‘He who has trod the shadows of Zothique And looked upon the coal-red sun oblique, Henceforth returns to no anterior land, But haunts a later coast Where cities crumble in the black sea-sand And dead gods drink the brine.’
I have written before about my love for the horror, science fiction, and sword and sorcery genres. But my top fiction loyalty, which contains elements from all of the above, is a more niche subgenre of both pulp and literature known as the Dying Earth subgenre.
The specific origins of this subgenre are debatable. End of humanity stories are as old as mythology itself. End of the universe stories also date back quite a bit. But stories specifically about the end of Earth (and/or the end of the Sun which presupposes the end of Earth) as an event of finality for the entire world but not the greater universe are a more recent fictional innovation. It is an apocalypse, yes, but one of a specific place. William Hope Hodgeson’s House on the Borderland and The Night Land are probably the first instances of this that everyone can agree fits the model to a tee. Though I would say most of the imagery we have of these settings come from Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique setting and Jack Vance’s collected works in his Dying Earth setting, which is where the name originates.
What is this dying earth and why is it so evocative? It may be more of a mood than a specific definition.
Imagine you awake after some kind of artificially imposed slumber from deep within a sealed tomb. You were preserved while the solar system drank in the aeons. You now find yourself in a world that is far past its prime. A fading and bloated reddish sun lingers in the sky, flickering like a lamp that at any moment could go out. The horizons of Earth below it are strewn with crumbling ruins and titanic monuments from empires long forgotten which had yet to exist when you last were among the realm of the living. Perhaps vague continental outlines remain that have some degree of familiarity-if you are lucky. But for the most part old Earth is now even more ancient and its cultural trappings are now utterly alien to you.
As you walk through a landscape stalked by alien creatures-some partially recognizable as evolutionary or genetically modified descendants of familiar beasts- some not (perhaps imported from the stars in a now forgotten era of human off-world expansion or alien invasion?) you realize you are in a world where the fragments of future-pasts exist as highly advanced technology which has now degenerated into sorcery and alchemy. Perhaps a few well connected people remember them as sciences and keep this knowledge under lock and key, or perhaps no one does and they are now magic in everyone’s mind no matter how learned. You know only that the ghosts whose tombs you rob to survive on the road are of people who were millennia away from being born when you last walked this planet.
Should you survive in this lower-light world of perils where the stars can often been seen in the daylight and the temperatures are on average lower to what you remember, you may be so…lucky…to come across something more than a ramshackle farming village or merchant town but rather a whole city. The city, no doubt, will have seen better days in its past. Its crumbling monuments are now used as places for washer-maids to affix clotheslines. There is no dearth of unused space, however, so rather than teeming hordes one finds a place where even the poor can live in a kind of graveyard opulence. Here, where the security towards beasts is greater, the insecurity towards humanity increases. The stately and floral language that is the final overripe fruit of humanity often conceals duplicitous and nefarious intent. Should you successfully navigate this minefield of strange and often divergent social norms, you may just find yourself recognized as a fascinating relic from a golden era and elevated into the inner circle of some decadent aristocrat or scholar…or perhaps as the plaything and slave of a mad wizard-scientist.
Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique was focused on a Gothic yet romantic conception of bloated exhaustion itself. The last continent on a far future Earth possessing an immense beauty that occasionally shines through its decadent terror. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, which I confess is my favorite of all fiction collections anywhere, takes this inspiration and really cranks up the comedic and pompous elements of it, with primary characters as bombastic and tragicomic as the faded temples and gods that served as set pieces in Smith’s works. Vance takes great pleasure in presenting a kind of Epicurean end times, where laconic detachment and petty foibles reign over humanity’s twilight epoch. Even the cannibalistic monsters engage in witty repartee with their intended victims. The sun could go out at any minute, why not engage more heavily in the arts, petty squabble, and gourmandism? Reflecting this dynamic perfectly, the Dying Earth tabletop roleplaying game has endless amounts of pettifoggery-based social skills which players can not only employ against NPCs but also each other. Where Smith saw the bloated corpse-worms crawling over a stiffening Earth, Vance saw the immense amusement of the corpse-worms dressed like they were going to the Venetian masquerade ball to play games of wit and compete over social status.
Currently, I am reading through Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun for the third time. It is the most literary of the Dying Earth subgenre entries. The author’s intention was to create something that gains value the more it is re-read, and in this he succeeded admirably. Having far future technology described in the first person to you by someone who both thinks it is normal but is unaware of what it actually is is a fun puzzle to piece through as you read. When you realize that what sounds like a giant mediaeval castle (for it is used as such) is actually a long-parked spaceship whose utility is forgotten, or that archaic classically tinged terms for military units are in fact describing laser-gun armed cavalry mounted atop genetically modified monster-horses, it creates a fun dynamic between author and reader. The archaic nature of terminology from the South America-based protagonist stomping ground becomes even more interesting when you meet the Ascians, a North American people (who I would unseriously posit are descended from Zoomers despite the books publication in the early 80s) who can only speak in ultra-modernist political jargon-slogans. While Wolfe is always a pleasure to read and I recommend this work, I do have to add the caveat that I prefer Smith and Vance in this subgenre overall as the best part of the Dying Earth subgenre (to me) is the inevitability of the Sun/Earth extinction and the effects this knowledge has on the cultures subject to it. In Book of the New Sun (and also in Philip Jose Farmer’s Dark is the Sun) there is not just hope in revival, but real paths to take towards making it a reality. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but it is hardly peak Dying Earth. The emphasis, of course, is on the Dying.
If you would like to get a strong dose of the overall atmosphere of this wonderful subgenre in under eight minutes, there is a stunning spoken version of a prose poem from Clark Ashton Smith himself that I believe does the job magnificently. Additionally, if you would like the overall Vancean attitude that I take from such heavy questions coupled with more AI generated art (albeit this time not my own) why not take in the generated visuals of a classic song?
Building off of my past post about 6 months ago which was reacting to my first big geopolitical prediction fuck-up, I would now like to list how people are fairing in the ongoing war. I would have much rather done this at the end of the war, but an end is not in sight so now is as good a time as any.
The two losers of the war are Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine, obviously, because the war takes place in their country and is doing all kinds of untold long term destruction. Russia, because to make such small gains on an immediately adjacent and much smaller nation with a flat land border when one has so many military advantages is quite simply embarrassing. The Z-oid cope was that ‘well actually the advance on Kiev was a big feint.’ This is bullshit. It involved too many troops, special forces, and necessary goodwill from Belarus to be anything but an attempt at regime change decapitation. And it failed miserably in front of everyone. The vehicular losses were enormous and the damage to the morale and prestige of the Russian army immense. Now, the war swings back to advantage Russia because of its more narrow focus and one cannot underestimate their advantages at staging a comeback here, but Russia will be incapable of large scale conventional military offenses elsewhere for some time due to the need to replenish stocks of arms and army formations. Ukraine meanwhile, despite having lost so much and no doubt posed to lose much more, has also had gains. A previously fractious society has found a new civic nationalism and unity. An unexpectedly strong military performance implies that much like Finland in the Winter War, even a quantified loss could be a thing of pride going forward. Nevertheless, there is no way to classify being a country sized battlefield but as a loss.
This brings us to the more mixed bag. People who are not outright losing but who are not winning per se either. This is where I would lump in the United States, the United Nations, and many small developing nations. The United States because the immense cost of bankrolling Ukraine’s fight (something overwhelmingly borne of the US with its allies contributions barely noticeable, comparatively). This is a cost paid for the benefit of a non-allied nation and one that should never be an ally considering there is no sustainable solution but a neutral buffer Ukraine. While the U.S. is obviously sabotaging Russian efforts in the country, it risks being sucked into a perpetual involvement right on the border of Russia which badly stretches U.S. advantages and commitments for something that could only be a burden down the line. The United Nations, meanwhile, shows it could play a role in negotiating the end of the war but also at the same time shows off its immense impotence and irrelevancy when actual crisis occurs involving major powers. Finally, smaller nations-especially those who unwisely decided on crash course industrialization at the cost of their local agricultural sector have shown just how enslaved they have become to the global market and the vagaries of fate. If one’s food supply is suddenly a conflict zone everything can go wrong. That being said, the shock of this will almost certainly cause many of these countries to diversify their economy and open up more opportunities for agriculture to be internationally viable in the global market. Right now they suffer, but many of them will find new opportunities going forward if they are wise. Re-localization will not destroy globalization but it will return geography to the forefront of conceptualizing supply chains.
I also want to include myself in this mixed results faction. Because while I totally screwed the pooch on if the war would happen in the first place, the reason I thought it would not (outside of the Donbass anyway) turned out to be right. I thought, considering the increasingly battle hardened army and changing attitudes towards Russia in Ukraine since 2014, coupled with the influx of many heavy weapons meant that a major conventional war in Ukraine would become an enervating quagmire for Russia. Having come to this conclusion about a year before the war broke out, I thought if this looked apparent to me Moscow would also see it too. But the level to which Putin’s government apes Bush Era cult of positivity and stifling of dissent in the higher echelons is truly impressive. If anything, Russia has performed even worse than I expected-and I expected their performance to be far worse than most others did. So, I got the outbreak wrong, but the course of it I got more right than most people-with the majority opinion among analysts seeming to be “Russia will attack and will roll right over Ukraine.” Mine was “Russia will not attack because it would become a suppurating horrorshow right on their border.” Well, Moscow should have listened to me.
So out of all of this, who actually is winning? Who is gaining at a far more noticeable rate than they are losing? This list is the smallest of all. And I’m avoiding talking about defense contractors because no matter the war they always win. This would be the NATO alliance, for finally having a purpose and renewed relevance again after decades to merely exist as an arms buying network, China, for having inherited an even more compliant and subordinate Russia tied to its interests and providing alternatives for people to get around NATO aligned sanctions on that country, and above all Turkey. It pains me immensely to give Erdogan credit in anything but he really has played this crisis extremely well. His country is a rival with Russia yet he has personal rapport with Putin. He allows rich Russians to park their assets in Turkey while still supplying Ukraine with weapons and logistical support. Turkey’s ability to close the Straits into the Black Sea gives it the critical geographic leverage of the conflict and everyone knows it. Its above-average but significantly affordable and easy to maintain Bayraktar Tb2 drone is being ordered all around the world by countries that could not afford more shiny models, ushering in a new era of Turkish influence by exploiting the niche of practical-yet-technical that is going to be the major growth market in most countries. If current trends continue it will be in Ankara, not Moscow, Washington, or Kiev, that the biggest gains of the war are likely to be made.
As the world keeps moving away from unipolarity it is worth keeping in mind that this does not mean a return to US-China-Russia of the 1970s and everyone else waiting with bated breath. It actually means countries like Turkey, Iran, Japan, India, Germany, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa will increase their roles between the shatter zones of the great powers. You can read more about this here. This process is only accelerating because of the war and Turkey is the first country to make such overt gains. Policymakers in Beijing, DC, and Moscow best factor this in for their future calculations.
There is an interesting legal case brewing in the Pine Ridge Reservation about trying to restrict the activities of an obnoxious white missionary. I suggest reading this for more details. But it kind of sums up a lot of more obscure ideas that I have kept on this blog only and why I am continuously evolving them. Especially given the background of the Pope’s recent apology tour which means nothing while the Spanish/Portuguese version of neoconservatism, The Doctrine of Discovery, remains on the books.
The purpose of these missionary people, as it always has been since their rise to prominence in the Late Classical Era, is to find the most psychologically diseased and desperate members of a society and elevate them out of their rightful place at the bottom and put them at the top as compliant puppets. To achieve a kind of rule by and for the psychologically frail. This explains its popularity in certain parts of the world where philosophical tradition already paved the way for the disembodied ideal to take precedence over the value-neutral adaptably pragmatic. That or parts of the world with the misfortune to be conquered by those with such idealist hang-ups. Which is also why North Sentinel Island did nothing wrong.
Tribal law will serve as a test case in internal politics here in the U.S. But it also goes to show why even though I take generally pro immigrant views I will never endorse Open Borders nonsense. The ability to regulate who can enter a community and what they can do upon doing so is vital to prevent forced homogenization and to provide protection from trendy fads that claim to be the future. Because I am fine with Central American immigrants does not mean I am fine with all potential groups of people out of some bland statement of common humanity. One day, a group might arise somewhere that is overwhelmingly beholden to some fanatical ideology that demands mass conformity to its doctrine in a way people from Latin America presently do not.
Strong states and societies can keep missionaries (and their fellow travelers like many preachy humanitarian NGOs) out. Only weak societies let themselves be walked over by militant carelords whose stated humility runs part and parcel with their ballooning hubris that they are the vanguard of a new world order bringing enlightenment to those who have yet to bow to them. And if the laws and customs are the same everywhere (the Christian-Muslim-Victorian-liberal dream) where do you go to when the laws become insufferable? Are you complacent enough, even if you support the monoculture, to assume it will always be good to you? Nothing stays the same forever. World history reaches no predetermined and uniform endpoint save perhaps entropy or creative destruction and reboot/recycle. Therefore, world views that promise such a thing can be confidently stated as either lying or deluded. Yet their appeal to the weak and bitter is its own form of self perpetuating power, like a democratized pyramid scheme. Of course, the irony of such totalizing views is that they cannot live without enemies to compare themselves with. But unlike others that can acknowledge this division as natural they cannot, and so their moments of triumph inevitably give way to sectarian division and mutual cancellation…for where go the self righteous when there is no one left to convert? They turn inward and wreak their missionary activities upon each other as the pyramid scheme of conversion must continue. Division always reasserts itself and no belief complex last forever. Even if, as I have written about professionally, they take on changed and more contemporary forms.
The problem is not that they will succeed, for they will not. It is a problem of how much damage they inflict on their doomed quest before they inevitably fail. How many alternatives to monoculture are destroyed or assimilated unnecessarily to sate this lust for mandatory togetherness in service of a project that will fail but make everything more insufferable as it does so anyway? In the end even this comes to naught of course, but living through it in real time is the thing to be avoided.
With the power of sovereignty, however, this problem can be situationally mitigated. This is why Japan didn’t become the Philippines in the age of discovery. Sovereignty itself is a fake concept of course, but one which has more truth to it than any messianic religion or social fad. This is because when it fails it is acknowledged to be lost, and can only be a concept of import when it works. To work it must have both some in group consensus and some external recognition of territorial rootedness. Those things, unlike vague and odious monocultural concepts of salvation, grace, enlightenment, social justice, [Current Year] or ‘the end of history’ can actually exist in a concrete way in the material world. Likewise, the assertion of sovereignty begets other different sovereignties, which, in turn, protects distinctiveness. It should come as no surprise that the most obnoxious missionaries of today-the ones who prey on war refugees and impoverished native communities, come from the United States, a country that has for most of my lifetime held itself up as the universal empire and arbiter of what is right and wrong in the world. It is only by asserting such sovereignty (be at tribal or international level) that one can choose to exclude what seeks to forcibly assimilate.
Thankfully, human tribalism is intrinsic and cannot be defeated by any ideology. But I would much rather live in a society capable of suppressing and interdicting the worst of the carelords. And I support others who wish to do so in their own way as well. In our particularly Anglo-Protestant culture complex this is especially hard. We are every bit as close to the heart of the beast as sane people who live in Saudi Arabia are. But, as I have stated before, I do believe there is a way for the sane to work within our cursed traditions to achieve a far more optimal outcome.
In the meantime, support for tribal sovereignty (and indigenous religion) within the context of U.S. domestic politics remains an imperative someone like myself who follows the ideas of The Black Longhouse must uphold to the utmost.
I feel like the short story gets too little attention. Proportionally speaking, I read them (and write them) much more than full length novels. In the future, perhaps, I will list some of my favorite novels. But make no mistake, this list is more important to my interests then that of the novels would be. The short story, much like the film (compared to , say, the currently in vogue television season) is a much more self contained creature whose focus tends towards a focused approach. That being said, I do tend to prefer longer rather than shorter short stories. The difference between a novella and a longer short story can be hard to pin down, but personally I would classify it as whether you could read something in 1-2 sittings on average. Therefore, for example, I will not be listing anything from my favorite author Jack Vance (who I have written about here before and will do so again), whose best books are mostly novellas requiring more than 2 sittings to complete. Though ‘Guyal of Sfere’ is his best short work, for what it is worth.
I will not be listing all of my favorite stories. Nor will I be ranking them in a specific order. I have also limited the list to only one story per author, lest a few people (and especially Clark Ashton Smith) dominate this list overmuch. What I like most in short stories is a strong evocative mood whose power is unique to a particular tale, and I will try to get one author per the type of story I most like. Obviously, this being me, this is heavily biased towards horror and sword and sorcery. If I feel so inclined, I may include a ‘runner up’ from the same author of another tale I almost made the entry. There are no (major) spoilers and descriptions are meant to say why the story is good rather than great detail about its contents.
I also will not be including stories that are not as good if read just on their own and thus require other stories for better context (sorry Lean Time in Lankhmar by Fritz Lieber). To be on this list, the story must be fully contained and not need any context outside itself.
Clark Ashton Smith–The Dark Eidolon:
No point beating around the bush here since his name has already been dropped twice. Also, even though I am not ranking these, there is still such a thing as first among equals.
The Dark Eidolon, which is in the public domain and you can listen to it here, is a masterpiece of dark fantasy and lush vivid imagery. Smith, who is already like if Dionysius wrote tales in a setting part Kentaro Miura and part Baudelaire, goes all out to make a story of supernatural revenge involving mass necromancy and stunning visuals which he himself said was ‘among his best’ and that would have looked great in the then young field of film. As such, I have always imagined it rendered in lush high contrast interwar black and white within my mind when I read it. Overall, it is a feast of mental imagery that calls to mind the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch in prose.
The one extremely famous author on this list, so the one I am inclined to say the least about. Let us just say, all of Lovecraft’s best writing and pathos come together in a now famous tale of alienation, fear of the other, and ultimately, fear and embrace of oneself. People say this tale of exploration of a dying seaside town and the human-fish people hybrids within is an ultimate example of Lovecraft’s (even then) quite legendary racism, but if so it also predicts his evolution in later life towards more nuanced perspectives when he realized he was just as monstrous as everyone else and his true hatred was for humanity in general.
Of course the big three from the original Weird Tales heyday of the 1930s are all here! My personal favorite Conan tale combines many different elements that make the character and his setting so iconic. Conan as an adventurer who becomes a leader, aspects of survival horror, and epic battles where swords and pikes clash on shields. While the first tale I read to really hook me into Howard was (Runner Up:) The Scarlet Citadel, and thus it retains a special place in my heart, Black Colossus remains the ultimate Conan story.
It is very hard to pull off a horror story that reads like a thriller and retain both the atmosphere and the pacing of watching events unfold in real time. Watching human civilization crumble through mass femicide and placed firmly in the context of zoological experimentation has a cold detached logic of its own, which in this case is expertly paired with the very real personal loss and madness of the observing characters for an impressive roller coasting of building tension.
Karl Edward Wagner–Lynortis Reprise:
KEW is hugely underrated and might just be second only to Howard in the field of low fantasy. While I personally prefer Wagner’s full book length fantasy tales most of the time, the one of his short stories that really stands out to me is Lynortis Reprise. (Runner Up:) Where the Summer Ends covers him for horror and may be a technically better story, but Lynortis is just so damn unique. It uses the nature of Wagner’s recurring immortal protagonist to his best extent, having Kane return to the site of an awful siege he fought long ago to find old veterans there still living as the horror of the combat made them too broken to go anywhere else. These living ghosts serve as a foil for the lingering effects of war long after history moves on, and they revere the brutal and amoral Kane for his role in the battle that made their new cursed life.
John Langan–Mother of Stone:
An astonishingly executed second person story that begins as an academic investigation into the statue of a lost god that gradually evolves into one of the moodiest and actually fear inducing tales to ever exist. The less I say about it the better, but it and its (Runner Up:) ‘The Revel’ from the same collection was what got me back into writing horror after a few years in hiatus and experimenting with new ways of style to do so. The sheer ornate power of Langan’s prose is unmatched and this is is simply his best story.
Laird Barron–The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven:
Well, you know me from past posts. I love coyotes and I love Coyote (singular). Here we have what seems a simple set up of two women on the run from one of their abusive ex’s who end up in the woods. There’s a coyote pelt, some shape shifting, and the best single example of that earthy pagan TerrorWonder (perhaps the author would call this ‘Mysterium Tremendum?) that only Laird Barron does so perfectly. Its a simple and shorter story, but its execution is flawless.
T.E.D. Klein–Nadelman’s God:
If you are like me and of a weird-creative bent, you will love (or possibly hate) this story. What if one of those strange monstrous characters you periodically invent actually came to life, but outside of your control? Nonsense song lyrics used to make an angsty tune in one’s youth ends up becoming a summoning ritual for a mentally ill person who years later happens upon the author’s work. And the ritual succeeds. And garbage made animate to the instructions of forgotten about lyrics now seeks reunion with its erstwhile creator.
(Runner Up: Children of the Kingdom–its like if the movies C.H.U.D. and Summer of Sam were combined in prose and were not only good, but *extremely good*)
Richard Gavin–Mare’s Nest:
Gavin is an underappreciated gem who I suppose would be considered a horror author, but is really more like the dark reflection of pagan wonder on the surface of an algae-shrouded pond in the forest on an overcast day. His ability to be poignant and moving while inspiring wonder in nature and the uncanny is always apparent, but none more so than in his tale of tragedy and renewal for an artist couple.
I have written about Ligotti before, particularly about my heretical view that his best work is his novella. However, the one story that stands out among the shorts is the one whose themes are already explored in this prior post here.
There are many, many more short stories I love of course. And yes, many of them are not even in horror! But these were the stand outs to me in this first foray into examining them as a concept.
Knowing it was coming doesn’t make it any less awful now that its here.
People who know me know what I think of this and how fundamental I think abortion rights are, so I don’t really feel the need to say anything else about them now.
What I do what to mention is that since 2000 we have had a branch of government that is held up to be high and mighty and more ‘objective’ and ‘deliberative’ but has a record of voting along partisan lines more even than congress, even deciding the presidential election in such terms. We had one of those parties decide to wage war against reproductive rights over 40 years ago. And we had the supposed opposition to them refuse in all that time to enshrine abortion rights into law, relying on our fragile and stupid court consensus to maintain them (and other things) and even failed to to act when they held a supermajority and the cultural winds at their back in the late 2000s even though a certain hopey changey candidate promised he would.
This is because having a nation-wide policy either uniformly pro or anti was never the point for either of the two big parties in our country. They always wanted a state-by-state variance for abortion access. Why? Because if it was fully secure or fully banned they wouldn’t have anything to fundraise off of. It is in the interest of the party elite to retain loyal partisan mega-donors who are highly engaged in culture war issues and not looking at more structural ones. 10 or so years ago people in the know all knew a nation wide abortion ban was not what the GOP actually wanted, as they would lose a significant slice of their reliable voter base if it went through. Its time to realize the Democrats play the same game too.
Now both of these parties have what they want. And the cash will be flowing. Particularly towards the electorally competitive states.
Most likely, the dumbest people you know will view this as an outcome of the 2016 election and not a multi decade bipartisan process. But what have these people themselves done but been protoplasmic masses of purely reactive nerve endings who have shown themselves incapable, time and time again, of looking at long term processes? When someone calls you fundraising off this issue who was in office in years overlapping with 2008-2011 ask them why they didn’t do anything then then don’t give them a dime. Your money is far better served going towards organizations built around this issue as a health and access right and not just as a political football. The way this game is structured, even being a single issue voter on this one thing would likely only have delayed this preordained result by four years. The court has had a conservative majority for all of my conscious life, and the decision by many to allow rights to privacy sit on this consensus in perpetuity was always a foolish and dangerous assumption. The Roberts Court in particular has one consistent theme present from its birth under Bush through Citizens United and the rest: their core principle is to enable fundraising and donor power at all costs. Here, they are simply being consistent in upholding their desire to make civil society as neofeudal as possible.
Now we will all get to experience a further intensification of hyper-partisan screaming while the environment continues to deteriorate, civil society frays, and class inequality continues to skyrocket.
Though I an unable to find the footage today, I have a very distinct memory of being in early high school right at the dawn of the disastrous George W Bush administration. He was speaking at some event in a historical library about the first President, George Washington. He ended on the note ‘George Washington…or as his friends knew him by, ‘George W.’ Heh. Heh.’
It seemed emblematic for how lame George Washington was. The guy on all the dollar bills who we were collectively shoe horned into liking via the educational system. Of course, my first (kid level) study of the Revolutionary War had convinced me that the guy was overrated as a general and a pampered failson in youth so naturally my contrarian nature made me a decidedly strong critic to show my independently thinking chops. This wasn’t wrong. Public education lies about a lot of things and this instinct largely has served me extremely well.
But its also a bit too easy and obvious to crap on an entire generation of (quite innovative) leadership because many of those people owned slaves or were involved in mass land theft. In an era which had yet to see the rise of a meaningful abolitionist movement anywhere outside congregations of Quakers, and where the economy had already turned into land expropriation as default generations before, it seems an act of pointless moralism to just write off everyone and everything by the standards of today. At least back then no one was knowingly barreling towards planet wide environmental disaster and refusing to do anything meaningful about it. Compared to the supposedly enlightened present, the 1776 generation will date extremely well despite its many faults.
After a decade of basically ignoring and avoiding American history to focus on my true Central and Eastern Asian fixations, I began to come back with my first (non-retail) job, at a library and archive dedicated to the American Revolution. Native American history had ended up becoming my capstone college topic (it remains among my very top interests to this day) and was pushing me, geographically, back to North America. It was here I realized that Washington’s war leadership was certainly still flawed at the tactical level, but was exactly the correct thing needed at the strategic level. He played a long game where using space, keeping his army intact, and dealing ruthlessly with the less than stellar subordinates would eventually increase the odds of decisive French intervention in the war, and thus ultimate victory.
As someone who almost certainly would have been a member of the Federalist Party in those early days, its hardly worth mentioning that my reconciliation with Washington’s legacy was easiest on the domestic politics front. But what made me go from hostile to fully approving of his term in office came as I studied his personal letters, diplomatic correspondence, and general foreign policy views. This is something I often come back to and reference today.
Washington, despite his lionization of today being so thoroughly connected to exceptionalists and chauvinists, was neither. The first country the U.S. had official relations with was Morocco, not France. And it was Washington (and others) who stressed in their correspondence with the king there going for years that their political experiment was meant for North America and not for export. Washington himself disavowed not only any messianic liberal project in foreign relations, but also that the new country was in any way a Christian state. It thus would not be committed to spreading any religion abroad nor would it have any trouble having full normalized relations with states of different religions (like so many European states had). It was for reasons like this, rooted as they were in geographic conceptions of sovereignty, that many historical figures of left wing disposition would come to admire him in future centuries.
These were not just statements meant to secure good relations, as they were diplomatic principles Washington would adhere to throughout his tenure in office. The ultra-pragmatic Jay Treaty being the emblematic manifestation of this world view. It was also the primary focus of his famous Farewell Address, as a small and weak nation looked with concern across an Ocean as Europe once again descended into one of its periodic bouts of warfare:
In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The Nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The Government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of Nations has been the victim.
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
There is a lot there that runs in direct opposition to the assumptions of so many of the people who sing Washington’s praises today and view themselves his successors. Especially for those inclined to indulge in overly ideological and sentimental conceptions of diplomacy. But also for the entire military industrial complex which insists on a maximum number of permanent alliances in order to create perpetual markets (which in turn create perpetual lobbyists in DC).
So, it is worth thinking that in this presentist time of mass-cancelling the past that sometimes even the most worn out and overly-lauded figures can still have constructive legacies to present us with.
I used to love Pride Month. Before the corporations and police colonized it as part of their Current Year virtue signaling it really was something that represented subcultural divergence and a celebration of survival in struggle. Particularly after the mass die offs of the AIDS era and the Reagan Administration’s hostility to addressing the problem. Nowadays, Pride seems more like a celebration of Mayo Pete being the worst Transportation Secretary in the history of the country and the fact that corporate HR makes their employees wear rainbow lanyards and state their pronouns on emails. In other words, it is no longer a celebration of divergence but one of not only assimilation, but adoption of the WASP monoculture where everyone, not just a specific community, must declare their goodness and rightness with some kind of Obamaesque statement about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice. A new moral majority for that mid-wit managerial class person who voted for Hope and Change® in 2008 but never realized they got neither of those things. As it is, I already wrote about the decline of the gay rights movement from what it once was to what it became in the late 2010s here.
I had my break with Pride in 2018. The DC pride parade started right outside of my apartment in the West End/Dupont Circle area and I got to see all the costumers getting ready. I understood this was DC so it was going to be extra douchey, but I had attended the 2016 and 2017 parades and they were OK (if with expectations regionally adjusted.) But that year, coming hard on the heels of the first traumatic Trumpian year for the City of Hillary, really caused the establishment to close ranks with anyone it thought would be in the anti-Republican camp. And so the 2018 Pride Parade was filled with police, defense contractors, and the like.
I left early.
Unfortunately, (and more on this from me later) this process of assimilation into the Late Imperial Phase is not just a DC thing but rather, increasingly an American thing. As the world moves away from American Unipolarity, the United States leans on its declining soft power to compensate for its even more rapidly declining ability to deploy hard power whenever and wherever it wants. The problem is everyone knows this since (and this one thing, at least, is not a criticism) the American propensity for having messy public fights about everything is on full display.
The problem is that the Americanization of Pride means it is (often rightly) seen as foreign intervention and sympathies when exported to other countries. No longer a symbol of international solidarity for the gays, it comes across as a symbol of international solidarity of the gay community with the cultural and political influence of the United States. Considering recent (and sometimes less recent) history, it is understandable that this rankles government authorities in other countries. The U.S. loves to use marginalized groups abroad to undermine foreign states, after all. By adopting Pride, the Americans have undermined it save as a tool for their own NGOs.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. While within North America full Langley-Buttigiegification is in effect, embattled gay rights movements in other countries can opt out of this Devil’s Bargain and take a path more fitting with the deglobalization trends of the times. In many countries, anti-gay laws come from European (usually British) colonial era precedent and thus are themselves a foreign imposition. And any country not riddled with Abrahamic religion as state policy can basically turn alternatives to heterosexuality into a recapturing of its lost subcultural traditions. The gay rights movement in India has been particularly apt at this, correctly pointing out that the various laws and norms they struggle against are largely Victorian in nature and not based in pre-colonial culture.
More importantly, whether a country has a more or less hostile past to the concept is not as relevant as its future. And a future were activists fight for a distinct locally adapted version of their rights is a far more likely one to meet some success than one where they adopt the iconography, slogans, and strategies of a declining world power with a known record of universalizing its own domestic pathologies. I don’t pretend to know how each and every country or culture will do this, but I can guarantee it would be a better path forward than looking like outsiders following what appears to many as a strange foreign fad.
There should be many Prides, rooted not in a global neoliberal monoculture but rather localized, indigenized, and divergent from the U.S. attempt to become the Pope of the Gays. Since there are gay people everywhere, no matter what local reactionary elements might claim, there is always a history, a culture, and a localized tradition to draw from.
The high age of Occidental supremacy was that of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Sure, Europeans had already ridden a wave of smallpox and economic shifts away from overland trade and towards maritime networks in the centuries previous, shifting themselves from Asia’s western peninsula into a major core power region on the world stage by taking control of the New World’s resource potential. But it was with the advent of industrialization wedded to this new global maritime approach that brought the Europeans (and later the United States) from late-comers to the globally dominant powers of the world for two centuries. At the peak of this process, even a medium tier European power could behave as a formidable wrecking ball further abroad. It was for these reasons that the European state system became supreme across the globe, and it was also because of this that European supremacy came to be considered as inevitable, even biologically rooted and eternal.
We know now that this was not the case, of course. Decolonization has occurred since then. New empires are far more subtle at dealing with local proxies (most of the time). But at the height of this process that had yet to be seen outside of very temporary and regionally circumscribed events such as Red Cloud’s War or the Battle of Adowa. Ethiopia indeed deserves its own examination, but for now I wish to limit this explanation to two countries that stood out not just for bucking the trends of their day, but also by reinventing themselves and their own conditions of modernity through internal rejuvenation rather than simply holding the line. One example at the very height of the European expansion, and the other right before the start of its end.
To do this, I am going to be mentioning and partially reviewing two books which I read back-to-back specifically for this purpose. They are by different authors and have different themes but chart the process of reformist non-European states in the age of high imperialism achieving the rarity of full sovereignty in the face of disproportionate threads from abroad.
The Meiji Restoration
‘To Stand With the Nations of the World: Japan’s Meiji Restoration in World History’, by Mark Ravina is an interesting work. One of my concentrations in college working on a history major was modern and especially imperial era Japanese history. This book had yet to exist then, but I wish it had. Ravina does an excellent job charting not just the radical modernization program of the Meiji state, but also the historical context laid by the Tokugawa Shogunate it replaced and other precepts.
Ravina has two core concepts at explaining the Meiji Era. ‘Cosmopolitan Chauvinism’ and ‘Radical Nostalgia.’ The first is the idea that any nationalist or patriot should want to learn from abroad and can sell doing so to the public as ‘if other people do it surely, we can do it even better.’ The second is that reinvention does not mean breaking from the past so much as finding examples of the past that break with present orthodoxies one might oppose. So, for example, adopting a western-style concept of territorially demarcated state can be sold as traditional flexibility. Did not the Shogunate leave its maritime borders intentionally vague to avoid conflict when the inter-state system was more stable? Did not the early imperial court emulate the legal and diplomatic precedents of the Tang Dynasty when that was the hegemonic power of East Asia? So, why not do the same in the age of Europe and adopt their most useful exports (which included the Westphalian diplomatic system).
Fortunately for my fellow Shogunate appreciators and I, Ravina does not repeat tired tropes about the Tokugawa regime being a bunch of hidebound reactionaries. They were constrained by a feudal system, yes, but their government had known over 250 years of peace with huge gains in infrastructure, literacy, the worlds first national forestry program. The government had been concerned with foreign encroachment for decades before Commodore Perry forced the issue in 1853 and had seen firsthand the impact of the Opium Wars on the then dominant state of Asia: the Qing Dynasty. Chinese ports were opened up at gunpoint and foreigners held extra-territorial rights within the once dominating empire. Proponents of Japanese modernization like Fukuzawa Yukichi were originally Shogunate employees, and it was the rebels from the southern domains who toppled the government who were the initially xenophobes.
But a funny thing tends to happen when you fight in a life-or-death struggle to replace one government with another. The real fires of war have a way of showing the power of technology and logistics that one might otherwise reject. ‘Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarian’ was a movement that upon taking power would use its new position to wipe away feudalism and create a state even more modern than that dared by the old and less-chauvinistic establishment. And it was here that the concepts of radical nostalgia and cosmopolitan chauvinism would really come into play. Japan would adopt what it needed so that it had the freedom to discard the rest. In so doing, it would take supposedly ‘western’ concepts and put them in its own understanding.
Ravina’s narrative ends shortly after the suppression of the Satsuma Rebellion, when rural discontent coupled with disaffected (and privilege-stripped) samurai came together under the Restoration’s former top general, Saigo Takamori in open insurrection against the government he himself had done so much to install. But the rebels, perhaps due to a terminal lack of Tom Cruise plot armor, failed quite miserably in this endeavor and the country was all the better for it.
The originally dominant figure of the Restoration, Okubo Toshimichi, took much criticism for his autocratic style of leadership in the run up to this civil war and after it. His policies, though more dictatorial than others in the new elite liked, were actually quite moderate and restrained in everything not related to economic development. One of the big falling out points between him and Saigo had been his objection to the latter’s desire to wage war on Korea. Nevertheless, not long after the death of Saigo, Okubo would himself be assassinated. Nevertheless, his successors (the most important of which were Ito Hirobumi and Yamagata Aritomo-who pulled in different ideological directions) carried on most of his project. The Meiji Era would see the industrial age come to Japan, with its high rates of urbanization and infrastructure making it a surprisingly rapid addition to the so-called ‘civilized nations’ of the European age. With the arrival of modern constitutional monarchy and normalized diplomatic relations in the 1880s, the book ends. The class system had been made remarkably more egalitarian, legal practices were standardized, and public education had been introduced. The imperial phase would come next, of course. Japan would become famous in the colonized world as the first non-European country to stick it to the major powers of the modern era and thus (unintentionally) strike a blow against the implicit white supremacy of the time. But for now, the Europeans had been kept out and the state had modernized on its own terms. To quote the author: ‘They refashioned Japan as a distinct and legitimate polity within the western world order. That process required a rediscovery of Japanese uniqueness.’
‘From the Sultan to Ataturk’ by Andrew Mango is more of a straight historical narrative than the previously mentioned book. This should not surprise anyone as he is mostly famous for his Ataturk biography which is probably the best in the English language. While it does not introduce new concepts to the discourse, it provides a key work in covering the diplomacy, warfare, and upheavals between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Republic of Turkey. The birth of the modern Turkish state is an interesting juxtaposition with that of the Japanese one which had happened half a century earlier. Mostly due to the fact that the declining Ottoman Empire that preceded it was far from a nonentity and once had been the predominant great power in the Mediterranean world. Its gradual wasting away from that height over the course of two centuries brought it into World War I as a last-ditch gamble, and total ruination in the process. Most of the former country was under some kind of occupation and internal civil war. The situation in Anatolia had become what the Japanese had once feared was in store for them. The only country in comparable shape was Russia in that time, and that had still lost less of a proportion of their population. Istanbul was under Allied control in alliance with the new Sultan who saw collaboration as his only way to survive. France moved into the south to consolidate its new gains in Syria and the British were taking over Iraq. Then, with British support, the Greeks launched a full-scale invasion of the west coast. When one considers this (as well as what happened to Austria-Hungary), one really can’t help but think the Germans were some of the biggest whiners in history when it came to Versailles, but I digress.
Perhaps unsurprising to us today, living under Angloid cultural hegemony, many in the Istanbul press saw the opportunity of occupation as a chance to pontificate and posture as the heralds of new international order. Journalists of the city (including Boris Johnson’s great-grandfather who would be killed by a mob at the end of the war) became de facto collaborators with much of the Allied program. When Mustafa Kemal took control of the nationalists based in Ankara, the only country not hostile to him was the Soviet Union. After coming to a territorial settlement in the Caucasus, the also-embattled Soviets agreed to supply him with weapons to take on the allies and their proxies. It is at this point that Mango drops in an interesting little observation: ‘It was Britain which called the shots in the intricate negotiations on the disposal of the Ottoman Empire. Britain’s Near Eastern policy had been taken over by a bunch of young conservatives, the neo-cons of the time, who were [of course] in cahoots with the liberal imperialists.’
The Turkish War of Independence was conducted with diplomacy as much as on the battlefield. Once the Greek offensive had been stopped it became relatively easy to divide the former Allies. To the Soviets, Mustafa Kemal spoke about liberating people from the imperialist powers. To the French he spoke of compromise, to the Italians resisting the over-hubristic French and British, and to the British he presented himself as the only bulwark against Soviet communism as shown by his ability to get disputed territory back from them. This ended up having the Italians and French withdrawal from operations in the country and the isolation of Britain and Greece. That is when this telling quote dropped from the leader to the national assembly: ‘Turkey is engaged in a determined and vital endeavor, because it is battling in the cause of all oppressed nations, of the whole Orient.’ Turkey was, of course, fighting for itself, but the colonized world, especially Muslim majority countries, watched the battle with bated breath.
The great offensive against the Greeks began soon after. It was a decisive victory, fully evicting the invading army and, more tragically, leading to a mutual population exchange and ethnic cleansing between the countries which probably could not have been avoided at that point. This left the British and their minions, whose power Kemal respected too much to evict by force even if he probably could have at that point. Gradually, through diplomacy, the occupied and formerly vassalized nation, which refused to compromise on its sovereignty, reclaimed the position of diplomatic equal and forced the last Allied power out. Four years after the end of the Great War, the first revision to its end occurred. It would be the most successful of the coming revisions of Allied victory in the long term.
Gradually, Turkey worked out its remaining disputes using diplomatic means. The focus would be on constructing a new nation that broke with the old. The country was utterly devastated, and so development was the emphasis. Like in Japan earlier, this would be done by emphasizing the difference of Turkey and its need to find its own way-but to do this by adopting a selection of best practices from the established powers. Legal egalitarianism came with an added dose of feminism ahead of the majority of established countries around at that time, and education was emphasized in what was still a largely illiterate public. The gains made by the government in combatting illiteracy and building connective infrastructure was extremely impressive given the post-apocalyptic situation it found itself in.
Kemal loathed the old religious establishment and the overly powerful role religion played in society and enacted some of the most secularist reforms in history-which was greatly enhanced by evicting the Sultan and abolishing the offices of both the monarchy and its attached caliphate. This was extremely controversial in many of his Muslim fans abroad, especially in British occupied India, but he was prioritizing the elimination of a domestic counter-pole to power over the potential soft power or hosting such an institution abroad. The backlash to these actions created numerous rebellions, all of which were isolated and crushed. While Kemal avoided Okubo’s fate of assassination, there were certainly people who tried. But these reforms, much like the diplomacy that proceeded them, were about differentiating Turkey and enabling it to modernize on its own path, creating a country distinct from both the Middle East and Europe and able to have the internal cohesion to survive and dangerous time. Indeed, Turkey would remain mostly out of World War II, playing both sides off each other to avoid direct involvement only entering in at the very end to be part of the final peace settlement. It would only break its usual non-aligned stance when the state became directly threatened by Stalin’s plan to make the Straits out of the Black Sea international again.
Comparing and Contrasting these Two Examples
A collapsing power became a stable republic. A previous nonentity became a major power. Both of these governments were responses to specific challenges in the era of high European imperialism, and both of these governments, like all governments, would not last forever in their original form.
When it comes to similarities, I believe the most striking thing is how an embattled community can constructively build itself into a stronger position by being open to change. There is this tendency among people (especially both reactionaries and liberals) to assign a kind of binary to cosmopolitanism. It is either entirely good and universalist or its entirely bad and a secret plot to undermine society. But at its most constructive, it is actually a way to reaffirm community and sovereignty by embracing the world on one’s own terms. There is a price for this, of course, as both states, being ahead of the curve, would end up having quite strained relations with their near abroad for some time (obviously due to unwise levels of expansionism Japan met this fate to a far greater degree).
Another less positive similarity is that both countries would see their establishments become swamped by reactionary forces. This was hardly immediate or inevitable, and in the case of Turkey it took about twice as long to happen as in Japan, but it goes to show how success can breed complacency. The ideological descendants of Saigo Takamori would eventually arise in the Interwar Era and drive Japan into self-immolation and disaster. The Islamist rebels in Turkey would not live to see it, but the rise of political Islam in the Republic in the early 2000s would give them at least partial vindication if they had somehow been able to see it coming. By moving fast under crisis conditions, jump-started modernization programs can fuel their own backlashes.
Both of these states were governed by middle-tier oligarchies of often foreign educated political figures. Yet it is interesting to contrast that Japan officially went from a military dictatorship to civilian rule and would become a far more militarized society, while Turkey went from a monarchy-bureaucracy alliance that was fairly bellicose to a military-backed government that was largely peaceful and diplomatic for most of its early history. Fearing being on the end of another’s colonial project versus actually being on its other end of one may have had some role to play, though the sheer circumstances of opportunity likely played the biggest part.
And this brings me to my final observation: why is it that these examples are not studied as much as they should be? I have only my own theories here, but it’s a discussion worth starting. I have long been fascinated by the modern history of both of these countries but have found that in the English-speaking world these particular aspects of their history are not well known, even among those who study either the European expansion or the backlash against it. I believe this is because neither fit anyone’s preexisting ideological project very well in addition to coming a bit too early to be part of the officially recognized time for the end of European world dominance.
For the left, the fact that Japan would begin construction of its own high Victorian empire soon after modernization is seen as discrediting of the entire experience. Sympathy for Kurds is also a popular leftist position. Of course, I would contend that whether a country decides to expand or not, or how it treats its interior population, are separate issues from securing a constructive form of sovereignty regardless of what one’s other opinions are on a personal level. A major (if unstated) aspect of modern Anglo-leftism seems to be that of venerating losers and hating winners. This is a form of self-justification since it absolves them from the fact that they lose all the time. It doesn’t help that mainstream leftist historiography of the eras of high imperialism, like that of the massively overrated and oft-cited Eric Hobsbawm, is grotesquely Eurocentric and hyper fixated on grand universal narratives. Therefore, a progressive form of nationalism or sovereignty is an idea that cannot be countenanced as part of the march towards human betterment-which can only be seen as some kind of pan-human project. Never mind that the more successful communist experiments, such as Vietnam and (temporarily) Burkina Faso and Yugoslavia or China from Deng Xiaoping onwards, actually fit into this reformist-regionalist rubric quite well. This would mean that accepting that tribalism and one-upmanship is a key ingredient towards fighting the reactionary impulse.
The Anglo-right has its own struggles with these outlier countries. Perhaps not at first save for the natural chauvinism that dismisses the achievements of foreigners. After all, they correctly see that strength equals power and power equals the worthiness of a state to forge its own destiny. The problem for them arises from the fact that almost none of these state modernization programs were reactionary or conservative in nature. Some, especially Japan, would eventually become that, but the first 50 years of the modern Japanese state could hardly be described as conservative, and Kemalist Turkey was the very opposite of conservatism in almost every conceivable way save the romanticism about the Turkish ethnicity that came with it. There aren’t many countries that successfully pulled off the Francoist model in Spain, and even that one example was hardly as successful at improving its national position from the starting point as Japan or Turkey were. Even looking at the world today, countries like Rwanda who stand out as non-leftist modernist projects make a big deal about how inclusive they are towards women lawmakers and working towards ending ethnic divisions. Once again, the crisis nationalism of embattled states does not validate the ideological project of selectively interpreted history.
The contemporary center, perhaps, would be expected to have thoughts on these matters. But it doesn’t because most contemporary centrists are historically illiterate. Also, since centrism is now inseparable from liberalism in the 21rst Century, talking about any state that does not fit the precepts of that theory are likely to be rejected as illegitimate because…how dare people be different from a New York Times editorial page? But being different is the entire point of projects like this. In the future, countries will also differentiate themselves from neoliberalism just as they once did against British, French, and Russian designs. But those that take the fully nativist and blinkered approach will be far less successful than those who openly-if selectively-engage with the world. One needs engagement and detachment both to be distinct. And distinction polity capable of learning from each other is where so much of human innovation and creativity comes from.
In the end, the first states to rebel against the Occidental domination of the planet worked because they defied characterization. They did this because the only ideology that was important to them in a dangerous world was survival and thriving. To survive they chose what would help them remain distinctive from the Euro-Victorian monoculture while also taking its most useful aspects. In so doing they provide some valuable lessons even today. Especially for those living under conditions of institutional decline. It is no accident that two of these countries play a significant role in a major report I co-authored about the future of multipolarity. A future which will open up many new opportunities, for good or ill, when it comes to rising smaller states. Such societies would be wise to look at the successes and failures of those who came before.
In other words, Japan and Turkey began their modern lives not as this or that specific project, but as pragmatists whose concept of the political was that sovereignty requires innovation and distinction requires worldly knowledge. The only camp of thought that not only does not struggle to explain them but also understands them thoroughly is that of the political realists. Cosmopolitan chauvinism, indeed.
All of this makes me think of a classical composition from the 1920s about the Meiji Era. Kosaku Yamada’s Inno Meiji starts as a very western sounding composition. But then it gradually begins introducing more traditional Japanese elements. Then, at roughly the 13:35 mark the powerful element of premodern gagaku courtly music enters and merges perfectly with the modern orchestral elements.
I am aware of the tired No True Scotsman trope. But if you extract it down to its core Platonic essence you really do have something worth talking about.
We have all heard it before when a low-knowledge person with extremely strong ideological attachments feels backed into a corner: the exhortation that actual historical examples that show that their attachments are not so simple in practical outcome are not representative of what they believe but aberrations. The militarized expansions of various supposedly peaceful ideologies? Clearly this must be the misunderstandings or willful interpretations of doctrine! The collapse in living standards caused by various economic experiments? Corruption! The takeover of causes by sociopathic personalities? It must be infiltration!
Plato was the philosopher of the ideal. Of reaching for the most perfect form of what something could be. Of always striving for perfection. This is contrary to observable reality and philosophical materialism and pragmatism implies that this ideal is a chimera. A false promise. What matters is circumstantial, situational, and results oriented. Therefore, the calls of ‘not true Islam’ and ‘not true capitalism’ and ‘not true communism’ can all be dismissed out of hand by those who do not claim to be idealists.
Let me take it a step further. Whatever belief or result is the majority viewpoint in any given camp *is* that camp, because what they have done and are likely to do matters far more than than what they intend. Organizations are made up of people, and groups of people have trends. This is likely to vary with time and place, of course, because in the end all things are local and temporal. Yet further reasons to distrust claims of the eternal and transcendent. If social justice, for instance, is dominated by an alliance of corporate HR and younger clones of Tipper Gore, than that is what social justice is right now. If MAGA is dominated by Q Anon and Stop the Steal, than MAGA is a front for those groups first and foremost. The true essence of a thing is the power of who commands it, not some ethereal and idealized promise of something to come. It reminds me of how the Book of Revelation was clearly written in the expectation that the End Times would come within decades of its compilation, and that the thousands-year-ongoing Christian meltdown we are still living through is a failure to come terms with the failure of this promise time and time again. ‘But surely this time..!’ they say each time assumptions are overturned, only to be proven wrong again. It is easy to believe oneself the protagonist of the culminating act of the story and harder to accept most individuals are merely background characters in a story that began far before they were born and either will never end or will only end long after they die. More importantly, it is easy to imagine oneself as just on the cusp of some breakthrough that will justify prior belief no matter how many times it has failed before.
Of course, one does not have to do this. One could simply acknowledge that the chaos of events do not move in any particular direction and so picking a tribe is just that: a tribal preference rather than a quest for universal truth. This, of course, requires giving up belief in some true eternal form of good ideology. It takes a certain amount of courage to admit that one supports a real-world messy compromise of a policy platform, contingent as it is on fate and historical circumstance. But I think if everyone was honest about merely trying to push greater forces in generalist directions rather than achieving some totalizing and ideal program it would be easier to talk with people who are from different backgrounds and forge new coalitions. Good diplomats are situationalists and opportunists. Ineffective diplomats take their cues from Woodrow Wilson.
If you declare yourself to be in support of any particular movement, you have to accept who dominates it. This means you can say ‘I really don’t like current trends in my faction, but I think the cost is worth it for the following reasons…’ This is fine. Cost/benefit calculations are really the only rational way to think about principles and they are far superior to Platonic idealism. Even better, though rarer for the thinking person, is when you are totally ambivalent and/or supportive of what others might consider a group’s flaws. In this case you don’t downplay them or apologize, you own them. This serves as a reminder than morality is not and can never be universal. So, when critics of political realism accuse me of belonging to a group known for seeing people as pawns being moved about on a great amoral game of Go who behave more along the lines of instinct than freedom of will, I answer with ‘Yes! Yes!’
I had plans to lighten the load of relentlessly depressing Ukraineposting from every quarter with my second music related post of all time. This was the first. I was going to make a post about soundtracks in gaming, actually. But I realize now I haven’t actually narrowed down my favorite to a short enough list yet. So instead, and based on a conversation I recently had with a friend, I am going to give each generation raised in the context of mass media a theme song. This is postwar stuff only here (for now-you should see the musical knowledge of the interwar period I have picked up as someone GMing Call of Cthulhu for two decades).
This theme song does not have to be current with them coming of-though its usually not too far off-but it does have to encapsulate the general culture and zeitgeist of that generation. This does not mean it is a famous song well known to most people, though it can be. It means it is lyrically and instrumentally a good summary of their general essence. I will state why and post the song.
SILENT: ‘The Water Was Red’
Johnny Cymbal, if he’s remembered at all today, is remembered as a one hit wonder for ‘Mr. Bass Man.’ But he really captured the essence of Silent Generation corniness running concurrently with their ‘still water run deep’ affect with this song about a teenage couple making out on the beach when a shark attacks and kills the girl and the boyfriend enters the ocean with a knife in hand to kill the shark in revenge. Song never stops sounding corny though.
BOOMER: ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’
Billy Joel’s grocery list of context-free events is probably the most obvious thing to be on a list like this. But rather than include it because Boomers unironically get wistful when listening to it, I decided to include it because it speaks about them so well: nostalgic, self-indulgent, a superficial understanding of events in the world around them provided entirely by television media headlines, narcissistic, suffering from protagonist syndrome…and YET…catchy and playable with a good music video because one thing you can say about Affluent Decadent Generations throughout history is that they tend to have good artists.
X: ‘Head Like A Hole’
The only unambiguously good song on this list. Despite being too young to be X, I think this is the demographic where my soul resides nevertheless. I have very Generation X cultural sensibilities. I picked this Nine Inch Nails song because it perfectly matches Gen X apathy, edginess, and-frankly-incoherence. Plus, gotta have that rejection of everything Boomer Flower Power/corporate. Its ironic X raised Z because Z came out just like the the 1968 hippy type this X culture was rejecting. So, parenting is not among their cultural skill sets.
MILLENIAL: ‘Young Folks’
My least favorite song on this list is the song I assign my own generation. So, you can throw your accusations of chauvinism right out the window. Bad Y2K era-looking flash animation for an insufferable hipster delving into something that sounds so boring and generic but is just ‘odd’ enough for indy cred? A sound of sad ennui with ‘quirky’ twee Wes Andersonesque aesthetics? Yup, sounds fucking Millennial to me. Hell, that describes at least half of the music I came of age too. You can almost hear it playing in the background of some open plan office where ageing redditor consoomers and downwardly mobile NGO middle management types compare real world events to Harry Potter and share sassy AOC react gifs. And people wonder why I like strange bands that never got radio time.
ZOOMERS: ‘Anime Pu$$y’
Schitzophrenic, terminally online, annoying, divorced from real life and physical reality, TMI about ones personal life in a public forum, but pretty funny with an on point meme game. This plays in the background whenever an anime avatar slathered in 5 contradictory pride flags and political affiliation labels in social media sneaks up in the wild to cancel you for inflicting literal violence on bodies and spaces with a ‘Yikes Sweaty’.