In Praise of Indigenous People’s Day

battle-of-old-sitka

‘The Battle of Old Sitka’ by Roy Troll

If you have been following this blog for a while, you probably know I have nothing but disdain for so much of the fashionable woke causes of today. We are bombarded on a daily bases by performative virtue signalling largely sold as snake oil by grifters to the guilt-ridden white bourgeoisie and those over-eager to have passionate opinions without doing the necessary work to justify such strongly held views. No doubt today you are seeing many of those very people loudly proclaiming their inheritance to replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Be not afraid though, broken clocks are right twice a day after all.

From the undeniable fact that the largest mass human die-off in recorded human history was due to Eurasian pathogens made short work of much of the Native American population, to the subsequent enslavement, murder, and conquest of these then-weakened communities (I maintain that direct European conquest would likely not have happened in that era save for certain coastal and island areas were it not for the full-fledged apocalypse of smallpox and company creating a literal post-apocalypse-but that is a big enough topic to be the subject of another post), the reasons for replacing a Holiday celebrated in the United States, a (future) country Columbus never set foot it, are obvious. Even leaving aside that Columbus was a grifter, fanatic, and died convinced he had found the edge of Southeast Asia despite everyone else realizing it was clearly something else which was a direct result of him believing the world was much smaller than it actually was-a fringe view even in his time- there are plenty of reasons to neither give up a holiday nor continue it in its present form.

The mass destruction of indigenous culture goes beyond the human toll. It robbed the world of art, thought, philosophy, biodiversity, and language. While I am hardly one to use ‘imperialism’ as a catch-all phrase of bad things, the specific form of Spanish and English colonialism towards the New World resulted in positively ISIS-levels of cultural vandalism where the pathologies of the present rob the future generations of Earth from its material heritage. If the conquest in hindsight seems inevitable, the mass destruction, Palmyra style, of religions and cultures surely was not as it was fueled purely by ideology. Conquistadores cared little for converts, but the people that came after them did. And from Torquemada’s ideological children to Cotton Mather’s bastards, a varied mosaic of thought was swept away for the barren and monolithic desert of Christian fanaticism. A legacy that very much infects almost everything today in contemporary North America.

But Indigenous People’s Day is not mainly a marking of the past but first and foremost a statement of the future. The Natives are still here. Despite everything many still keep their cultures as intact as reasonably possible.  They aren’t going anywhere. And of equal importance, it is about time that we who dwell in North America recognize how much they contributed to us. Half of the vegetables commonly used in cooking today in the world have a New World origin. Most spices come from Mesoamerica originally. Languages used as codes to baffle the Axis Powers and vital contributions especially welcome in our benighted postmodern age towards contemporary art still pour out from Native artists who are both cutting edge and traditional alike. Even our urban legends and modern myths increasingly adopt the fantastic creatures who were spoken of in these lands long before the Europeans came.

We might also do well by recognizing what they have still to give. There are ways of thought that would be a welcome break from the endless Alt-Protestant shrieking that almost all sides of our culture have degenerated into. No one is more suspicious of that famously ambiguous and mealy-mouthed phrase ‘decolonization’ than me, but we sure as hell could use some decolonization in our politics and philosophy on this front when it comes to anthropocentrism, economic priorities, and the dominant sects whose theology holds sway over much of the populace. So much of the intellectual legacy of Northern Europe is a stain on the thoughtful, including even in strategic culture. There are histories whose very concept of strategy remains to be explored as political theory. More on this later at some point, I promise.

Anyway, if you would like to explore something contemporary and native I recommend starting with Nechochwen:

Jack Vance: Science Fiction’s Trickster Against Teleology

If there is one science fiction author that Francis Fukuyama and the general neoliberal ‘thought leader’ establishment would dislike, it has to be Jack Vance. Not that I suspect such classes of people have heard of him as he wrote genre fiction with a noticeable lack of mid-life crisis-having college professors having affairs with their students to compensate for existential despair. While such literary guardians search fruitlessly for the meaning of history, Vance just comes up with a darkly comic ‘LOL’ in response.

Jack Vance was an author of immense output whose ‘golden age’ of writing occurred between the 60s and 80s (though he was active from the 40s-oughts) and who spanned numerous genres and themes. He is also, full confession, my favorite author.

moon moth jack vance comic

Image taken from a comic adaptation of ‘The Moon Moth’ by Jack Vance. Adaptation by Humayoun Ibrahim.

Though Vance’s best and arguably most famous works are his ‘Dying Earth’ series, which I cannot recommend heavily enough, right now I want to focus in particular on his science fiction space operas, which was the majority of his output. There was a succession of settings which one could argue, albeit without concrete proof, were all different time periods in the same history of a future Milky Way.

Whether one calls it the Oikumene, the Gaean Reach, or what have you, Jack Vance had a fairly consistent view of far-future space colonization in a setting of faster than light drive. Most high space settings, when they include time dilation and forgo any violation of the lightspeed barrier, often focus on how much cultures diverge from planet to planet. In faster-than-light drive settings, however, this effect is often downplayed. Not in the case of Vance. If anything, the opposite seems to occur and contact with others leads many people to intentionally differentiate themselves. What comes from this is a theme of highly bizarre alien cultures (though almost always the cultures are human in origin) which are often not isolated but in contact-especially commercial contact-with each other.

In the variety of settings across the time of Vancean Space, there usually seems to be a pleasant core region (usually centered around Earth) where living standards are high but high population densities and the monolithic nature of culture has quashed any sense of adventure or counterculture. This leads many to migrate outwards, past the bubble of First World type planets, and into a wild frontier of what habitable worlds can be found there. Cults, communities focused on professions or hobbies, and general societal rejects have then created a halo of space where they can do what they want on their various colonies, albeit with little security or stability as the inevitable rush of grifters, criminals, and space pirates follows them for these new opportunities far away from state police or military control.

Even ‘The End of History’ as it pertains to Earth and its nearby colonies is really just the impetus for starting it elsewhere. And as some stories imply (not even including the Dying Earth series) such as The Last Castle, life on the core worlds may too one day degenerate from its present bucolic nature.

Often, a typical space-bourne Vancean protagonist is someone from the core worlds who finds themselves on a secret mission or stranded by chance in some odd sector of space or planet. In these types of stories, there are often multiple cultures on each planet, with the ‘Planet of Adventure’ series going the furthest by having a world divided up into spheres of influence based on the natives and three alien species from elsewhere. The unifying factor is that all of these species have taken towards humanity as servitor races through abduction as a race easy to genetically manipulate. Each of these species then has a form of humanity modified to be their junior partners with varying results. In some the modified peoples are outright slaves, in others they eke out a semi-independent organization while presenting a deceptive face to their masters, and in others, the human-alien hybrids have actually become the dominant force over their supposed masters.

Another kind of Vancean protagonist is that of the person born and raised on these strange and faraway worlds. Often, such types experience culture shock if they go to the core worlds and we see the process mentioned above is portrayed in reverse. Since these are the characters who are more likely to face intense danger such as pirate attacks of wars between worlds, they tend to be a bit more action-oriented.  The ‘Demon Princes’ saga of novellas, my personal favorite of Vance’s science fiction, fits this setting the best. A group of criminal masterminds who once destroyed the protagonists’ home colony on a slaving raid is hunted down, Kill Bill style, by the main character. But the story is more of an excuse plot to take us on a tour of this bizarre frontier of space. Each of the big baddies have personalities that loom larger than life over their respective narratives, and each has effectively retired to use their ill-gotten gains to pursue careers as what can only be described as ‘failed artists.’ The various planets they settle on to do this also affect these post-criminal hobbies to great degrees, from an incel impotent surrounding himself with a cloned harem of his one past true love to a jilted fantasy author whose many characters have become distinct personalities jockeying for control in his own brain, to a god-complex LARPer who uses a giant land crawler bristling with weapons to terrorize a planet full of pre modern peasantry, all the strange grotesquerie of flush with success humanity is there. The galaxy for the successful gangster is like one giant Little St James Island.

A truly great and genre-bending tale is ‘The Dragon Masters,’ which is about a world were humans having once fought off a costly reptilian alien attack have now technologically degenerated into a medieval-style culture where genetically modified ‘dragons’, which are the former reptile alien captives, are now dumb beasts bred for war and ridden into battle by the knightly human class of the planet. The real twist occurs when, after this long-lived culture introduced, the old reptile aliens return for a second invasion, now riding atop giant human-modified brutes descended from those they took captive on their last raid. An epic battle of aliens riding beast-men and men riding beast-aliens ensues.

In general, Vance tends to like worlds with a rural, even pre-modern vibe. Planets where elaborate cultures of social prestige and Byzantine rules of public conduct are fascinating but often skin deep covers for the base greed and sensual drives of humanity everywhere. Haggling, negotiation, commerce, and espionage are near-constant themes be it do or die pulp adventure or sedate social climbing. The sheer amount of cultural protocol makes you wonder how many anthropologists enjoy these stories. The short ‘Moon Moth’ or ‘Languages of Pao’ are good starters on these types of themes.

But always Vance straddles a line between extremes. He never glorifies his strange cultures, showing the more insular ones in a kind of parochial light and all as a mixed bag. Neither does he glorify the safe homeworlds of humanity’s first civilizations. He is telling an aggressively values-neutral tale of both the highs and lows of cultural diversity, erring on the side of diversity being positive but also quantifying that with a strong *but not all forms of it*.

Be they alien to the culture they are exploring or natives, almost all of Vance’s space heroes are reformers in some sense. Or at least disruptive personalities. Although his most overt trickster character is in Dying Earth, you still see many lesser versions of this personality type in his science fiction. Change is good, if rough as a process. Diversity is not stasis but can and should be an unfolding process. One cannot help but kept the impression that Jack Vance, had he lived in the future of his own creation, would have spent his youth out in the frontier and only later retired to the core worlds. This was, after all, a guy whose sense of irony was so cultivated that when a publisher begged him to write a conventional space opera he responded by writing a book literally titled ‘Space Opera’…but made it about an interstellar opera company and how a variety of their shows are perceived in the different planetary cultures they go to.

But then again, there are enough protagonists of his who end up adopting a strange new planet’s culture even if their first interaction with it was hostile. As a person who was born and raised in America but often found myself more comfortable living abroad, I can certainly see this. Vance was a very well-traveled person in his early life before partial blindness and age eventually relegated him to his Oakland home before he died in 2013.

In his future, just like in ours, history will never end nor will it go inevitably in just one direction either until the human race is extinct. And even then events will still unfold, just without us. No matter how many planets we colonize, the process of repulsion, which I discussed before in more metaphysical and theoretical terms here, remains a part of the human experience.  And the various tricksters will always keep things interesting even if all we have to look forward to is entropy.

And yes, since I mentioned it enough here I am sure eventually I will make a sequel to this post specifically about the fantasy of Jack Vance such as The Dying Earth and Lyonesse.

 

Swords Against Nerdery: A Khaldunian Theory of the Sword and Sorcery Genre

swords against wizardry

I’ve been a stalwart fan of the Sword and Sorcery genre and its iterations for a very long time. It is second only to horror and weird fiction for my fictional genre enjoyment. I have also been just as much a foe and hater of high fantasy for an even longer period of time. I never really gave much thought as to why this is until recently, assuming that the rank corniness and ethical Manicheism of high fantasy as compared to the more ambiguous and earthy nature of sword and sorcery were alone enough to clinch the deal for me. But my recent discovery that cultural commentary need not all be a horror show of religious fanatics, entertainment industry neoliberals, and blue-haired-septum pierced woke scolds jarred some thoughts about this topic. Indeed, the people mentioned in the sentence above-the ruiners of cultural critique-are a big part of the difference between traditional fantasy and sword sorcery, and more importantly, the kinds of people each appeals to. Plus, if your rivals are going to use such language in the real world, ridiculous as it is, you might as well be able to meet them on a level they can understand. Much like a sophisticated vocabulary is not a good idea when speaking to children.

What makes S&S what it is are protagonists with base motivations, magic being rare and mind-bending if not outright a cosmic horror, glories being relegated to a mythical past if even mentioned, and above all the love of a good tale about powerful outsiders, usually barbarians or criminals, and the decadent magical and political forces they often find themselves at crossed swords with. There are no grand battles of good vs evil or light vs darkness here. Large conflicts tend to be one local petty kingdom vs another with the protagonist happening to find themselves on one side or the other through chance, personal vendetta, or mercenary motives. This is the stuff of Robert E Howard, usually considered the inventor of the genre (as well as the maker of its two greatest incarnations, Kull and Conan), not of Tolkien or his many many increasingly terrible imitators. This is the less famous and far more interesting world(s) of Imaro, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Kane, Jirel of Joiry, and Nifft the Lean.

What I like most about the genre aside from its general fun, of course, is its Ibn Khaldun-derived general view of human nature and of societal processes. Unlike the dominant ideologies of our time (which are reflected in our dominant fantasies apparently), history isn’t a teleology. It isn’t going along some pre-determined path. It is rather a series of competitive crisis managements that fail or succeed to different levels amongst a series of cultures and societies that were born into some form of success or stability and have been declining towards their fall and replacement ever since. Then the cycle begins anew. This is neither the reactionary thought of a Burke, the Catholic Church, or of modern-day patrician centrism, where a magical tower is continually built towards the heavens, nor is it the edginess of the pure radical, who revels in the demolishment of all for a wholly new leap in the dark, but rather sociology as a natural process. In fact, both of these extremes are often the antagonists of S&S stories. The first as the cloistered evil wizard or decadent king in their ivory or onyx tower, the second as a re-awakened cosmic horror or the monsters that dwell out in the wilds. Often, one is summoned by the other.

The protagonists of this genre tend to share things in common too. An outsider status, tight but rare friendships in an untrustworthy world, and a disdain for declared authority. Most importantly, many of these characters follow the Khaldunian path of barbarian nomads by eventually leveraging their advantages into kingship, toppling the old order but replacing it with a new and more vigorous one. Conan, the most famous hero of the genre, becomes king of Aquilonia. Kull was king of Valusia aeons before him, both were barbarians who started out fighting those very kingdoms. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser eventually end up as the local bigwigs on a subarctic settlement, Imaro as a legend across the lands with a mixed reputation. All come across dark entrenched forces that more live by inertia in entropy than by dynamic action. Most importantly, the various wizards, sorcerers, and the like are usually not world-threatening menaces but rather merely another cog in some kingdoms political machine, or a criminal guild’s most prized member, or the secret forces behind events within kingdoms. The decadent throne of Valusia was only given vigor by Kull, and first he had to survive assassination attempts by literal lizard people who had secretly controlled the kingdom and held it in bondage to old ways by puppeting previous kings. If that is not a conspiracy theorists fever dream come to life, I don’t know what its. But symbolically it resonates much as Pizzagate is obviously an (ironically hilarious) farce that no one should actually believe, but it speaks volumes about how many view our present ruling classes. It was after all only after the various housecleanings of Conan that Aquilonia entered its golden age, even if this, like all times before, could not last.

kull

S&S is, in effect, the Virgin vs Chad meme of fantasy genres. Cold steel always outperforms the elaborate machinations of a bunch of tower-dwelling neckbeards, court eunuchs, and inbred aristocrats. In a temporary, ever-fluctuating world, only the right use of force and alliances can see you through. This is not a glorification of violence and always taking the offense either. The vast majority of S&S heroes, when not being thieves, are usually wronged before they act. They do not seek fights, but rather respond decisively when such battles are forced upon them. The kingships of Kull and Conan are remarkable for how much less warlike they often are compared to their neighbors, with the real battles being keeping the decadent dying courts of rivals at bay.  Meanwhile, all of these outsider protagonists tend to be extremely well traveled, multiple language speaking, highly analytical thinkers. The Nerd-Wizards, on the other hand, so haughty and proud in their rote-learned intelligence, are almost helpless without prestige, ceremony, and dependency on established power networks. Their lack of contact with the brute reality of the world is their undoing.

It all reminds me of recent commentary I read somewhere (source presently slips my mind) about the superiority of speculative realist philosophies against correlationist ones, with the hobbies of the thinkers compared with their thought. It basically broke down that the realists tended to like hiking, travel, adventure, while the correlationists and idealists were often desk bound thinkers. This was shown by the nature analogies used by each, with correlationists tending strongly towards inanimate solitary objects like furniture and the realists using animals, plants, ecosystems, and weather.

And look, there I managed to tie this post into my fascination with Speculative Realism too. Anyway, back to the point.

It is these decadent courts whose thumb we presently dwell, tolerant as they are of neckbearded nerd-wizards in their towers and court lanyards that are the most aggressive threats to the world arise. Lacking true fortitude and strength as intrinsic character traits, they must rather pretend they have it through fraud and posturing- a far more dangerous proposition. Fantasy Bill Kristol types in effect. And if some group or leader came about who actually was interested in changing these entrenched interests they would face plots and palace coups aplenty from the dark forces that fester in the shadows of the kingdom. But that’s no reason not to try anyway. Even if you fail it will make for a good tale around a few pints, anyway. And someone needs to Hold the Sword against this high fantasy loving nerd tyranny we live in, where neoliberal nerds who identify their politics with the entertainment they consume are the predominant cultural force of strange cosmic horror summoning sorcerer class. If we must live in a nerd-dominated culture, then we can at least speak the language of the Chadliest of nerds…and that is of Sword and Sorcery. It is not like high fantasy represents anything but the pathologies of both liberals and reactionaries alike and their presently collapsing world views.

Anyway, here is a picture I did for a Mandy style movie poster (Mandy may take place in the 1980s but it is very much a S&S genre film-trust me) of Tulsi Gabbard clearing out the wretched dungeon of the Democratic establishment (special guest MBS, with Hillary, Booker, Harris, Podesta, Biden, and Power all thrown).

Tulsi Mandy Style Dungeon

But seriously, read nonfiction first for real commentary, people. Actual history and philosophy will always rule at the end of the day. But maybe…maybe sword and sorcery can help on the propaganda front anyway. It certainly can break up the high virgin fantasy monotony.

 

 

Black Mahakala: Macro-History as Annihilationism

mahakala

I just finished reading Speculative Annihilationism by Matt Rosen, the newest entry of note in the growing canon of speculative realist philosophy. I have posted on this subject before, in particular about my working side quest of integrating Object-Oriented Ontology and adjacent thought into geopolitics. But Speculative Annihilationism (let’s use SA from here on out) is something that works with macro-level history in general at least as well.

A short summary of Rosen’s argument is that materialist archeology shows the way to handle the snuffing of anthropocentrism in philosophy across the board. So much of what we study at the archeological level is already extinct. Australopithecus, the dinosaurs, civilizations whose genetic descendants may still live but whose cultures, languages, and cities do not. The extinct lack the ability to engage with correlationism and phenomenology, yet their existence is undeniable if there is enough evidence for the archeology of their past to even happen. Therefore, we are forced to reckon with extinction, no matter our feelings about it. To quote the author:

‘SA’s dark perversion is this: deterritorialization always has the upper hand over reterritorialization. At the core of every assemblage-materiality is an unavoidable fragility, a tendency towards discontinuity, disparity, and extinction, a becoming-nothing at the core of every becoming-something-this is what it means for a species to be a species-towards-extinction. Cataclysm, annihilation, and extinction are the rules; assemblage, coming-together, and being-something are the strange, uncanny, and interruptive exceptions.’

Rosen’s argument has many facets and subtleties that someone like me who views metaphysics are largely back burner stuff to policy and scientific questions is inadequate to fully explain. Suffice to say that it is worth reading in its entirety and also a powerful case that extinction, entropy, and the like is the ultimate reality. If one takes casual time as a measuring stick we are all already dead in a sense, since death is the inevitable end process of life. So too is it for species and the self, all of which are in fact reducible to breaking down physical processes whose intangibles we construct outside of science as the humanities. Whereas much of currently existing speculative realism is constructive, hearkening to process theory and seeing a culmination of material events, SA brings us back to decay as the norm and construction as the outlier. Extinction, in the end, for everything. In truly and unambiguously material terms.

I believe this is incredibly useful as a philosophical and linguistic tool for deep history, particularly for the materialist. If we view all states, nations, cultures, cities, religions, and artforms as dead on arrival-or more practically always living on borrowed time-with extinction the only given, we are liberated from the curse of teleology and trying to make sense of every societies place in history and better able to appreciate it on its own terms. Terms that do not need to be those of the purely subjective and idealistic such as found in postmodern schools of thought. It also levels the playing field between long-dead states and currently living ones for the purposes of study. They are subject to the same overall experience of unexpected rise (most attempted state formations fail after all) and predictable decline and fall so it is just as enlightening to study civilizations across the world that lie in different ecologies and time periods no matter where they are. A wide knowledge base across the board gives you a vaster repertoire of case studies and minutia even if you know how it all turns out.

It is also worth noting that SA, much as it does on the individual level, provides a great counter-example to the hubris of presentism. Something all too common in current dominant cultures, as well, no doubt, as future ones. I often speak of my favorite historiographer, Ibn Khaldun. One thing about his evolution of thought that is often overlooked is that he grew up in North Africa in the late Middle Ages. North Africa’s heydey of global relevance had already come and gone. The Sahara was already growing and the crop yields shrinking, even then. In such a setting there were as many ruins as there were currently occupied cities and buildings. The leftovers of numerous cultures dotted the countryside and signs of a glorious past leered mockingly through the dust of time at the less prosperous present. It is easy to see how Khaldun was molded by this experience to help him come up with a cyclic theory of state formation and state death. One I think is still among the most accurate macro-historical thesis of all time. In his works is implicitly a shared assumption with SA-that construction is more the outlier, and degeneration the more common norm. Entropy is ever present and can only accelerate due to time unless a very unlikely event interrupts it. State formation is so fascinating and impressive precisely because it is so rare compared to state degeneration, be it dramatic degeneration or slow motion.

Unlike many other speculative realist philosophers, who betray their continental roots by more often being Eurocentric to the extreme, Rosen draws some direct comparisons to Hindu thought in his conclusion. This is long something I have advocated. Though I am neither Hindu nor Buddhist, certain branches of these religions philosophies overlap with many trends in speculative realism. Over the past few years-my most intense time brushing up on that philosophy-I have also been re-engaging with reading about these religions as well.

The figure that best shows the overlap of Speculative Annihilationism in particular with these thoughts is Mahakala. In Hinduism, Mahakala is Shiva’s most wrathful form, the ultimate destroyer, and consort of Kali. In Vajrayana Buddhism, he is the ultimate meditative figure for contemplating the void and the eminent entropy of all through time. Whether taken as a literal god or a symbolic figure of a process, Mahakalan History (I’m now coining this term) is applying the concepts of SA to macro-history. Especially, in my case anyway, to the macro history of states and civilizations. The end point is taken as an unavoidable extinction, but the process of getting there, of engaging, in Rosen’s terms, with ‘the putrifying other’ is always enlightening. Beneath the facade is the degenerating process, past, present, future, other and self. We are, after all, along for the same ride they once were.

‘The Centrist Manifesto’: A Special Guest Book Review

new centrist party

A friend of mine who is currently blog-less has submitted a review of a book which he recently acquired for the sake of morbid curiosity, ‘The Centrist Manifesto’ by Charles Wheelan. I have not read this book myself but given the suitability of the topic to multiple previous entries when I have mocked the claims of rationality, impartiality, and political viability of centrist projects as well as excoriated the idea that centrism automatically or even often equates to pragmatism, I felt that his self-proclaimed ‘book report’ was an absolutely essential addition to the Geotrickster canon. What follows below are the words of Brandon Hensley entirely:

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Several weeks ago a friend’s Facebook post pointed me towards Charles Wheelan’s “The Centrist Manifesto”. An admixture of lolz and apprehension greeted me when faced with the choice of signing my name to a “moderate” hopeful in some other state’s election in exchange for a free copy of what promised to be a more thrilling political commentary on the current moment than Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. After several weeks of waiting, the Manifesto of the Radical Center arrived. The fact that my suburban Ohio home was in the middle of yet another monsoon was oddly fitting.

The first thing you notice about Wheelan’s manifesto is that it is appropriately thin. The ability to wave one’s manifesto in the air like a little red book is supremely important if you want to be able to disseminate nuggets of wisdom at a moment’s notice, such as “We need an insurgency of the rational: a generation of Americans who are fed up with the current political system, who believe we can do better, and most important, who are ready to do something about it. Are you one of those people?”. We do need an insurgency of the rational in the current political climate, and gone are the days of Bismarkian realpolitik as well as the halcyon days of Kennedy-style bipartisanship, but my enthusiasm for Centrism giving this back to us is low. Exhibit A:

We open our discourse on this American moment five years ago (copyright 2013) with “Something has to change. Our country is on a dangerous trajectory. We are mired in serious policy challenges, in large part because the political process has moved beyond gridlock to complete paralysis.” Wheelan is appealing to the lowest-common denominator with this opener. It is effectively tautological at this point to accuse DC of being unable to do anything useful. I get it though, we need the hook, and the communists already cornered the market on catchy manifesto openings. “A spectre is haunting Europe” is sort of like the virgin birth: only one gets to happen and after that nobody will believe you. So we can be charitable to the Centrists and allow them the tautology. Wheelan continues in this chapter entitled “The Big Idea” by accusing Republicans and Democrats of being equally culpable in the paralysis of the democratic system. He hits all the traditional talking points—fiscal irresponsibility, personal sacrifice, even job creators, along with a litany of woes affecting the world. He even has a remarkable moment of clarity when he takes to task the political system for what it is:

“Our political institutions reward the most extreme views in each political party. Congress has grown increasingly polarized and dysfunctional because we have built a system that elects extremists. Each party nominates its candidates in a primary. Who votes in primaries? The most extreme elements of each party.”

After the litany of castigations against the Republican and Democratic Parties and this raking over the coals of the primary and electoral system, you can be forgiven if you forgot on page 12 that his answer to this problem is yet another political party playing in the same political arena. In case you did forget, Wheelan reminds us that he has no interest in dismantling the political system itself: “The Centrist Party will introduce a coherent governing philosophy around which Americans disenchanted with the traditional fare will naturally coalesce.” Ah, yes. Strength through Unity, Stronger Together, Make America Great Again. “[T]he Centrist Party will take the best ideas from each party, discard the nonsense, and build something new and better.” Because the anti-fasicsts are the real fascists, amirite?

In explaining the basis of a Centrist Party, Wheelan takes a 180 on his previous strategy of admonitions against the Republicans and Democrats and instead praises each for what they do best. Republicans have a decent brain but Democrats have a noble heart, for example. He even reminds us that “in normal times, these are the kinds of things that pragmatic Democrats and Republicans would agree to do together.” He takes an additional 180 in a subsequent chapter when he returns to railing against the Democrats and Republicans. This sort of back and forth is a staple of the manifesto. What is disappointing is the historical illiteracy of Wheelan. The “normal” times he is appealing to, roughly 1945-2000, was hardly emblematic of American political history. It was an anomaly. The American “norm” historically resembles more of Trump and less of Kennedy.

Wheelan says that only four or five Senate seats would be enough for the Centrists to hold the strings of legislative ability. He describes how electioneering in the middle is what attracts the widest amount of voters, and reminds us that only a few Senators are needed to effectively kneecap Congress forever. He even takes a cheap shot at the Greens for being too on the fringe to win elections in the process, ignoring the actual electoral history of the fringe. Taken altogether, it appears that the Centrist’s strategy to restore normalcy is to win only enough elections to make their presence in the Senate annoying to everyone else. Hardly a recipe for Leninist-style accelerationism designed to break the system in order to replace it with something new.

Relevant to his shortcomings when it comes to replacing the electoral system is the proposal later for electoral reform. He proposes in his section on “The Centrist Process” a series of electoral reforms that border on populism—heresy for the Centrist. But it is admirable in its own way. If we must keep the American electoral system, we should at least endeavor to amend it. Wheelan proposes ending gerrymandering, “open primaries in which the top two candidates in a single primary election advance to the general election, regardless of their political party,” reform the rules of Congress to prevent the filibuster (this seems a little counter to his idea of hamstringing the entire Senate using four or five Centrists, though), and “constrain the corrosive effect of money in politics.”

Before we get there, however, we have to endure a great deal of finger wagging. After chastising America for not being more political involved, Wheelan appeals to the emotional heartstrings about how hard public policy really is with a quaint hypothetical about running a home owner’s association and throwing a community party. While the metrics he presents (movie preference, food choices, whether or not we should even have a party) are all valid metrics in formulating public policy, one can’t help but get the sense at this point that the earlier failure to appeal to something new and better over the current system might be emblematic of a larger issue in the worldview of the Centrist Wheelan is appealing to, that of being out of touch with the very demographic the Centrist thinks they represent.

A key moment of this “out of touchness” is when he points out the platitudinous nature of the paean “do the right thing”. He is right to point out that platitudes aren’t helpful, but in contrasting the private sector, he goes on to claim “[t]he whole point of government is to do things that the private sector cannot or will not do.” Wheelan fails to admit that the list of things outside the private sector’s purview is not a comprehensive list of things that government should do, and that, based on ideological concerns, the government will always choose to do some things as “the right thing” over other things. In his hypothetical hamstringed-by-the-Centrists Senate, what are the ideological moral hills the Centrist bloc will choose to die on? After stating that there is no objective metric to determine any best decision—a statement which is only right insofar as it also accepts that “best” is by definition subjective, something Wheelan does not admit—he expounds upon a lack of objectivity by…defining objective trade-offs? Using a variety of examples from college to medical care, Wheelan adopts the utilitarian position that what promotes the greatest welfare for the greatest number of people is objectively the best decision to make, and, therefore, should be promoted in public policy. But, again, what the greatest welfare is is already subjective, let alone the subjectivity inherent in deciding which road to take to get there. Chapter three is the longest section of the entire book and it only contains two useful bits of information: a list of Centrist “principles” and “The Centrist Process”. The principles are paradoxical given what Wheelan has given us so far; a Centrist Party that appeals simply to what is commonly and widely upheld from a policy perspective is devoid of principles entirely. To stake ones position in principles or ideology means alienating a portion of the public by default. To avoid an ideological position, one must default to axioms to determine what is and is not “good”. The problem is that “good” and “not-good” are not axiomatic. Both assume certain things about the world and different issues. I suspect Wheelan is aware of the uncomfortable position he puts himself in by listing a series of principles, none of which are hills to die on, which is why he introduces the process.

The Centrist Process: 1) Be pragmatic. Solve problems. 2) Talk about trade-offs. 3) Improve the electoral system. 4) Ask always, Where are we trying to go? What is a reasonably good way to get there? Other than 3, he is essentially describing a board meeting. What is especially telling is that in all of this, in a section that makes up more than half the total weight of the book, Wheelan still does not understand that you cannot answer 1, 2, 3, or 4 without a firm ideological foundation. Good sense and pragmatism are meaningless without the ideological trade off necessary to identify what the pragmatic solution is. Wheelan touches on this concern in his discussion of point 2, but he doesn’t actually stake an ideological position other than “…there are lots of options that are better than what we are doing now, and those better policies begin with a more sophisticated discussion around the issues. The Centrist Party will facilitate those discussions.”

Wheelan attempts to illustrate “The Process” regarding moral and ideological questions surrounding abortion and gun control by simply looking at data analysis and trying to compromise the two positions (see his claim on page 23 where he says the Centrist Party will not do this). Unfortunately, I have to laugh at his claim that no-one is pro-abortion. Not only because I am personally pro-abortion, but because he immediately contradicts himself by quoting a statistic that one-fifth of Americans think abortion should be legal in all cases. That’s twenty percent of the American electorate. That is hardly a “nobody thinks this way” statistic. In fact, the actual poll he quotes for these numbers shows as of 2011, 26% of the American public thinks abortion should be legal in all cases, whereas only 20% of the American public thinks it should be illegal in all cases, a segment of the American public that he dismisses as “only a small minority”. For a Centrist, he really doesn’t even grapple with the raw data he’s fetishizing very honestly.

Overall, Wheelan is emblematic of Centrism: it simply isn’t an attractive narrative. Instead of looking inwardly to say “why has the Center failed?” he lashes out awkwardly and unexpectedly to everyone else in a vain attempt to make Centrism appealing. He attempts to stake Centrism in some sort of moral and ideological purity, but contradicts his own vision of Centrism in the process. He stakes the entire enterprise on being pragmatic and then disregards pragmatism for propaganda when he willfully misrepresents statistics in opposition to one another to prove a point—that the larger majority of Americans are more ambivalent than all or nothing (shocking!). The biggest fault of Centrism as a political philosophy is that it doesn’t offer anything to the public and doesn’t pretend to want to, which is probably the biggest meta-joke to come out of this “manifesto”. Typically, modern rhetoric warrants opening a piece with a quote to set the stage for what is to come. I think it’s far more appropriate to close with a quote, to reflect on what Wheelan has or has not accomplished.

“Manifesto: man·i·fes·to,  ˌmanəˈfestō/, noun: a public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate” -Google Dictionary

The Sensible Serious Center Cannot Hold

Tokugawa_Yoshinobu_with_rifle

Tokugawa Yoshinobu, no doubt being a Sensible Serious Centrist

Not exactly a foreign policy post, though it overlaps. I have made a point before of knocking rote extremest and complacent ideological thinking. But I never got to the most irritating form of ideological thinking to the trickster: centrism. Let us start with a list.

Famous Moderates/Centrists of History:

Low level Vichy collaborators
British Loyalists in Ireland and America
The Anglican Church
American Indian Boarding Schools
Condoleeza Rice
Michael Bloomberg
President Bill Clinton
President Andrew Johnson, President John McCain-oh wait
President John Kerry-oh wait, President Joe Lieberman-oh wait
President Hillary Clinton-oh wait (so far)
Pro-democracy Burmese who also love genocide.
Any Saudi monarchs who only hates women  and infidels *half* the time.
Any North Korean who does not believe Dear Leader is from celestial lineage upon a mountain top but still believes said Dear Leader to know best.
Syrian rebels. Ha!

What an illustrious intellectual and cultural lineage!

Such are the measly scraps of moderation and centrism contributing to any kind of interesting discourse. Namely, they do the opposite of contribute. This is not to say that it is always wrong to not agree with various wings in an argument. In fact, I greatly encourage it. This is a blog about unorthodox thinking towards the boring and rigid confines of the humanities almost as much as it is about foreign policy issues. I find issues of right and left, authoritarian and libertarian, to be infinitely boring if simply taken straight on face value.

And yet, none of that changes that it is above all the centrists who I reserve the most disdain. If a person has a variety of unorthodox views and you simply appear to be in the center when all of them are averaged together, well, it happens, not your fault. So long as you have reasons for your views and on a case by case basis they remain interesting, it is all good. Take myself. Simply speaking I am a libertarian on social issues, a moderate hybridized socialist on economic issues, conservative but only slightly on second amendment issues, quite radical if open minded on environmental issues, and a realist who (in the US anyway) is closest to the paleoconservative position of foreign affairs. Surely you cannot get more unorthodox than that. These are however part of a world view based on an intense and life-consuming study of world history, and they came about by the very process centrists claim to uphold: critical inquiry.  All of these seemingly divergent views of mine only seem bizarrely diverse if you suffer from the disease of rote-thinking that thrives in our neoliberal order-and in so doing assume that the centrism that lurks as the singularity inside our (temporary and situational) system is inherently reasonable. And therefore that only the people in close orbit-the moderates-are rational actors.

This naturally rests upon the assumption that the center is reasonable. But the center of any society, no matter where it lies politically, is a product of circumstance and a quest for legitimacy on behalf of whoever rules a nation. It is the epicenter of uncritically accepting the dictum of one’s rulers with just enough waffling to keep one’s distance from their mistakes. See, it is all well to come to a moderate version of a position through internal and external debate and reconciling different arguments that work for you, but this process should have nothing to do with splitting the difference and equivocating, as if by averaging all points together in a blender and drinking the thin beige gruel that comes out is in any way sensible or original. It is not. An idea from one end of a spectrum might compliment another, but they can also clash. If your default position is to assume they can always be made to compliment, or that that is some glorious ideal, you may have a problem.

Henry Clay made a career out of trying to do this, but it just ensured a coming civil war by delaying an actual struggle long enough that total war became inevitable. The Tokugawa Shogunate, a government I have a lot of respect for that I feel is often maligned by western historians, tried to straddle an awkward line between retrenchment and embracing the foreign world in its final decades. It would have been better to go in whole hog. Even the reactionary (and wrong) position adopted by Satsuma and Choshu domains ended up being a better path in the end than centrism, as to fight against the odds for what they wanted forced them into government and a total reversal of their previous positions. See, it isn’t not so much about right and wrong, but motivation. Centrists motivate no one but themselves…when they talk to each other…about their supposed nuanced superiority.

It is something they share with extreme nationalists and patriots actually. Their country is the center of the world. Their country’s most centrist parties are the center of their country. This is the fountain from which they just so happened to have won the lottery of life to be born into. And with this miracle of being born amongst the elect, they are now more enlightened than everyone else. Through their own will and exertion, of course.

It cannot be a coincidence that protestant majority countries are most attracted to this way of thinking. Indeed, centrism shows its true nature as a die hard fundamentalist position for ideologues-especially lazy ideologues-precisely because its intellectual lineage in any society can be easily traced in whatever country you are looking at’s historical experience. It is, like so many other things, a product of external forces. From geography to ecology to the nature of the political system, the very nature of Sensible Serious Centrism (SSC from here on out) and Meticulous Moderation is simply an excuse not to look too critically at the most mainstream of assumptions which exist. Hell, even stodgy old Edmund Burke at least acknowledged that different societies are marching in different directions, an admission which is too extreme for most theocracies and neoliberal nations to even fathom, believing as they do (sensibly of course) in some linear, rational world order.

I can guarantee you, as a former doctoral student in academia, that whatever their flaws might be, finding a self-declared centrist amongst people who actually have a depth of knowledge in the humanities is like finding an intelligent and articulate statement on policy from Donald Trump. I mean, sure maybe you can find a couple, but they are outliers, and the topic they are focused on is probably stupid or boring anyway.

There is nothing Sensible nor Serious about being a SSC. It is simply being a tool who has reams of psychological validation to bolster their position from the media and whoever rules at the time.

It is only by acknowledging that times change that one can be serious, and it is eminently sensible to see that a present day and geographically situational ethical fad is not some window into an eternal political truth.

So the next time you meet a SSC, play a little game with them. Ask them a series of questions and watch the answers.

What is a centrist in Saudi Arabia?

What was a centrist during the inquisition?

What is a centrist in a genocide-someone who advocates only exterminating half of a minority group instead of all of them?

Does a centrist Khmer Rogue labor camp commander only want racks of jaws rather than entire skulls?

If you are in a western nation, I guarantee you the response will be that centrism only applies to their own country and those like it. A fascinating bit of chauvinism that, so bring up the immense unlikeliness of them being born in said country. Also bring up the divergences in policy between developed countries.

Actual critical thinking can indeed be sensible and serious. But if it is nearing those things we can assume it is not in fact centrist. To actually engage in critical thought one must never be a slave to fashion.