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’.
I had to eat some shit last night for blowing my first big foreign prediction. I thought that Russian troop build ups were all for leverage at the negotiation table. I thought it would be too risky to launch a full assault when one could, theoretically, get a neutral Ukraine over the bargaining table. We don’t yet know if this was a realistic possibility or not. If Blinken and co sabotaged such a deal or if Putin did. I hate that Putin resorted to this in response either way. Fuck Vlad.
So yesterday I was getting ready to go to bed when suddenly some cursed impulse made me check my phone one last time. Only to be immediately jolted awake by The Great Gopnik War and cries of ‘Anuuuuuuuu cheeki breeki iv damke.’ I really wish I hadn’t looked. I wish I had a full night’s sleep and only got rudely awakened the next morning.
For now its too early to make super serious comments. But I will say this: If Putin’s goals are limited, he will likely scoop out either a diplomatic neutrality concession by Kiev or, more grossly, a new territorial swathe from the Donbass to Crimea, connecting them in a kind of Slavic Northern Ireland facsimile. He could get away with this and, in time, things might settle down. But if his ambitions are as stated and he wishes to go full American-style regime change…well, get ready for full insurgency, poisoned relations with neighbors in Europe, and a simmering guerilla war that will indirectly suck in other countries and hold the potential to directly involve more as it goes on. Russia’s inferiority complex to America, it seems, has caused it to flirt with repeating its mistakes too. I distinctly remember being a teenager in the Iraq invasion and having those first months seem a euphoric victory ride for most of the population. We know now how that turned out. Moscow has a choice, and choosing wisely involves recognizing your limits.
But I am not done eating shit, though I do wish to put it in context that makes it less bad. I never said Russia would ‘never’ attack Ukraine. I always quantified the prediction with ‘probably not’ and then went on to say ‘and here’s how they would do it if they did,’ which-so far-is still somewhat accurate from what I can tell. I do feel in taking this path Russia has burned a lot of diplomatic bridges it once could have crossed. This is precisely why I didn’t think they would go ahead.
For what its worth, Biden so far seems to be handling this better than any other President of my conscious lifetime would have. Ukraine is not a NATO nation, and we are under no obligation to defend them. Additionally, its location, political situation, and other factors mean it never was a likely inductee to NATO (another reason I thought Putin would refrain from attacking). It is truly baffling to me that no one in NATO could have admitted this publicly, and I wonder if they had if the current situation would be different now. Knowing this, Biden seems to be owning, much like he owned the issue on Afghanistan, the reality that war in Ukraine directly does not suit U.S. interest. Obama said the exact same thing in 2014, but now, due to Russiagate, his partisans seem to forget this. For now anyway. It is too close to Russia and all advantages go to team Moscow. Even in the event of a decisive U.S. victory that would mean permanent stationing of U.S. troops near Russia’s core area for decades. In a country with no core shared interest with the North Atlantic? Ridiculous. The cost would not be justifiable, especially considering how far east that would be. If Ice Cream Joe keeps it up, I might just vote for his reelection. And I haven’t voted for a major party candidate at the national level since 2012…including Joe himself. Granted, I suspect many of the others who yelled at me for not doing so in 2020 might jump ship by that point. Well, there’s little point to life without some contrarianism.
As I said already, its too early to go too much into detail on the war itself. If Kiev was wise they must have prepared interior defenses in depth to compensate for their numerical and firepower disadvantages and won’t contest every inch of ground but rather fight like hell in a core defensible area. If they didn’t prepare at all than their actor-president (who once played an actor-president on tv, peak clown world) is even more cavalier than I feared. Let us leave it at that for now.
What I can do, and what I will do right now, is examine why I got this one wrong by comparing it with my other bogus prediction: the 2016 Presidential election. Both are outliers in an largely on point predictive career, so maybe if smashed together they can be elucidating.
First, lets establish that I am actually on the whole good with predictions in politics. I am not going to go through everything I ever wrote for hyperlinks, but you can search this site and my external publications are largely linked to on the publications tab. Feel free to see for yourself. But I made many big calls successfully before. Nation building in Iraq would be a disaster (2002-still in high school!), proved true in 2004 onwards. NATO expansion being a mistake that could lead to further conflict in Europe (2005), proven true from 2014-present. That the U.S. and company should avoid the Syrian Civil War like the plague (2012), proven true 2013-present. Most on point, I predicted a Karabakh re-match (2016) where advantage would be strongly in Azerbaijan’s camp…this of course came true in 2020. Additionally, and more domestically, I predicted with a one state margin of error, every U.S. presidential election from 2000-2020 with the sole exception of 2016. 2004 and 2012 I got with not a single state in error. I also had one big but very mixed prediction made in 2020, that Afghanistan’s government would collapse post-U.S. pullout (yes) but not until at least 6 or so months had passed (no).
I am not listing this to brag or fellate my ego to compensate for messing the two I fumbled up. It is important to establish the overall record to investigate the flops. Furthermore, it is important when rating a geopolitical analyst to see the overall picture. Someone like Thomas ‘lets ally with ISIS’ Friedman is remarkable for his near total failure rate, while someone like George Kennan, who predicted both the overall course of the Cold War in the 40s, and, in the 90s, the current post Cold War mess, had a proper record that showed he was paying attention. Few if any get everything right, and some room for failure must be allotted, but proportionality remains a key attribute. And should I ever tip the balance near 50/50 or…even worse, under that, I promise to do something terrible and humiliating. Like drawing Uncle Klunk erotica, signing it, and sending it to whoever asks to adorn their wall of shame (as it will not be going on the blog).
So, what do my two big failures have in common? A domestic political call that thought the election would be close (correct) but totally misread several key states vs a tale of brinksmanship vs hard power deployment in a foreign country that came out on the wrong side of that equation?
I think, placed in binary, a common theme emerges. I am…and this pains me to say…far too trusting in the long term planning abilities of powerful people. Yes, me who dunks on lanyards all the time. But I thought ‘Hillary has the money and the connections, she’ll leverage them correctly.’ And I thought ‘Putin won’t burn most of his European bridges/NATO surely wouldn’t dangle out membership to Ukraine as an actual possibility.’
So clearly, I, who gets criticized for being too cynical, need to becomes more cynical. Because I am not yet cynical enough. Challenge accepted.
U.S. intelligence, possibly for the first time in my adult life, got something right out the gate and told us the truth of what was going to happen. This is a good thing actually (though last week it furthered my doubts as to Russian action given the general record of those-who-glow). I would like to see more of this. HOWEVER…so far this is one big public call for U.S. intelligence out of…what, dozens of failed or intentionally doctored calls? WMDs? Gadhafi’s Viagra rape army? Moderate rebels? Russiagate? Havana Syndrome? Kuwaiti baby incubators? Tonkin Gulf? The rise of ISIS? You get my point. They are going to use this one case as a ‘trust us’ pass in the future. Do not. The odds still do not bear out their claims on most issues. It is up to them, not to us, to earn the public’s trust again.
‘Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind’ by Miguel Leon-Portilla is a circa 1990 attempt to extrapolate the metaphysics of Nahuatl-dominated Mesoamerica based off of what surviving sources are available. Much was lost, destroyed, and hidden in the Spanish conquest, not so much due to the war itself as much as the subsequent invasions of priests and missionaries who insisted on demolishing, ISIS-style, as much of previously existing culture as they could. This has left us with imperfect records to work with, yet the Mesoamericans were an incredibly literate people and some had the foresight to safeguard many things until later and less fanatical eras.
Leon-Portilla has an interesting way of approaching this anthropology-meets-philosophy overview. He likes to let primary sources speak for themselves. Only after listing the excerpt he wishes to reference does he then move on to repeating it but while deconstructing each line or paragraph in turn with modern interpretation. This is an atypical way of conducting this kind of analysis, and it takes some getting used to. However, it works extremely well and made me wonder why this method is not used more often.
The author is interested in figuring out the rise of philosophy independent of mythology and religion as much as he can (in many cultures there is not a clear line of division between the two and such is the case here as well). Nevertheless, we must begin with the cultural context of Mexica myth. We get a breakdown of religious beliefs and cosmology but also see that many scholars doubted these accounts going back to the start of what in today is known as the Aztec Empire (actually a triple alliance of three city-states in the Nahuatl culture complex dominated by the Mexica people). Most importantly, there is a summary of how the Mexica people saw their right to rule in the origin of the present Fifth Sun Era. All previous suns had been specific to past eras that had all ended in cataclysm. This current era would be no different, however, its ending could be delayed by honoring the covenant of sacrifice that had made it possible in the first place. For, after the initial creator duality-god/god couple created the other gods, those gods had in turn brought about this new era through the self-sacrifice of two of their own members, Tecuciztecatl and Nanahuatzin. The first showed hesitation thus could only become the moon. The second who jumped right into ‘the God Oven’ became the sun. In order to keep this new and most beneficent sun going, Nanahuatzin/the sun must be periodically recharged with human blood, which holds power when shed due to it having a link with the gods as well. As gods sacrificed themselves to make the world livable for men, so too should men return the favor if they wish these conditions to continue.
Naturally, this also gave the expansionistic Aztecs a great ideological foil to pursue an empire. As the prestige of taking captives for sacrifice fueled war, so too could war fuel growth. Growth, in turn, was tied to a special pact of their empire with the maintenance of divine order. It upheld the cosmos for the Aztecs to expand. If they stopped expanding their world would end.
It becomes apparent that skepticism of religious literalism was quite common in that society for a long time. This put many ‘wise men’ on a different path than that of the religious establishment. Fittingly, since the Mexica saw the most important creator god as one of duality, a core dualism emerges in Aztec thought. There was the priests and the warriors going out and growing the empire through war and sacrifice, but there were also highly respected wise men who taught of empathy in a world of constant entropy, and the utility to practical Epicurean-like pleasures through harm reduction at home. This led to a philosophical emphasis on what we might now call universal primary schooling, with an enormous percentage of children literate and learned for a pre-modern society.
This example also, along with that of, say, the British, pretty firmly puts to bed the idea that educated societies become more peaceful.
The purpose of this new Mesoamerican society was to cultivate a ‘face and heart’, a personality in our terms, that understood the temporary nature of things and the necessary fatalism to cope with it while also building themselves up as distinctly useful for society as a whole. The author emphasizes that while Aztec political culture was collective (hence both public education and public sacrifice spectacle) its concept of personal life was in fact more individualist. Only in a well running collective could things work to allow the arts and philosophy, and only through the arts and philosophy could individuals differentiate themselves from each other in order to better contribute to society by meeting their true potential. While societies with similar civic bargains to this have existed elsewhere, few I know of were so specific in making this their intention. There quite literally is no self/society divide because the self is in service to society and vice-versa.
Mexica intellectual pursuits were dominated by an understanding that all things pass in time. They were also enormous weebs for the previous Toltec culture, using the term ‘Toltec’ to describe things that were well made in a material sense. Much like the Japanese concept of mono no aware, it was the fact that the Toltecs has passed into history but still left moving monuments that inspired the Aztecs to make art. The temporary nature of things was inevitable but beautiful. It was part of nature and life. And it was a reason to build a society with a highly cultivated aesthetic sense. What these thinkers thought when it came to the necessity of blood sacrifice to prolong the apotheosis of the now, it is unknown. I suspect many were skeptical.
Yet, strip the symbolism aside and you really see a society far more honest with itself than that of the moderns. Expansionist orders are founded and maintained by blood. The Aztecs tied a frank openness about this to their very being and even promised a higher destination in the afterlife for those sacrificed than those who died naturally. Compared to our high culture, which lives in total disavowal and denial that our empires are much the same in effect towards other people, and which rigorously seeks to hide our bloodletting far away from view, the honesty of the Aztec tableau is a bracing comparison. For many in the contemporary world, our ritualistic bloodletting goes towards no less a mythical edifice than theirs, as the constant laments from our priestly class for ‘upholding the values of the liberal world order’ imply. At least the Aztecs got a great show for their efforts. We just get to be on ‘the right side of history.’
It also shows us the limits of absolute duality. For it is not that high culture exists despite its gruesome elements, but often in total tandem with them. The lake city of Tenochtitlan was larger than any in Europe at the time of its height. It was remarked upon by the very people who conquered it and enslaved its inhabitants that it was a place of remarkable cleanliness, order, and urbanity. Another water-based city, Venice, exists as an admired tourist attraction to this day not in spite but because it experienced its first golden age as a result of rampant piracy and the looting of Constantinople.
The Aztecs were very fatalistic towards the forces of nature, and the caprice of their gods reflected this. While you would be judged in life by how you lived, you were still going to the afterlife designated for you based off of the method of your death regardless of conscious action. Yet their obsession with self improvement shows that fatalism is not mere passivity. Fatalism can be the call to self-improvement. Being unable to remold the world, one can remold one’s reactions to it. And if enough people do this together- albeit in their own particular ways-this changed response creates its own impetus to not just live life for what its worth, but to contribute to it through the arts. To quote directly from the book’s conclusion:
‘Nahuatl philosophic thought thus resolved about an aesthetic conception of the universe and life, for art, ‘made things divine’ and only the divine was true. To know the truth was to understand the hidden meanings of things through ‘flower and song’, a power emanating from the deified heart.’
Anyway, on the subject of art, have some OC content:
Greetings citizens of the United BrEntered AngloStates.
Today, our military forces, supported by the 5th Juggalo Militia and the STALKER scouts, finally achieved the ultimate goal of the past twenty-two years of war…the final defeat of Belarussian Eurasia.
What began as a dispute over the Donetsk region in Ukraine long ago spiraled into something much greater. Millions, if not billions, have perished. A situation made worse by the merger of the Covid virus with AIDS and the Bubonic Plague. Prior Administrations stumbled from defeat to defeat, culminating in near total global collapse under former President Incel_Sniper1488. But I am glad to say that today, under the capable leadership of General Foxbussy420, the tide has decisively shifted. TsarKhan Nikolai Lukashenko has abandoned his capitol and is now on the run. His chief advisor, the Warlock RasputiDugin, is dead, along with most of the snorks, bloodsuckers, and burers he summoned to the battlefield. As of last night, the PawPride Maple Stars and Jack flag flies proudly over the enemy capitol of Neo-Chernobyl. Soon, Secretary of State Chillhop_Raccoon and Vice President Cub_Destroyer will arrive in the city to begin the final surrender negotiations.
This event will be called SlavCon, and there will be an extra hour in the ball pit for all paying attendees.
Reports of destabilizing attacks by the Krokodil Insurgency have been greatly exaggerated by misinformation sites such as The Gayzone and the New Zealand Agricultural Landbird Herald, who will subsequently be acquired by Verrit Verified Public Streaming as a matter of national security. The world is now safe for everyfur, though talk of equal rights for scalies is pushing too far, too fast. Right now we must take stock and rebuild.
I now head to the UN headquarters in Harajuku to meet with Secretary General Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Chinese President Warcraft_OrcStud_Appreciator1368 to begin planning a new and most glorious world order. The one Meta CEO Chuck Todd assures me will bring about the End of History.
Thank you, and may God Bless the United BrEntered Anglostates.
No matter how tenuous the justification for putting it here is, having written about the importance of table top role playing games in understanding macro-scale events exactly one year ago, I feel it is perfectly fine in light of the announcement of a new or upgraded edition coming in 2024 to have a post ranking Dungeons and Dragons editions. I promise, given the order I plan on ranking them in, that nobody but myself and a few others I personally know will be happy with it.
Before starting, I want to point out that DnD is not my first, second, or even necessarily third favorite game. This is specifically a ranking only of official DnD editions lest we get bogged down in Old School Renaissance discussions (my preferred way of playing the game). We will start with the best and decline to the worst as if heading from the safety of town into perpetually gloomier bowels of peril much like that of a dungeon. Now, with that out of the way…
1. First Edition
This is no grognard nostalgia at work here on my part. The one edition that predates my very birth into the real world is actually the last edition I ever got to start playing. I am recent convert to its simplicity, deadly peril, and extremely evocative amateur art, having only begun to experience it about three years ago. (Something worth noting is how much of the art has a party quaking in fear, dying or running away rather than looking like confident superheroes like they would in the art of all subsequent editions, more on this later). Coming in both advanced and basic versions, and easy to house rules (a necessity for anything DnD), it is the first official rendition of the game that gives the best play experience all these years later. Characters do not start out as superheroes. A lot of them will die embarrassing and miserable deaths. Loot gets you experience points, not monsters slain. This coupled with the greater emphasis on player (rather than character sheet) agency and cleverness really brings forth what a tabletop game should be-and shows how much more fun it is when not structured around the limitations of what computer game-influenced expectations have imposed on the genre. Creative and unconventional problem solving rule when rules are tough but not omnipresent. What you get is a game whose rules play like how Sun Tzu conceptualized warfare; something to be avoided whenever possible but, if unavoidable, need to be gamed with clever and unexpected thinking. This worked well considering the game’s culture was all about constructing the strangest most mind-bending adventures possible.
This is real tabletop gaming from a time of non-Euclidean interior décor, hideous jellied party food, and ‘fancy’ overcooked dinners at the Steak and Ale®. Jimmy Carter might have made it famous as the ‘Malaise Era’, but there was nothing but the bounce of a vibrant disco subculture in those deadly dungeons. It is a style of play that, outside the old school modern spin off scene in TTRPGs, is best encapsulated by PC games like Darkest Dungeon-or it would if that example had zany roleplaying and psychedelic funhouse settings.
The Basic versions are to be preferred over Advanced, for what it is worth.
2. Fifth Edition
Having 1rst and 5th both at the top end is enough by itself to make this list controversial. The oldest and the newest editions fans tend to view each as the polar opposite. How fast things change. When 5th first dropped it was often hailed as a welcome return to old school sensibilities for its simplicity and cutting away of the endless amounts of math fat that had grown in the intermediary editions. And rightly so. The game is popular for a reason. In fact, its only real mechanical flaw compared to the first is both a greater amount of mechanical bloat (gotta sell those splat books!) and the lack of danger. Without house-rulesing its almost impossible to kill a player character without breaking the game’s balance, ruining the dramatic tension of encounters. This ties into a questionable design philosophy of starting out the PCs as de facto superheroes that began back in 3rd and was never stopped up through the present day.
The real drawback of 5e is really in its generic nature. Trying to be everything for everyone means it is kind of for no one whose tastes expect more than the generic. Though no fault of the game itself, this does mean it has the (second) worst fan base of any edition. Being a Zoomer-hugbox-friendly game, it tends to attract a fandumb very much integrated into the present Postmodern-Protestant monoculture and its ever-shifting labyrinth of zeitgiesty-yet-sterile human resources department derived ideologies. Most annoyingly, this tends to manifest as people caring more for lame podcasts about playing the game than, you know, actually playing the game themselves.
That and the game system being built for cornball high fantasy over the sword and sorcery weirdness of 1rst Edition is what keeps this perfectly fine game at second place. But is still perfectly playable and has brought many people into the hobby so credit goes where credit is due.
3. Second Edition
The middle position usually delineates ‘average’, but there’s nothing really average about 2. It’s a grab bag of terrible and awesome. Mostly, the actual system is an overly complicated hot mess version of 1 but at least maintains its sense of perilous play and player agency. However, you need more types of dice than there are kinds of legos for it to work at all. Unrelated to the system but worth mentioning, this was the system that had the best PC game adaptations (Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, etc) and the best pre-made settings in general like Dark Sun and (regular) Planescape. But since I always make my own campaign settings myself this doesn’t really affect me. Sadly, it was also the first to come after the 1980s Satanic Panic that had really attached itself to 1, and thus came with this weird squeaky-clean veneer that robbed the game of much of its edge. A loss it has yet to really fully recover from even today. NEXT!
4. Fourth Edition
This is a weird one. A noble experiment in some ways but just an utter failure in execution. They wanted a very tactical and well balanced game…and they got that! Its just…it came in 2008. Long after PC games could deliver exactly that far better than a tabletop game could. So…you could effectively play a computer game on the table and have to do all the math yourself. Really just misreading what makes tabletops still so good even in the era of advanced electronic gaming. This is most people’s least favorite edition and for good reason…but the fact that it was so combat focused ironically meant the non-combat portions of the game could be played old school style since they weren’t rules’d out to death. Its just a shame it took half an hour for a party to fight one small band of goblins. To add an ultimate level of irony, this system, that would have worked great in PC adaptations, never got a major PC game adaptation! But hey, it was still better than…
5. Third Edition
Do you like mass market monoculture superhero movies? Do you like character creation that feels like doing your taxes? Do you love rules-layering and meta-gaming? How about reading novels worth of ‘feats’ that ‘give you so many options’ but in so doing show how little player agency exists off of the confines of the character sheet? Than OH BOY DO I HAVE THE EDITION FOR YOU!
3E, and its different company pseudosequel Pathfinder, [more like Mathfinder, amirite?] have got to be not just my least favorite edition of DnD, but among my least favorite mechanical systems in all of TTRPG-dom. Feats? Ugh. In an action oriented game with stats and classes rather than skills as focus you should never have to read paragraphs to tweak numbers off your core stats. Do you want to be skills based 3? Then get a better system for it! Do you want to be class based? Then keep it simple! The bloat becomes offensively bad the longer you play, with both friends and foes spiraling up like a bad shonen anime power up sequence that never stops but without the entertainment value of them screaming each other’s names (though I suppose you could roleplay this if you wanted). High level characters don’t even have much in the way of random elements from the dice as modifiers make the tossing of the D20 a mere formality of turn taking. Spellcasters (that class of nerds) are even more ridiculously overpowered than usual, turning all late game encounters into WWI artillery duels between them with everyone else getting to be the obsolete and sidelined horse cavalry.
Couple that with the fact that the people who still like this system like to loudly proclaim its nonexistent virtues with a healthy side of ‘you’re just not smart enough to play my High Fantashire Turbotax Simulator’ and its just beyond me how anyone could ever enjoy this game. This game I once had to run an entire campaign in for a bunch of players despite my objections to using such a terrible system.
But I suppose it will get its second wind when future President Incel_Sniper1488 sets up a game of it in the Oval Office in order to DM for the First Waifu Pillow and the hapless members of the Secret Service who haven’t resigned yet.
By both being very modern and somewhat old school, the future and whether 5.5 or 6 or what have you will be better or worse remains open to question. It won’t really matter to me, since I have already decided my ideal monster-bashing table top system is Shadow of the Demon Lord, but I do like to wonder. Will the exploding OSR scene cause the largest role playing property to take another hard look at learning from its avocado colored furniture on orange shag carpet disco original core? Or will the next iteration be in all pastel colors, replace deadly damage in entirely with ‘literal trauma’ and conduct character advancement via ‘lived experience points?’