America loses the Mandate of Heaven and the Cops and Lanyards are not Prepared

I often talk about the lanyards in a foreign policy context and how our technocratic classes are incapable of seeing past such obvious bunk as ‘American Exceptionalism’ when they need to be calculating actual policy and real life circumstances. Events this week clearly show that this dynamic applies to domestic policy as well.

‘The Mandate of Heaven’ is a concept in old Chinese political thought that effectively states that the gods/universe are pleased when the state is governed effectively and displeased when it is not. This displeasure is often shown by earthquakes, flooding, rebellion, and disease outbreaks. Obviously, to the smarter thinkers in imperial China, these events-barring possibly some rebellions-could happen at any time no matter what the government was like. So they added some nuance to the idea. It wasn’t the existence of bad things that showed that a government had lost the Mandate of Heaven, but the inability of the government to effectively respond to such crisis that was the issue. This usually had something to do with appointments being made on personal connections and perceived subservience rather than ability, along with unchecked corruption. This showed clearly that the government in question had become a malignant force that needed to be restructured or replaced. Either a different faction of the elite or a non-state mass movement would then begin the work of doing so.

Nowhere is this concept more apparent than in present day America’s out of control mass incarceration and militarized police culture, which is increasingly in the service of profit and well connected private enterprise before that of civil society. Despite being a young culture on the world stage, the United States is second only to Britain in having the longest lasting uninterrupted government model in the world. That is indeed a sign of success for this model, but entropy increases with time all the same. A workable model may delay the inevitable, but it cannot stop it. When a socio-political model outlives it usefulness people start to take notice.

Ostensibly set up to tackle the spiraling crime rates of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the most draconian policies of our present criminal justice system were put in place when the violent crime statistics were already starting to rapidly decline. This coupled with a growing siege mentality among American urban police going from community based to outsider-suburb recruited cops led to an alienation between the enforcers and the enforced more reminiscent of European colonial empires occupying foreign countries and governing them through constabularies. As the crime rate went down, violence on behalf of the police paradoxically increased. So did the percentage of citizens incarcerated. Until, of course, the United States took the dubious distinction of the most proportionally incarcerated society on planet Earth. For a society so obsessed with the often nebulous concept of freedom, what more objective marker could you have between a free and non-free society than the percentage of citizens in jail? But alas, the process continued.

Fast forward to the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent flooding of police departments with military equipment no officer was properly trained to use but more than happy to deploy. Around this (probably feeding off of troop worshipping post 9/11 bellicosity culture) formed a newly militarized police force. LARPing like they were deployed in the Sunni Triangle in surge-era Iraq, American police roamed the streets busting down doors and filling surrendering and sometimes even random people at the wrong address with lead from M-4 carbines and other such weapons. With this turn came a new sense of entitlement utterly divorced from keeping a communities’ peace as events from this week clearly show. The Supreme Court was more than happy to give these grown up bullies added legal protection as well.

It is worth noting that American (and all western hemisphere states) have a form of policing intertwined with racial antagonism towards black and native populations alike. This is because, from the start, the tragedy of our hemisphere is one of genocide and slavery paving the way for European enrichment. However, to take our out of control police as a racial issue alone is to miss the the point and, ultimately, to redirect criticism from our dying political order and onto a more elite-friendly narrative of ethnic grievance.

While no one doubts that being a black male puts an American at disproportionate danger from police, this ignores that being poor itself-across all ethnic categories-is the ultimate indicator of police violence affecting someone. One needs only see the death rates of people detained in and around impoverished Native American reservations or the dark and bloody history of union suppression in majority white Appalachia to see that first and foremost the police are the protectors of socio-economic elites and the upholders of a rigid class hierarchy. But the increasing murderousness of American police culture cannot be honestly confronted by our presently existing policy and media elites because to do so would be to admit that 1. they themselves caused this situation, and 2. they benefit from it. So while the racist element is very real, when taken as the absolute excuses for all of this it functions far more as a redirect. A way to protect the powerful from deeper criticism and inflicting the blame onto some kind society-at-large. This is religious liturgy and not serious politics.

This is why social media is currently flooded with self-flagellating white liberals posting about how they benefit from ‘whiteness’ and promising to ‘do better.’ As if these people or their feelings matter one way or another when big structural issues come calling. There are many whites and others who do not benefit from our present socio-economic arrangement because their skin color does not grant them entry into the truly protected club: the elites of the ruling class and their enabling minions. Yes, the ruling class is disproportionately white compared to everyone else, but its purpose is to replicate the presently existing oligarchy and it will still do so with a fully diverse public face just as easily as what it does now. Look at ‘progressive prosecutor’ Kamala Harris’ record as attorney general of California or Barack Obama’s tepid expansion of all the mistakes of the Bush Presidency to show exactly how ‘black faces in high places’ without changing the system itself or opening it up to greater ideological diversity is a relatively meaningless enterprise. It is why a significant gay support base for Pete Buttigieg failed to materialize and why it is controversial that cops be allowed to march in pride parades. No amount of endlessly chanting woke shibboleths like ‘bodies and spaces’ can possibly challenge this entrenched power. In fact, one suspects its popularity among media-affiliated classes is evidence that is it specifically designed not to.

By failing to confront the actual power dynamics of our societal level corporate and security state hegemony, this masochistic genuflection on behalf of liberals ironically upholds the very system it wants to critique. Amazon and Apple are out tweeting ‘Black Lives Matter’ but the policies unleashed by the deindustrialization those companies support and that require a prison-industrial complex to uphold aren’t changing.

To reverse-engineer right wing racial essentialism into wokeness leaves scholars such as Professor Adolph Reed asking the vital question: What possible end point could this have but race war? When identity takes over as the final level of explanation analysts are willing to tackle, it just shows that America’s commentariat is so thoroughly removed from a systemic analysis of how neoliberalism ruined civil society and facilitated the rise of the warrior-cop.

But nowhere is this disconnect so obvious as among the very people currently in the process of losing The Mandate of Heaven. The lanyard-wearing, cable news watching equivalents to the eunuch administrators of old. It is the politics enacted and supported by our governing and private sector elites that led to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent rioting. And yet it is they who are most shocked by the present turn of events. Why is this?

One major recurring element of states in terminal decline is a class of administrators who become divorced from the realities of political power. A society that has been around for too long without major structural changes comes to take itself for granted. There is an assumption by the lanyard-eunuchs that what works for them works for everyone. They ignore that all political orders are upheld by force because the force is never directed back at them. When I used to work for the government, the American Exceptionalist blinkers could be seen running full force. I could write up a thorough critique of how a foreign countries’ security service was driving up extremism and sabotaging civil society and be lauded for it…then if you made a comparison to America people’s faces would immediately fall. The assumption in lanyardville was always that America isn’t like those other places. But while many of the security forces from objectively impoverished countries I looked at abroad were more corrupt than America’s, practically none of them were as consistently violent or deadly. Yet to mention this to the wonk-class produced only stony silence.

Then, suddenly, a spark finally catches the tinder and the violence of society is pushed backwards onto the sheltered. Now it is their police, their buildings, and their institutions that are under attack. They cannot compute this turn of events and thus retreat into elaborate conspiracies of outside agitators, both foreign and domestic, that must be responsible for causing such chaos inside their perfect and ever-improving whiggish society. While no one can deny grifters, charlatans, anarchists, and pot-stirrers flock to such events like bees to honey, this is neither new nor is it ever a primary reason why such things occur. Neither Soros nor Putin could trigger a cross-country rebellion. But universal suffering across the nation under an out of control police force and the corrupt system it upholds certainly can.

The truth the lanyard-eunuch is afraid to realize is that most people don’t really believe in America, its justice system, the cops, the media, politicians, and the rest of the package. Those things are forced on them and technocrats believe in them, but they hold no sanctity for many others. And why should they? For the Mandate of Heaven to remain in force a government must govern capably. Ours isn’t, and much of the technocratic class is paid not to notice this or even to excuse it.

As America descends into its Late-Ming period of blaming foreigners and revolting masses for the incompetence of its own rulers, it would be wise for future policy makers to take heed from this perpetually recurring trend in complacent societies: That the realities of hard power always matter more than the ideological justifications upholding it. Though one should be doubtful there is a cohesive message in the present riots across the country, the raw force of a backlash itself has already moved the needle on our disastrous criminal justice system. Putting the fear into the police that they so often and so casually inflict onto others may make them think twice in the future before acting. Without dramatic footage of often excessive street violence the issue could be sidelined or ignored. It cannot be now. It is now up to the governing classes to respond accordingly or one day face their removal. Then, like the dynasties of old, historians will write the postscript of the era with, ‘And then, their heyday long since passed, the rotten edifice shuffled off this mortal coil to the delight of many and to the tears of the corrupt administrators who had made its replacement a necessity.’

Cuomo’s Media Coverage is a Reboot of Giuliani’s.

Back three weeks ago when this would have been a hot take I shopped this piece around to various news commentary magazines in the hopes of getting it published. None took it. Not a surprise considering where most left of center mags are based. Right now its more common to see commentary like this starting to pop up so I can’t claim to be cutting edge anymore with it. So, enjoy this now somewhat out of date op-ed which I would still rather put here than have it go nowhere. Consider it extra bonus content I suppose.

If you would like to see something more current and also more in line the general topics I write about out, I have a new piece out at The Diplomat as well.

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A media darling mayoral mediocrity who used crisis to push a personal brand, all while structurally undermining the very society he claimed to uphold, Rudy Giuliani made his national name by standing around and looking shocked in front of the cameras on 9/11. Soon after, the massive and still-unfolding scandal of lack of institutional support for 9/11 first responders continue to beleaguer the nation. Giuliani then leveraged this and the quite debatable results of his ‘broken windows’ policing into an international grift and a comically unsuccessful run for the presidency as ‘Americas Mayor’, phrase it is almost impossible to refrain from adding a trademark symbol onto.

Cuomo now sits atop an austerity and mass incarceration gubernatorial regime akin to something out of Scott Walkers Wisconsin and has the gall to declare himself a savior for his response to the Covid 19 pandemic. It would be hard to doubt that without his recent policies targeting Medicare and hospitals the present crisis would be a lot more manageable. As it is, austerity’s record in Britain, France, Greece, and other nations should have already provided all the warnings needed even without a pandemic. A significant and compelling case has already been made that the policies of austerity played the most decisive role in the shock victory of the Leave campaign in the BrExit referendum. The necessary logistics for civil society to function are seen as disposable by the telegenic front men of the present governing classes while the upper income tax increases that could fund them are seen as unimaginable.

Why is it so easy for New York (city and state) based politicians to do this? To elevate themselves in the public eye for accomplishing very little? The answer is media consolidation. Almost all the big news networks and their pro status quo and terminally unfunny late-night comedy side projects are based there. Journalists and interviewers needing access to power need not travel far, and if they wish to remain in the good graces of the powerful it becomes far more beneficial for them to adopt the position of hagiography than of critics. When talking amongst themselves in private, the media class admits this openly.

What results from this is a morass of self-congratulatory groupthink between affluent, well connected New Yorkers and an aspirational but no longer muckraking media class. Journalism pays little and has largely been taken out of the hands of field reports and given to an increasingly affluent group of lifestylists. This is its own pandemic of patronage transmitted through cocktail parties and legacy media that dismisses criticism as divisive or unreasonable and upholds specific complicit political figures as paragons of crisis response. All while giving short shrift to the healthcare, municipal, farming, and grocery workers who are the true linchpins keeping society running right now.

For sake of context, it should not go unremarked upon that in the 2016 election both campaigns were based in the New York City area. It was an election between the two least popular contenders for the presidency in modern American history. One that ended in tears for the well-connected and overconfident donors in the Javits Center and the rise to ascension of an unparalleled collection of incompetent grifters. All of them integrated heavily into the New York media class.

Perhaps it is time to break out of this media bubble that exerts disproportionate sway over the rest of the world. Maybe then more people could talk about the comparatively much more successful approaches of crisis leadership wielded by New Zealand, Taiwan, and Vietnam and less about the fraudulent victories of Andrew Cuomo. Of course, to admit that societies still capable of mass mobilization and coordination that sidelines the market-first approach of North Atlantic elites might be a step too far outside the comfort zone of a thoroughly neoliberalized media apparatus.

Grendel: The World’s Best Comic Series on Memes and Media

grendel hunter rose

The title of this post is deceptive and overly specific for this really is the  world’s best comic series of all time, no matter what theme you want to go with. Yup, I will die on that hill. There is no fictional property that has influenced my creative conception so much and for so long. From my discovery of the series through the first Batman vs Grendel crossover when I was around ten years old through to today’s currently published Devil’s Odyssey series, I don’t think any other single fictional tale(s) has exerted such influence in my fictional writing, drawing, and everything else. This influence is not direct but it is in the background, always.  However, I could be here all day gushing about it if I do not limit my topic so let us focus on two things the Grendel series does particularly well: Memes and Media.

Truncated summary: A guy named Matt Wagner decided to invent an protagonist villain in the 1980s who was very much supposed to be a dapper inverted reflection of many of the popular comic hero characters of the time. This was the first Grendel, Hunter Rose. A dissafected ex child prodigy who moved to New York City to kill his way to the top of assassins and the top of the best sellers list to boot. Yes, Hunter Rose was a famous author. But he was also a brutal anonymous mob hitman hidden behind a mask known as Grendel.  There was a monstrous wolf who was the antagonist hero and the story ends up with Grendel cutting a bloody swathe through the underworld and law enforcement until he is effectively the mafia lord of the east coast. Then, he is brought down at the peak of his power due to hubris and his underestimation of others.

You might think that for a niche independent series, this might be the end. But Wagner kept going. Soon we had stories in the near future as Grendel’s step-grandaughter and biographer picked up the mask for vengeance, followed by her alienated lover. So far, this was a series about what in Wagner’s own words was ‘a spirit of aggression.’ It was already a great comic book, but to become the greatest it needed more than lone alienated individuals fighting the world until their last dying gasps. This was when Wagner made Grendel a meme. Not to sell comics in our world, but a meme in his own fictional one. As the future moved ever further from these original stylistic criminal figures, Grendel became a media figure and underground cult icon. He was now the star of trashy slashers and lurid soap operas. The detective Wiggins, who investigated two of the three Grendels (killing one of them himself) decided to write stories about the first, the one he never met. His novels became a big hit winning him fame and fortune. Grendel would enter the collective future consciousness as a pop figure and even as the name of a deadly and highly addictive intravenous drug. The notoriety would only increase when Wiggins became a deranged murderer after his success. His cybernetic eye, he claimed, possessed by Grendel.

Humanity eventually stumbled (or perhaps was pushed) into a nuclear third world war. Out of the ashes came only a few surviving powerful nations-with the ones in the Americas and Europe meeting current tradcath resurgence trends by being effectively ruled by a Catholic Church more powerful and monstrous than ever before. The church used media saturation techniques not dissimilar to present day cable news to solidify its control-along with torture and the inquisition. It also had a new word for the devil and all things satanic: Grendel.

grendel eppy thatcher

But in a world so dominated by Christian tyranny, is it not inevitable that the devil goes from The Adversary to The Liberator? Indeed, when God and the Devil, my personal favorite arc of the Grendel Saga, gets going…we get exactly that. One mad prodigy takes up the mask of Grendel once again as he humiliates and sabotages the church and the unveiling of their new tower. Meanwhile, a reforming politician and oligarch, Orion Assante, fights the legal battle against the tyrannical Pope using his family’s massive media empire for subversion and the leaking of secrets the Church doesn’t want found. By the end of this truly masterful and complex arc, the best (I would say) in comics history so far, not only is there one antihero with the mask of Grendel, but Orion and his immediate circle have adopted the attitudes and iconography of Grendel as well. The cat is out of the bag and now the return of lone weirdos is replaced by a movement.

Following the destruction of the church and the humiliation of international Christianity, Orion Assante comes to take over vast swathes of the world with this now ascending ideology-that of Grendel. Adapted and repackaged for the masses, Grendel justifies war and profits off of legalized drug consumption in exchange for protection from the postwar worlds mutants and monsters as well as powers hostile to the Grendel movement. Some of Assante’s conquests have little to no military force, however, and often rely on psychically imprinted subliminal messages in the mass media he puts out. Eventually, after a series of struggles and conflicts, Orion Assante has the entire world in his hand. He is the first Grendel Khan, and this world that has been shattered for centuries is finally unified into peace and some form of prosperity. Grendel is still a force of aggression and elitism, but now it is more than that. It is a force of power and protection as well. Elite warriors sworn to uphold civil codes are now Grendels. This is still a dystopian horror show of a world, but it is a much better one than it was right after the bombs fell.

Like all things, this doesn’t last forever. There are some codas, the action packed War Child showing a succession dispute/civil war that breaks out a decade after Orion’s death and the role the cyborg Grendel Prime played in restoring the correct heir to the throne. Other series since have explored the gradual decline and fall of the Grendel world-empire. The newest current series seems to imply that the some rump element of the state survived on even further only to fall in the first issue of Odyssey. Grendel Prime himself becomes a sort of symbol of this entropy. His constantly upgrading and tinkering cyborg nature prolonging his life but alienating him further and further from humanity. He shows the Grendel-future. Having reached the apogee from villain to hero, Grendel is now degenerating back to villain. Then again, the currently running series might just be moving to a redemption arc of a sorts-but its too early to call that yet.

When the series (for the most part) came to an end Wagner stuck true to this media and meme theme and left his ambiguous Grendel-dominated future in the hands of other writers. Hence forth came the ‘Grendel Tales’, all of which were great. But I have to give special credit to ‘Devils and Deaths’ which was written in real time by a Croatian living in a then disintegrating Yugoslavia entering its full breakup bloodbath. Many of these themes can be seen directly in his far future story of what was going on in the Balkans during the succession dispute crisis of War Child.

While it never quite predicted the force the internet would become, Grendel’s 1982-1996 main run was remarkably prophetic when it came to the role memes and media would play in the future. Specifically in how media would determine the consensus of the masses while memes-as symbolism or in their general image macro form-would become a counter-culture of sorts used as a medium of communication outside of the mainstream media itself. And its hardly like the comic’s conception of future technology is really odd or quaint considering that most of the future it depicts is post-apocalyptic. Some things are more advanced, others less so, and some things are about the same. The comic also showed, despite the Nietzchian superman trappings of its first main character, that all of its successful villain-antagonists (or later antihero protagonists) did not get to their heights alone. All have a remarkable eye for talent and hiring subordinates. The ones that don’t are the ones who amount to far less in their stories. So in a sense, Grendel is also about networking and organization. The more organized the vessel for a Grendel becomes, the more the aesthetic and ideology of Grendel marches across the world. It shows how the esoteric mutants into the mass movement as historical trends call for a constant replacement of old establishments.

grendel orion assante

While Grendel is remarkably pessimistic by comic book standards, it also gradually becomes more balanced as it shows the often disturbing main characters in complex and even heroic lights as the greater meme-concept matures. We end up with a kind of Ibn Khaldunian cyclic rise and fall of a ruling elite. Jilted outsider becomes a society of outsiders which then replaces the establishment and becomes the new order…only for its gradual decay to once undermine what made it successful and open up space for others to do the same. The difference from our past and present I imagine, is that the Grendels of the future would be honest about this being an acceptable way to winnow the right to rule.

Even with the current series seeming like a true ending to the saga (but I certainly don’t know if that is the case myself) I always felt like the truly final Grendel Arc would fit this cyclic view of history. I saw in my own mind’s eye a new anti-Grendel movement rising to challenge the various Grendel-warlords with new iconography and stated appeal. Perhaps it would have the symbols of the wolf Argent, a call back to Grendel’s first and most effective foe. This too would rise and topple the complacent Grendel establishment and its leader would promise a new and different future…But there would be a final scene, a private one where this leader turns to the reader and reveals in some subtle way that they themselves are the new incarnation of Grendel, perhaps closing with the refrain seen through every arc of the saga: ‘I am patient. I am directed. I am Grendel.’

Feel free to disregard my own personal fanfiction take there, but I have seen that ending in my mind for at least a decade now.

If you want to know more about the series you can check out this guys video series on it, Part 1 focuses on Hunter Rose and Part 2 the rest. I don’t endorse everything he says and have some disagreements with him (the sun gun was meant to change Earth’s atmosphere to block out sunlight not to ‘destroy the sun’ per se, he also disdains the excellent War Child arc) but this series is niche so its not like there is a plethora of fan content to choose from.  If you want to read the series which I of course strongly recommend, its best these days to do so through the omnibus Dark Horse reprints-though those might lack the issues released between the Brian Li Sun arc and God and the Devil as those are supposedly very difficult to find and replicate. I don’t know for sure as I’ve been a holder of the old issues for all the main cycles since I was collecting all this stuff as a kid in the 90s (sorry comics code Tipper Gore wannabes, those NOT FOR CHILDREN stickers on the cover made it all the more appealing and my dad was into the series too so you couldn’t stop me). Nevertheless, the omnibusses are the easiest way to get your hands on pretty much everything and the beginning of God and the Devil gives you a brief catch up at the start to bridge the gap from the near future to the far future stories.

So thanks for everything Matt-even if you don’t end up using my *brilliant* idea for a final ending. Twenty-five years after I discovered it, its still my favorite comic book series. And outside of its excellent world building, writing, and diverse but always fitting rotating artists, it is also a damn good take on media (powerful and outsider alike) and the evolution of memetic culture.

 

 

 

 

‘Escape From Rome’: A Book Review

roman ruins

Almost exactly three years ago, I reviewed Walter Scheidel’s book on historic cycles of inequality, ‘The Great Leveler.’ I am pleased to be able to now review the more recent ‘Escape From Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity’ by the same author.

While my review for the last book of his on here was uniformly positive, this one will be more critical for reasons I will get to later. I will, however, start with the positives. I do insist that it is a very good read and I am glad I read it, personally.

  1. Why ‘Escape From Rome’ is a work of serious scholarship and worth reading:

Despite the title, Scheidel is not primarily focused on Rome itself so much as its absence after it fell. Talking about Rome specifically is restricted to the very first chapters and the epilogue. In these sections, Scheidel makes a very strong case as to why Rome was so successful in a region where hegemonic empires are a rarity. No other state controlled such a large proportion of Europe’s territory and population directly save in ephemeral conquest periods like Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany. By showing that Rome faced no truly dangerous long term challengers to its north or west and a unique mass mobilization system, he makes the case that Rome’s singular commitment to mass armies and to long term expansion, coupled with the durable staying power of its alliance system, was something not seen before in European history and would not be seen again until revolutionary France-a state that would not arise until polycentrism (multiple unfriendly states in one region) was long established as the European normal. Polycentrism prevents one government from quashing innovation and allows dissident thinkers to migrate elsewhere if home turns into a sour environment. This in turn increases the contractual and mercantile orientation of a state, perhaps leading to constitutionalism.

Following this is a case for why, in the long run, polycentrism is preferable to technological and economic advancement. This includes other parts of the world who often saw such periods, though they did not have the persistence that Europe’s polycentrism did. In International Relations speak the term for this is multipolarity, by the way. Geography naturally starts the calculation with the broken terrain of Europe playing a massive role in both facilitating naval power as a utility and reducing the effectiveness of land power.

Scheidel then gives us a comparison of the other regions and how large scale hegemonic empires were far more common an occurrence. Rightly ceding the Western Hemisphere and its enormous divergence from the Eurasian experience to Jared Diamond, he focuses entirely on Eurasia and predominantly on China. In the end, his case can be simplified to ‘Rome may have given Europe a common educated language and religion after its fall, but it was keeping Europe in a hegemonic trap and its full potential as a region could not be unleashed until centuries and centuries of polycentrism established themselves.’ This case is both rigorously made and lucid. It is worth reading and it will make you think about macro historic trends.

2. Questions  I had:

Before getting to my criticisms of Scheidel, I want to pose the questions I have that aren’t critical so much as ‘why is this the way this text was done?’ Namely, Scheidel and I both love historical counter-factuals so long as they are neither sloppy nor over-simplified. They help us question our assumptions and show what moments actually were decisive in the world we have today. Yet Carthaginian victory over Rome is given quite a short shrift despite being more probable than some of the speculations he engages with in the book. While it is obvious that Rome had a massive manpower and logistical advantage in total war over Carthage, it could not have exercised that power outside of Italy without first winning some improbable victories over Carthage at sea. A theater it started out in with far less experience and many losses.

It seems to me that the ultimate counter-factual in discussing Rome’s impact (or lack thereof) on long term Roman history would be Carthage confining Rome to Italy through naval victories and subsequent alliances with Celtic tribes north of the Alps. A predominant Carthage would have played to Europe’s geographic strengths more than Rome. This is not to say that Carthage ever could have replaced Rome at all, a scenario Scheidel rightly dismisses given its societal model, but that by thwarting Roman hegemony and setting up urban mercantile enclaves throughout the coastal areas of Europe, Carthage could have strengthened the Celts in terms of both technology and institutions-not so much through direct policy but gradually by cross-pollination. It becomes plausible to see a medieval Europe of small states in the west but with a Gaulic-Punic-Germanic culture and Hellenistic Greek-Slavic states in the east, with Italy as a weird Latin outlier in-between.

This brings me to another question: Africa outside of the northern coast is barely mentioned at all. I get that its trajectory diverges from that of Eurasia pretty strongly, but nowhere near as strongly as the Americas. The Sahel was connected to the north through trade routes and the east coast strongly integrated into the Indian Ocean network (itself barely covered in the book despite its immense historical economic importance). Why is this? I feel some words on Sub-Saharan Africa are needed to round out the text.

3. My criticisms of Scheidel’s Thesis:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering my Central Asia focused historical background, but I didn’t take kindly to Scheidel joining the ranks of the many historians who have effectively dumped on the steppe for retarding the growth of more littoral civilizations. If I thought this thesis was true I would admit it, however. Nomadism is still cool even if its overall impact is being the cool loser guitar playing boyfriend who makes your sister drop out of high school to move to Reno. But its really not. Using Scheidel’s own examples only, in fact, I can prove it is not. How? Because he specifically cites the Song period and the Yuan (Mongolian) dynasty as examples of China-centered governments who were into technological experimentation and pushing the envelope. Indeed, his favorable treatment of Song history is admirable but is missing the vital ingredient of just how much of a multi-state system it is, with both the Liao and Jin successively providing counter-hegemonic multipolarity and the Tangut Xi Xia state clinging on throughout it all for good measure. The Liao barely gets mentioned at all for being a state far smaller in population and economic power but that equaled the Song in military and diplomatic power. Like a western European state in the modern era, it punched far above its weight, largely due to the contractual nature of its dual-system governing structure between nomads and farmers and its ruling elite’s interesting in poaching talent from the Song through brain drain.

If Scheidel thinks the steppe has a retarding influence on state innovation why does he admit that the Yuan was far ahead of the game in future oriented policy than the native Chinese and southern-born Ming Dynasty? He correctly points to the Ming as the true era where China began to fall behind, but seems to ignore that for most of Chinese history it was technologically more advanced the Europe. If vulnerability to steppe predation was such a long term problem than why did it only become a problem when the steppe began losing out to the littoral regions due to the rise of gunpowder and the greater levels of trade being conducted at sea? We can see how the steppe and pastoralist conquerors aided technological development in the African Sahel as well.

And there we have an alternative answer to Scheidel’s: technological change favoring the ocean as the primary trade conduit to the steppe. Before the massive improvement of shipbuilding and navigational techniques, it was the steppe that was the sea. The ultimate realm of trade, exchange, and military competitiveness. Thus, a case could be made that the steppe was once a formative engine of innovation, but due to the material factors of technological change eventually coming to favor ocean-born cargo this went away. Regions with well established naval traditions took the mantle. The nature of maritime exchange also lends itself to bureaucratization, considering the technicalities of running trade through a harbor system. So, most of the institutional uniqueness of European early modern history once again stems from a geographic and technological impetus. And a maritime culture, of course, would be the first to get to the Americas, infect it with Eurasian diseases, and exploit its vast resources-growing the trend to exponential levels.

Another criticism I have is putting the primary poles of comparison between macro-regions into a mostly Europe vs East Asia comparison. This is not to say it doesn’t make sense, those are the two areas with the most durable states and the most surviving records for pre-modern history overall. East Asia belongs in any comparison here. But, South Asia strikes me as a far closer analogue to the European experience. While hegemonic powers were more common in South Asia, they were less common than in East Asia and the proportion of their reach was often limited once you hit the Deccan. Southern Indian states like the maritime Chollas and the militarized Vijayanagar are mentioned by Scheidel but never elaborated on. One could argue that the classical Mauryas, while not lasting as long as Rome did, had a similar foundational impact on India and disseminated en elite language (Sanskrit) and a new religion (Buddhism) widely enough to have a comparable legacy. Furthermore, during the breakup of the closest thing to a post-Maurya hegemony and pre-British hegemony was the Mughal Empire. This empire’s decline caused many of the smaller states to enter into a dedicated arms race quite similar to early modern Europe in the same period. Could the military innovations of the Marathas and the mercantile expansion of the Bengal region have set off something akin to the industrial revolution a bit later in history had not the East India Company got in there first to run roughshod over the place? Its very possible. Ergo, I do not believe that something akin to the modern world could only have come from Europe.

Going further east, into Southeast Asia, Scheidel specifically brings the region up as the only other heavily populated section of Eurasia where balanced and anti-hegemonic state systems were the norm… but then never uses it as a thorough compare/contrast with Europe. I feel like this is a lost opportunity as this region, rather than the more northerly East Asia, is the best center-point for any compare/contrast. It is perhaps here that he could have best made his case that Rome at least gave a common intellectual language to Europe-something lacking in Southeast Asia. Still, as I showed in my Carthage Uber Alles scenario, I am no convinced that a once-off hegemony is necessary. Perhaps if India had really taken off Southeast Asia would have succeeded even more. Think of how the urbanization and renaissance in Northern Italy was the start of Europe’s breakout but it wasn’t these states but rather the North Sea powers of the Netherlands and England who really took it to the next level. I can see something similar going from south and east India to Southeast Asia, especially considering the mercantile capabilities of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Burma then gets to play the role of France as a semi-continental and semi-maritime hybrid country whose influence on the globe is somewhat thwarted but whose regional land dominance in the core region is hard to dispute.

My final and most substantial point of criticism builds off these prior points. And that is presentism. Where you to go back in time before the enlightenment or the takeover of the New World and the harnessing of it to Europe, not only would Europe not have been out in front, it would be lagging behind. Not just South and East Asia but the Middle East and potentially parts of western Africa too. No one then would have seen any kind of ‘European Divergence’ if they were somehow able to experience much of the globe. Marco Polo himself would write about how much more advanced the cities he traveled to in Asia (notably then under Mongol rule, ahem) were to most places he had experienced in Europe-and coming from Venice he was arguably from the most advanced city in the region of that era. But sure, if we are going to talk about the modern era from the benefit of hindsight that is all well and good.

But presentist bias does not just apply to the past, it applies to the future. And if Scheidel’s ‘great divergence’ is true than it represents not a permanent reorienting of the planet but rather a specific epoch that already belongs to the past. The last gasp of western Europe being in the drivers seat of world affairs ended in the First World War for everyone save Britain, and Britain was an empire continental in scope if not in shape, its crown jewel being India whose population outlclassed any European state. Britain too would exit the world’s relevance with the crushing losses to its colonial empire in the Second World War, paving the way for the continental empires of the United States and the Soviet Union to cannibalize the fates of many of its old colonies between them. This in turn would be followed by a brief period of American global hegemony which is now fading into something more akin to a high Byzantine period where America probably retains its overall top dog spot but as part of a multipolar system divided between other big powers like China and India. No European state matters outside of Europe anymore save for its economic trade influence and the French informal empire in parts of Africa. Only one of the major powers is a cultural descendant of the age of European expansion and it is not based in Europe and appears to be diverging, rather than merging, with its allies there. The continental empire is back and has been since long before anyone reading this was born. Scheidel does not see this and opts instead for a clean break of premodern to modern with nothing new after that. I think we should instead see continuity from predmodern, modern, on through now and the future. If no other time in history was set aside for being absolutely special, why should this one be?

4. Conclusion:

So, multipolarity/polycentrism is back. But theres nothing at all European about it. In fact, for us to once again see the benefits of polycentrism in technology and civil society, its best to divorce from the era of Europe entirely and embrace a new era of new institutions reflecting new global-scale power poles. This is an era where the continental empire has become maritime-and the world has become small enough that they can no longer be complacent in their own specific regions but must compete, like early modern nation states, on a smaller planet. One doubts this is what Thomas Friedman meant when he said ‘the world is flat’, but the actual result of globalization turns out to be the super-state getting all Westphalian.

That does, however, leave plenty of regions between the major power poles that can make use of the polycentrism that Scheidel rightly praises. You can turn your diplomacy further afield than even before even as a small country now. You can always recruit technocrats and appeal to scientists by offering an alternative to the increasingly invasive surveillance states of America, India, and China. Only time will tell if the resources of smaller states could again outperform big ones, but they can always offer refuge to the dissident and the misfit. If there is one real lesson of European history (after the utility of naval power) it has to be that such states offer immense cultural and economic value to human development.

 

P.S. Someone tell Scheidel that as a fan of Hellenistic successor kingdoms and not a huge Roman fanboy, I am always grateful for more ammunition for my case that Rome replacing Pontus, Ptolmaic Egypt, and Seleucia was a net negative trend in history. He even at one point mentions that they were more technologically innovative than Rome as a point in his cases favor.

The Consolations of Big Picture History

modern plague doctor

Continuing the trend of using my own illustrations for the blog for the time being. It just so happens that I had a picture of a plague doctor in a modern subway station from a few years ago and that just works for this post.

In times of crisis and breakdown there is a tendency to turn to religion and philosophy for context and meaning. I disagree that these should come first. It is history that should come first because it is only in history that the experiences of the present can be directly shown to be outgrowths and inevitable processes of the past. A past that rhymes with often surprising regularity and binds experiences across generations.

This is not to demand the divorcing of history from other concepts in the humanities-indeed that would be foolish. I simply want to prioritize events over interpretation even while I acknowledge that both working in tandem is necessary. Why? Because an un-anchored interpretation on its own is simply editorialism and a concession to postmodern solipsism. Religion on its own is an even more extreme version of this. History, even vague and disputable history, is by definition based around clear cut events and therefore sets limits on just how much editorializing can come from studying it (even if as a humanities discipline there is still quite a lot to editorialize).

Most likely, just like after 9/11, we are about to see an uptick in religious fervor, cult activity, and large groups of people retreating into idealist and individualist-affirming philosophies. This is exactly the wrong path forward, especially considering that it is materialism, science, community response, and state policy alone that are going to curb pandemics and climate change.

If you wish for consolation in the grand scheme of things coming from the humanities, it is to be found in the past experiences of those who came before. Because history shows a few big things quite definitively:

-Pandemics are normal.

-Tragedy is normal.

-Social breakdowns fueled by decaying orders staffed by complacent ghouls are normal.

-These things happening in tandem with each other is not unheard of.

-Practical collective action can matter, atomized individual responses do not. True leadership, such as we see from Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand, comes from governments integrated with oligarchies of proactive expertise rather than defensive ass-covering such as we see among the great powers.

Above all, history shows something that was once summed up perfectly in a phrase from Battlestar Galactica, ‘All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.’ Fictional though the setting is, its a sentiment that could have been written by Kautilya, Thucydides, or Sun Tzu. It is also a sentiment that is deeply alienating to the western European/Christian mind, where history serves as a sort of teleological exercise where life is just a practice run to sort out who gets to go to the good place or the bad place forever.

No doubt this view brings comfort to the moral absolutists and scolds that makes up a noticeable sub-section of humanity. But we shouldn’t indulge such people any longer. They have proven themselves in their eras of dominance (christianized rome, late caliphate, the neoconservative-neoliberal present) to be unfit to hold the reigns any longer. Its time to use history as a far more accurate counter-narrative…the one of connecting us to the greater picture of our past through the shared sufferings and occasional triumphs that make up the story of life.

As evidence for this allow me to use a somewhat strange example. I have generally have nothing but scorn for the phrase ‘conservative intellectual.’ Not as a general principle but certainly applying to the 19th, 20th, and above all 21st Centuries. So-called conservative intellectuals are usually nothing but fearful rubes riddled with sexual pathologies who use eloquent language to deny that problems caused by the powerful are bad and to shift blame onto the powerless as much as possible. While I have massive disagreements and often outright disdain for many leftist and progressive thinkers, they are usually critics of entrenched systems which makes a far greater percentage of them intellectually useful.

But there are two conservative intellectuals from the modern time period that I do have respect for…one is John Gray but if he is even conservative in any way outside of general philosophical disposition anymore is debatable. The other, who I wish to talk about, is Oswald Spengler, even though my disagreements with many of his central thesis are legion.

Despite claims to the contrary, Spengler is a bit of a romantic. He is definitely a Germanic idealist, that most cursed class of philosophers. The central argument of his most famous work ‘The Decline of the West’, takes a great framework (cultures growing, flowering, and dying as part of a natural life cycle), and corrupts it with anti-material assumptions about the intrinsic and platonic nature of culture. In a way, he was a (much smarter) precursor to Samuel Huntington.

What sets him apart, however, is that he was a historian before he was a theorist. Even with his misguided focus on KULTUR, his curiosity about the world, of actual events that occurred make him a fascinating and engaging read. While his interpretation of the past was often questionable, the fact that he engaged with it to construct his world view (rather than the usual opposite of selectively harvesting the past to suit a pre-constructed theory) meant he was way ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to understanding the present and the future. His predictions were often spot on, seeing the social and environmental effects of mechanization long before that was a normal conservation to have, calling both world wars as inevitable before they happened, and how decolonization would soon occur.

Despite Spengler’s love of culturally-focused relativism, he still manages to outclass his ideologically similar thinkers by the mere fact of treating history as an ever-unfolding story that may not repeat itself but definitely rhymes. A grand tragicomedy where we all have roles to play and little control over the stage directions or even casting calls. And, to steal a line from a Thomas Ligotti story, ‘there is no one behind the camera.’

We know by looking at the past that our sufferings are not unique and that our individual influence over grand events is actually quite small. In acknowledging how little control we really do have over vast systemic processes we can become immunized to the paralyzing fear of uncertainty. The Resistance Liberal mantra of ‘this is not normal’ was always entirely wrong. It is the very definition of normality when living in times of uncertainty. Others did it before, we have to do it now. Endure stoically and your odds are making it through with less damage increase. You might even learn something in the process.

Weirdly enough this now leads me to conclude with an example that is not historical, but in the realm of popular (ostensibly) children’s entertainment. Much as its rare to find a conservative intellectual worth reading, its also rare to find popular entertainment that can engage with the general themes of history as a continuous process with no predetermined beginning or end. It is no accident that the show I am watching continuously through lockdown is Adventure Time. Why? Well, having caught most but not all of the episodes and often out of order in the past I finally had the chance to go through it all in order. But, more importantly for our purposes here, because Adventure Time does something I love to see but that is rarely done well…it presents a world where apocalyptic events are normalized into a historical context.

The nuclear analogue ‘Mushroom War’ did not end the world except for those directly killed by it, it merely started a new cycle. Everything changed but by the time of the show’s present era all those changes are now normalized. The past is tragic but also enabled the present in much the same way that the extinction of dinosaurs made way for the rise of mammals. You can never go back and it would be weird to want to. At the same time, the past is what made the present and therefore the future. While Spengler could only see civilizations dying in the absolute, Adventure Time sees civilizations as dying but still contributing to a great compost heap of context that the entire future is built upon. This theme is carried continuously forward as multiple episodes contain not only flashbacks of thousands of years but also flash-forwards where we see ruins of the (usually present-tense) Candy Kingdom. The Kingdom had a technologically advanced future beyond that shown by the present-era episodes of the show, but apparently met a similar fate to the human civilization of the ancient past (our present) and left behind only its ruins. Though this looks pessimistic since we have been conditioned to identify with the Candy Kingdom, new life forms have taken their place and the world continues on-different, but not in the end worse.

In the sense of world building, Adventure Time is actually a deeply historical and historiographical setting, even if its connection to real world history is nonexistent. Compared to most of the anglo-protestant morality plays we get in mainstream fiction as the primary output of our culture that is refreshing. It sells the idea that the study of real world history could propagate to an even greater degree: all of this is normal, and even the weird bits will one day become normal, perhaps even the start of something endearing. You are part of a of a context that started before your birth and will not conclude after you die. The personal discomforts and tragedies you face are events to bind you to the experience of the species, not alienate you from them.

Thanks Tulsi

TulsiKali

Tulsi as Kali, destroyer of neocons.

I admit it. I held off writing this for a bit when she dropped out of the race and endorsed Joe Biden. But, contrary to the conspiracy theorists on the liberal side of things, she did always say she would endorse the nominee…and considering that her endorsement came after the Illinois primary that basically sealed the deal-even if Sanders stayed in for a few more weeks-its something I can now firmly get over.

This is why I am an independent voter, though. Not being affiliated with any party means there is little pressure for me to pledge allegiance to anyone with a platform I am unsympathetic to. I understand that Congresswoman Gabbard is part of such a party-and let us be real, it was a pretty funny troll to her many DNC critics who were left baffled when this supposedly Russian-backed homewrecker lined up behind the presumptive nominee.

Personally, I however will not be pulling for Biden. Or Trump. This should surprise no one who follows my blog one bit. Trump is monstrously incompetent and the basest of brutes on immigration, the courts, and taxation for public institutions. Biden has a long record of supporting every policy that led us here in the first place from the dark Reagan-Clinton era of American politics, from mass incarceration and the drug war, through endless war and institutionalized familial corruption. A senile Hillary, in other words.

But with all the recent retrospectives on failed primary campaigns, mostly targeted towards Bernie Sanders, I want to explore an alternative narrative. Bernie is extremely transformative in pushing certain issues in the public consciousness and being one of the few politicians to reflect many of the grievances of younger generations. He deserves massive credit for this. He also failed to fight back when people wanted a fighter. He could and should have attacked the media relentlessly. They were constantly against him and he did not even call it out. He treaded lightly on anything related to foreign policy and spoke of little but Obama-plus-some on anything that was not economic policy. He, and his followers, thought they could reason with a system while running against it and make converts, not realizing the lesson of Trump’s improbable rise was that waging full on warfare against the media is the way to punch above your weight and make popular gains from those who feel the same. For more of a detailed breakdown on the failure of leadership that was the Bernie 2020 campaign, this will serve you well.

Tulsi is different. Her campaign was tiny. Possibly the smallest staff of anyone in the race. She was attacked by the media and establishment to levels beyond anything even Bernie was subjected to, but unlike him did not refrain from striking back. Despite being ignored, left off of mainstream media charts of who was running, or slandered as a foreign agent, she outlasted all campaigns except Bernie or Biden. She had no billionaire donors unlike much of the rest of the pack, and despite being the most ‘intersectional’ candidate by any sane definition was never given credit for it and ran a strictly hard policy campaign. The pro-Bernie left was often her most vicious critics, proving once again that anglo-leftists lack all understanding of the cold realities of diplomacy and have been subsumed into the liberal rhetoric of ‘good diplomacy’ vs ‘bad diplomacy’ and the desire to find something ‘values based’ in foreign affairs. There is, of course, no such thing.

While fighting against these odds she managed to humiliate multiple other candidates on the debate stage and downright immolate the loathsome Kamala Harris in a way that will stick with her forever even if she is chosen to be Biden’s VP. That was the most memorable moment of the entire primary. Perhaps most importantly, the odious US-Saudi relationship was a centerpoint of her criticisms and spoken about in such a direct way that the silence from all other candidates on the issue was deafening.

As a good democrat, Gabbard now goes to an uncertain fate as she will not be running for congressional re-election. Perhaps our shared interests part now, and perhaps not. Only the future will tell. But as my first and only presidential endorsement in my life, I have no regrets. Issues that would have otherwise been ignored during this past primary were confronted solely because she was there, doggedly bringing them up. Her impact on an exceptionally crowded race was outsized in every way by her performance…and in doing so there is a lesson to the future. You too can punch above your weight in advocacy if your willing to take on the establishment directly and with no reservations.

I also think that, in a liberal nightmare alternative history world where Tulsi had run as a third party candidate in the general election-especially *this* general election-she would have performed stronger than any third party candidate since Ross Perot. She would have brought greens, disaffected liberals and non-sjw leftists together with paleocons and libertarians. Her calm yet strong presentation would have reassured in a crisis like the one we presently face. This is what I wish had happened, honestly.

 

L’Inseguitore della Quarantena, A Covid-Giallo Story

giallo

Normally when I write short stories I just send them to specific friends as email attachments. But in the interest of providing extremely topical free content for those under social distancing lockdown I have decided that my most recent story should be posted publicly. The genre is giallo, which if you are unfamiliar with you can find a good concise summary here. Needless to say it is one of my favorite film subgenres. Bad taste as it might be, I just couldn’t resist thinking ‘Venice under lockdown during pandemic is the perfect giallo setting.’ Also, giallo is all about bad taste made stylish. Sometimes we make do with what the world gives us. Even by the standards of short stories, its on the smaller side so I figure it will fit fine as a blog post.

And if you need a fitting soundtrack for reading it, here it is. Now, on to the main event.

……………………………………………………………………………………….

L’Inseguitore della Quarantena

 

Ania strapped on her surgical face mask before wrapping herself in her stylish long coat. She reached for the purse that never leaves the foyer except to go outside and adjusts it over her winter-grey ensemble. Taking one last glance out the living room window that overlooks the waters of the canal outside, she sighed and opened the door.

On the ground floor of the apartment building she stopped to knock on her neighbor’s front door.

‘Who is it?’ the fragile voice of an elderly woman called out.

‘Eleanora, its Ania. I am headed to work now but wanted to know if there are any groceries I could pick up for you once I head back?’

‘No dear. I believe my family has provided for me this week quite adequately.’ A loud cough reverberated through the wall. It stopped suddenly, almost like an unintentional oath that slipped out at a formal board meeting, but then returned with a vengeance. ‘Perhaps it would not be best for anyone to come inside my apartment for some time, dear.’

Ania whipped out her phone and dialed a number she had the misfortune of having saved from past use. ‘I’m going to let the authorities know, okay?’ Eleanora was 89 years old and was peak risk demographic for the virus. She also had been in self-imposed quarantine for weeks. Ania knew the elderly were a prime target for the quackery of grfiters.

‘Please dear, don’t worry about me. You have your own concerns. My children take care of me.’

Ania cursed under her breath lest the sweet old lady hear her as the phone chimed in an automatic message. We’re sorry, but the reporting center is currently experiencing high volume of calls and a backlog of cases. Please try again in a few hours.

‘If you could use your phone to call the reporting center later today, please do so. Good day Eleanora.’

Ania could hear the muffled assent between rough coughing from beyond the door as she strode out into the sun. Then she remembered that Eleanora’s phone hadn’t worked in months.

—-

Ania was fortunate that her commute was only about 10 minutes. Exiting her apartment building of stately 18th Century entropy, passing the Santa Giustina church and walking along the canal by way of Ponte Fonadamenta di Santa Guistina Street and then turning east towards Castello was the extent of the journey.

It was a daily walk she had come to love since she started her job two years before. Even now…and perhaps even more so now, though she would tell no one of course, she found herself more in tune with the neighborhood and Venice in general with the quarantine in place. The city could be appreciated fully with less crowds and distractions. The waters lapping up against the crumbling-yet-functional buildings that had seen countless generations come and go stood as mute testament to past crisis survived by the city. The weathering on the buildings was no longer just charm for photo opportunities but rather the age lines and scars of place that had seen worse outbreaks and tragedies in its past.

The economy that kept it afloat on spendthrift tourists may have been gone, but a city was returned for to its actual residents. Or it would have been if they could have gone outside.

A masked police officer waved her down from across the nearest canal. Obediently, Ania stopped and ruffled through her purse for her permission slip. By the time he had crossed the nearest footbridge to within 10 meters of her she was able to hold up the work travel exemption. He gave her the thumbs up and she continued on her way.

He was the first person she had seen on the street that day.

Ania took off her mask and coat and stowed them in the locker right inside the entranceway to the crematorium. She washed her hands thoroughly in the restroom and made her way deeper into the building.

Alessandro was already there, running the oven. ‘Less today than any time last week. That’s good.’

Ania nodded. ‘Good to see such a rapid change in such short a time.’ The heat of the room tapered off as the oven shut down. She grabbed the brush and assisted her colleague in extracting the ashes from the oven. ‘Why do you think that is?’

‘Check the local news on your phone once we get done with this next one. I think I have a theory.’

Work gloves and plastic face plate applied, Ania began to hoist another wrapped body onto the table. ‘You know how I avoid the news these days. Everything I need to know I see here.’

‘Trust me on this one.’

The trellis rolled the next body into the oven. The door shut. Then came the roar of an all-consuming flame.

—-

CANAL STALKER STRIKES AGAIN

Multiple eyewitnesses have called now in testimony about a killer that stalks Venice. The figure, believed to be a male, has so far claimed four victims in the past month. He targets solitary pedestrians who violate quarantine by being out at night. There is now enough testimony from people who witnessed the killings from their windows that some common facts can be pieced together.

  1. There is a single solitary perpetrator working with no apparent collaborators.
  2. The killer always appears to be wear a long black trench coat, black leather gloves, and bright red shoes.
  3. The murders are all committed with a large knife, variously described as a long thin blade like that of a sushi chef.
  4. The killer is always stated to be wearing a horrific mask, though the details of this mask vary from eyewitness to eyewitness. One man in San Polo described it as ‘like melting wax’ and a woman in Dorsodouro stated that ‘it looked like a mask of that ugly American senator’ but could not recall the specific name of the figure she was referring to. A police officer at one of the crime scenes raised the point that the killer may in fact have a naturally deformed face. So far, there is no useful or clear picture taken of the assailant.

 —-

Ania was eating a salad two meters from Alessandro who had constructed his own sandwich out of what meagre remnants still lurked in the communal fridge. ‘I am at a loss,’ she looked at him between bites, ‘as to why a serial killer has reduced the amount of death we have to process.’

‘Four deaths and the quarantine violators are basically off the streets entirely. You almost never see anyone out after nightfall anymore.’

‘One hell of an extreme method.’

‘If it works it works.’

Let’s head back to it, we have a backlog to fill if we want to get done before sundown ourselves.

—-

Alessandro gave a polite wave on his way out the door. ‘Don’t wait too long now to close up.’

Ania nodded. She just had a few chores to wrap up after all. Then her phone rang with an unfamiliar number incoming.

Our system indicates that you previously tried calling our reporting center. Would you still like to make an infection report? Please press 1 if so.

Ania pressed 1 and then the various other numbers needed to narrow down who she was to talk too before being disconnected. She tried calling back and got a busy signal. Cursing, she gave up, gathered her outdoors coat and mask, and locked up the crematorium behind her.

—-

The sun settled overhead and a dusky orange hue reflected from the canal water. Ania would be home soon but this was clearly cutting it close by her normal standards. Not a single person, not even a police officer, had she seen walking the streets at the same time as herself.

She had just made it to her normal turn-off near Santa Giustina when she heard the report of hard shoes against stone from behind her. She turned her head but could only see the growing shadows emerging from between the buildings around her. They were masking the walker. A walker whose pace was increasing the echoes bounced all around, obscuring the direction of approach.

Cursing, Ania increased her pace. She was almost home and her paranoia wouldn’t matter once she got there.

Something splashed in the water directly behind her. An object casually tossed from what could only have been a place of origin no more than ten meters away. Unthinking, Ania took off at a running speed down the narrow side-street. The sounds of her heels on stone merged into an endless feedback echo along with that of the other person.

She almost collided with the apartment building’s front door. Fumbling with the keys, she unlocked the lobby and slammed it behind her upon entering. That’s when she noticed the blood red glow that permeated the inside of the building.

Turning, she saw that Eleanora’s apartment door was open. The light was pouring out from inside.

‘Eleanora? Are you alright?’ Time distorted as Ania walked up to the doorway and checked to make sure her facemask was still in place.

The elderly woman had managed to get her own face mask on and seat herself in a wheelchair near the entranceway. From the state of her apartment it had clearly been a struggle. Ania never remembered all of her lights being tinted red before, but now they were. Every last one.

‘My children,’ gasped the woman, ‘said the new light covers would protect me.’ Ania’s eyes caught a discarded box of ‘VIRUS KILLING UV LIGHT’ on the floor before returning to Eleonora. ‘I think I need to go to the hospital,’ wheezed the neighbor.

Ania had her phone in her hand in a second but swore an oath as the various emergency numbers she had put into her contacts list all returned busy signals or automated messages to call back later.

‘God-fucking-damn-it.’ The old woman was far too out of it to chastise Ania for her outburst as she grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and turned it about. She made her way back to the front door pushing the woman ahead. Outside, the darkness had descended into Venice.

—-

Even going to the hospital, they would still have to pass the Santa Guistina church. Eyes sharply casting about for any signs of a stalker, Ania turned the wheelchair before her onto the canal-adjacent street and began pushing past the building. The church had become lit up as the skies had darkened, giving the black waters and shadow-cast buildings around a faint and eerie reflective aura.

Ania gradually maneuvered herself and her charge to be directly parallel to the canal and across the street from the church. If anyone were to approach, they would be backlit. It only took a minute for her precaution to pay off.

A figure detached itself from the shadows at the base of the church and made its way towards her. The light was too poor to see details, but Ania could see the glow of the church lights reflect from bright red shoes and shining black leather gloves. At the top of this confidently and deliberately striding figure was a melting mask like that of a human blobfish. Its wax glistened repellently.

Beneath their masks both Ania and Eleanora screamed.

‘I am a vital state worker! I have a pass!’ Ania shouted.

Without breaking their stride, the attacker kept up at the same pace, now only a few meters away from them. There was almost an imperceptible nod towards the old woman in the wheelchair as if to ask ‘but does she?’

There was a scrape of metal against leather and the flash a long glistening knife. Ania let go of the wheelchair and stepped between it and the approaching figure. ‘No.’ It was barely a whisper that escaped her lips, but the determination behind it surprised even herself.

The knife was raised, pointed downward, and swept towards her. The figure was taller and broader than her but not faster. Self-defense course training from college kicked in and Ania sidestepped to the left. The knife flashed by her face, barely missing it. Open palmed, she struck the waxen mask.

There was the sickening sensation of lukewarm candle. A brief and confused thought flitted through Ania’s mind for just a second before she struck again: That is no mask.

Kneeing the off-balance attacker in the center of mass, she was able to stagger her foe. The knife fell. She pushed the stalker away and made a grab for the weapon. Grasping black gloves fumbled as she brought up the steel blade and failed to stop her relentless assault.

Again and again she thrust forward. Each time the knife came back redder. There were no cries or screams. Blank eyes buried within that melting face seemed to stare through her impassively as she screamed in primal rage. The figure toppled and Ania fell on top of it, knife still plunging.

So it continued until the attacker moved no more.

Shaking, Ania dropped the knife with a clatter upon the stone street. She was covered in blood. She turned and staggered back to Eleanora’s wheelchair.

The old woman’s eyes bugged out like grotesque glistening orbs. Her mouth frozen in a panicked scream. Ania had seen more than enough corpses to know it was too late. Eleanora’s frail heart must have given out in the panic of the attack.

Ania stripped off her blood-soaked gloves and reached for her phone, trying the police, the hospital, any institution once again. She received no response. A frustrated scream boiled out of her and she tossed the phone into the canal before falling to her knees and sobbing.

—-

It was almost opening time for the crematorium and Ania had completed most of her unofficial tasks for the night. Eleanora, per state mandate, was going to be denied a public funeral and as an infected person would have to be cremated anyway. This had already been completed. It was a second body she was preparing now.

There had been no forms of identification on the figure. Everything was loaded onto the oven trestle, gloves, shoes, and all, into the oven. Alessandro had been right, the canal stalker had a useful role to play in public health. Best to just disappear and remain a looming threat than a saga cleanly ended in the public mind.

Then Ania’s eyes caught the red on the shoes and her mind spun back to the UV lights in Eleanora’s apartment. She made sure to grab the knife before sending the body into the oven.

In fact, she thought, it might be best for the stalker to get one more stab at the headlines.

 —-

The middle-aged brother and sister were knocking on their mother’s apartment door. ‘She isn’t answering. She might not hear you.’ The woman crossed her arms impatiently as the man kept striking the door. He hit harder and the force caused the door to swing inward.

The siblings entered. Everything was bathed in red light. ‘Well, she put the lights up. That at least means she doesn’t have to worry so much.’ The brother turned to the sister, ‘probably in bed.’

The door slammed shut behind them and the lock clicked. The siblings spun around and recoiled. Between them and the door stood a figure swathed in black clothing, black gloves twisting around the hilt of a knife which glinted red in the light of the apartment’s interior. A shocking waxen mask had been constructed around a nurse’s face mask and surgical goggles.

The siblings screamed and cowered as Ania advanced in silence.

………………………………………………………………………………………………..

libretto di sangui

Now, for some added bonus content, here is an old giallo style movie poster I made for what was going to be another story years ago but I never ended up writing. Though a few of the ideas ended up going into the above tale.