The End of/Right Side of History is a Recurring Delusional Fad for Simpletons

Statue of Aphrodite defaced by Christians.

For a people so committed to the ending of cultural and political divergence, you would think fanatics everywhere would at least pay attention to the failure of all the other times they attempted the same project. If the definition of madness is endlessly repeating the same project again and again and expecting different results, then the universal idealists among us are truly the maddest of the mad. Perhaps this is why they despise the value of history so much. Because the message of history is that there is no message in history, save perhaps never to ignore your resource base and never to trust the pledges of fanatics claiming to be ‘on the right side’ of history. And it is very telling that an obviously ridiculous phrase like ‘right side of history’ is so commonly used in progressive politics today.

We have seen more than our fair share of the use and abuse of history by conservatives. Usually in the form of some kind of pundit with a superficial Wikipedia-level knowledge of key events and an uncritical and uninterrogated sense of the past derived from high school education that they desperately wish to affirm from further scrutiny. I have written here about that specific phenomena many times before. But the problem is that most non-conservatives, of all stripes, effectively cede the field to the right entirely because they themselves have a deeply diseased relationship with the past.

This relationship can be found everywhere now, with the de facto merger of the neoliberal establishment in the Anglosphere countries with postmodern academia and far left rhetoric (if usually not actual far left policies). The past is bad to them. People in the past had attitudes different than people today and therefore were also bad. Works of literature and philosophy from anytime before the rise of post-colonial and post-modern thought are therefore haram and must be expunged. The university, supposed to at least be the place meant to encourage atypical and norm-questioning thought, has become a giant H.R. department meant to ensure the imposition of a presentist monoculture on the next generation of downwardly mobile administrators and media people. The media itself has mostly given up all pretense at journalistic muckraking and has merged subservient stenography with declarations of religious faith in the church of social justice. If present trends continue, the majority of Generation Z and no small amounts of my own generation of Millennials seem to be well on track to carry out this mission of building a monoculture that pervades the public square. Those who know their future prospects are bleak are often those most likely to lash out moralistically as this is a socially acceptable way to ‘rebel’ without actually taking risks or digging deeper into the root (material) causes of societal decline. It is striking that, in an era where climate change represents our most clear and omnipresent threat, so many of the supposedly educated adopt culture war instead. Once seen as the domain of ignorant rural evangelicals, culture war is now the plaything of the social elite. Even if one wishes to prioritize culture war, one cannot ignore how the counter-culture trends on social issues of the last few decades before the 2010s actually delivered more measurable gains in a more hostile environment than the present top-down attempts at cultural engineering do, something I wrote more about here. If one is not a reactionary, one would be wise to feel what the backlash to this will be if this continues.

While its true that to glorify the past is ridiculous (and also implies a weak understanding of how events and eras actually work) it is surely just as ridiculous to castigate it from the point of view of present day trends. There is a lot of knowledge and wisdom to be found in taking the long view, and it is impossible to take such a view with knowledge based only around the time one was alive or even based only around a century or two. One can always be surprised by how many fellow travelers one can find hidden in long gone eras. Even in civilizations which are since departed. There were once cultures with widely different concepts of intellectualism and cultural expression than those which exist today. They are all fascinating. Some, I would contend, were even preferable in many ways. Especially on the cultural front. With the destruction of polytheism in Europe in the Middle East being the most clear breaking point from a more vibrant and interesting culture to the start of the monolith many Arab, Spanish, and Germanic societies have since sought to force on everyone else. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was an attempt to bring this type of brain dead political historiography into a new region, but fortunately it was brief and had limited effect (though enough for Chinese history lovers like myself to still rue). The PRC, a state which once carried out this state sponsored campaign of cultural terrorism, soon came to officially recognize these policies as a mistake.

Would that it was so in the Anglosphere. Here, the Christian sentiment that damaged European art and philosophy for centuries never seems to die, but only gets perpetually reborn under new forms. From the obvious sequels of the Great Awakening and the evangelical revival, to the less obvious such as militarized human rights foreign policy, American Exceptionalism, critical race theory, queer theory, the quest for ever expanding realms of ‘safe spaces’, and the present day pro-censorship trend, the tribes change but the underlying psychology does not. All of these adopt the very monotheist view that to come into contact with something you don’t like infects your soul like a virus, and affirms the idea that what is good or bad for you must be good or bad for everyone else. And always, it comes a deeply disturbing affirmation that the past is sinful, and that ones soul can only be immaculate by rejecting all things contrary to what the good people of the present do. We can stop the tragicomedy of history, these people propose, by simply rejecting it outright. And by also contending that to engage with any figure’s opinion, past or present, is to affirm all of them. No nuance in this brave new world. And nothing fills me with more concern than this growing trend I see of the hard left, already prone to sanctimonious preaching, reconciling itself with Christianity, the inventor of universal scolding and messianism. Should such a convergence fully occur, it will create the most insufferable and absolutist outgrowths of philosophy and culture of all time. I think we can now safely say what the one thing to make me see the right as the lesser evil would be, should such a wretched alliance occur.

The most ridiculous aspect of this argument is also the one that is most telling as to why fanatics despise a nuanced and contextual understanding of history: that we have it right now unlike before. If there is one thing a thorough study of history should tell everyone, it is that morality is as faddish and ephemeral a concept as fashion is. And much of it always dates poorly. Eugenics was once a progressive cause, as was prohibition. The inference is obvious: if so much that seemed obvious and good once now looks so terrible…what things that look good today will seem terrible tomorrow?

Quite a bit of it, I would be willing to bet.

If big picture issues matter to you, it is best to be above and beyond trendy moralism in the first place. Understanding structural forces in politics you want to change is good. But don’t ever get it conflated with these tent-revivalist trends that periodically sweep the Christian and Islamic worlds. In order to see the future more clearly, it becomes necessary to see the past clearly first. And that will also give you insight into the present beyond that of your more intellectually challenged and fad-chasing peers.

It becomes important to set up informal networks for those of us who, despite this ever growing monoculture by and for moralistic simpletons, plan, network and discuss as a proper counter-culture. No longer interested in trying to change this bizarre and periodic rising of anti-history anti-context people, we should break into a separate but parallel group. Occupying the same society but offering alternatives. This is not just for our own sanity, but also a useful community service. Monocultures, be it of crops, bureaucratic hierarchies or ideologies, create blind spots and thus increase the odds of society-wide failure due to an inability to adapt. Evolution cannot work without constant differentiation. A society that seeks to expunge intellectual and cultural diversity is a society digging its own grave. One thing ignored by many radicals today as inconvenient is that the Islamic State’s very destruction of ancient works of art was motivated not just by Islam’s proscriptions on the human form in artwork, but also by a hatred of divergent societies and separate states preventing their religion from being universal. The Palmyrene Empire, so notable for its brief but spectacular challenge to Roman hegemony, pre-dated Islam and differentiated Syria from the rest of the region. And Allah forbid anyone acknowledge their local context might matter more than a universal ideology. We saw in contemporary history in Iraq and Syria just what a danger to any kind of minority or even culture of critical inquiry such people represent. And what it must have been like to live in various times in the past when such people were dominant.

Well, I suppose we got what conservatives in the U.S. always wanted: a workable Rome analogy. Too bad its one that shows that the religion they treasure was the past equivalent to the wokes they hate so much today. Even I can admit there are some things not worth conserving. The Galilean Ideology has to be at the top of that list.

It is up to us to create a counter-culture alliance that one day could set up escape valves in society for when these hysterical moments all to common to the Anglosphere arise. Not just so that people can tune out of greater society if they wish, but also receive education and training from an outsider perspective in order to better understand and critique it.

This will be the topic of a future writing project of mine. One which, if short, may appear here and, if long, may become a short book or pamphlet-like work I would try to publish. I think that increasingly just as the H.R.-Neoliberal-Academia alliance pushes harder and harder for monopoly, there will have to be a backlash. Such a backlash would inevitably be diverse but it should also have some degree of coordination. Someone has to stand against the new dark age of the meek inheriting the Earth.

In the meantime…

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.