This is going to be a brief and unstructured post as I have a vaccine-breakthrough case of Covid-19 and thus am not at the height of my mental faculties.
But while I linger here in inglorious self-isolation, I have been reading the collected philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. I am not finished yet and I do not mean to give a comprehensive take, but it is worth mentioning that I came to this task via a book I recently read for work that compared and contrasted various historical definitions of the concept of sovereignty. I knew Spinoza by some philosophical concepts but had no idea that he was a thinker on such relevant (to my interest) political concepts. The ideas that I read about in that book made me want to know more.
Spinoza is most famous today for his metaphysics and his radically materialist concept of a pantheistic god, rather than a spiritualist and religious one. This interests me much less than his politics here, but serves as a fascinating example of materialist thinking in a deeply spiritual age. He comes across as similar to an early Tantric thinker with elements of Vedanta philosophy but in a 17th Century Dutch context. His god, such as it can be called such, is really a combination of the will of energy serving as the connective force for all of matter. To Spinoza, this matter is the same everywhere and thus the creative energy may as well be ‘god’ because this is the only way things may happen by forcing change and interaction. Of course, we know now through the hard sciences that matter can indeed change its nature in many circumstances and that it can be converted into energy. This punctures his need for the god language, but was information that was unavailable to him in the time of his life. Therefore, we get an interesting example of a fully materialist god with the characteristics of the theology of the Dharmic religions. Good and evil are pointless, as is faith. The majesty of being leaves no use for the simple moralism of man. And it is the simple moralism of man that the Abrahamic faiths, of course, hold as supreme.
No wonder Spinoza’s Jewish community in Amsterdam excommunicated him. Then so did the Protestant Dutch municipals of that city. After death, his writings would be banned by the Catholic Church. Cancelled by three different religions, now that’s a guy I can respect! He would never end up joining any faith community again and lived the rest of his life as a private tutor and lens grinder, apparently content and with his own circle of friends from many outlier communities. Honestly, he sounds like a cool dude.
While his attack on the specifics of the Abrahamic God, (a being much more like Miura’s Idea of Evil than Spinoza’s omni-nature) and his creation of a deterministic world view of moderation and autonomy in service of living with nature while also exploring it would be his most famous contribution, what I really find interesting in his political philosophy.
Spinoza is an extremely interesting contemporary and counter-point to Thomas Hobbes. Both believed in the ultimate sovereignty of the state as the enabler of human thriving, particularly in societies that had grown large enough to have dense populations. Both sought state control over religion to quash sectarianism and outside societies interfering in domestic affairs. Both looked down on violent rebellion but left themselves each specific escape clauses when the situation became dire. Both, most interesting to me, upheld the right of different countries to have different political systems based in their own culture and untampered with by the designs of others…even if their personal preferences were for different kinds of systems. Both were aware of one another and Spinoza at least read Hobbes’ work.
The differences are more interesting, however. Whereas both Spinoza and Hobbes saw a strong state as the most effective way for maximizing human flourishing, Spinoza emphasized the state’s capacity to uphold freedom of thought, religion, and the press whereas Hobbes viewed such things as potential dangers to the state. Hobbes also sought a centralized state whereas Spinoza sought a more decentralized one, where the dynamic tension of regions and their differences sparked an engaged citizen-culture that would, over all, actually strengthen the state against outsiders. Hobbes’ personal preference for monarchy also contrasts with Spinoza’s personal preference for republics. But both, I will re-iterate, did not believe there was one universal best form of government for all places and peoples. In fact, Spinoza was insistent that a political system will always be regionally and situationally unique. He was also even more of a realist than Hobbes when it came to social contracts, finding that power, not safety, was the true ultimate determinator in who got what. And that power came not from ideas, but by living within nature and understanding it enough to get the most out of it.
Here we have a thinker who denies progress, teleology, and idealism for a fully deterministic and materialist world view, yet comes to support freedom of the press and secularism in service of a republican civic virtue. Is Spinoza a liberal with all the stupid bits cut out? Or a realist with a modern sense of nuance lacking in Hobbes? Or both? Nevertheless, you can see why I am interested in him.
To create an artificial binary here, I am probably more personally close to Spinoza’s world view than that of Hobbes. However, I will maintain that so long as certain caveats such as adding economic security to the Hobbesian bargain are done, that Hobbes might still be the more relevant thinker on sovereignty for much of the world. Why? Because the dynamic tension of Spinoza is often preferable but too dangerous to work in fragile or besieged societies. A very strong and secure society can afford a level of decentralized experimentation, but a weak one cannot. Hobbes wrote in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war and its resulting fanaticisms in his home country. Spinoza wrote exposed to fanaticism as all in 17th Century Europe would have been, hence his desire to relocate from region to region to avoid antagonists, but also in a society at its financial and military peak. The Dutch Republic was in a far stronger place than England in that period. It could afford to be experimental. The British would only shift to a more mixed political system once they pulled ahead of the European pack.
We see this today in the world’s conflict zones. Embattled states either fail or become more Hobbesian to avoid failure. And so, as I am want to do, let us bring in Ibn Khaldun to add a third corollary here: the passage of time matters. Personal bonds create a new ruling elite, the ruling elite, if successful, creates a Hobbesian (or Chinese Legalist or whatever) state focused on survival and establishing itself as the dominant force in a territorial unit. Then, the Hobbesian state can (and possibly should) morph into a Spinozan state, strengthening itself by more fully integrating its citizens into its body and allowing dynamism to survive the loss of the original solidarity provided by security needs. The cycle will eventually repeat itself again, of course, but the transition to a Spinozan state could delay the inevitable decline in the final phase, meaning while upheaval is still inevitable, it is less common. This is not to ignore, of course, that a state could go from a Spinozan position to a Hobbesian one as a matter of necessity due to security concerns and internal division. Indeed, this is to be expected as well. But if the state survived the crisis by doing this, it could always pivot back to the Spinozan position once things clamed down.
And now, because that is the most effort I have been able to put into anything for the last couple days, let me leave you with a Spinoza quote that I think sums up both his metaphysical and his political views quite well:
‘Whenever then anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have only a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence of the whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason; Although in fact what our reason pronounces is bad is not bad in regards to the order of laws of universal nature, but only in regards to the laws of our own nature taken separately.’
I have a long term and ongoing research project that continuously, if in slow-motion, has been unfolding in the background of my life since 2019. It means that the proportion of books that I read about Native American history is at its highest point since the topic was the subject of my undergraduate thesis back in my final year at Rutgers University. I just completed ‘The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America’ by Stephen Warren today and felt it was one of the stronger and more unique entries in the topic I have read for some time.
Warren is the author of multiple books about the Shawnee nation, but this is the one that goes back the furthest in time. Tracking the likely beginnings of the tribe as we know it in the Ohio River Valley as Fort Ancient people who saw rampant Eurasian diseases devastate their populations and settled lifestyle, the author takes us through the story of the dislocation of 17th and 18th Century Eastern Woodlands America. While the Shawnee are no doubt the primary focus of this work, they are taken to be an especially strong example of this time of chaos rather than the sole subject.
Warren shows how mass death and economic re-orientation around ‘Mourning Wars’ (the quest for population replacement captives) as well as access to European trade goods necessitated huge lifestyle and locational changes for many tribes. The Shawnee come in as the best example of this considering the sheer level of adaptability and willingness to travel that they encapsulated. From starting as one of the most sedentary cultures north of the Rio Grande to famously itinerant travelers across Eastern North America, they would be dubbed by their sometime rivals and sometime senior partners the Haudenosaunee as ‘the most traveled people’.
The Shawnee (and others) first traveled east in order to acquire guns to give them more of a defense against marauding bands of better armed nations such as the Haudenosaunee. They would then serve as mercenaries on the frontier for the colonies before retiring when settler pressure became too intense. Bands of Shawnee would go south to the Carolinas, east into Pennsylvania and Maryland, and west into Illinois. Divergent bands, likely descended from different Ohio River villages, would scout and acquire knowledge and goods. Then, after 50 years of wandering, begin the process of returning to the original Ohio Valley homeland in alliance with other displaced tribes to set up home again from a stronger position than it had been once they left. This was the core that first the French, then the British once the French left, tried to set up a Great Lakes Indian state around.
Warren does an excellent job showing how many tribes broken by European and Haudenosaunee power politics adapted and often coalesced into new formations. It is truly an underdog story of Darwin’s maxim that ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives but the one most responsive to change.’ Considering the sheer scale of epidemic die off in the region, not to mention the extinction of so many tribes, this is no small feat. It is for this reason, as well as the intrinsic historical value of the text, that the book is so useful.
I do have one complaint, however. The text feels like its building up to explaining the Northwest Indian experience when pan-Indian identity really started to take off with the attempt to have a sovereign Ohio valley native nation. The text, however, ends in the French and Indian War and stops there. Warren’s other book appears to pick up in 1796. That leaves out this most formative period of Shawnee history from Pontiac’s War up through the Northwest Indian War. I would hope the author would consider another book to cover this time period considering it is in some ways the culmination of many of the experiences talked about in this text. While the Shawnee became more sedentary again in this time (before being displaced by the U.S. government later and moving to Oklahoma), its a period I would have loved to have seen the author cover considering its importance in showing situational adaptation for an outnumbered and outgunned people. It was the Shawnee after all, along with their allies the Miami, Lenape, and others, who would score the biggest battlefield victory, proportionally speaking to forces engaged, over the U.S. army in all of history.
Warren’s book can be recommended to anyone interested in North American history as well as those interested in the history of migration and anthropological adaptation.
For my road trip through much of the Allegheny Plateau, I planned to be there near peak fall. A freak late season heat wave prevented practically any vibrant colors from coming out in most places I went to it turned out, but the rest of the journey went off without a hitch and I hit all of my target stops but one.
I had the good fortune to be doing this trip while reading the book (that I am still reading as of now) When They Severed Earth From Sky, which is about how prehistoric and premodern myths often reflect distorted accounts of real world events. Often natural in origin. The book postulates that in a non-record keeping culture, it is easier to pass down information from one generation to another if human intention and romantic flourish is added to the account. This ensures that future storytellers will want to tell it and tribe members will want to hear it.
One of the reasons I went on this trip is to do ‘research’ of a sort. Since 2018 I have been writing on ongoing fiction short story series about a post-United States (but not post-apocalyptical in the environmental sense) future centered around this region and the new cultures that grow up in the void left by the parting of the old society. The technology level is kind of rustbelt modern, akin to the STALKER games, but with a heavy dose of folk horror and sword and sorcery. Given the propensity of people to claim to see strange creatures in this region, and my past experience road tripping in West Virginia, it made a natural choice. Also, around this time the disastrous Fallout 76 came out, which I avoided and whose release time was coincidental with my own development of this setting. But it kind of challenged me to do the region better, as I knew I could. So far, I have used many of the Appalachian cryptids (as well as less modern folklore) to help round out the stories. The overall vibe kind of comes across as a hybrid between something Laird Barron would write and the game Dusk.
One wonders what it is that makes this region so good for spooks and haints. I imagine the deep religiosity (but for a Manichean monotheism) clashes with the brooding forests and broken hills. This is creature country. Not the desert of the Bible. The desire to treat this still very wild land in the traditional sense of the devout English or Ulstermen fails. But the desire to see something memorable and folkloric remains. The failure to take in enough of the preexisting Shawnee mythology leaves a void that the distant and blandly universal god of the Bible could never truly fill when it comes to regional identity. Point Pleasant, at least, has a petroglyph of an Algonquian water panther, though my picture of it is not good enough to bother uploading here. Anyway, they have their own local creature since the 60s and the tourists it draws in has brought the downtown back from the brink.
With the coming and going of coal and industry, the region feels like its slipping back into something premodern. So why shouldn’t it be a pioneer in re-mythologizing itself? Sure, the Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster strike me as large birds, especially owls, seen in low light conditions and mistaken for giant humanoid monsters since perspective and distance were off. But they represent a very real desire for re-enchantment of the world. Not in the generic occidental monolithic religious way we are used to, but in a localized way that differentiates some regions from another. Much like the Jersey Devil does for my current region or the Kushtaka for coastal Alaska. They are mascots as well as something else. Something specific.
If we lived in a world were Carthage had beaten Rome and our western-Eurasian maritime culture had ended up being a Carthaginian-Celtic-Hellenistic hybrid (one can dream) I can imagine two things: 1. more syncretism with the native traditions in North America upon advent of the colonial period, and 2. local shrines and temples to strange sightings. I imagine this is how gods got started in the first place anyway. My favorite thing about being in Japan, second only to heated vending machines, is the localized nature of Shinto temples. Imagine a Mothman or Jersey Devil or Coyote temple, laid out open plan. Multiple buildings built around natural features for a seamless regional experience that reflects the land that myths arise from, as well as the myths themselves.
Seen in this light, the ruins of the region are not just testaments to a past sinking into entropy, but also a fountain for new myths for the future. A reinvigorated folklore for a changing culture could be born here. This is true for many other similar places as well. As Ibn Khaldun teaches us, its often the neglected and sidelined places where solidarity is re-forged first, and thus where the impetus of history can shift towards. This is how I view a future-oriented trek to the adaptations we need to deal with living in the Anthropocene, a process I have previously written about as The Black Longhouse.
Near the end of my trip, I hiked down the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike towards Sidelong Hill tunnel. One of three abandoned hill-traversing tunnels from a section of the highway that was dropped from use in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, what I found there was a local youth shrine of sorts. Graffiti and messages, many sloppy, some funny, all of them speaking to the power of this place to communicate outside of oneself and for those of certain dispositions to congregate.
I walked deep into the gash in the earth, into the bowels of the Allegheny mountains. At about the halfway point, when both exits were distant smudges of light, I stopped and shut off my flashlight. In the perfect damp darkness I stood. I clapped, hollered, and sang. My own voice came back to me a hundredfold from every direction, amplified and distorted.
Ancient shamans would have killed for a better otherworldly experience.
Take a little trip back to the Dark Bush Days with me. I’m talking peak chauvinist American hooting. 2003-2007 in particular. If you are too young to remember, just humor me here. No matter our opinions on the Iraq War, we all appreciated Baghdad Bob. The Iraqi Information Minister whose hyperbolic claims of American defeats at the hands of victorious Iraqi Army forces in 2003 came in the face of obvious and mounting evidence that his government lived on borrowed time and that he was either willfully or ignorantly shouting a propaganda rear guard action into the howling void of events beyond his control.
Fast forward just a year or two later. The general consensus among everyone not on the political right or center at that time was that our own government was made up entirely of Baghdad Bobs. If you lived through this period, you might remember that liberals back then were kind of cool, even if you already knew you weren’t really one of them. We were all in the anti-neoconservative boat together, those who thought ill of Bush and company. Humor was meant to offend the delicate Christian sensibilities of republican wieners. The Daily Show had yet to lose its teeth and was a better critical news source than network TV, and Stephen Colbert was playing an amazing parody of an ironic hyperbolic conservative (the only kind you saw back then) who had yet to slip into his more depressing current phase of playing an unironic hyperbolic liberal. In general, liberal culture (though not politicians) were kind of cool. They were at least playing at being anti-establishment. Common things you would hear from them would be phrases like ‘You can’t trust intelligence agencies, its their job to lie’, and ‘Obviously the government lies all the time, so you can’t trust what they say about foreign countries.’ The most pertinent to those of us- like myself- fighting for gay rights and to defend secularism at the time was ‘the government is overrun by religious ideologues, and therefore must be treated with skepticism.’
Such sentiments are common place in most parts of the world. But not the North Atlantic. Most people are naturally suspicious of their own government first and foremost and it is a testimony to a few centuries of riding high that Anglos don’t often share this vital skepticism. And, as we have seen since about 2014 if not earlier, this brief moment of Bush Era liberal clarity was lost. What events like the Iraq War taught the tastemakers that occupy the overlapping space between mainstream media and the military is that the yokels don’t need propaganda to whipped up against foreigners. Wave a cross and a flag around and holler about foreigners marrying their daughter and they are good. No, the section of the population you really need to convince is the fence-sitting highly educated liberal elite. Gain them, like in 2001-2, and you gain the media. Lose them, like after 2004, and you lose the information war. Obama was the master of manipulating these people, hence why the media tacitly dropped coverage of the Libyan War once that went as bad as Iraq did. ‘Reasonable People’, you know the type: Doonesbury, NPR, Saturday Night Live, Hamilton, etc, never became bothered about Libya because the media effectively covered up the failure there. An unprecedented effort was unleased to sway these people, especially about foreign countries. Something pioneered by their most trusted news sources, PBS and NPR. These are, to use a term introduced to me by Shant Mesrobian, the NPR-Americans.
These people, who once let out tiresome sighs when people around them were too patriotic, suddenly began to take up the mantle of American Exceptionalism with the coming of Trump. They were the true guardians of the republic, and thus they stood against him. When he said (falsely) that he would scale down the military interventions abroad they opposed it reflexively. When he said he opposed giant free trade deals, they announced they were for it. When a newly resurgent paleocon right became one of the factions pointing out we were on the same side as Al Qaeda in Syria, they took this as evidence that blockading and occupying Syria was now good. The one time they praised him was when he bombed Syria in a pique of virtue signaling by cruise missile. Perhaps it reminded them of the Clinton Administration. Granted, many had already imbibed those opinions from their Tulpa, Hillary Clinton’s super hawkish campaign promises the year before.
But what was the reason Hillary lost to Obama in 2008 (in a campaign far nastier than the 2016 primary against Sanders)? That she was too much like Bush and McCain. Of course, so was Obama secretly but he hid it at that time. These opinions had passed the point of heyday. Liberals no longer fought the Bush establishment, they had become it. Makes you wonder how much of that old Gen X coolness they had in 2005 was all just show. Do they really just believe in Team Blue Yay, Team Red Boo and not care about actual policy? It is looking more and more like it every passing year.
Could an average liberal today hold those same positions about distrusting the media and intelligence agencies that they once had? After staging larger protests for Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions than for any actual substantive cause they believe in that was trampled on then, the answer seems to be no. Question any state narrative and you are a ‘conspiracy theorist’ as if uncritically reported false claims about Tonkin Gulf, Iraqi WMDs, and Libyan Viagra Militia never happened.
The ultimate article of faith for these people seems to be RussiaGate. A farcical conspiracy theory in its own right but one supported by influential actors within the state. It is constantly used as a litmus test to affirm loyalty to the state and to what is considered respectable discourse in the media ecosystem. I have consistently and since the very beginning called these claims either exaggerated or fully bogus, as can be seen going through the archives on this site. A clearly designed program to ingratiate liberals and democratic party partisans into being a strong support base for neoconservative policies and spending priorities they once would have opposed. Last week, this story that was hyped for years finally and obviously collapsed. Granted, if you had read the book ‘Shattered’ back in 2017 like I had, you could have predicted this turn of events easily, but apparently most had not or missed the part where its revealed Podesta and company cooked up the whole thing to excuse their epic, historic, and humiliating surprise loss to a carnival barker.
There have been no mea culpas from the RussiaGate obsessed media for this. Not even from the supposedly objective news organizations that Very Serious People take as objective purveyors of truth. There has only been a constant doubling down akin to faith based sectarianism, as much with the NPR set as with the cable news people. Russel Brand, of all people, brought up the collapse of Russiagate and faced an immediate swarm of liberals denouncing him and comparing him to Alex Jones.
These are not the liberals I grew up with.
Often I think, maybe its me that has changed. Liberals are the first to accuse people they used to get along with of changing when they no longer tow the BlueAnon line, as I have seen happen to the few journalists who have kept their sanity amid a profession riddled with Trump Derangement Syndrome. I have, in fact, changed a lot since then myself. But the core of me is not that different. I was then a realist (if far less sophisticated) of a socially libertarian but still community policy oriented bent who really *really* hated neoconservatives and theocrats. Those things are all still true today. My only really big change are my views on economics, which have become far more left-wing now than they were then. This means the liberal canard that everyone who crosses them is a secret conservative now cannot possibly carry water. Sure, I am philosophically if not politically ‘conservative’ (anti-progressive would be a far better term for me) in many ways, but this was also true back then. So it is they who have changed. For the worse. This makes it far more difficult for them to keep making that ‘lesser evil’ argument they are so fond of. At this point, Pompeos and Cottons aside, I fear more about their vision of the world than the other guys on more than a few issues.
I blame supposedly trustworthy news organizations like NPR more than most things for this shift. The ones with a supposedly objective front who lie via omission and selective fact presentation while being unaware that what they think is sensible is an ideological as any other position. Gwen Ifill’s death removed one of the last straight-up great reporters and the space she left behind has been filled by utter mediocrities and occasionally outright malignancies (such as the apparently Thalmor-named Yamiche Alcindor who serves, perhaps, as the ultimate example of a commissar figure in the guise of an objective reporter). I will always champion the right of PBS to exist, with its excellent science and nature documentaries, but every year since about 2016 it has continually lost what once made its news section great. NPR, with its strange frenetic jazz and morphine addict-sounding monotonal inflections, has always been a waste and could be cut for the benefit of taxpayers. Add on to this the ultimate irony of the fans of these state-funded media enterprises being the first criticize foreign countries with powerful state media organs as always being suspicious or illegitimate and…well, you get the point.
While it is one’s credulousness that is ultimately responsible, the unholy alliance of liberals and media sets the tone for so much of the cesspit of dialogue we are forced to wade through regularly today. This has an extra and hysterical quality because it is becoming increasingly apparent that, philosophically speaking, the 21rst Century has not been kind of the ideology of liberal-humanism. America’s special role of spreading its mode of government and its ideals around the world have led to instability and sectarian conflict, as well as given its rivals strong cards to play as reactive oppositional forces. Inevitable results of overreach for any hyper-expansionist state, regardless of its self-proclaimed ideology. Populist causes of both substantive and non-substantive issues rebel constantly at home. Supposed expertise leads to nothing but decaying infrastructure, declining living standards, and perpetual imperial expansion to benefit only defense contractors and ideologues who wish to play missionary. The market does not liberate but enslaves. Social media no longer serves a counter-cultural role as it did in the Aughts but is now a rigid tool of world wide homogenization into Anglo-American culture wars. The liberal dream is dying because it succeeded. We are now atomized little market-humanists screaming into echo chambers and regulated by human resources rhetoric.
They weren’t supposed to be the bad guys. History wasn’t supposed to keep going. But they are and it did. They cannot allow themselves to question the ideology they have buried so much of their life into, so they lash out, defiant and angry. How dare the very real forces of the disaffected interrupt brunch? Don’t those unwashed masses know that it is the liberals who are always on The Right Side of History?™ Steven Pinker is there to provide the citations to the thesis, you know.
And Baghdad Bob would be so proud of them for holding the line doggedly in the face of reality.
Running themes on this site are historical trickster figures, explorations of books on relevant subject matters in detail, and past parallels to present challenges. Here, I will bring you all three in addition to some original ‘artwork’ from myself at the end.
Despite being primarily interested in other eras and parts of the world, it should be obvious to regular readers that I have developed a recent fixation on 17th Century Europe and in particular Britain. This is not because it conflates with most of my actual historical interests, as it mostly does not, but because it is the time that is so culturally similar to our own and thus demands closer examination. Those with little to no historical knowledge have a tendency to reach for over-used and often ill-fitting periods, such as the Great Depression and World War II, but the world we live in looks nothing like the Inter-War era in actual substance. This is merely hyperbolic rhetoric from neoliberals who have no comparison point to the fairly regular occurrence of localism re-asserting itself against internationalism.
Today does, however, look a lot like Europe of the Thirty Years War and the Britain of the era of its civil wars. Indeed, the ideologies and struggles of that time plague us still. Our present era, I would argue, is a very Cromwellian one. For those of us who oppose this and find it the potential start of a new dark age, it becomes relevant to familiarize ourselves with how this happened before and how such a time was overcome and displaced. Having already dealt with the lessons that can be learned from the Thirty Years War before, I now wish to move towards the British origin point of so much of present ideological pathologies.
Since the analogy is obviously imperfect, (there is no conventional war yet, for one thing) it should be understood that I am more focusing on the cultural and philosophical life of political society rather than claiming an exact parallel in events. Nevertheless, you may find yourself surprised by the overlaps between then and now. Wokeness, Christian evangelism, universalist liberalism, creationism, and many of the other afflictions of the Anglophone world were born or revived in this time. And now, as the cultural dominance of that world begins to recede in our present era, it comes forth once again with full force and with a cacophonous death rattle…knowing the time to remake the world in its image has come to a close but seeking one last great push.
The Commonwealth and Protectorate’s Messianic Endeavor
‘If He that strengthens your servants to fight, pleases to give your hearts to set upon these things, in order to His glory, and the glory of your Commonwealth, besides the benefit of England shall feel thereby, you shall shine forth to other nations, who shall emulate the glory of such a pattern, and through the power of God turn into the like.’ ~Oliver Cromwell
The British Civil Wars began in Scotland and ended in Ireland, though they are often erroneously called ‘The English Civil War’. In the end it would be England dictating the peace for the others. The union of the crowns that had begun with James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England upon Elizabeth I’s death had finally brought inter-state warfare on the British Isles to a close, but sectarian and domestic political struggles would tear the country apart under his inept successor, Charles I’s rule. Parliament would emerge victorious in the resulting civil war, and then eject various other groups from power in Ireland and Scotland. Charles I would be executed, his family driven into exile, and an attempt to set up a republic would ensue. Cromwell himself would end up shutting down parliament and ruling as a dictatorial “Lord Protector” not long after this.
Paul Lay’s ‘Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of the English Republic’ is an Anglo-centric yet nevertheless engaging read about the state that existed between the fall of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II. He describes a state that began with so much experimental promise but descended into factionalism and moralistic hypochondria. Something akin to if the American Revolution had been immediately co-opted by an alliance of Cotton Mathers and Tipper Gores right after the Treaty of Paris.
Sadly, this could not have been a surprise. Even before the war was over it was soon apparent that, demographically, the Parliamentarians were far more puritan than ‘leveller’ (the term given to people who wanted a universal male franchise). In a situation that should strike familiarity with anyone who has followed the Syrian Civil War, what looks on the surface like a noble cause can in fact be nothing but a sieve for fanatics and sectarians. People throughout Britain soon learned this as a government that was supposedly committed to freedom of religion began to persecute anyone not clearly of the Puritan ilk, including former allies of theirs like the Quakers.
Messianic regimes, especially new ones, cannot justify themselves without outward expansion. And so, the powerful military edifice built to win the Civil War would be turned onto Spain. In particular, its enormous New World empire. But the invasion of Hispaniola ended disastrously amidst tropical disease and local Spanish soldiers who knew the terrain. As a consolation prize the defeated English swept into barely-defended Jamaica. It would be their only gain from an expedition with dreams of driving the Whore of Babylon out of the New World and introducing a new Protestant reign for Central America.
In a pattern all too familiar to moderns, failure abroad led to a bizarre rise of extremism at home. Cromwell entered a kind of existential crisis. He had not failed in such a way. Surely, it must have been the nation itself that had yet to repent for its wickedness. And so, loyal generals were appointed as satraps throughout the country with explicit instructions to crack down on irreligion, drinking, the arts (especially theater) and even folk festivals. A life simmering within unadorned churches would be the only publicly sanctioned form of culture for the masses. It was this that made the people turn against the government in large numbers. But living in a literal garrison state, there was nothing they could do but grumble. Lay has a particular section that describes the goals of this society which is designed to strike us today:
‘The concept of a tirelessly interventionist and inescapable God might be compared to social media, resulting in comparable levels of anxiety and paranoia. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are realms of round-the-clock surveillance, where one’s thoughts and actions, beliefs and appearance are posted and preserved for all to see and subjected to constant comparison and judgement. The shame, vindictiveness, and piety that social media generates would not have felt out of place among seventeenth Century Puritans. But one can opt out of social media, however addictive. There was no such option in the world God had created, nor in the next.’
The various sects denounced each other constantly. To borrow a phrase from Angela Nagle, ‘competing over a scarcity of virtue’ in order to prove who was the most humble and the most ideological pure. Cromwell himself cared only that people were Protestant, but the forces and style of governance he had unleashed catered to only the worst and most extreme of ideologues. Fortunately, this government did not survive Cromwell. His ineffectual failson and chosen successor fled the country as the disputes between Generals and ex-Parliamentarians threatened to tear the islands apart again. But no one wanted a sequel to full blown civil war. A compromise was reached, if the exiled son of the late king would sign on to acknowledging the existence of Parliament in government, he would be invited back to bring the country together and avoid calamity.
The Restoration Undoes the Era of Hysteria
‘The King spent most of his time with confident young men, who abhorred all discourse that was serious, and, in the liberty, they assumed in drollery and raillery, preserved no reverence towards God or man, but laughed at all sober men, and even at religion itself.’ ~James Butler, Duke of Ormond.
‘He spends all his days
In running in plays
When in his Shop he should be poreng;
And wastes all his Nights
In constant delights
Of Reveling, Drinking, and Whoreing.
~Anon, ‘Upon His Majesties’ Being Made Free of the Citty.’
One would have expected had he lived the life planned for him King Charles II would have been a diffident, if witty, failson not unlike Richard Cromwell. At least he wasn’t that other and most cursed Charles II. The problem with monarchy is the sheer sheltered entitlement it breeds in those growing up expecting to inherit it. Due to the Civil War, however, Charles did not have this luxury. He fled the country, tried to rally support in Scotland only to be held hostage by the fanatic Covenanters and forced by Archibald Campbell, their de facto leader, to sign away much of his powers to them. Then, Cromwell had defeated the Scots (largely due to religious fanatics firing their most experienced commanders for ‘drinking and whoring’ on the eve of the Battle of Dunbar). Charles had to flee again. Crossing much of the country in disguise as a commoner and having many close calls, the heir to the monarchy slept outside, hid in trees, and developed a knack for socially integrating himself with common people he otherwise would not have. Once he made it out of the country, he would end up living an impoverished yet interesting young adulthood in the Netherlands, France, and Spain. Largely existing as leech on related aristocratic families in those countries.
When he returned to England he did so to a totally changed country. But not more changed than himself. In her book ‘A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game’, Jenny Uglow documents how Charles’ unconventional and roguish new skill set served him well to meet this particular moment as the restorer of the monarchy in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Charles II had a victory procession of sorts, but it was not simply pomp. As he disembarked in the country that had once tried to kill him, he was met by crowds of people relieved that there would be no civil war or continuation of Puritan rule. Formerly powerful general submitted to his authority, and he used his political capitol to disband the radical-infested army. This not only removed his most dangerous enemies, but also freed up immense amount of finance for the state. The regicide parliamentarians were hunted down for execution or driven into exile. Archibald Campbell found himself publicly executed in Edinburgh, and Cromwell’s body was disinterred for a mock execution and display.
But what followed this score-settling would be even more interesting. Charles was both a monarch who liked to throw massive court parties, indulge in the arts (which he of course re-legalized and came to patron) but also was an accessible ‘man of the people.’ He was at ease with people of all backgrounds and often struck up conversations with random people he met on the street when walking his dogs (of the breed now named for him). Rumors that he ‘rolled from whore to whore’ incognito as a commoner abounded and seemed to actually increase many people’s affection for him after the dour Cromwellian cultural revolution. When the Great Fire of London threatened to engulf the entire city, he not only led the response in an official capacity, but was smeared in ash and smoke, working the firebreaks and hauling buckets of water with the crowd at the worst of it. I can personally attest from years living in multiple locations in the United Kingdom that there are many pubs named after him to this day. And, of course, there is that Horrible Histories song.
But Charles was not simply a people’s partier. He was actually a fairly competent monarch in his own right. His diplomacy showed immense flexibility and his limited naval wars, though often considered indecisive or even losses by conventional historians, did encapsulate his move towards international trade access and naval power. The gains made in this conflict would, in fact, end up with the acquisition of New York and New Jersey, unifying the English colonies in North America into one band of coast-the first springboard for a future great power Britain. These pickups were made possible by the money he made selling indefensible colonial outposts in other places like Tangier and Calais. A keen eye for geography, and the centrality of the offshore stance in Europe but expansion elsewhere, showed the way of the future for an island nation. People back then didn’t know it yet, but Charles II’s reign would lay the seeds of Britain’s future at the expense of its (then) more powerful rivals in France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Charles would make some major errors too, most importantly designating his thick-headed brother as his official successor knowing it would cause another sectarian crisis. Some people have said this sympathy for a Catholic brother stemmed from Charles’ own secret conversion. But Charles, it seems to me, cared little for religion and made this conversion to gain war subsidies from Louis XIV of France. After all, he did get the money and didn’t even convert until he was on his death bed. He never ended up converting the court, meaning he got one over on his superpower cousin. But the point here is not to say Charles II was a perfect ruler to whom we should aspire, but rather that he was a cultural force. The right counterbalance at the right time. He singlehandedly ended Britain’s first Woke-Evangelical Era not with frothing reactionary policies, but through levity, pragmatism, and disdain for all kinds of cultural extremes. In so doing, a hot mess of a country prone to regular bouts of rebellion and sectarian strife began to transform itself into a future financial and industrial powerhouse.
For a time anyway. All gains are, after all, temporary. Something the Puritan can never understand.
Accepting the Hobbesian Bargain
‘The obligations of the subjects to a sovereign is understood to last as long and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them…the end of obedience is protection.’ ~Thomas Hobbes
‘The losers are the real victors. The victims are the real winners.’ This was the sentiment of puritanism, and it is the dominant sentiment in the Anglophone world today. So much of our present-day culture war (which was declared by and waged in service of the right before it became the lefty cause du jour of the present moment) is an all-pervasive and multi-ideological trend. But it is a trend that can be defeated. This can be accomplished by the marriage of two things often not thought of as partners: the marriage of state power and the levity of humor.
Anyone who has ever interacted with ideological cliques such as anarchists knows that it is often the people who fear the state who are the most authoritarian and censorious people imaginable. Radical cliques often degenerate into cults where people psychologically abuse each other for clout and differences between people are not tolerated. Individualism is ineffective for every cause, so when one does not believe in the arbitration of the state, one must create a sect to compensate. The sect, ironically, often tolerates less dissent and divergence than does the state. This is because all they have is ideology, whereas the secular state (whatever form it takes) is a more situational and territorial arbiter. Its concerns (when it is working anyway) is to maintain the peace over its sovereign location and to maximize its autonomy vis-à-vis other states. This is true for all states and state-like entities no matter their internal ideological and traditional structure. Though states that forget this are very likely to degrade the sanity and effectiveness of their governing class and become more like those sectarian cults that spring up in their absence.
Let us return once more to the 17th Century. Thomas Hobbes was an intellectual and instructor who had royalist connections. He missed the civil war due to his job as a private tutor having taken him to France beforehand. When Charles II was in exile in France, Hobbes became his personal instructor. It was at this point that he published his most famous work, Leviathan. Leviathan’s blatantly irreligious, pragmatist, and materialist nature would cause scandal in the Stuart court-in-exile…despite the fact that it made an implicit argument for the Stuart style of governance. Fearing retaliation from religious cavaliers, he fled to Cromwell’s Protectorate. He reasoned, rightly as it turned out, none of the members of that government had yet read his works. He also made it clear that the necessity of government he wrote about could apply to any form of statecraft. Sovereignty was not held by divine right, but by power over the land and the execution of the prerogatives of the state itself.
When Charles was restored, he invited Hobbes to enter the court. It was there that the already old man, known today as a dour sourpuss due to the nature of his thought, made himself indispensable through his wit, jokes, and ability to disregard superstition and religious dogma (Hobbes himself was almost certainly an atheist in private). This is when people really began reading him.
Hobbes’ political thought lacks the subtlety of Han Feizi or even Confucius. In his concept of the mediating sovereign which protects individuals and groups from each other, he is far too supportive of the idea that the subject must support the sovereign no matter what-so long as their security needs are met. He wallows in constant fear of rebellion for obvious reasons given the times he lived in, but the long view of history shows plenty of rebellions that replace an inferior sovereign with a superior one. He does not grapple with the problem, innate to his thinking, of sovereign capriciousness from one head of state to another upon succession and which is particularly common in monarchies.
All of this being said, Hobbes is worth engaging with as his primary observation, that society can only thrive under conditions of sovereignty where a state is the primary mediating influence between actors, is correct for any society larger than that of the tribe. It is also, though this was not Hobbes’ intent, a better model of achieving freedom of conscience and securing the ability of divergent people to live with each other than more ideologically motivated models of conversion. Leviathan, it turns out, is a better guardian of private liberty than even the ideal of private liberty itself. Just ask any non-Islamist and non-liberal Syrian today, especially if they come from a minority group.
In his book ‘The Two Faces of Liberalism’, John Gray examines this lost liberationist aspect of Hobbes. Most useful to us today, he makes a case that the best of liberal values can be saved only by rejecting the worst of them. Specifically, the freedom to live one’s life as they please in the cultural and lifestylist sense by sacrificing liberalism’s tendency towards universalism and messianic behavior. These two impulses which are endemic in the philosophy are at war with each other, because universalism cannot abide competitors and those who opt out of it, and, on the other side, divergence requires a morally neutral pragmatist state to balance interests without adopting a mission of its own aside from the survival and maintenance of the state itself. This restricts communal projects to the realm of necessary material needs for a community like security and infrastructure.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a very liberal society. And so, to convince those in power to change policies, we must all be liberals to some degree. Gray’s reappropriation of Hobbes is a way to do that which makes the messianic culture war obsolete. Indeed, Gray admires Hobbes’ Leviathan as a model which could ‘Extend the benevolence of indifference’ to issues of private lifestylist and social spheres so long as the political order that upholds this indifference is not challenged by the subject. He points out that such arrangements were the norm in the ancient and classical worlds, before messianic religions took hold, and are often still the norm in places like East Asia, were they never came to be powerful at all. They also tend to exist in early modern states like the height of the Ottoman Empire, and, most obviously and perhaps at its greatest extent, in medieval states like that of the Mongols. For a modern example, he cites Singapore as a country that guarantees freedom of religion but bans missionary activity. The liberals did not invent toleration, they merely invented a form which was a successor to the Christian world it was rebelling against. But as such, this toleration inherited many preexisting problems.
Despite liberalism being the pervasive default setting in the Anglosphere, but not in these other examples, Gray wishes to learn from such arrangements as ways to have a collective civically minded state that does not engage in enforcing ideological or cultural uniformity but still maintains a civic unity. I contend that, in order to appeal internally to this Anglosphere’s tradition and common historical experience, that the reign of Charles II serves as a potential in-house model for such an arrangement. Not because I am a monarchist (I am definitely not) but because it came from a similar age of hysteria and ended up dissolving many of the problems it inherited. While Charles II is a bit too establishment to fit my mold of previous historical trickster figures, he had a similar personality as those past examples and thus can cross the bridge of communicating these issues between more outsider and insider persuasions. This, naturally, applies to the international system as well as the domestic. Whatever ways we find around our present impasse will differ from the solutions of the past, but we can certainly learn from events that preceded us nevertheless.
Modus Vivendi, as Gray calls his proposal, is not only the acknowledgement that no one way of governance can work for everyone, but that the very idea of political hegemony through one ideology is a potential declaration of war upon much of the domestic population of a state and thus cannot exist in a world where pluralism is the natural state of things. Two Faces of Liberalism is a short book and worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t mass quote it here, but there are two passages in particular I wish to conclude with:
‘Modus Vivendi expresses the belief that there are many forms of life in which humans can thrive. Among these are some whose worth cannot be compared. Where such ways of life rivals, there is no one of them that is best. People who belong to different ways of life need have no disagreement. They may simply be different. Modus Vivendi is liberal toleration adapted to the historical fact of pluralism.’
‘…When liberals set up one regime as a standard of legitimacy for all the rest, pluralists and liberals part company. For pluralists, a liberal regime may sometimes be the best framework for modus vivendi. At other times a non-liberal regime may do as well or better.’
Context reigns. Acknowledging that means there is something we can learn from the experiences of all types of governments. When the chips are down I consider myself more in favor of republics than monarchies, but should I therefore dismiss the experiences of all monarchs or all kingly states? No. Just as it is no great scandal to learn strategy from thinkers of all backgrounds why not also governments? It is this intellectual flexibility that keeps us from falling into the farce of Manichean culture war. That and the right kind of King Charles style levity that acknowledges that while running the state might be serious business, there is no reason it has to be too serious. Platonic absolutes do us no favors here. And those who are interested in working out the practical can do so with anyone else, regardless of that other person’s inner life. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the only times I take part in culture war is defensively or where there is a codified legal imbalance that needs to be adjusted. If people do not seek to inflict their preferences on me then I have no need to do the same to them. But I have never been so insecure as to seek to convert others save on issues of real and pressing policy that affects the entire state. Those are the true structural issues that affect everyone-economic, foreign, and infrastructure policy. And those are the issues that supermajorities of people could, theoretically anyway, come together much more effectively if they were prioritized over the social. Obviously, those content with the status quo therefore have a vested interested in fueling rather than dousing the culture war and its attendant surveillance and cancelling network. But bad policies of the state cannot be challenged by disregarding the state itself, but by coopting or replacing it with another state.
And if for some reason you do think it would be nice to have a monarch once again with this personality type, may I recommend the fashionable and party boat owning King of Morocco?
The uniformity of pro war sentiment in the U.S. media is not unique to this week, but is especially on display now. Across the ideological spectrum, mainstream media voices lament the end of a conflict as much as they tend to advocate the start of new ones. If you point this out, a certain clique will bristle with umbrage and accuse you of being a conspiracy theorist because, for some unfathomable reason, it’s considered a mark of culture to blindly trust giant for-profit (or in the case of PBS/NPR, and BBC, state run) news outlets who have been caught lying so many times it cannot just be error.
This pro war sentiment has both financial and ideological reasons. Journalists are often eager-beaver types quick to ingest national mythologies about exceptionalism and teeming masses of unwashed peasants abroad yearning for freedom. Most legacy publications have deep financial ties to defense industries and rely on the good graces of politicians for access. This pro-war bias is nearly omnipresent and it ignores what a supermajority of the public wants as well as the results of prior similar policies. The New York Times has never once in my lifetime advocated caution or restraint and has always championed war. Judith Miller led the charge of convincing the public, especially the liberal anti-Bush public, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed an imminent threat to the United States. It’s worst columnist even advocated an alliance with ISIS. Television news is orders of magnitude worse even than this, and caters to different partisan loyalties but always, ultimately, to the same power interests and policies like blind faith in military leadership and intelligence agency aligned commentators being taken at face value. This is no different than the restrictions placed on Russian journalists by their government when they report on the Donbass, but done more cleverly and often with the active collaboration of the journalists. Considering the nearly uniform failure rate of post 9/11 military operations, one would expect a press in service of the taxpayers would demand better results.
True dupes and conspiracy theorists are often those who work in establishment journalism and the rubes who believe them. Their shock and horror at the eminently predictable should underscore this. The establishment press, especially the Beltway (and London) based press, is not your friend. They are stenographers for centers of power first and foremost. This is why despite all their reach and resources (or more accurately because of this) their consumers are often woefully uninformed about the world while also operating under the false assumption that they are informed. This is the intention. Hence the incessant cries of the educated and supposedly worldly class of ‘we must do something’ which ignores the reality that often enough the tragedies such people are responding to are the results of past efforts to ‘do something.’
Right now most of those journalists are covering for military and intelligence apparatuses that have failed despite insanely lavish budgets and all the good will propaganda can buy. They are not just doing this to remain in the good graces of their sources, but also to avoid coming under scrutiny themselves for the role they played in manufacturing consensus around a series of deadly, expensive, and ultimately failed policies. The military and intelligence agencies knew Afghanistan policy was a failure, and lied to cover it up. The majority of the journalistic class was too indoctrinated and servile to challenge these narratives, and thus also lied by proxy. The dumbest ones most likely believed what they were being told, which to me is far worse than willfully lying for political or tribal reasons.
It is not a conspiracy theorist mindset to be extremely skeptical of the reporting of the establishment press. It is the opposite. They are often the conspiracy theorists who perpetuate lies to manipulate others. The clear-eyed perspective is a default skepticism towards the narratives that those with money and power wish to push and an understanding that many journalists are mercenaries in their employ. The mainstream media’s response to the end of the Afghanistan War is a particularly stark example. This is one field where the media literacy of those in the undeveloped and developing world tends to be far in advance of the overly-credulous in the developed world.
I am going to be writing on this topic elsewhere, and I have written about Afghanistan multiple times in the past on this blog. So, I am going to be extremely to the point.
When Bush decided to engage in nation building rather than simply going into Afghanistan to hunt Al Qaeda and supporting any naturally occurring coalition of warlords who enabled us to do so, that was a major error. The idea of a Western Hemisphere power nation building a landlocked and remote from trade route country in Asia is a blatant farce to anyone who can read a map. There were no strong U.S. allies neighboring the country and logistics were dependent on the intermittently hostile and utterly compromised Pakistan to be workable.
When Bush redirected military effort away from Afghanistan and towards the utterly unnecessary war of choice in Iraq, the error became a disaster in the making.
When Obama’s Afghan surge failed, the war was lost and no rational person could deny it. It continued because it was profitable for defense contractors and no president had the courage to own what would inevitably be a ghastly situation of Taliban resurgence when they pulled out. But with the failure of the surge if not earlier it became obvious that every second the war was continued was just putting more lives and money on the line to delay an inevitable sour end. Stay one day more or fifty years, the result would be the same. Nation building only works in countries that already have the indigenous skill sets to develop themselves, such as the industrialized former Axis powers after the war. Or in places where your objective is to annex and administer the territory directly through settlement like Roman Gaul, an impossibility here.
Biden, a man who I am not a fan of by any stretch of the imagination due to too many reasons to count over his decades in the senate, was brave to finally break with this trend and pull out. Trump, even, in negotiating an exit, deserves some marginal credit. The media, which hates ending wars and loves starting them due to its advertising being bought and paid for by so many connected to defense contracting, is throwing a fit. But Biden is correct on this issue.
The danger now is the weaponized human rights rhetoric that is easily cultivated among the “socially aware” of society, which will complete the neoconservative turn of the Democratic Party in particular. ‘We betrayed Afghan women and girls” will become a rallying cry for liberal interventionism no matter how stupid the cause. In fact, the tragic fate of Afghanistan is an argument against nation building and cultural engineering of different places. But that isn’t the lesson that will be learned by those with financial and/or ideological incentive to keep endless wars going.
Not even I, someone who was very skeptical on the long term fate of the Afghan government, saw how rapid their loss would be. I have had a great run of predictions the last few years but I definitely didn’t see just how rapid Taliban advances would be. Add this to my 2016 election prediction as my two big screw ups I will fully own. If over two trillion dollars and almost two decades of military aid was not enough to get this government to survive, than nothing was. This was already over at least a decade ago. South Vietnam stood a better chance at surviving on its own. This is more like Manchukuo.
The only rational critique, given this inevitability, is that the U.S. should have evacuated all of its allies who wanted it as the first rather than last order of business once negotiations started. They really did get screwed by Washington. But over all, Washington and Kabul had a highly dysfunctional and corrupt relationship that made a few people on both sides very rich but failed to address the actual security situation on the ground. This complicates everything in the relationship.
But even more than Washington and Kabul there is one actor who sabotaged everything continuously and cannot be overlooked as the ultimate architect of the dismal future for Afghanistan: Pakistan. The good news here is that with U.S. withdrawal, there is no longer any need for close relations between Islamabad and Washington. Having no longer any use (and actively being an impediment for warming relations with India), Pakistan will turn to its only friend, China. And China has the capacity to get them to reign in their rogue intelligence services far more than the U.S. did since they are so vital to Pakistani security vis-à-vis India. The ISI should be careful what it wishes for.
But never forget who led us into this for so long and who lied about it. How the media praised them and politicians promoted them. And how it all could have been avoided with a sustainable grand strategy and sober cost/benefit calculation of what military action can and cannot do. The Taliban controls more of the country and is arguably stronger today than it was on September 10, 2001. For the time being, there does not even appear to be a Northern Alliance. Only the future will tell if their current victory is more fragile than it appears, but no matter their fate I for one am glad the U.S. is no longer swimming against the tide in a place that did not serve its interests to be in, attempting the impossible at the greatest expense and least effectiveness it could.
I am planning on a lengthy double sized two-for-the-price-of-one book review post in the near future, but that will be awhile off as it requires finishing one book and reading another. Not to mention that I tend not to read books on similar topics back to back so there will likely be another read inserted between them to break it up. So, for now and barring an unexpected need to opine on something topical, have a short different entry to serve as a tide-over until that is ready.
Old School first person shooters (often now called Boomer Shooters despite the fact that they are mostly made by and for Gen Xers) are my second favorite type of game. Only turn based 4X strategy beats them. There was a time when they were my favorite (Phun Phact: I was once one of the top ranked Day of Defeat players). Once I went to college I entered a time when I thought I had out-grown the genre, but my continued playing of old games of this ilk meant that I really hadn’t so much as the newer releases weren’t appealing to me. I came to realize shooters themselves had gotten worse but my tastes had not changed. The rise of slow moving, limited weapon carrying, regenerating health and cover based shooters, where you spend all your time squatting and plinking away at distant targets down iron sights, had really fucked with the genre. Boring military-propaganda games and frat bro Haloesque tedium just did not replicate the fast, fun, and dynamic experience of the children of Doom. Until very recently, the Boomer Shooter was a dying genre. Thanks to the rise of small developers though and a retro trend unleashed by the 2016 new Doom, this period is over. But the Aughts and early 2010s were a dark age for the FPS (as well as most other cultural products). There are now many great modern ‘Boomer Shooters’, such as Amid Evil, Ion Fury, Dusk, and more. Games where constant movement with a giant arsenal of unique and powerful weapons is your only ticket to survival against hordes of monstrously designed enemies in bizarre and otherworldly settings.
The late 90s was a particular high point of these types of games. It was a time right after the mastery of the genre had been disseminated to more developers than just Id and 3D Realms, and right before the nightmare of the Tom Clancy’s Call of Medals games came to assimilate the genre as the domain for ‘Deadliest Warrior’ watching neckbeards. Within a less than two year span of time, Quake II, Unreal, and Half Life would all come out. One of the things all of these games had in common was a seamless and uninterrupted level progression-something almost totally new at that time. You moved forward constantly, only breaking immersion in the first person perspective for loading screens. It really made you feel like an explorer. Most importantly, rather than infodump and tell you a story, you played a story where you indirectly learned about the setting through inference. In Quake II you were separated from your squad on a hostile alien homeworld and had to sabotage as much of its industry as possible. In Half Life you were caught up in a failed experiment at a top secret lab and had to escape. And then there was Unreal, which showcased this mode of play better than any game before or since.
Unreal was the first all 3D game I thought looked really great. Unpopular-opinion-having-child-me was impressed by Quake being the first fully 3D shooter of course, and I loved (and still love) that game. But did Quake and its most immediate successors look better than, say, high detail 2.5D sprite games? Not really. Back then I insisted that Build Engine games like Duke 3D and Blood looked better than early fully 3D games. In the time of the fastest pace of innovation of game graphics in all of history (compare games from 1990 to those in 2000, then compare the same level of advance for literally any other decade to see my point) this really wasn’t a trendy take on my part, but it aged very well. These days more people see the artistry in games like Blood (my favorite shooter overall) than many other technically more advanced games of its era. But Unreal changed that.
Unreal knew what it was. Its game box eschewed the normal practices of designed decal and custom box art for just plastering its surface with real game screenshots. It had the best lighting and detail of any non-pre-rendered game up to that point. It was the first FPS I ever played with impressive outdoor environments. But, more importantly for the sake of this post, it did indirect storytelling the best. You get no briefing or introductory cinematic. You simply wake up in a crashed prison spaceship and have to make your way out into the alien planet. From there, the unique graphics and soundtrack do everything for you with no briefings or dialogue required. Despite this (and more effectively because of it) you soon learn that the planet’s native population has been conquered and enslaved by a star-faring alien race known as the Skaarj who force them to work in mines and treat them brutally. You learn that the natives are a medieval-tech people with a messianic religion that claims that a stranger from the stars with deliver them from bondage, though certain hints imply their present pacifistic cultural stance was not always the case. In what then becomes almost an unintentional commentary on third world exploitation, you eventually stumble upon yet another alien race which is hostile to the Skaarj but who also lands ships on the planet to exploit the natives. These guys, The Mercenaries, are my personal favorite as their use of many of the player’s weapons and equipment options play like actual multiplayer deathmatch but without the need to be yelled at by real life racist 12 year olds. This is punctuated by discoveries of other crashed human ships, implying this planet is a Bermuda Triangle of sorts for human vessels at least.
The game effectively engages in multi-leveled and detailed world building without spoken words. Something that continues as you seamlessly make your way uninterrupted through the planet.
Needless to say, while I enjoyed all three of the 97-98 era big FPS releases, this is my favorite of them. Its engine and soundtrack composer would go on to make my favorite immersive sim of all time, Deus Ex, in 2000. And while the Unreal engine would leave an enormous legacy in graphics (through its descendants to this day), I feel like it never gets the credit it deserves for being what shooters *should* have been when it came to world building and storytelling. As much as I like Half Life, the fact that the genre took its future cues from that game more than Unreal in terms of things like level design, tone, and whatnot was not good for the genre. Immersion became too tied in with scripting, and not enough with non-linear set-pieces that spoke for themselves. In this way Half Life is kind of the Nirvana (the band) of games. A great band on its own, but its overall influence on music was almost entirely in derivative clones that ruined the entire genre. Unreal was like Vast, made a splash once but got overlooked despite being a superior model to learn from in the future. In the constant infodumping and breaking up the flow of modern games, I think we can safely say Unreal was the better path offered. Sadly, it was the one that was more likely to be ignored.
I had it in my mind for about a month to write something like this. But I was forced into it today because earlier this week I started another re-play of Unreal. Then, just days ago, one of the rare gaming channels I follow released an updated review for the game too. The stars aligned a bit too much to put this off any longer so here we are. If you want a proper take on the game and how good it is, I recommend watching the review.
It is also not entirely random that this post came out not too long after a previous one mentioning Master of Orion. Its my hope in the not too distant future to do a full review of my favorite game of all time and how it relates to the regular themes of this blog. And no, I won’t tell you what game it is until the review is up.
The world quite rightly looks on at the continual self-immolation of political and civic discourse and even the diminishing capacity for self-government in Britain and the United States and wonders, ‘what is wrong with those people?’ It is a fair question. Though four centuries of unchallenged puritanism and excessive global expansion only now being reversed (debunking Anglo-teleological models of history and ideology in the process) do provide most of the answers. But present pathologies cannot be reduced to this political trend of extremist binaries fighting over very little actual material divergence being new. Anyone in the Seventeenth Century could have understood that rubes and dupes with little knowledge of the world but very strong opinions are useful pawns in times of state collapse and fractious decline. Indeed, its been my point for over a year now that trendy allusions to the Interwar Period are a flop propped up by the historically ignorant, and that our nearest historical parallel to the present moment is in fact the Reformation and the subsequently related Thirty Years War and British Civil Wars.
Looking at more modern time periods, however, it wasn’t the Anglos that at this political juncture first. Much like how people when I was a teenager said that Japan was the developed country that ended up ‘left out’ of the turn of the century, observers have the order of things all wrong. Japan, it seemed to me then, was not a lost country, but the future of the developed world. More alienated, carved into monopolistic fiefdoms, and unable to grow due to Boomers making the very act of reproduction economically detrimental. I think it is now obvious that I was right. Japan showed where the Eurozone and the U.S. both were going. Now, here we all are.
Lets pivot away from late service sector model economies into ‘the realm of ideas’. Another set of countries showed the path of political parties extremely similar in actual content but extremist in shrill cultural presentation politics that effectively go nowhere well before such a model came to the Anglosphere: Scandinavia. If there is one part of the world more utterly devoted to Protestant pieties and idealism as an exercise in virtue signaling, surely it is this. I am also going to include the Netherlands here, which is not a Scandinavian country, but ideologically might as well be. Its people share the same flat-yet-self-righteous affect anyway.
Since none of these Pastry-Windmill Countries matter geopolitically, it is often hard to sell the case of their ideological odiousness to people from parts of the world that actually influence global events. They are, after all, nice places to live. Some, like Iceland (who I am leaving exempt from my criticism here because culturally it remains quite distinct from the rest) and Norway are fantastic places to visit. Non-Germanic Finland I have a soft spot for because so many of my favorite bands come from there. I myself have been to all of them save Denmark and Sweden.
The reason these countries are nice, however, has little to do with themselves unlocking a magical formula for good living but rather having small populations on relatively large and resource rich pieces of land in a high GDP part of the world whose geopolitical security has been extremely well provided for by the United States since the end of World War II. This is niche exploitation that anyone could do in the right circumstances. These were effectively poor and rural countries just a few generations ago who received massive amounts of foreign capital and faced few outside dangers. Their economic rise is part and parcel of having the right friends at the right time, much like the Gulf monarchies in the Middle East. Therefore, what success they have are hardly due to factors that could just be replicated elsewhere with virtue, bootstraps, and gumption.
And yet, when one lives for time on Asia’s westernmost peninsula (also known as Europe), as I once did, one meets many Pastry Windmill People who are convinced that they serve as some kind of righteous model (the saintly elect) which other parts of the world yearn to be like. Or, conversely, one meets another kind of Pastry Windmill Person, one who believes their societies are so nice because they are innately culturally or even racially superior and no one else could ever replicate such development for all others lack the correct skull measurements. Oftentimes, a Victorian British style hybrid of both of these Pastry Windmill Types will appear, expressing both the missionary impulse to enlighten the foreign savage and also show superiority…by turning them into good Scandinavians of course. This is done through a process called ‘getting educated’ whose specifics are never addressed…and which also seems to ignore how many Pastry Windmill People go abroad for their own education.
We have here the general prototypes of the political archetypes that presently plague us in the Anglosphere. The left dominated by priggish busybodies who believe that true change comes from modifying behavior and language rather than material conditions, a right entirely dominated by literal howling fascists, and a center who believes itself a logical end point of history even as the world they promise gets sucked down the drain in front of all of our eyes. Sweden, the most obnoxious country of the whole lot when it comes to ideology, gets wracked with anti-Semitic riots and racist trouble on a regular basis. Norway had the most devastating act of far right domestic terrorism anywhere in the world so far in the Twenty First Century. Denmark is world famous for its racism (though it has the decency to not be so messianic as its neighbors at least). Political parties that agree on everything except cultural signaling must then dial said signaling up to 11 in order to express their divergence. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
Personal Anecdote Time: I once attended an IR seminar where a Swede stood up and-totally unironically- proposed that there were such things as ‘Humanitarian Superpowers.’ Countries that, in her words, would wield predominant influence on diplomacy through virtuous example and commitment to liberal values. Two nearby people from the Netherlands clapped at this…display. It is a memory that haunts me still. And yet, perhaps to our misfortune, this attitude was merely ‘ahead of its time’, as that kind of sentiment would no longer shock me if I heard it coming from the Center for American Progress or a talking head on cable news today. You get a lot of this in U.K. media in particular these days, as that country’s days of global influence are so far behind it that this might be all that is left now. The Guardian is particular offender here. Get ready for a near future bombardment of ‘you can’t pull out of any endless war in the Middle East ever because of women’s rights’ to descend on all of us from this quarter.
Needless to say, this same ‘humanitarian superpower’ person was also the same individual who later attempted to mock me for skipping out on a boring meeting of wonks in an office that wasn’t required so that I could go to a local history museum instead. I retorted with just enough humor in my voice to take the edge off that she ‘was basic’. She was.
The funny thing about this originally Scandinavian pathology of exceptionalism is that it is somehow even more delusional than American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism might be a cargo cult of a civic religion with very real and damaging effects on diplomacy in the world, but it is at least based on the knowledge that a powerful country has disproportionate sway on world affairs (even if in such a way that compromises that very influence by triggering backlashes). The idea of tiny geopolitical nonentities thinking they are in some kind of drivers seat, or even thinking they are playing good ear-whispering angel to the bad angel of Turkey or Israel or whatever on America’s other shoulder, is laughable. A further irony, and one that really infuriates the Pastry Windmill People if mentioned to them, is that the ur-Kantian liberalism of their region is every bit as much a public education derived state ideology as the flag-humping trucker nuts dangling Humvee driving American chuds they believe themselves to be so much better than. Both people are just parroting the mythology given to them by the dominant media and educational cultures of their respective societies. And both those societies seek validation in being seen as uniquely virtuous across the globe. Both are truly the children of the Reformation. Much like how the Saudis are the children of the Wahhabi Reformation. No sane person abroad is actually impressed by all of this posturing. Especially when it comes from a place whose sanctioning of another nation might…increase the cost of Pastry and Windmill imports?
Pastry-Windmills will retort that perhaps living in a boring and severe country with terrible fashion sense is a small price to pay for such socio-economic security. Once I would have agreed. But even if we traffic in the absolute binaries the Germanic peoples are so fond of (we shouldn’t), I know now I would take an interesting place, within reason, over a secure one. I know that to this day the basket case of Italy is a far more interesting and culturally vibrant place than any Pastry Windmill Country could ever hope to be. I value indulgent art and vibrant giallo cinema. I do not value boring social realism and Ikea-like starkness. I don’t want my cuisine options to be the culinary equivalent of canned dog food. And I don’t want everyone around me to have the same damn boring homogenized opinions divided by tribe into two superficially extreme but functionally docile tribes of Witchunter Generals. Nazis vs Wokecels. It happened first over there, then it came here. They aren’t, in the words of a former president, sending their best.
The only hope I have for the North Atlantic world is that its (genuinely impressive compared to most other places) ability to take in large amounts of very culturally different immigrants continues, and it is able to demographically decouple from WASP inertia and pathology. Changes may be painful, but it is well within the realm of possibility that such shifts could work out in the end. But Pastry Windmill Country is the Germanic version of WASP Mecca. Or perhaps more accurately, its Salt Lake City. It will never change. What could be a phase for us is a thousand year long way of life for them. I say we have followed their trends long enough, and its time to leave them to their backwards ways. Our collective ability to engage in critical and contrarian thinking will thank us if we leave this jar of pickled moose knuckle behind.
But I ask you, what is more likely, visitors from light years away, or experimental and unfamiliar man made objects from here on Earth? The answer is pretty obvious, especially when you consider that the increased use of weather balloons and jet aircraft just so happened to coincide with the first spate of UFO sightings in the 50s, and the second round in the 90s was all about strange looking black triangles that just so happened to be a match for the F-117 and B-2 bomber. We currently live in a time of rapidly expanding drone capabilities. Just a year ago, Turkish drones supplied to the Azerbaijani army played a crucial role in Karabakh War 2.0, most likely setting off a top secret expansion of the drone arms race between all countries capable of fielding advanced flying death robots.
This is to say nothing of the fact that we have yet to prove it is even theoretically possible to move anything above the quantum level in size faster than light. The most promising path towards doing this, at least in terms of not breaking the laws of physics, is warp drive (by moving space itself rather than the ship), something so energy intensive we do not yet know its actual feasibility. For all we know whether the Milky Way is teeming with sentience or not, everyone might be confined to a fairly narrow range of expansion due to the simple speed limit of physics itself.
So once again, drones. Human piloted drones. Different powers experimenting and maybe even different branches of the same governments experimenting without each other’s knowledge. Either way, expect it to be referenced as a reason to increase the Pentagon’s budget again next fiscal year. Gee, how convenient.
But this brings me to a further criticism that goes a bit further. We often see people, even imaginative and critical thinking people, who seem to be operating under a Star Trek like delusion that its not just space that can be overcome into a waiting world of space-faring species…but time.
You see, too many people expecting to just be bombarded with alien life once we get that Cochrane Warp Drive online are ignoring the fact that the universe is already at least 13 billion years old. Heavy elements formed in the hearts of supergiant stars had already seeded space a long time ago. In the immenseness of the cosmos, almost certainly some worlds have proven amenable to the evolution of sentient intelligence. And some, maybe most of those, are already extinct or have yet to become space fairing.
The specific epoch which we find ourselves is on Earth-time. And even Earth time is already so ancient some can legitimately ask, what if we weren’t the first ones here? What if the first signs of alien life we find off of Earth is itself from Earth originally? And whether its origin be Earth or Tau Ceti, what if we need an archeologist before we need a diplomat? Or, conversely, any future sentient life bearing world we find just isn’t developed or even industrial yet? Since we have no idea how life evolves outside of Earth its quite possible we couldn’t recognize any of these categories even if they exist.
Just going into space isn’t going to be a shield from extinction. A species is still first and foremost primed to survive on the homeworld for gravity, pressure, atmospheric composition, etc. This is not the same as Polynesian emigration through the Pacific. And if something happens to the homeworld the colonies might die. Or if something happens to the sector like a nearby supernova, whole solar systems’ livability might degrade. So too might nanotechnology or some other artificial force go out of control. In older galaxies like ours, there just is no common time scale between systems.
The assumption that this is not a major factor in decreasing the likelihood of any contact is something I want to call ‘The Master of Orion factor’. In space-set 4X games (usually turn based computer games based around eXpansion, eXtermination, eXploration, and eXploitation) all of the space fairing nations start out at the same time and with roughly comparable technology. This is done for obvious game balance reasons, of course. But I can’t help but think this mode of fictional thinking has infiltrated popular consciousness along with the idea that we can take it for granted that greater technology will make breaking the light barrier inevitable.
Master of Orion II, as the best of the series (and the series in turn the best of the space based 4X-though not the best overall 4X, more on what game I think that is in a later post all to itself) has these conceits of course. Yet it still managed to work in an utterly alien non-player race everyone fights with *and* a playable silicate-mineral race whose playstyle is totally different from the rest and cannot engage in meaningful diplomacy. For 1996, this is pretty good. But we need to realize that in the real world, even if we do meet another species before we ourselves leave only ruins to be inherited by the sentient dolphins who came to replace us, probably will not be conducting too much discourse with equals but rather unequals in either direction.
Of course, there was another game that came out in 1996 that I happen to be replaying this month for the first time in decades that shows us who we can call if we do meet aliens and we don’t like them:
And that concludes what has to be the most 90s post I have ever made. That part was unintentional, but it kind of works as that was the last time people were really into aliens and UFOs. And I still regard The X Files as one of the greatest TV shows of all time (though it is telling that the more earthy monster episodes tend to be better than the alien ones).