nothing of him making it an officially Islamic state which kind of sabotaged its multicultural nature-though thankfully only partially), coupled with a brief revival under Toqtamysh Khan* which was then immediately self sabotaged due to his falling out with the extremely successful Central Asian conqueror Timur Leng. The subsequent wars that the Golden Horde lost to him led to a fracturing of the state into smaller khanates. But even so, many of these successor states would remain governed by the same principles and would survive for centuries more. The Crimean Khanate (which Favereau does not cover but could be a sequel book to this work on its own) would last until the 1780s and even merge nomadic steppe land power with naval power in the Black Sea. Eventually of course, Russia, based off of leadership from Moscow-the once most loyal and Mongol-patronized city of the Rus, would take over all of these successor kingdoms. Of course, modern Russians often like to downplay how the old Muscovy state played up its legitimacy by touting connections with the old Khans. Then there is the….unique…way they depict Batu in media.

Volga, Crimean, and Lipka Tatars still exist today. Descendants of various peoples who were part of the Hordes nomadic core. And the Kazakhs are also one of the Golden Horde’s successor peoples, fully sovereign on territory that once was an integral part of that old empire. One could say Kazakhstan is the still remaining successor state to Batu’s empire. And I just have to add, when you compare where that country is today vs where it was in 1991, it is the most successful post-Soviet state by far.

My only bone to pick with Favereau, and this in minor and only comes up in her conclusion, is that she digs at my boy Ibn Khaldun for assuming nomadic people always assimilate into settled people and how The Horde disproves this. Contextually speaking this is a fair criticism, but Ibn Khaldun largely knew most about North African experiences with Turks, Arabs, and Berbers and not how the Mongols, Khitans and others of the northern steppe never gave up nomadism. If anything, The Horde shows how group solidarity takes much longer to break down when the conditions that gave rise to it are kept and the ruling elite are interconnected through a vigorous lifestyle, which I would say does in fact validate his theories indirectly. And considering that Khaldun approved of tightly knit groups who could rule with a light touch and were patrons of prosperity, The Horde would likely have met with his approval if he could have seen its internal dynamics. As it was, Khaldun praised the Mamluk Sultanate, the long time allies of the Horde, as an example of a state whose internal organization was trying to grapple with the issues he raised.

It seems likely to me that due to ecological concerns we will have to one day reinvent how we see things like progress, state structure, and commerce. Keeping this in mind, alternate state models from history are worth learning about. Not because they should be replicated in our present times where the context is too different to work, but because it expands our minds about what a state is, can be, and how to be flexible and adaptable and fit with the geographic context one finds themselves in. As someone who myself has always championed the value of learning about non-agrarian and unconventional political entities as an extremely interesting and useful aspect of human history, I can only commend Favereau for doing such an excellent job contributing to this cause. Her book is a great addition to the cause of studying political history that lies outside of that which is often talked about in conventional circles.

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*Toqtamysh will likely be a future entry in my long-running historical trickster post series. He is just too much of a troll not to cover at some point. It was originally my plan to do an entry on him years ago but it never happened.

A Gay Girl in Dumbasscus, or, That One Time I Accidentally Met a “Syrian Lesbian Blogger.”

This June, to the month, marks the ten year anniversary of a story that took world news headlines by storm for about a week. It was my original intention to write about this on the exact anniversary of the exposure of it, but as I have work to do and am about to embark on a move, I figured I might as well do it now while I have time. It is also the kickoff of Pride month, a time I used to enjoy now thoroughly corrupted by neoliberal normies, obnoxiously woke ‘queer’ hetrosexual larpers, and megacorporations into something more cringe than valuable. So, while I have time, what better way to start off Pride Month than talking about that time I met Amina Arraf, the famous Syrian Lesbian blogger who changed the world…by being exposed as a heterosexual man from Georgia. A guy, it turned out, I had met the month before the story dropped and whose wife I had known for almost a year.

Lets reel it back to late April, 2011. I was a first year doctoral student at the University of St Andrews and still, at that time, based in the namesake town in Fife, Scotland. I had returned from an amazing road trip with friends to the Isle of Skye where we hiked the Old Man of Storr up its more challenging frontal face. After this I was given the charge I needed to complete the work I had to do early, and so by the end of the month I was newly free and took a rail trip down to London for a few days to visit with the friends I had living there (I had previously lived in London before moving up north).

The last day of my time in London two things happened simultaneously. My bank card decided to lock my account for some random mistaken reason which I cannot recall the specifics of today-leaving me with only the remaining cash in my pocket for my train trip back to Fife…and a massive windstorm descended on the UK and Scotland in particular. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘I’ll be back home in St Andrews where I can mooch off friends until the bank fixes this issues and unfreezes my account in a day or two.’

But the windstorm put paid to those plans. The historic and distinctive Forth Bridge, which was the only way the east coast rail line can go north of Edinburgh, was closed due to how intense the windspeeds were around it. The last station the train would stop at was Edinburgh itself. And while it is true that in slightly over a year I would be living in Edinburgh along with quite a few other people I knew, neither I nor they had moved there yet. With my bank card locked and about five pounds and change in my wallet, I frantically called people on a blackberry (remember those?) with a dying battery in a time before phone chargers on trains were common asking who they knew in Edinburgh. It is my favorite city in the world so the prospect of wandering its streets all night did not horrify me, but during a horizontally-cutting-rain-windstorm? No thanks. Surely there was a couch I could crash on. Fortunately, someone remembered an acquaintance from our program, Britta, and sent me her phone number. She, to my eternal gratitude, picked up and agreed to give me her address and let me crash overnight at their place.

Using my last handful of currency to hail a short cab ride (I’m normally a walker but once again, that weather) I made it to their place where I met, for the first time, Britta’s husband Tom. A guy about a decade older than me who I was happy to find shared some interests with myself about medieval history and Middle Eastern/Central Asian stuff in particular. We all got along well and they even covered some of my food costs since I had no money on me. I promised I would pay them back soon. I charged my phone at their place and slept on their couch.

The next day the bridge was open again, I was able to redeem my partially cancelled tickets and finish the train ride to coastal Fife, lucky to have been able to get through all of that without having to weather the experience on the street.

Fast forward about a month and a half.

Something one needs to know. St Andrews has one of the top Syria Studies programs in the world. Also, the Arab Spring had just begun and was gradually starting to mutate (already in Libya and just starting in Syria) into civil wars for some countries. Syria was big in the news for the first time since the Yom Kippur War for normies. While I was not part of the Syrian studies center or anything like that, Britta was, as well as a friend of mine whose book I previously reviewed on here before. So when the world media was taken by stories about the kidnapping by state security forces of the mildly famous author behind the blog ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’, I turned to some people I knew for some local updates. My friend Francesco told me that the Electronic Intifada had looked into this blog and suspected it was a hoax, so I went back to ignoring the story save as a cautionary tale about how easily led along the media can be by potboiler stories. Something that would become enormously clear yet again in another part of the world about a year later.

Anyway, a few days after this rise of the blogger Amina Arraf to international headlines, the other shoe dropped. The Guardian had exposed the whole thing as a charade. An American man living in Edinburgh was Amina Arraf. Certain details, like if his wife knew or what purpose, salacious or ideological or both, this blog was meant to serve, were up to question. I was texted the news by friends that morning and I thought they were joking about who it really was, considering that they might be alluding to the fact that the blogger fit the demographic of a guy we knew about in Edinburgh. But upon reaching the office I saw the interview with the news on streaming video and….yup, that was him.

Needless to say that because this was us and not most people once about 5 minutes of shock had faded we naturally and pretty much immediately came to find it incredibly fucking funny. It must have been terrible for the women ‘Amina’ was cyber-romancing, of course, but for us it was the capstone event of what had already been a wild and wacky year.

Both Tom and Britta disappeared after that. I heard Edinburgh University kept him on so he could finish his dissertation, but on the down-low. Britta, despite not being the blogger, just ghosted St Andrews and I have no idea whatever happened to either of them. Needless to say, I still owe them a couple GBP.

Obviously, I didn’t make this post to rag on them as they were perfectly nice to me. But 10 years after this event and we really do live in “Amina’s” world to some degree. People have taken to adopting oppressed identities that often do not belong to them in order to live some kind of vicariously interesting life. Much more importantly, Syria became a magnet for attracting strange North Atlantic pathologies. It would become the regime change cause-du-jour for a bizarre alliance of woke liberals, anarchists, neocons, and the like. A group I have taken to calling Anarcho-Neocons as a shorthand term. Hillary Clinton famously mentioned that regime change in Syria was her top priority in all three general election primary debates in the run up to 2016. Jihadists and European social justice missionaries stood side by side at rallies in Germany demanding that ‘we must do something.’ People whose connections to the country were either tenuous or nonexistent became intense advocates for knowing what is best for that land and how to bring it about. And, Turkey, the U.S., the Gulf States, and Israel, having failed to topple the government in Damascus ten years on now, have resorted to punishing and dangerous sanctions in order to cripple the country and prevent its rebuilding. And considering the enormous amount of foreign recruits and support masquerading as grassroots revolutionaries in Idlib Province today and through the ‘moderate rebel’ movement in general this past decade, I can really think of no more perfectly symbolic figure for the whole tragic farce than Amina.

And after all, she was arguably the first victim in a long line of those who fell to the ‘Assad Must Go’ curse.

Book Review: X-Risk, How Humanity Discovered It’s Own Extinction

Taken from here.

‘I have seen the dark universe yawning. Where the black planets roll without aim, Where they roll in their horror unheeded, Without knowledge, or lustre, or name.’ ~H.P Lovecraft, Nemesis.

Over 99 % of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. A tiny few died off while leaving radically different descendants much like the birds which came out of the dinosaurs, but most leave no trace but their fossils. Humans may be the first species that we know of to be aware of the concept of extinction itself, but we have only begun to entertain the idea that it could happen to us in relatively recent history.

X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered It’s Own Extinction‘ by Thomas Moynihan, is a history of human mortality as it was experienced on an unfolding basis by thinkers and authors. A work of immense scope and a truly impressive level of research, ‘X-Risk’ shows us that contemplating human extinction is a surprisingly modern idea. Old myths and fables that postulated an end to humanity were not the same as they postulated the greater world would also be ending in supernatural cataclysm. Everything was either going into the twilight all together or being subjected to a hard reboot. Human extinction is a different concept, one that says that the universe will continue on without us, unheeding of our departure. Perhaps, on this planet anyway, even with other species relieved by the passing. Much as we are unbothered by all the lost former species on this world, so too will the greater ecology of Earth not miss our presence as birds and bats colonize the rafters of our empty and fossilizing cities.

This realization began with the Copernican Revolution and the knowledge that neither Earth nor the sun was the center of the universe but rather one star among many in the heavens, dethroning us from our previous assumptions of protagonist syndrome. But an even more important often overlooked revelation came not from the stars, but from the ground beneath us as more details about geology and the fossil record came to be understood in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The planet was undeniably a graveyard. A tectonically active and weather beaten charnel house that was hiding who knows how many bones from a still unknown amount of species that had once called it home.

Moynihan gives us the history of this revelation and the cultural and philosophical reactions to it from thinkers, scientists, and creatives alike. This is the majority of the text of his book, and it is truly a unique a necessary addition to contemporary philosophy. Though he comes out early on the side of the more hopeful revisionists who said we can or should at least try to fight back against our extinction, he gives summaries of the thought of all types of reactions including those who actively embraced the prospect of an end to humanity. In the end, Moynihan pleads with us to embrace expansion into space. Not, thankfully, as part of a unified euphoric destiny like so many mindlessly do, but in order to further diverge our species in different environments. This would make us harder to wipe out by fate as our genetics and what we adapt to carry on the human legacy beyond one world, one lifestyle, and one model which could become obsolete at any moment. His version of space exploration is less like Star Trek or even Foundation and more like Alastair Reynolds (especially the excellent novel House of Suns) or Jack Vance. Diversity and divergence is the key to Darwinian survival. All your eggs in one basket is a recipe for disaster when it comes to adapting to existential danger. A point that seems uncontroversial today until you realize most contemporaries in academia, media, and government in many societies never include the ideological aspect of diversity when they nod along.

Since the book is both good and informative and I obviously recommend it, I figure it would be more interesting to bring up the points I diverge from it rather than just spend the rest of this review stating the now obvious fact that I enjoyed reading it and outlining the examples that you could read for yourself in the text if you are so inclined. This is what now follows:

The Fermi Paradox Is Not Actually Interesting.

Like many thinkers interested in astronomy or the ethics of the future, Moynihan opens with The Fermi Paradox, the famous thought experiment trying to figure out why with our modern telescopes and hyper sensitive detection tools we have so far failed to find any signs of intelligent life out there in the cosmos. But all discussions of this inevitably (if you are speaking with a sane person anyway) break down to the likelihood of the most mundane explanations. Intelligent life is rare enough that the spaces between them is too great to see the signs. The Lightspeed barrier might be truly unbreakable, and so even the most advanced civilizations are at best confined to a handful of stars in one cluster, and of course, there is not just distance in space but distance in time. We are probably more likely to find planets one day which *could* have advanced life but haven’t evolved to that level yet, or planets that once did and left behind ruins. The threat of extinction is not just for us, after all. As far as I am concerned, The Fermi Paradox is just an interesting college dorm tier discussion framework and nothing more. Hardly a game changer one way or the other.

Extinction, Like Death, Is Hardly To Be Feared.

While I love reading pessimistic authors because they offer such a welcome break from our relentlessly euphoric public culture, I am in the end an indifferentist rather than a pessimist. And while there are things I fear like becoming paralyzed or imprisonment or declining living standards, I have never been afraid to die. Maybe this makes me an outlier for my species, but I find the concept of every story coming to an end not only inevitably true but also good. What value could something eternal possibly have? Lingering past ones time has always struck me as not only boring, but malignant on the future for others. Sure, no one loves old stuff more than me, but that old stuff would lack value if it was omnipresent and everywhere. It would just be more of the mundane rather than the special places and objects that allow us to remember there were once different peoples and eras. This has the effect of making me remarkably indifferent to the fate of humanity long past my own demise. In a time when I won’t be there and neither will anyone I will ever know around today, what care I? It is fun to speculate about, of course. But that is about it. I guess it is for this reason that I never saw the appeal of the concept of an afterlife or life extension biotechnology either. Even your favorite movie would get boring if it never ended. The temporary nature of things, mono no aware, if you will, is what makes the burden of human consciousness bearable.

Moynihan gets very concerned with these questions of inevitable endings to the point that I find quite hard to fathom. Though his instinct is obviously correct that the species as a whole has a survival drive, and he is right to point out constructive ways for us to harness this as a policy recommendation, he is also far to quick to jump on planning for the far future when it would be much more efficient to plan for the short term future. Here we are, on Earth, suffering from climate change. If you want to get to point C you must first cross point B. And that includes listening to what the pessimists have to say about humanity. It is better to be prepared for worst-case scenarios than to not be.

We know now that the universe will most likely either die or face a hard re-set. Not unlike ragnarok after all. Be it the cyclic model of a big crunch or rebirth through the extremely mind-bending conformal cyclic cosmology, or the path of heat death or tearing apart that dark energy unchecked might well be leading us to, our perpetuation does not transcend the end of the stage our play is acted out on. All things around now will one day be unrecognizable, whether we survive long term or not. And this brings me to my final point of divergence.

Consciousness Conflation?

Moynihan is very into the idea that people are happy to accept the concept of extinction so long as they can believe that somewhere out there in space or time other beings are conscious too. This means that he implies that as long as we can only prove ourselves to be such beings, we must tend this fire as it could very well be unique in the universe.

Since we have no data of other life elsewhere in one way or the other, but know for a fact it arose here, I find this a strange conclusion to jump to. Other forms of consciousness might be utterly alien and unrecognizable to us, even horrifying. Or they might be comically similar to the point where we have to confront that consciousness itself is just a biochemical adaptation mechanism like any other behavior (my personal suspicion).

But this isn’t my main criticism. Perhaps its the international relations scholar in me, but my main critique of this point is actually that humanity would find aliens threatening whether they were mundane and caused us to question our specialness or if they were radically different. We wouldn’t be happy to share the universe with such beings so much as on become guard, threatened, and whatnot. Sure, there would be an initial euphoria, but we tend to react negatively when our position at the center of existence gets dethroned. While thinkers may feel some reassurance others elsewhere are thinking about them, for most people I would say that they are not reassured by this. Our species comes first, its in our genes. Our willingness to accept extinction or not will come down to our own survival drive no matter what else is out there. Therefore, this will not be a factor in either making us complacent or fueling a death drive.

Additionally, in order to make this point of our apparent specialness, the author disavows the possibility that conscious life has arisen before and could do so after us on Earth as unhelpful. As a person who recently finished a graphic novel script on humans finding dinosaur civilizations out in space on one side and being threatened by the rise of sadistic sentient dolphins back on Earth, I tend to find the opposite is true…not because I fear being a lone conscious entity, but because the questions of how to use consciousness are far more interesting if we demystify it and remove anthropocentrism for the equation of our hypothetical thought experiments.

My Own Conclusion

All species have survival drives. I do not worry, like Moynihan, that we will end ourselves intentionally (accidentally is a very different proposition). The author is correct to advocate for his position and in turn give us a wonderful history of humanity’s surprisingly modern engagement with thoughts of its own demise. But there is a reason some ancient cultures divided up people based on their engagement with greater society into renunciates and householders. Householders have something at stake in all of this, renunciates are less interested in merging with the mass and more interested in detached observation. I am, myself, certainly part of this other group.

This may seem surprising since I work in the field of policy advocacy and strategic re-alignment. And I am not about to claim that I am fully detached or even want to be. But I have found that it helps ones ability to critically appraise or offer more usefully unique analysis if one is at least somewhat removed from investment in the ‘normie’ world. Even going back to childhood I never wanted to have children because it seemed like too much of an anchor in the rest of humanity (not to mention an invasion into my treasured solitude). Once I got over the hormone rush of puberty I also realized I never wanted a spouse either for similar reasons. It is for reasons like this I think I make a better analyst than many of my contemporaries, as I have little attachments to things than ruin observing the present as fully integrated into the past and the future as one moment full of fads like any other. I can advocate positions to make life better for lots of people, indeed, I view having a sense of civic duty quite highly, but I still do so with the knowledge that these moments in crisis will fade in time. We are managing problems in the relative short term only.

I love ruins. I love to wander amongst them. Possibly the coolest place I have ever been are the ruins of Pagan, in Myanmar. Once it was a thriving temple-riddled city and capitol of an empire whose ground water was inadequate for continual occupation and who never survived its sacking by the Mongols. What it left us is an entirely unpopulated city of stone and brick buildings. Wandering amongst such a place, which, at that time, was almost totally undiscovered by foreign tourists (it is different now, I hear) gives one a true sense of cosmic wonder and connection with Graveyard Earth. Moving this same sublime sensation forward into the future, imagine even our most terrifying ruins and the effect on legend and travel experience for future entropic Epicures.

I feel connection with cultures and peoples lost not because it was a tragedy they are gone but because they remind us that all our current struggles too will one day be lost too. This is what makes life not terrifying, but bearable. Perhaps Moynihan would admonish me in the words of a Clark Ashton Smith poem for becoming a ‘phantom among phantoms‘ who is lost in the space between ruins, but not all of us have to be on the same boat here. It is our cultural and psychological divergences that serve as a check on the whole species following just one rigid path after all. In the ideal space-expansion future both he and I seem to want, that of endless divergence in the stars, there will be planets of renunciates as well as euphoric strivers and many different balances in between too. The strives will no doubt have more numbers, but the renunciates won’t care.

And one of those planets, perhaps, will be Earth herself. Where eccentric curators wander the halls of an emptied out planet turned over to be part museum and part nature reserve, archiving data and giving tours to visitors.

It sounds like a fun place to live to me.

Sunday, Monday, Fappy Days

I loathe the term ‘wholesome.’ Not as much as other faddish and (and no doubt poorly future aging) era defining phraseologies like ‘problematic’, ‘gaslighting,’ or ‘yikes’. But what once was an ironic word me and my fellow teen friends back in the dark Bush days used to mock the 50s sensibilities and nostalgia of then ascendant American cultural conservatism has now migrated into common parlance in progressive discourse in a very unironic way.

This is a just a minor symptom of a greater phenomenon. Remember, if you will, how until about the mid-2010s it was common for progressives to use the 50s as a cultural punching bag of everything in the past they hated and feared? This was a cartoon image of course. Postwar prosperity, the New Deal, and the U.S. being on top of the world created a then previously unimaginable rise in living standards and social mobility. A more conservative turn under Eisenhower still kept most of the past two decades reforms and restructuring, leading Ike, his massive upper end tax rates, and his commitment to national-level cutting edge infrastructure to be a far more progressive figure than almost any democrat today in quantifiable material terms. But people had made it through a Great Depression, a period of rampant crime, social upheaval, and the world’s largest and most globally destructive war and just wanted to ‘be normal.’ This was of course utterly culturally stifling to anyone born into it who did not know what came before.

And the culture was insufferably corny, even knowing all that context. Hence why fake 50s style parodies of conservatives used to be such a big thing until quite recently.

You don’t see that anymore…and last night it suddenly occurred to me as to why. Because the preachy, scolding ‘The More You Know’ type infomercial that dates so poorly in retrospect are back in fashion…unironically. (These also existed as Very Special Episodes of sitcoms in the 70s and 80s, which its also worth noting was a time of intense 50s nostalgia). From corporate human resources to how the majority of left-of-center people and beyond interact on social media, the Church lady Informercial Hour is back! And with added overlap, it even often comes with a hefty dose of reborn McCarthyism to boot. People who have no business to lecture others now primarily interact with the rest of humanity through a self-righteous prism of the good and wholesome life, one every bit as stultifying and consensus-upholding than that of the 50s. We have yet to emerge from our unstable times (though nothing in the present, not even Covid, compares to the 30s and 40, sorry) and already the return to normalcy is pined for. It is gay friendly and filled with white liberals self-flagellating to atone for historical collective sins, but its clearly the herald of an attempt to recreate Howdy Doody Wholesomeness in a a new era. You see this in the constant bombardment of missionary style lectureporn webcomics of dubious quality with a pastel color aesthetic and a CalArts-infused tweeness that just makes everything look safe and childlike. Add on the concerted attempt to crush counterculture and force assimilation into the greater monoculture, and you have so many overlaps it becomes hard to ignore. So hard to ignore, in fact, that the whole ‘make fun of the 50s by progressives’ trend just suddenly died lest they see themselves reflected back in it.

There is, for the first time in all of modern history, a desire to couch literally everything in a ‘think of the children’ framework by those who are still young and should be rebellious rather than conformist. That same mentality that led to past obsessions with prosecuting a punitive carceral state and Satanic Panics coming back once again to be used not by conservatives but by their opponents. And, anecdotally, it seems more popular with the young than the old. For now anyway. I’m still waiting for the woke version of ‘Boys Beware’, which we saw teased in the Alex Morse primary race recently. Perhaps this could be called ‘Xzhirs Beware.’ Already, the way the present day left talks about sexuality seems suspiciously like that of ‘Perversion for Profit,’ where a deep fascination with sex combines with the clear personality traits of the easily offended incel made uncomfortable by the thought that they are missing out and thus must regulate the behavior of others. Sex Cop! Now not just for rightoids!

We’ll have the 50s, but without any of those good things like a well regulated economy, the viability of home ownership for a huge swathe of the populace, and a strong industrial policy. There will be a House of Un-American Activities community but it will be superficially progressive and decentralized to your local H.R. compliance officer. We won’t ‘defend the free world’ from the communists but ‘liberal and intersectional values’ from an even more vaguely defined ‘totalitarian and reactionary bloc’ of countries who don’t share our Wholesome Values.’ Such a situation cannot stand unchallenged.

But lest this sound too doomer, this situation will *not* stand. I feel fairly confident in predicting that. American culture is free-wheeling enough that rebellion is always inevitable. And that the kind of neo-50s lectureporn of today will in due course become, like the 50s-early 60s infomercials before them, the laughing stock of future generations to (rightly) mock our current era. It is merely a question of when. Personally, I am hoping for sooner rather than later. The Woke Era, like Fonzie, has already clearly jumped the shark.

The End of/Right Side of History is a Recurring Delusional Fad for Simpletons

Statue of Aphrodite defaced by Christians.

For a people so committed to the ending of cultural and political divergence, you would think fanatics everywhere would at least pay attention to the failure of all the other times they attempted the same project. If the definition of madness is endlessly repeating the same project again and again and expecting different results, then the universal idealists among us are truly the maddest of the mad. Perhaps this is why they despise the value of history so much. Because the message of history is that there is no message in history, save perhaps never to ignore your resource base and never to trust the pledges of fanatics claiming to be ‘on the right side’ of history. And it is very telling that an obviously ridiculous phrase like ‘right side of history’ is so commonly used in progressive politics today.

We have seen more than our fair share of the use and abuse of history by conservatives. Usually in the form of some kind of pundit with a superficial Wikipedia-level knowledge of key events and an uncritical and uninterrogated sense of the past derived from high school education that they desperately wish to affirm from further scrutiny. I have written here about that specific phenomena many times before. But the problem is that most non-conservatives, of all stripes, effectively cede the field to the right entirely because they themselves have a deeply diseased relationship with the past.

This relationship can be found everywhere now, with the de facto merger of the neoliberal establishment in the Anglosphere countries with postmodern academia and far left rhetoric (if usually not actual far left policies). The past is bad to them. People in the past had attitudes different than people today and therefore were also bad. Works of literature and philosophy from anytime before the rise of post-colonial and post-modern thought are therefore haram and must be expunged. The university, supposed to at least be the place meant to encourage atypical and norm-questioning thought, has become a giant H.R. department meant to ensure the imposition of a presentist monoculture on the next generation of downwardly mobile administrators and media people. The media itself has mostly given up all pretense at journalistic muckraking and has merged subservient stenography with declarations of religious faith in the church of social justice. If present trends continue, the majority of Generation Z and no small amounts of my own generation of Millennials seem to be well on track to carry out this mission of building a monoculture that pervades the public square. Those who know their future prospects are bleak are often those most likely to lash out moralistically as this is a socially acceptable way to ‘rebel’ without actually taking risks or digging deeper into the root (material) causes of societal decline. It is striking that, in an era where climate change represents our most clear and omnipresent threat, so many of the supposedly educated adopt culture war instead. Once seen as the domain of ignorant rural evangelicals, culture war is now the plaything of the social elite. Even if one wishes to prioritize culture war, one cannot ignore how the counter-culture trends on social issues of the last few decades before the 2010s actually delivered more measurable gains in a more hostile environment than the present top-down attempts at cultural engineering do, something I wrote more about here. If one is not a reactionary, one would be wise to feel what the backlash to this will be if this continues.

While its true that to glorify the past is ridiculous (and also implies a weak understanding of how events and eras actually work) it is surely just as ridiculous to castigate it from the point of view of present day trends. There is a lot of knowledge and wisdom to be found in taking the long view, and it is impossible to take such a view with knowledge based only around the time one was alive or even based only around a century or two. One can always be surprised by how many fellow travelers one can find hidden in long gone eras. Even in civilizations which are since departed. There were once cultures with widely different concepts of intellectualism and cultural expression than those which exist today. They are all fascinating. Some, I would contend, were even preferable in many ways. Especially on the cultural front. With the destruction of polytheism in Europe in the Middle East being the most clear breaking point from a more vibrant and interesting culture to the start of the monolith many Arab, Spanish, and Germanic societies have since sought to force on everyone else. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was an attempt to bring this type of brain dead political historiography into a new region, but fortunately it was brief and had limited effect (though enough for Chinese history lovers like myself to still rue). The PRC, a state which once carried out this state sponsored campaign of cultural terrorism, soon came to officially recognize these policies as a mistake.

Would that it was so in the Anglosphere. Here, the Christian sentiment that damaged European art and philosophy for centuries never seems to die, but only gets perpetually reborn under new forms. From the obvious sequels of the Great Awakening and the evangelical revival, to the less obvious such as militarized human rights foreign policy, American Exceptionalism, critical race theory, queer theory, the quest for ever expanding realms of ‘safe spaces’, and the present day pro-censorship trend, the tribes change but the underlying psychology does not. All of these adopt the very monotheist view that to come into contact with something you don’t like infects your soul like a virus, and affirms the idea that what is good or bad for you must be good or bad for everyone else. And always, it comes a deeply disturbing affirmation that the past is sinful, and that ones soul can only be immaculate by rejecting all things contrary to what the good people of the present do. We can stop the tragicomedy of history, these people propose, by simply rejecting it outright. And by also contending that to engage with any figure’s opinion, past or present, is to affirm all of them. No nuance in this brave new world. And nothing fills me with more concern than this growing trend I see of the hard left, already prone to sanctimonious preaching, reconciling itself with Christianity, the inventor of universal scolding and messianism. Should such a convergence fully occur, it will create the most insufferable and absolutist outgrowths of philosophy and culture of all time. I think we can now safely say what the one thing to make me see the right as the lesser evil would be, should such a wretched alliance occur.

The most ridiculous aspect of this argument is also the one that is most telling as to why fanatics despise a nuanced and contextual understanding of history: that we have it right now unlike before. If there is one thing a thorough study of history should tell everyone, it is that morality is as faddish and ephemeral a concept as fashion is. And much of it always dates poorly. Eugenics was once a progressive cause, as was prohibition. The inference is obvious: if so much that seemed obvious and good once now looks so terrible…what things that look good today will seem terrible tomorrow?

Quite a bit of it, I would be willing to bet.

If big picture issues matter to you, it is best to be above and beyond trendy moralism in the first place. Understanding structural forces in politics you want to change is good. But don’t ever get it conflated with these tent-revivalist trends that periodically sweep the Christian and Islamic worlds. In order to see the future more clearly, it becomes necessary to see the past clearly first. And that will also give you insight into the present beyond that of your more intellectually challenged and fad-chasing peers.

It becomes important to set up informal networks for those of us who, despite this ever growing monoculture by and for moralistic simpletons, plan, network and discuss as a proper counter-culture. No longer interested in trying to change this bizarre and periodic rising of anti-history anti-context people, we should break into a separate but parallel group. Occupying the same society but offering alternatives. This is not just for our own sanity, but also a useful community service. Monocultures, be it of crops, bureaucratic hierarchies or ideologies, create blind spots and thus increase the odds of society-wide failure due to an inability to adapt. Evolution cannot work without constant differentiation. A society that seeks to expunge intellectual and cultural diversity is a society digging its own grave. One thing ignored by many radicals today as inconvenient is that the Islamic State’s very destruction of ancient works of art was motivated not just by Islam’s proscriptions on the human form in artwork, but also by a hatred of divergent societies and separate states preventing their religion from being universal. The Palmyrene Empire, so notable for its brief but spectacular challenge to Roman hegemony, pre-dated Islam and differentiated Syria from the rest of the region. And Allah forbid anyone acknowledge their local context might matter more than a universal ideology. We saw in contemporary history in Iraq and Syria just what a danger to any kind of minority or even culture of critical inquiry such people represent. And what it must have been like to live in various times in the past when such people were dominant.

Well, I suppose we got what conservatives in the U.S. always wanted: a workable Rome analogy. Too bad its one that shows that the religion they treasure was the past equivalent to the wokes they hate so much today. Even I can admit there are some things not worth conserving. The Galilean Ideology has to be at the top of that list.

It is up to us to create a counter-culture alliance that one day could set up escape valves in society for when these hysterical moments all to common to the Anglosphere arise. Not just so that people can tune out of greater society if they wish, but also receive education and training from an outsider perspective in order to better understand and critique it.

This will be the topic of a future writing project of mine. One which, if short, may appear here and, if long, may become a short book or pamphlet-like work I would try to publish. I think that increasingly just as the H.R.-Neoliberal-Academia alliance pushes harder and harder for monopoly, there will have to be a backlash. Such a backlash would inevitably be diverse but it should also have some degree of coordination. Someone has to stand against the new dark age of the meek inheriting the Earth.

In the meantime…

Book Review: ‘A Mad Catastrophe’

Over a decade ago I read Geoffrey Wawro’s books on the Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War nearly back to back. I was struck by his detailed research, ability to find interesting quotes from multiple people of all ranks and nationalities that were relevant to his topic, and general ability to sum up military operations from as much of a political and logistical sense as well as one based on what happened on the battlefield. Now that I have gotten to his First World War book, ‘A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire,’ I can say that this is probably his best book overall.

Wawro, like the best historians, has a great ability to neither pretend he is entirely dispassionate nor advocate for blatant partisanship. In ‘Catastrophe’, however, he comes the closest he ever has to taking a firm stand. But it is less one based around being for or against this country or that, but rather his scorn for institutional inertia and incompetence. Something that plagued all the major powers of World War I, especially in 1914, but seemed to plague Austria-Hungary more than any other.

Yes, even more than Italy. Italy at least had the forethought to play wait-and-see when the war broke out, and defected from the Central Powers for the Entente once it could. Their miserable military showing against Austria-Hungary (the only front Vienna would pull any impactful victories from on its own) did not undo that this diplomatic calculation was more on point than Austria’s mad attempt to re-start its great power game by trying to be the deciding power of the post-Balkan War world emerging after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire’s European possessions.

Wawro sketches out in broad terms the extreme decay affecting the Hapsburg Empire from its defeat by Prussia in 1866 until the outbreak of the First World War. The failure to militarily innovate is shown side-by-side with the increasing belligerency from an out of touch ruling class and military officer corps who knew their glory days were gone yet still stuck to a great last roll of the dice to pull them out of inertia. In all of this, of course, lay a thoroughly neglected industrial and logistical center. And the glue supposedly holding the rotting state together was a military so riddled with mutually unintelligible languages and ethnic groups that it could only be trained in the simplest of ways (mass for attack, run at them with the bayonet, use these three stock phrases you know in your troops’ languages to tell them how to request artillery support, etc). But this is just elaborately setting the stage as a prelude to the disaster. Like slow burn tragic movie that builds up an immense story line constructively so that you can really appreciate just the utter disaster when the story enters its third act, we see Austria-Hungary recover from a series of disasters only to lay the seeds of its long term decline. The royal family, the intelligence services, internal politics. All were rocked by unsustainable signs of decline and the necessity of major structural changes at home.

And when the car crash comes with the outbreak of war, it is impossible to look away. Sure, one of the defining features of 1914 was how everyone’s grand plans went so spectacularly wrong. No one thought the Russians could mobilize quickly. The Germans thought France would cave rapidly and Russia would be the real long term fight (funny how they operated on the opposite assumption in the 1940s based off of being wrong about this in 1914, with even more calamitous results for themselves), the Austrians thought they would steamroll Serbia, the French thought a commitment to the tactical offensive would carry the day. And everyone thought the Ottomans would be the weakest link in the Central Powers if and when they came into the fray.

It turned out France would stand strong, Russia would blunder against Germany (but not the Ottomans or Austrians), the Ottomans would over-perform against the British, and the Austrians would perform so badly that they failed three times in a row to take out vastly inferior Serbia, with whom they had mobilized to punish in the first place. This was compacted by Russia’s speedy mobilization and decisive crushing of Austrian offensives in Poland. The opening moves of WWI often are described as a big unexpected Entente win at the Marne and a big unexpected German win at Tannenberg removing any hope for either alliance network to get a quick victory over the other, but it was actually a 2-1 spread in favor of team Entente when one factors in the enormous and calamitous (for Vienna) campaign in Galicia which was only exacerbated by their simultaneous failures in Serbia. Soon, Berlin’s junior partner would become its vassal outright as it requested German officers, training, supplies, and reinforcements to merely keep itself going…something to tax and already beleaguered Germany who faced the allies with major overall demerits in comparative manpower and industrial output. Russia’s logistically unprepared army, shorter in rifles and basic supplies than even the Austrians were, still consistently cleaned Austria-Hungary’s clock on the battlefield, inflicting disproportionate losses on them and driving them back in utter chaos.

It is here where some of the criticism of this book I have seen can be engaged with, for, having read Wawro’s other books, I know he is not castigating poor strategic planning in Vienna and Berlin *because* they come from those locations, but merely because they were strategically inept. Anyone who has read his Franco-Prussian War book would know he had the same acerbic criticism for the French leadership in that war that he now heaps primarily on Austria-Hungary. Where I do have some criticisms of his work is how he criticizes the Hungarian portion of the empire for withholding funds for pre-war military modernization from the overall state. While he is absolutely correct that this played a role in the Hapsburg forces starting the war even more comically out of step with the times than France was (Russians and Serbs often just gunned down entire units of theirs in minutes given all they could often do was banzai-charge in dense Napoleonic style columns with minimal support as the Austrian artillery never had the ability to hold its own like that of France), his own accounting of the dismal state of affairs between Budapest and Vienna clearly show it would have unwise for the Hungarians to ever give too much to their co-partners in the empire. Since Wawro is so good at showing all the reasons Hapsburg troops had low morale, it stands to show that would apply even to the co-governing ethnic group as much as to the Croats and Poles. It was Budapest, after all, that wanted to take a far more cautious and diplomatic route with Serbia and Russia. Maybe they should have made their weight felt in the diplomatic field as well as the budgeting one.

And while we watch in both horror and enticed thrill at this ‘Mad Catastrophe’ unfolding on the page, safely relegated to people who have all long since died, is it not so hard to see these events happening again in a new era where people are once again uncertain about how technological changes could upend expectations of how war would work in practice?

No figure came up more in the narrative of this tragicomedy than Conrad von Hotzendorf, Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian army. While the empire’s failures were no doubt a collaborative effort, Conrad most perfectly encapsulates everything happening in Vienna in the form of one man. A military theorist by trade who rose through the ranks in peacetime, Conrad constantly advocated military action against any and all Balkan countries it was viable to attack. He did this while being in charge of a military he knew was logistically weak and poorly motivated. His solution was to always advocate for war, and then, when war happened, he encouraged mindless frontal offensives that would have made even Joffre blush. Then, when these failed, he retreated to his far away headquarters where he would often sit and sulk for hours, writing novella-length letters to his mistress and bemoaning his critics. Always happy to shift blame for his problems onto subordinates, he was somehow able to resurrect his career multiple teams even after everything he ever touched turned to shit. In the Cold War, the Austrian military would try to rehabilitate his reputation and even name streets and buildings after him. A colossal failure with an undeserved reputation who constantly advocated war and refused to take responsibility for the results of such actions? Where have I heard that before? Conrad von Hotzendorf was Hillary Clinton before there was a Hillary Clinton.

I’m JUST CHILLIN in Vienna! Why don’t you POKEMON GO…to Przemysl.’

Much in the same way that I have used certain totemic neoliberal bipartisan consensus political figures as symbols to show the decline and fall my own birth nation and many of its allies, its easy to see why Wawro is so fascinated by Conrad and his increasingly erratic actions in 1914. A man who is a state in microcosm is not something to be overlooked when breaking down the beginning of the end of a declining country in crisis. Alexander is famous for destroying one empire…Hell, Conrad destroyed four!

Overall, ‘Mad Catastrophe’ is a a book I would recommend to people into military history and political history alike. But I would especially recommend it to people interested in the history of terminal decline, state entropy, and times when people march at full speed to a heavily foreshadowed disaster.

‘Going Along’ with the Coyote Conquest

The Twentieth Century was not a great time for territorial conquest and overt annexation. The most successful nation of that century engaged in a far more sly method of co-opting its targets, while the next most successful power of the epoch, the Soviet Union, largely inherited its extra territories from its predecessor. The old colonial empires crumbled from their height to nothing in that time. The vast majority of new overt conquests were undone in the course of a single decade. A few outlasted this. Only things like Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara and Israel’s rule over the Palestinian territories, where the power imbalance was geographically immediate and overwhelming, seems to have truly lasting power. And those are still incomplete and contested takeovers. The Twenty-First Century seems even less promising, with few trying and those that do, such as Turkey in Northern Syria and the U.S. in Iraq, entering the most convoluted and embarrassing situations possible. The present disposition of forces has not been friendly to this type of direct takeover since the territorial swapping of League of Nations mandates showed clearly diminishing returns on the annexation project. The largest scale attempts to try to give it another go were touched off by Japan, Italy, and Germany and led to their total ruin.

This is, of course, only talking about the human world. Sure, we all know diseases and bacteria are the same as they ever were with Spanish Flu, AIDS, and Covid continuing in the path of Bubonic Plague, Smallpox, and the like. That is normal and to be expected. But in the Anthropocene, the time of unquestioned human dominance, it is interesting to note the larger animals that are not just succeeding but rising to dominate in a way that they didn’t before. I am not just speaking about the obvious candidates like rats and feral descendants of domestic pets, i.e. animals you would expect to increase in numbers as the human-heavy ecological imbalance teeters from growing cities, suburbs, and more anthropogenic land use conversion. Humans, domesticated livestock, and agricultural crops have become a truly disturbing proportion of terrestrial biomass. And we know the effects of it are extreme losses in biodiversity with resulting negative impacts on environmental sustainability. The general view is that wild mammals in particular, and the larger variants especially, are all on the wane.

But there is a big exception to this. More than one, in fact, but right now I am going to concentrate, as per theme of this site, on the most obvious and most tricksteresque one. The true troll of North America in mythology and real life, Old Man Coyote himself. Since human conquest started slowing, coyote conquest increased. Not only that, but it also seems to be happening at a far greater rate than most human expansion in the prehistoric era was, at least as far as we can tell from archeology. A species that normally stuck to the Great Plains and the Southwest has exploded in every direction, moving to the north and east coast and then down in an inexorable southern march since about 1900.

Taken from here

What is even funnier is that humanity at least partially caused this current colonization. The migration of coyotes out from their traditional ranges was greatly accelerated by attempts from farmers and ranchers to kill them off in huge numbers with traps and hunting bounties. It caused the species to scatter far and wide and adapt to new environments with great vigor. The eastern branch of this migration seems to be diverging from the norm and growing in size, likely due to admixture from breeding with both wolves and domestic dogs. The path of this side of the family tree went up to Canada, where the wolf admixture was likely introduced, and then into Maine. Since then it has been coming southward steadily and now if firmly entrenched in the southeast.

Coyotes set up shop in forests, plains, deserts, suburbs, farmland, and cities. They can ride the metro. They can go from pack animal to solo to small family units and back again depending on circumstance. The eastern ones even provide a valuable service by introducing a large predator to our over-populated deer problem, giving us the first chance in generations to see a proper return to flowers and flora in our stripped-bare-by-the-hooved-menace forests. They can live anywhere, they can live in any kind of social group or none, and they can eat anything. Truly, in a time of accelerating environmental and demographic changes, a species to look up to. As Darwin said, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one most responsive to change.’

I grew up with a large amount of Native American folktales in my childhood. The ubiquity of trickster figures in those cycles was postulated by Paul Radin to be a response from the first people to populate North America as they reacted to a land where the weather behaved erratically, earthquakes were frequent, thunderstorms and tornadoes massive, and the rapid growth and melting of ice age glaciers in that migratory period caused sudden flooding and bizarre microclimates. This implied that the gods were mercurial and fickle towards the fate of humanity. Coyote is by no means the only one of these figures, but he is the most common in tales translated into English. And it is the species that inspired him that is currently the most ubiquitous of these trickster totemic animals out in the real world.

Coyote tales are the true chaotic neutral worldview distilled. There are stories which can be within the same tribe’s cycle of Coyote creating fire, saving the world, dooming humanity with mortality, embarrassing himself or getting himself killed due to foolishness, and defeating monsters through trickery and guile. He might boon the human race either intentionally or unintentionally. He might trick a mother into believing he is a reliable babysitter so he can eat her children. He might even eat a talking plant that says ‘He who eats me will defecate!’ on a dare thinking, ‘well, I am too strong, I will not defecate,’ and then be launched into the sky on a rocketing tower of his own feces. This is why the animal that provided a model for the mythological figure succeeds. It rolls with the times but is never merely of the times. Rebellion and adaptability rolled into one. Failures and even death do not seem to weaken or stop it in the long term. In one century, a whole continent fell to this expansion after the U.S. government instituted its most brutal and sustained wildlife killing program in history. It most likely took the first Native Americans longer to traverse the continent. We know for a fact it took four hundred years for the Europeans to become truly endemic across the land. And that’s with steel, gunpowder, compasses, and maps. They were still beaten by The Tricky One.

Coyote is the chaos agent. He exists to remind us that all the planning in the world cannot adapt to random circumstance. Stories about him often begin with the phrase ‘Coyote was going along…’ and sometimes they end with, ‘and Coyote went back to going along.’ Motion is perpetual, but it is not headed to any particular place. The destination might be as random as the outcome of running into such a figure. Perhaps it works because the way to adapt to an uncaring world is to cultivate a sense of bemused aloofness in turn. As Dan Flores, the author of the book ‘Coyote America’ put it:

‘But what, no moral code in these stories? No promise of eternal life, no salvation from death? Coyote stories offer up none of these things…It ought to be said that Coyote stories are not really for visionary dreamers who expect to change the world. Coyotism is a philosophy for the realists among us, those who can do a Cormac McCarthy-like appraisal of human motives but find a kind of chagrined humor in the act, who think of the human story as cyclical…Coyotism tells us that while we may long have misunderstood the motives of our behavior, we’ve also known how human nature expresses itself. And who better to illustrate that than self-centered, gluttonous, carnal Coyote?’

It is theorized that this current expansion of the coyote might not be the first time this has happened. The Red Wolf of the southeast might be a remnant population of coyote-wolf hybrids from a pre-recorded time. If so, it means the east was theirs before. But even if not, it is theirs now.

The part of Pennsylvania which I am currently based has had coyotes for decades now, but you rarely see the signs. My knowledge of their presence until recently was merely word of mouth and indirect indications. But last week I took a walk outside around midnight in this tree-shrouded hill country far from the desert origins of the coyote. Echoing in the darkness from a patch of thick woods around a creek valley not more than a mile to the southeast came a chorus of yips and howls from a pack of coyotes. Their calls bathed the trees in an echo not heard in these parts for possibly thousands of years, if ever.

That particular pack stayed for only a few days as it turned out. But it was obvious that the land is now claimed. There will be more.