18 October 2020

Fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism

We must take care with the word “fascism” and use it precisely.

The term “authoritarianism” means something more broad than “fascism”, describing a range of conditions in which the powerful have their power unchecked by limiting institutions, tests of legitimacy, or whatever. Fascism is an authoritarian but not all authoritarianisms are fascist. The USSR, Gaddafi’s Libya, and contemporary Singapore are all authoritarian states with a distinctly different politics from fascism.

We must also add the word “totalitarianism”. Not all authoritarian societies qualify as totalitarian. In a totalitarian society, not only is power unchecked, it pursues limitless exercise of power. East Germany was totalitarian, trying to put literally every single citizen under active surveillance by the secret police, torturing people for deviance from government wishes in their private lives. The concept of totalitarianism helps us think about how Stalin’s USSR, late Nazi Germany, and ISIL have striking similarities despite very different ideologies and policy programs.

Fascism differs from other authoritarian ideologies. Though it tends toward totalitarianism when it holds power, this does not define it. It need neither exercise totalitarian power nor make totalitarian claims to count as fascism. We can recognize movements as fascist in their thinking even when they hold no power at all and claim to reject authoritarian governance.

Fascist ideology confuses us in part because while it is a political ideology it is not a policy ideology. This differs from political ideologies like communism which also incline toward authoritarianism but are defined by their policy program.

Communism has a clear policy aim: the development of an international political order of, by, and for workers who collectively control the means of production and distribute the wealth equitably. Communist movements famously have policy positions on every little question, derived (at least theoretically) from core principles. Authoritarian communism emerges from the challenges of implementing that policy.

Fascism, on the other hand, has a radical distinterest in policy. Fascist movements will shift policy positions whenever convenient to seize more power. They often propose absurd policies, creating an environment which rejects policy discussions in general as absurd.

Instead of a policy ideology, fascism has a myth and a method.

Fascism’s myth says “our nation is strong and great and virtuous in its essence, our people are unique and distinct from all others in being good and fundamentally united, so in the inexorable violent contest between peoples of the world our nation is destined to prevail ... but corrupting influences have come and created weakness and division that will destroy the nation, a corruption which must be destroyed through violence at the direction of a noble leader of profound insight ... so our movement will produce a rebirth into greatness and unity and power, an escape from the national strife of petty politics”. Scholar David Griffin, who studies historical fascisms, sums this up as “palingenetic ultranationalism”: a dream of violent national rebirth.

Fascism’s method acts in bad faith to use the instruments of liberal democracy to destroy those liberal democratic institutions. (Here “liberal” means not “neither conservative nor leftist”, but rather “rights and rule of law”.) To yell “fire” in a crowded theater to destroy the commitment to free speech. To lie brazenly and to claim that the press are motivated solely by politics so that citizens stop trying to figure out what the truth is. To sow violence in society so that limits on the use of force by the state seem pointless.

The fascist myth and method produce authoritarianism and brutality.

This was the logic of the Confederacy. This was the logic of the Klan in the Reconstruction era ... and again in its 20th century revivals. This was the logic of the John Birch society. This was the logic of Timothy McVeigh.

It has been with us for a long time.



For a long time, I referred to DJT and Team Trump as “para-fascist”: the differences from historical fascism were sufficient to make me hesitant, but the resemblances were too strong to ignore.

Partly this reflects how American fascism is complicated by our deep rhetorical commitment to liberal democracy. (Again, not “liberal” as in “not conservative”, rather “liberal” as in “universal rights and rule of law”.) All of our politics references “freedom” and “rights” and so forth, which means American fascism needs to be more oblique in expressing its authoritarian rejection of libdem principle than other fascisms do.

Partly this reflects how Trump himself is barely interested in politics qua politics, rather being driven by his personal narcissism. Fascism reflects his fundamental urges rather than his considered philosophy, and emerges from the team around him rather than directly from him personally.

But as more and more pieces have fallen into place, it has become unmistakable in the last year. “Trumpism” is a form of fascism. The Republican Party is fascist. American conservatism has turned to fascism.

Nonviolence

Proper non-violence understands that violence is justified but believes that it is unwise. Non-violence means facing violence without returning it; retreating from confrontation is not non-violent action, it is passivity.

Too many people think that nonviolence means a white liberal quietism which drapes itself in a vague and false moral claim to reflect the logic of the Civil Rights Movement. Claiming nonviolence as an absolute value rather than as a considered tactic reflects a combination of ignorance and moral laziness.

Non-violence is vitally important because violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly; is existence changes your destination.

There are a lot of ways that things could go in which we will need a lot of white bodies on the street facing guns. We need bourgeois white people like me standing at the front, braving the bullets.

2017 doesn’t make me confident that enough of us will step up, but it does give me hope.

Case #1 for nonviolence: it is working for BLM

The re-acceleration of street protest and reporting on it which emerged after the street execution of George Floyd has produced dynamics similar to protests of the Civil Rights Movement.

That the movement has been primarily and overwhelmingly nonviolent only underlines how the few outbreaks of vandalism (most notably the capture and burning of the Minneapolis Third Precinct police station) demonstrates that there is a huge capacity for popular violence which has been held in check.

That police in cities across the country have demonstrated repeatedly that they will engage in increasingly frantic brutality in response to nonviolent street protest has conclusively proved what anti-police advocates have been saying all along.

And the result has been that now clear majorities now favor vigorous reform in a way which was politically inconceivable just a year ago, and even more incredibly police abolition is on the table as something which popularly credible people are advocating and which opponents need to actively argue against. This is a huge victory, and the contrast of nonviolence was integral in demonstrating the reality of police culture and conduct.

White liberals’ clarity here is not what it should be, but it is improving every day; a turn toward broader violence in response to police violence would reverse that trend.

Case #2 for nonviolence: it is working against far right street demonstrators

In 2017, far right street actions tried to provoke street violence in order to feed their story about their strength and the ordinary conservatives to support them against the violent leftist hordes. Instead, overwhelmingly nonviolent counterprotest got bigger and bigger while those far right gangs fell apart over their inability to deliver sufficient thrills and glory to their members. The mess at the “Unite The Right” rally did not unite the right; massive popular turnout in nonviolent counterprotest against them which followed at San Francisco, then even moreso in Boston, embarrassed them and made them look silly and weak, breaking the far right street movements’ momentum until their resurgence this year.

These kinds of confrontations are happening again this year, but again the mass of nonviolent counterprotest has made far right would-be brownshirts look silly and weak. Instead of looking like brave badasses facing down the scary antifa thugs of their authoritarian fantasies, their exemplar is scrawny, panicked Kyle Rittenhouse flailing around wildly.

We have too many fascist true believers who accept their story but they have not been able to swell their numbers or persuade the inattentive white middle as they had imagined.

There are always going to be liberals who are King’s White Moderates who will find that any shadow of evidence of “violence” (which is usually only vandalism) allows them to rationalize their rejection of any action at all. One object of non-violence is to limit their ranks by keeping the facts off their side.

Case #3 for non-violence: what if things get very bad?

The hard test is the moment to come in the wake of the election. There are a lot of people on the right who are hungry for a shooting civil war against a “violent takeover by the radical left”.

Anti-left liberals will be tempted to side with the right against the left if they can be persuaded that we are violent. And yeah, some of them are going to be suckered no matter what we do.

But the longer the interval in which it is clear that the far right are bringing guns and blood while the left are not, the more it will erode the credibility of the far right. We don’t just need it to be true that they are the ones who shoot first; we need it to last long enough that it is clear even to people who are not paying attention that they shot first. If we can hold that line, the far right will lack popular support ... which translates into an unwillingness for the US military to fire on US civilians.

It is our best chance for avoiding an authoritarian death spiral.

And if that fails — either through a failure to step up, or us getting stepped on — the calculus changes.

Up to that point, the ideal response would be a massive and entirely nonviolent movement. There is no getting that ideal, but it is useful to aspire to it. An overwhelmingly nonviolent movement is more plausible and still very good.

But after that point, if we move from the fascist ascendancy we have now to the fascist control we fear, then the only way to dislodge fascist power is through violent action.

That said, even in that eventuality, while we would need violence to win that war, the more active nonviolence there is in the resistance the better the peace we can hope for when we win. Nonviolence will always need recruits.



I will pile up some resources here:

25 September 2020

A watch order for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

A friend who is an astute watcher of popculture recently confessed to me that they have been intrigued by the phenomenon of the Marvel Studios films, but had not yet sat down to see them. I am plotting to create a series of posts inspired by this friend, to give them the best possible introduction and guidance in getting the most out of the Marvel movies.

This guide is the first installment in that project: a viewing order for the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fun for fans but designed for someone coming in cold — only glancingly familiar with either the movies or the comics they are based on — who is ready to commit to watching most or all of the films. Inspired by the “Machete Order” for watching the two Lucas trilogies of Star Wars — which treats Episode II & III as an extended flashback between V and VI, omitting Episode I entirely — this viewing order is different both from the order in which the films were released and from the chronological order of the events in the world of the films.

Marvel Studios and the fictive Marvel Cinematic Universe are interesting and unique for a number of reasons. There have been movies with numerous sequels before, and superhero movies before, but the MCU is the first to capture the distinctly entangled series quality of superhero comics which fans love. Alan Moore, in his introduction to a collection of comics published in 1987, describes it better than I could:

There are great economic advantages in being able to prop up an ailing, poor-selling comic book with an appearance by a successful guest star. Consequently, all th ecomic book stories produced by any given publisher are likely to take place in the same imaginary universe. This includes the brightly colored costumed adventurers populating their super-hero title,s the shambling monstrosities that dominate tehir horror titles, and the odd girzzled cowpoke who's wandered in from a western title through a convenient time warp. For those more familiar with conventional literature, try to imagine Dr. Frankenstein kidnapping one of the protagonists of Little Women for his medical experiments, only to find himself to the scrutiny of a team-up between Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I'm sure that the both the charms and the overwhelming absurdities of this approach will become immediately apparent, and so it is in comic books
[...]
The continuity-expert's nightmare of a thousand different super-powered characters co-existing in the same continuum can, with the application of a sensitive and sympathetic eye, become a rich and fertile mythic background with fascinating archetypal characters hanging around, waiting to be picked like grapes on the vine. Yes, of course, the whole idea is utterly inane, but to let its predictable inanities blind you to its truly fabulous and breathtaking aspects is to do both oneself and the genre a disservice.

This viewing order is intended to highlight this quality of superhero stories, the sense that different stories about different characters made by different creators are part of a grand story about a sprawling world of wonders and adventure. In practice this requires squinting a bit to pretend to see it. Though Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige tries to create a coherent world and narrative from the efforts of different creators working on different projects, just as a comics publisher's editor-in-chief does, such a project is inherently doomed. (Indeed, superhero stories have a tradition of Brechtian jokes about how things do not actually hang together.)

One other bit of craft for the viewer: Marvel Studios' movies include one or two post-credits “easter egg” bonus scenes, and you will want to make sure to catch those, with a few exceptions where it is best to skip them. I will mark the exceptions with an asterisk.



I — Welcome to the Marvel Universe

Start with these movies, in this order
  1. Iron Man
  2. Captain Marvel
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy vol 1
  4. Thor *

A — Bonus stories

These are two of the weakest entries in the movie series. They have their charms but don't quite land, so I invite the viewer to skip them. If you do watch them, you can pick them up at any point before part IV of this watch order.
  • Iron Man 2 *
  • Thor: The Dark World — I plan to write a skip guide for watching an abridged version of this one, since it sets up some great callbacks in later films

B — More bonus issues

More optional entries in the series, better than set A, to watch at any point before part VI
  • The Incredible Hulk — a flawed mess with some interesting Mad Science
  • Doctor Strange — a tepid story but it shows off magic as a part of the Marvel Universe, sets up the single best callback in the later films, and has some spectacular visuals
  • Ant-Man * — a fun trifle with a terrific final setpiece that makes a big cameo in a later film a lot more fun

II — Getting the band together

  • The Avengers
With this film, the kitchen-sink pleasures of the Marvel Universe unfold. If, at this point, watching these films feels more like a chore than fun, you can quit here and feel like you Got The Thing. But the best films in the series are yet to come ....

III — The Steve Rogers Story

I imagine that the viewer could be binge-ing this series or picking through it at a leisurely pace, but these two movies are a matched set, playing off of each other in a way that demonstrates the range of things superhero stories can do with a character. I recommend watching them in this order as a double feature, or at least within a week or two of each other.
  1. Captain America: The First Avenger
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

IV — Whither the Avengers

Watch these in order
  1. Iron Man 3
  2. Avengers: Age of Ultron — this movie is frankly a broken mess, but it is very thematically interesting, and plays a meaningful role in the over-arching narrative
  3. Captain America: Civil War

V — Plots thicken

Watch this set in any order; some of the best of the series here
  • Black Panther
  • Thor: Ragnarok
  • Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming

C — Parallel worlds

Extra credit: a few good movies about MCU characters not made by Marvel Studios, which are both worth seeing for their own sake and as a reflection on different approaches to adapting these characters to film. Watch any or all at any point after this. Note that none of them have easter eggs in the credits.
  • Spider-Man 2 — Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man is terrific but this one is even better, while only serious superhero nerds have cause to care about the third film in this series or the Amazing Spider-Man reboot films
  • Into The Spider-Verse — breathtaking
  • Hulk — a bonkers mess made by one of the greatest living film directors
There are several other feature films made about characters from Marvel Comics, notably including a long-running series of films in its own shared universe about the superhero team the X-Men, but they do not overlap meaningfully with the Marvel Cinematic Universe ... yet.

VI — The Gauntlet

Watch these in order
  1. Avengers: Infinity War — fully leveraging the big canvas
  2. Ant-Man & The Wasp — a fun break; the post-credits bit sets up the next film
  3. Avengers: Endgame — the whole series becomes wood behind the spear of this climactic story

D — Coda

One last story in the cycle. A bit of a weak trifle you can skip, but it does nicely close the door on the series.
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home


Those are all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films for now. There are more coming, but they will represent the start of a new story cycle ....

16 September 2020

Buy presents

Occasionally friends and family looking to get me a Yule or birthday present are frustrated because I have peculiar tastes. If you want to get a present for me — or maybe a present for yourself which reflects my tastes! — here are a few places to look:

  • Jetpens sells delicious office supplies from Japan
  • Outlier is my favorite maker of spendy-but-worth-it technical clothing
  • Art Of Play has unreasonably beautiful puzzles, games, and toys for grownups
  • Nickel Dime Cocktail Syrups are a treat I have taken to now that I have slowed down enough that I am enjoying soda concoctions more often than actual cocktails
  • Bluelounge is one of my favorite providers of tools for organizing computer cables and related desk stuff
  • Norman & Jules sells toys for actual children with a Montessori sensibility that I find seductive

Of course the real reason I made this list is so I have a place to tuck cool stuff I find so I can go shopping for toys later.

11 September 2020

The Paranoid Style In American Politics

This article was published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964. It is an indispensible classic, so I am transcribing an archive of it into a readable form here without permission, if only for my own convenience.


The Paranoid Style in American Politics

It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it—and its targets have ranged from “the international bankers” to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics., In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

Here is Senator McCarthy, speaking in June 1951 about the parlous situation of the United States:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.…What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence.…The laws of probability would dictate that part of…[the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.

Now turn back fifty years to a manifesto signed in 1895 by a number of leaders of the Populist party:

As early as 1865-66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America.…For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose.…Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.

Next, a Texas newspaper article of 1855:

…It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.…The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of state to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic church throughout the United States.…These minions of the Pope are boldly insulting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and State; abusing with foul calumny all governments but Catholic, and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenues collected here.…

These quotations give the keynote of the style. In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor.

Illuminism and Masonry

I begin with a particularly revealing episode—the panic that broke out in some quarters at the end of the eighteenth century over the allegedly subversive activities of the Bavarian Illuminati. This panic was a part of the general reaction to the French Revolution. In the United States it was heightened by the response of certain men, mostly in New England and among the established clergy, to the rise of Jeffersonian democracy. Illuminism had been started in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt. Its teachings today seem to be no more than another version of Enlightenment rationalism, spiced with the anticlerical atmosphere of eighteenth-century Bavaria. It was a somewhat naïve and utopian movement which aspired ultimately to bring the human race under the rules of reason. Its humanitarian rationalism appears to have acquired a fairly wide influence in Masonic lodges.

Americans first learned of Illumism in 1797, from a volume published in Edinburgh (later reprinted in New York) under the title, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. Its author was a well-known Scottish scientist, John Robison, who had himself been a somewhat casual adherent of Masonry in Britain, but whose imagination had been inflamed by what he considered to be the far less innocent Masonic movement on the Continent. Robison seems to have made his work as factual as he could, but when he came to estimating the moral character and the political influence of Illuminism, he made the characteristic paranoid leap into fantasy. The association, he thought, was formed “for the express purpose of ROOTING OUT ALL RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENTS, AND OVERTURNING ALL THE EXISTING GOVERNMENTS OF EUROPE.” It had become “one great and wicked project fermenting and working all over Europe.” And to it he attributed a central role in bringing about the French Revolution. He saw it as a libertine, anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights. Its members had plans for making a tea that caused abortion—a secret substance that “blinds or kills when spurted in the face,” and a device that sounds like a stench bomb—a “method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours.”

These notions were quick to make themselves felt in America. In May 1798, a minister of the Massachusetts Congregational establishment in Boston, Jedidiah Morse, delivered a timely sermon to the young country, which was then sharply divided between Jeffersonians and Federalists, Francophiles and Anglomen. Having read Robison, Morse was convinced of a Jacobinical plot touched off by Illuminism, and that the country should be rallied to defend itself. His warnings were heeded throughout New England wherever Federalists brooded about the rising tide of religious infidelity or Jeffersonian democracy. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, followed Morse’s sermon with a Fourth-of-July discourse on The Duty of Americans in the Present Crisis, in which he held forth against the Antichrist in his own glowing rhetoric. Soon the pulpits of New England were ringing with denunciations of the Illuminati, as though the country were swarming with them.

The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820s and the 1830s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first, this movement may seem to be no more than an extension or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati. But whereas the panic of the 1790s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultraconservative point of view, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States, and was intimately linked with popular democracy and rural egalitarianism. Although anti-Masonry happened to be anti-Jacksonian (Jackson was a Mason), it manifested the same animus against the closure of opportunity for the common man and against aristocratic institutions that one finds in the Jacksonian crusade against the Bank of the United States.

The anti-Masonic movement was a product not merely of natural enthusiasm but also of the vicissitudes of party politics. It was joined and used by a great many men who did not fully share its original anti-Masonic feelings. It attracted the support of several reputable statement who had only mild sympathy with its fundamental bias, but who as politicians could not afford to ignore it. Still, it was a folk movement of considerable power, and the rural enthusiasts who provided its real impetus believed in it wholeheartedly.

As a secret society, Masonry was considered to be a standing conspiracy against republican government. It was held to be particularly liable to treason—for example, Aaron Burr’s famous conspiracy was alleged to have been conducted by Masons. Masonry was accused of constituting a separate system of loyalty, a separate imperium within the framework of federal and state governments, which was inconsistent with loyalty to them. Quite plausibly it was argued that the Masons had set up a jurisdiction of their own, with their own obligations and punishments, liable to enforcement even by the penalty of death. So basic was the conflict felt to be between secrecy and democracy that other, more innocent societies such as Phi Beta Kappa came under attack.

Since Masons were pledged to come to each other’s aid under circumstances of distress, and to extend fraternal indulgence at all times, is was held that the order nullified the enforcement of regular law. Masonic constables, sheriffs, juries, and judges must all be in league with Masonic criminals and fugitives. The press was believed to have been so “muzzled” by Masonic editors and proprietors that news of Masonic malfeasance could be suppressed. At a moment when almost every alleged citadel of privilege in America was under democratic assault, Masonry was attacked as a fraternity of the privileged, closing business opportunities and nearly monopolizing political offices.

Certain elements of truth and reality there may have been in these views of Masonry. What must be emphasized here, however, is the apocalyptic and absolutistic framework in which this hostility was commonly expressed. Anti-Masons were not content simply to say that secret societies were rather a bad idea. The author of the standard exposition of anti-Masonry declared that Freemasonry was “not only the most abominable but also the most dangerous institution that ever was imposed on man.…It may truly be said to be HELL'S MASTER PIECE.”

The Jesuit Threat

Fear of a Masonic plot had hardly been quieted when the rumors arose of a Catholic plot against American values. One meets here again the same frame of mind, but a different villain. The anti-Catholic movement converged with a growing nativism, and while they were not identical, together they cut such a wide swath in American life that they were bound to embrace many moderates to whom the paranoid style, in its full glory, did not appeal. Moreover, we need not dismiss out of hand as totally parochial or mean-spirited the desire of Yankee Americans to maintain an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society nor the particular Protestant commitments to individualism and freedom that were brought into play. But the movement had a large paranoid infusion, and the most influential anti-Catholic militants certainly had a strong affinity for the paranoid style.

Two books which appeared in 1835 described the new danger to the American way of life and may be taken as expressions of the anti-Catholic mentality. One, Foreign Conspiracies against the Liberties of the United States, was from the hand of the celebrated painter and inventor of the telegraph, S.F.B. Morse. “A conspiracy exists,” Morse proclaimed , and “its plans are already in operation…we are attacked in a vulnerable quarter which cannot be defended by our ships, our forts, or our armies.” The main source of the conspiracy Morse found in Metternich’s government: “Austria is now acting in this country. She has devised a grand scheme. She has organized a great plan for doing something here.…She has her Jesuit missionaries traveling through the land; she has supplied them with money, and has furnished a fountain for a regular supply.” Were the plot successful, Morse said, some scion of the House of Hapsburg would soon be installed as Emperor of the United States.

“It is an ascertained fact,” wrote another Protestant militant,

that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery. A minister of the Gospel from Ohio has informed us that he discovered one carrying on his devices in his congregation; and he says that the western country swarms with them under the name of puppet show men, dancing masters, music teachers, peddlers of images and ornaments, barrel organ players, and similar practitioners.

Lyman Beecher, the elder of a famous family and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote in the same year his Plea for the West, in which he considered the possibility that the Christian millennium might come in the American states. Everything depended, in his judgment, upon what influences dominated the great West, where the future of the country lay. There Protestantism was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Catholicism. “Whatever we do, it must be done quickly.…” A great tide of immigration, hostile to free institutions, was sweeping in upon the country, subsidized and sent by “the potentates of Europe,” multiplying tumult and violence, filling jails, crowding poorhouses, quadrupling taxation, and sending increasing thousands of voters to “lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power.”

The Paranoid Style in Action

The John Birch Society is attempting to suppress a television series about the United Nations by means of a mass letter-writing campaign to the sponsor,…The Xerox Corporation. The corporation, however, intends to go ahead with the programs.…

The July issue of the John Birch Society Bulletin…said an “avalanche of mail ought to convince them of the unwisdom of their proposed action—just as United Air Lines was persuaded to back down and take the U.N. insignia off their planes.” (A United Air Lines spokesman confirmed that the U.N. emblem was removed from its planes, following “considerable public reaction against it.”)

Birch official John Rousselot said, ”We hate to see a corporation of this country promote the U.N. when we know that it is an instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy.”

—San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 1964

Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan. Whereas the anti-Masons had envisaged drinking bouts and had entertained themselves with sado-masochistic fantasies about the actual enforcement of grisly Masonic oaths,1 the anti-Catholics invented an immense lore about libertine priests, the confessional as an opportunity for seduction, licentious convents and monasteries. Probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a work supposedly written by one Maria Monk, entitled Awful Disclosures, which appeared in 1836. The author, who purported to have escaped from the Hotel Dieu nunnery in Montreal after five years there as novice and nun, reported her convent life in elaborate and circumstantial detail. She reported having been told by the Mother Superior that she must “obey the priests in all things”; to her “utter astonishment and horror,” she soon found what the nature of such obedience was. Infants born of convent liaisons were baptized and then killed, she said, so that they might ascend at once to heaven. Her book, hotly attacked and defended , continued to be read and believed even after her mother gave testimony that Maria had been somewhat addled ever since childhood after she had rammed a pencil into her head. Maria died in prison in 1849, after having been arrested in a brothel as a pickpocket.

Anti-Catholicism, like anti-Masonry, mixed its fortunes with American party politics, and it became an enduring factor in American politics. The American Protective Association of the 1890s revived it with ideological variations more suitable to the times—the depression of 1893, for example, was alleged to be an international creation of the Catholics who began it by starting a run on the banks. Some spokesmen of the movement circulated a bogus encyclical attributed to Leo XIII instructing American Catholics on a certain date in 1893 to exterminate all heretics, and a great many anti-Catholics daily expected a nationwide uprising. The myth of an impending Catholic war of mutilation and extermination of heretics persisted into the twentieth century.

Why They Feel Dispossessed

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower., secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.

Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.

The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.

The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

Perhaps the most representative document of the McCarthyist phase was a long indictment of Secretary of State George C. Marshall, delivered in 1951 in the Senate by senator McCarthy, and later published in a somewhat different form. McCarthy pictured Marshall was the focal figure in a betrayal of American interests stretching in time from the strategic plans for World War II to the formulation of the Marshall Plan. Marshal was associated with practically every American failure or defeat, McCarthy insisted, and none of this was either accident or incompetence. There was a “baffling pattern” of Marshall’s interventions in the war, which always conduced to the well-being of the Kremlin. The sharp decline in America’s relative strength from 1945 to 1951 did not “just happen”; it was “brought about, step by step, by will and intention,” the consequence not of mistakes but of a treasonous conspiracy, “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Today, the mantle of McCarthy has fallen on a retired candy manufacturer, Robert H. Welch, Jr., who is less strategically placed and has a much smaller but better organized following than the Senator. A few years ago Welch proclaimed that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our government”—note the care and scrupulousness of that “almost.” He has offered a full scale interpretation of our recent history n which Communists figure at every turn: They started a run on American banks in 1933 that forced their closure; they contrived the recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States in the same year, just in time to save the Soviets from economic collapse; they have stirred up the fuss over segregation in the South; they have taken over the Supreme Court and made it “one of the most important agencies of Communism.”

Close attention to history wins for Mr. Welch an insight into affairs that is given to few of us. “For many reasons and after a lot of study,” he wrote some years ago, “I personally believe [John Foster] Dulles to be a Communist agent.” The job of Professor Arthur F. Burns as head of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors was “merely a cover-up for Burns’s liaison work between Eisenhower and some of his Communist bosses.” Eisenhower’s brother Milton was “actually [his] superior and boss within the Communist party.” As for Eisenhower himself, Welch characterized him, in words that have made the candy manufacturer famous, as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”—a conclusion, he added, “based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Emulating the Enemy

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.2 Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

On the other hand, the sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. Catholics and Mormons—later, Negroes and Jews—have lent themselves to a preoccupation with illicit sex. Very often the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments.

Renegades and Pedants

A special significance attaches to the figure of the renegade from the enemy cause. The anti-Masonic movement seemed at times to be the creation of ex-Masons; certainly the highest significance was attributed to their revelations, and every word they said was believed. Anti-Catholicism used the runaway nun and the apostate priest; the place of ex-Communists in the avant-garde anti-Communist movements of our time is well known. In some part, the special authority accorded the renegade derives from the obsession with secrecy so characteristics of such movements: the renegade is the man or woman who has been in the Arcanum, and brings forth with him or her the final verification of suspicions which might otherwise have been doubted by a skeptical world. But I think there is a deeper eschatological significance that attaches to the person of the renegade: in the spiritual wrestling match between good and evil which is the paranoid’s archetypal model of the world, the renegade is living proof that all the conversions are not made by the wrong side. He brings with him the promise of redemption and victory.

A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates :evidence.” The difference between this “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.

Paranoid writing begins with certain broad defensible judgments. There was something to be said for the anti-Masons. After all, a secret society composed of influential men bound by special obligations could conceivable pose some kind of threat to the civil order in which they were suspended. There was also something to be said for the Protestant principles of individuality and freedom, as well as for the nativist desire to develop in North America a homogeneous civilization. Again, in our time an actual laxity in security allowed some Communists to find a place in governmental circles, and innumerable decisions of World War II and the Cold War could be faulted.

The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent—in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world. It is nothing if not scholarly in technique. McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet, McCarthyism, contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch’s incredible assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, has one hundred pages of bibliography and notes. The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies. Sometimes the right-wing striving for scholarly depth and an inclusive world view has startling consequences: Mr. Welch, for example, has charged that the popularity of Arnold Toynbee’s historical work is the consequence of a plot on the part of Fabians, “Labour party bosses in England,” and various members of the Anglo-American “liberal establishment” to overshadow the much more truthful and illuminating work of Oswald Spengler.

The Double Sufferer

The paranoid style is not confined to our own country and time; it is an international phenomenon. Studying the millennial sects of Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering—a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies…systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.”

This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture—it is no more than that—that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.


(1) Many anti-Masons had been fascinated by the penalties involved if Masons failed to live up to their obligations. My own favorite is the oath attributed to a royal archmason who invited “having my skull smote off and my brains exposed to the scorching rays of the sun.”

(2) In his recent book, How to Win an Election, Stephen C. Shadegg cites a statement attributed to Mao Tse-tung: “Give me just two or three men in a village and I will take the village.” Shadegg comments: “ In the Goldwater campaigns of 1952 and 1958 and in all other campaigns where I have served as consultant I have followed the advice of Mao Tse-tung.” “I would suggest,” writes senator Goldwater in Why Not Victory? “that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.
Richard Hofstadter is DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. His latest book, “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction earlier this year. This essay is adapted from the Herbert Spencer Lecture delivered at Oxford University in November 1963.

Bikers

I hate “heartwarming” stories. I love These Leather-Clad Bikers Will Do Whatever It Takes To Make Abused Kids Feel Safe.

“When we tell a child they don't have to be afraid, they believe us,” Pipes says. “When we tell them we will be there for them, they believe us.”

Earlier in the day, when the bikers met in the parking lot of a nearby CVS pharmacy, Pipes reminded them to be mindful of their emotions. That means no hugging unless the child initiates it.

“Nytro,” Pipes says, raising his eyebrows in her direction. Nytro hides her face behind her hands, and everyone laughs. She's quick to hug.

And then Pipes says, more sternly this time: There will be no crying.

“I don't want to see any tears coming out of your eyes, and the child doesn't either,” he says, making sure everyone is looking at him when he says it.

“Remember why we're here: to empower the child. If you can't handle it, keep your shades on.”

Have a hankie ready. Or keep your shades on.

24 August 2020

The two party system in the US

A succinct explanation of how the two-party system emerged in the US, and why it was able to function for so long before an inevitable breakdown.

The Framers thought they were using the most advanced political theory of the time to prevent parties from forming. By separating powers across competing institutions, they thought a majority party would never form. Combine the two insights—a large, diverse republic with a separation of powers—and the hyper-partisanship that felled earlier republics would be averted. Or so they believed.

However, political parties formed almost immediately because modern mass democracy requires them, and partisanship became a strong identity, jumping across institutions and eventually collapsing the republic’s diversity into just two camps.

Yet separation of powers and federalism did work sort of as intended for a long while.

The Protocols Of The Elders Of Sodom

A glorious rant from Hal Duncan

The greatest moral battle of our time? We quite agree, David Cocksucker. This is indeed the single most crucial battle in the field of modern mores. Why, it is also the single most crucial battle in the field of modern ethics. You understand the difference here, right, David Cocksucker? Ethics. Where you use a combination of reason and passion -- we'll call it "wisdom" for short -- to judge the rightness and/or wrongness of behaviour. Versus mores. Where your only judgement is whether to obey or disobey the unquestioned (and for many unquestionable) societal imperatives of whatever authority, real or imagined, you have abrogated aforesaid wisdom to.

[...]

Anyway. Yes, you are right, David Cocksucker. This is the greatest moral battle of our time. For we who have signed our names in blood and spunk to the Protocols of the Elders of Sodom (to give the Homosexual Agenda its true name) seek nothing less than the complete destruction of the moral fabric of society. We don't need your steenking mores, David Cocksucker. We have ethical judgement. We have the aesthetics of empathy, a passionate reason which drives us to love our fellow man (in all senses of the word). Moral fabric? We're gonna pull that rug right out from under your knees, burn it with the flag you worship as false idol and light our post-coital cigarettes on the flames.

Toolkit to save the country

The start of a linkpile of useful online resources

The Citizen's Handbook

Practical assistance for public citizens
A treasure trove of articles about the specifics of how to do democracy, from local organizing to governance at scale. Plus the website is nicely done, made to be read.

Beautiful Rising

Inspired by the concept of a “pattern language,” Beautiful Rising teases out the key elements of creative activism:
  • Stories
  • Tactics
  • Principles
  • Theories
  • Methodologies

Community Tool Box

  1. Creating and maintaining coalitions and partnerships
  2. Assessing community needs and resources
  3. Analyzing problems and goals
  4. Developing a framework model of change
  5. Developing strategic and action plans
  6. Building leadership
  7. Developing an intervention

...

23 August 2020

Nouning Considered Harmful

This is originally from Scott Madin of Fineness And Accuracy, posted at Shakesville. I meant for years to write about this but then he said it better than I ever would. I wish that Team Social Justice would adopt this norm.

Anyone who wants to see our society become less divided rather than more, and in particular anyone who wants to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of prejudice and modes of oppression, should try hard to avoid the practice, and refrain from calling a person a sexist, or a racist, or a homophobe, instead applying those descriptors to his or her actions.

18 August 2020

Feeling seen

A word from Nils Gilman:

Piketty is precisely my age, and has apparently been on precisely the same political trajectory. That trajectory is defined by two formative aspects of our youth: on the one hand, we're both children of post-68 leftist intellectuals, who passed to us in equal measure a respect for the values of socialist humanism and a distrust for the institutions of political power; on the other hand, the central political experiences of our childhoods were the belligerent revanchism of Reagan/Thatcher, the corrupt cynicism of Mitterand/Gonzalez, and the feckless foolishness of Gorbachev—capstoned by the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the very year we reached our majority.

Along with the impression left by post-Tienanmen China's capacity to generate (highly inegalitarian) wealth, this collapse produced two crucial psycho-political instincts in people of our specific age and political upbringing. First, it generated a deep disbelief in the utopian nostrums of so-called actually existing socialisms, which we were just old enough to have believed was a "permanent alternative" to liberal capitalism, but just young enough never to have personally committed to, despite our upbringings. (This is a very microgenerational experience: for those even four or five years younger or older than us, at least one of these does not apply.) Second, it led us to appreciate the economic importance of price mechanisms, innovation and competitiveness, without generating any love for capitalism as a system or any respect for the self-regard of the rich, who people with our background regard less as exemplars of meritocracy than as avaricious parasites. For us, TINA is the Big Lie of our times: just because socialism failed as a political project was no reason to believe the story (that the Right in our countries told about the lesson of this failure) that capitalism was humane, and not still an ecologically rapacious form of social vampirism.

What I find beautiful about Piketty's book is that it crystallizes and speaks to and for this worldview — that is, to the sensibility of a “red diaper” GenXer. It is a book written by someone who watched the socialist-utopian eidolon of his elders implode, without ever buying into the liberal-utopian promises made (or the sense of political limits imposed) by the successor regime(s).

Whoa. That is very nearly me, as well.

It is at once comforting and discomforting to see myself reflected in this way. To find that one is not alone is always a pleasant surprise ... but it also demonstrates how a lot of the way I see the world is historically and culturally contingent. Which is to say: likely wrong.

10 August 2020

The American Dream

In the US we talk about “The American Dream” with a hazy shared sense of what we mean but this often hides disagreements. For a long time I described it like this:

Hard work and moral virtue manifest material prosperity; in fact, all three of these are the same thing

To my surprise, it turns out that we can name the person who originally coined the expression, a guy named James Truslow Adams, in his 1931 book Epic Of America.

That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

And of course, George Carlin unforgettably said:

The owners of this country know the truth: it's called “the American Dream” because you have to be asleep to believe it.

25 July 2020

Abusive institutions

I was recently reminded of a couple of classics about patterns in groups and institutons which are abusive and dysfunctional.


Sick systems: How to keep someone with you forever

So you want to keep your lover or your employee close. Bound to you, even. You have a few options. You could be the best lover they've ever had, kind, charming, thoughtful, competent, witty, and a tiger in bed. You could be the best workplace they've ever had, with challenging work, rewards for talent, initiative, and professional development, an excellent work/life balance, and good pay. But both of those options demand a lot from you. Besides, your lover (or employee) will stay only as long as she wants to under those systems, and you want to keep her even when she doesn't want to stay. How do you pin her to your side, irrevocably, permanently, and perfectly legally?

You create a sick system.

A sick system has four basic rules:
  1. Keep them too busy to think
  2. Keep them tired
  3. Keep them emotionally involved
  4. Reward intermittently
How do you do all this? It's incredibly easy:
  • Keep the crises rolling
  • Things will be better when...
  • Keep real rewards distant
  • Establish one small semi-occasional success
  • Chop up their time
  • Enmesh your success with theirs
  • Keep everything on the edge

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

[...] to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones.
[...]
Occasionally, the developed informal structure of the group coincides with an available need that the group can fill in such a way as to give the appearance that an Unstructured group “works.” That is, the group has fortuitously developed precisely the kind of structure best suited for engaging in a particular project. While working in this kind of group is a very heady experience, it is also rare and very hard to replicate. There are almost inevitably four conditions found in such a group;
  1. It is task oriented
  2. It is relatively small and homogeneous
  3. There is a high degree of communication
  4. There is a low degree of skill specialization

09 June 2020

Fine consumer products

If you want to buy things, I like these resources for finding good things to buy:

  • Wirecutter has exceedingly in-depth reviews explaining what the best version is of numerous key products — especially electronics — including why that thing is the best and what difference it makes if you go for the best cheap or best spendy alternative
  • The Strategist is a bit lifestyle-magazine-ish, but I forgive it because it has pretty darned good taste in a range of products.
  • The Sweet Setup is a guide to applications for Apple devices, including not just the best solutions but a lot of advice about using them well
  • The MacRumours Buyers' Guide will help you guess where an Apple product is in its release cycle, to reduce the odds that you buy something and then discover a few weeks later that a major upgrade was released right afterward
  • Cool Tools is a huge collection of quirky, interesting reviews of a vast range of useful things
  • The Ones is a site maintained by some hip but (mostly) practical industrial designers listing their favorite, rock-solid products
  • Some things that are really quite good: “it’s just amazing how good the quality end of manufactured goods is, particularly compared to the landfill-fodder which is the norm”
  • Buy Me Once is a web store for very well-made stuff
  • What life-changing item can you buy for less that $100? is a wooly but fun and helpful Reddit discussion

Ender's Game is bad

People often ask how such a warmongering asshole as Orson Scott Card could write a beautiful, humane, anti-war novel like Ender's Game. I have come to believe that he did not. Which is not to say that Card did not write the book; rather, it is not the beautiful, humane, anti-war novel which people think they have read.

The book people experience when they read Ender's Game is very different from what the book contains, because the book which Card intended is so morally disgusting that it simply does not occur to most readers that it could possibly mean what it does. People cannot help but radically misread it.

John Kessel's Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality makes the horrible truth clear.

We see the effects of displaced, righteous rage everywhere around us, written in violence and justified as moral action, even compassion. Ender gets to strike out at his enemies and still remain morally clean.  Nothing is his fault. Stilson already lies defeated on the ground, yet Ender can kick him in the face until he dies, and still remain the good guy. Ender can drive bone fragments into Bonzo’s brain and then kick his dying body in the crotch, yet the entire focus is on Ender’s suffering.

The Rock, for President

An uncanny thought experiment:


Proposal for a book
to be adapted into a movie
starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson

Here is the meager gift tucked into the disaster that is Donald Trump: now, anyone can be elected president, so anyone will be elected president. We might never have another lawyer in that office again. Donald Trump broke the seal, but Dwayne Johnson will fulfill the prophecy.

If he runs, he will win, and he will run, so the question isn't, will Dwayne Johnson be president; rather, it's: what kind of president will Dwayne Johnson be?

"Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth," said Archimedes, maybe. With this book, we'll set our feet and push.

Street activism index

The quick and dirty tear gas primer
What's in the Bag? — A Guide To Packing A Protest First Aid Kit

Again, just getting started assembling an index

Social justice index index

An index of resources

Antiracism resources
This document is intended to serve as a resource to white people and parents to deepen our anti-racism work. If you haven’t engaged in anti-racism work in the past, start now. Feel free to circulate this document on social media and with your friends, family, and colleagues.

Antiracism resource guide
Focused on action, from funds to contribute to through grand projects

Split a donation between 70+ community bail funds, mutual aid funds, and racial justice organizers

Transform Harm
TransformHarm.org is a resource hub about ending violence. It offers an introduction to transformative justice. Created by Mariame Kaba and designed by Lu Design Studio, the site includes selected articles, audio-visual resources, curricula, and more. You can use what is here, and submit recommendations to be added to the focus areas listed here. We hope you will use these materials to foster your own education and also share them with your communities to build something new. Only together can we transform our relationships to each other and society. We hope that this site helps in this effort.

Reclaim The Block
Reclaim the Block began in 2018 and organizes Minneapolis community and city council members to move money from the police department into other areas of the city’s budget that truly promote community health and safety. We believe health, safety and resiliency exist without police of any kind. We organize around policies that strengthen community-led safety initiatives and reduce reliance on police departments. We do not believe that increased regulation of or public engagement with the police will lead to safer communities, as community testimony and documented police conduct suggest otherwise.

A Running List Of Hoaxes And Misleading Posts About The Nationwide Police Brutality Protests

Mutual Aid, Trauma, and Resiliency

07 May 2020

Person Of Interest

One of my favorite television series is Person Of Interest. This is my pitch for watching it.

What it is

On the face of it, the show is just a pretty good Detective Procedural With A Twist. But it turns out to be playing a deeper game.

Our heroes are a Reclusive Nerdy Billionaire Hacker and a Haunted Former Military Badass. Together, this odd couple fight crime!

The hacker gets messages from a government computer system which taps into phones, security cameras, and so forth to predict terrorist attacks; it also predicts ordinary violent crimes in New York City, and our heroes use their combined talents to prevent those. The clever conceit of the show is that the predictions they get are incomplete: they don't know what the crime will be or when it will happen. All the machine tells them is the identity of a person who will be involved ... without informing our heroes whether that person will be the victim of the crime or the perpetrator. So each episode depicts our heroes detective-ing in a race against time to figure out what is going to happen and how they can stop it before it is too late and someone gets murderized, all while dodging police who think of these heroes who operate from the shadows as vigilantes.

This is a fun idea and it allows for some classic genre TV pleasures: twists as we turn out to have misjudged who the bad guys are or what they are up to, nicely choreographed fights as our Haunted Former Military Badass stops bad guys from bad-guy-ing, banter between our regular characters, colorful guest characters, et cetera.

This alone supports interesting themes. Our heroes use a powerful surveillance machine, and in the course of investigating they spy on people; this makes us uneasy in the audience, raising questions about the technologies which now pervade our lives. Our heroes piggyback off of government institutions, hide from them, and unearth examples of how those institutions are inadequate or corrupt.

Which leads us to the show's deeper game.

As it makes the turn from the first season to the second, Person Of Interest violates a law of genre TV. Instead of just accepting the conceit of the show, it looks straight at it, saying oh by the way, did you notice that this show is about a nearly omniscient superintelligent artificial intelligence? And so the show unfolds from a straightforward genre show into an increasingly smart and strange work of science fiction, until by the end of its fifth and final season it is one of the smartest, most subversive things ever put on broadcast television while also delivering great popcorn entertainment.

As the series proceeds, it becomes clear that — unlike too many convoluted TV shows these days — it had a plan all along. It will get under your skin and into your head. Watch enough and you will never stop wondering if maybe the Machine is listening. You may even start hoping that it is.

Watching the show

A few tips to help you get into it and get the most out of it.

  • The back half of Season One drags a little, making it tempting to skip ahead or drop out. Hold fast. That stretch lays some important track, and the doldrums will not get bad, nor will they last long. As the show wraps up the first season and makes the turn into the second season, it starts getting weirder and gutsier and better and really takes off.
  • Always watch the title sequence. The show wants Finch’s explanation of the show's story to sink in ... and the show will occasionally use the content of the titles to good advantage.
  • Actor Jim Caviezel’s gruff performance as Reese, our dapper vigilante badass, is so dryly comedic that you might miss at first that it is funny at all, so it is good to have permission up front to recognize the gag.
  • Actor Michael Emerson’s anxious performance as Finch, our nerd billionaire, is also an underplayed marvel. The only other performance I know which takes as good advantage of the long game of series television is Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. Late in the final season he gets a monologue which shows that he and the writers had been keeping his powder dry this entire time until it was time to finally dial it all of the way up.
  • The show is in dialogue with The Wire; the crime drama aspects of PoI are often like a fantastical, melodramatic version of The Wire, and if you love The Wire you will enjoy PoI's little winks toward it, including Wire actors turning up. I count myself lucky to have watched The Wire first, but it is hardly necessary. (Check out my enthusiastic pitch for The Wire for more about it; I am among the chorus who think it is far and away the best TV series ever made, as well as an important window into the American condition.)
  • The show is also heavily influenced by a little-known 1970 science fiction movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, which is about a different super-intelligent AI. Forbin is a movie decades ahead of its time and worth tracking down for its own sake, and if you see it you will find its fingerprints all over PoI.
  • If you find that, like all right thinking people, you take a liking to the glamorous fixer Zoe Morgan, you might want to check out the film Inside Man, which is a terrific movie and features Jodie Foster in a role which obviously inspired Zoe.
  • A couple of important characters are introduced without much fanfare, and it is good to have the small spoiler to know to keep an eye on them:
    • Kevin Chapman as salty, dirty cop Lionel Fusco
    • Amy Acker, who is a miracle worker of an actor wherever she appears

At the time I write this, the complete series of Person Of Interest is streaming on Netflix. Binge like the wind, Gentle Reader, and drop me a line to let me know how you liked it.

10 April 2020

HRC vs. DJT

I keep thinking that I don't need to say this any more ... and it keeps coming up. So for my own convenience if for no other reason, here is my take on whether Hillary Clinton was a “good candidate” in 2016.

I am not talking here about Clinton's merits as a potential actual President. Nor am I talking about the tactical particulars of her 2016 campaign. Just whether she was a fundamentally strong candidate.

I submit that she would have been a great candidate for the race everyone thought 2016 was going to be, but the worst possible candidate for the race we actually got.

The lesson of the George W. Bush era was that a Democrat running for President has to face a movement conservative slime machine which can find bullshit to sling at anybody. After they slimed Bill Clinton for a real estate investment where he lost money, they perfected the art and slimed Al “Most Square Democrat” Gore for being a “liar” and slimed John “Sliver and Bronze Star” Kerry for being a coward.

Barack Obama slipped that punch by getting unprecedented Black turnout. But there is no going back to that well; even if Fredrick Douglass and Martin Luther King came back from the dead and ran on a ticket together, I don't think you could get the same numbers Obama brought out for his historic first.

So the Democrats needed a candidate who could counter the slime machine.

On that basis, Hillary Clinton was the best possible candidate. She had been facing the full force of that machine, under the most intense possible scrutiny, for decades. She knew all of their moves; she had already made every mistake you can and taken every punch they had and lived to tell the tale. Recall that they ground away at the Benghazi pseudoscandal for years, with Congressional subpoena power in their pocket, and couldn't make it stick.

Any other candidate was a risk, might turn out to have some unforeseen vulnerability which the conservative media machine would exploit. Not Hillary Clinton. She was the most thoroughly vetted candidate for oppo research of all time; no conservative was going to come up with new dirt on her, they had already tried everything.

If the Republican candidate for President in 2016 had been a movement conservative — Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or one of those guys — she would have crushed him like a bug.

But that was not the race we got.

Instead of a movement conservative, the Republicans had Donald Trump, buoyed on the enthusiasm of conservative voters disgusted with (or at least tired of) the movement conservatives whom Clinton had spent half a lifetime learning to fight.

To fight Trump, the Democratic candidate had to peel away a few conservatives and conservative-inclined “independents” who were unenthusiastic about Trump. They didn't even need those voters to switch sides, just to stay home.

Any other candidate could have done it. They could have played left, reaching for “conservatives” who actually like liberal policies but have a taste for conservative rhetoric. They could have played right, promising that they were moderate enough that four years of their Presidency wouldn't be too bad.

But Hillary Clinton could not. For two decades “President Hillary” had been conservative media's metonym for götterdämmerung, the worst nightmare imaginable. Anyone who gave the least bit of credence to conservative politics could not sit out an election with the Devil Herself on the slate.

That didn't make Clinton's loss a sure thing; recall that the race was a squeaker. But it did make Hillary Clinton a uniquely bad candidate for running against a unique Republican candidate named Donald J. Trump.

30 March 2020

Unknown Armies on violence

Unknown Armies is the single tabletop roleplaying game dearest to my heart, not least because the writing is self-aware about how the nasty thrills of the noir horror stories it facilitates are actually ... nasty.

One of the designers, John Scott Tynes, wrote my favorite critique of violence in tabletop roleplaying over a decade before the “murderhobo” critique came along, and I am told that he is responsible for this introduction to the rules for combat in the first edition of the rules:

Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer’s day, fell in love, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say “please” and “thank you,” and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.

It’s a terrible thing. Not just because he’s come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he’s going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels, dying alone and removed from everything you’ve ever loved. No, it’s a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn’t it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you’re staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.

Six ways to stop a fight

So before you make a grab for that knife, you should maybe think about a few things. This moment is frozen in time. You can still make a better choice.

Surrender. Is your pride really worth a human life? Drop your weapon, put up your hands, and tell them you’re ready to cut a deal. You walk, and in exchange you give them something they need. Sidestep the current agenda. Offer them something unrelated to your dispute, and negotiate to find a solution.

Diasarm. Knife on the table? Throw it out the window. Opponent with a gun? Dodge until he’s out of bullets. Deëscalate the confrontation to fists, if possible. You can settle your differences with some brawling and still walk away, plus neither of you has to face a murder charge or a criminal investigation.

Rechannel. So you have a conflict. Settle it a smarter way. Arm wrestle, play cards, have a scavenger hunt, a drinking contest, anything that lets you establish a winner and a loser. Smart gamblers bet nothing they aren’t willing to lose. Why put your life on the line?

Pass the Buck. Is there somebody more powerful than either one of you who is going to be angry that you two are coming to blows? Pretend you’re all in the mafia and you can’t just kill each other without kicking your dispute upstairs first. Let that symbolic superior make a decision. You both gain clout for not spilling blood.

Call the Cops. If you’ve got a grievance against somebody, let the police do the dirty work. File charges. Get a restraining order. Sue him in civil court for wrongful harm. You can beat him down without throwing a punch.

Run Away. The hell with it. Who needs this kind of heat? Blow town, get a job someplace else, build a new power base. Is the world really two small for the both of you? It’s a big planet out there.

Oh Well

Still determined? Backed into a corner with no way out? Have to fight for the greater good? Up against someone too stupid to know this is a bad idea? Or maybe just itching for some action? So be it. The rest of this chapter contains rules for simulating the murder of human beings. Have fun.

The rules which follow are rich in scary randomness, by design.

19 March 2020

Public option

This should be handy to have in my pocket: a blog post on the evidence that the Obama administration scuttled any hope of a public option in the Affordable Care Act behind closed doors.

This exemplifies how lefties like me read Obama. He dogwhistled progressive values, but did not actually fight for progressive policy because he does not believe in it — which his boosters attribute to the hard limits imposed by Republican opposition, but which lefties read as him deliberately leaving opportunities on the table.

16 February 2019

Long work trips

A friend of mine is plotting a long work trip where they will be hopping from city to city for about a month. They know that I have done work travel like that and asked my advice.

On that kind of long work sojourn, the temptation is to travel Well Prepared because you are going to be On The Road For A While. But I recommend traveling as light as one can. This kind of trip in particular means packing and unpacking a lot, maneuvering through airports, loading in and out of cars. You don't want to bring more than you can carry for a distance ... because at some point you will have to.

I keep my travel kit packed all the time, and bring the same stuff whether on an overnight or hitting the road for a month, whether staying somewhere for a long stretch or roving around. That makes me ready to stay on the road indefinitely, because on a few occasions I have had to extend my trip by a day or three ... or a week ... and I want to always stand ready for that.

One of these days I will have to write about my whole travel kit in detail. For now, an overview relevant to this type of travel, with links to products I recommend.

I have a sub-maximum carry-on for the overhead plus a comfort bag for under the seat in front of me on the plane. I actually own two different carry-on options — a rolling pullman case for work travel and a backpack-able soft case for most personal travel — but I pack the same stuff either way.

The comfort bag contains everything I need to have available for my animal needs on a plane or elsewhere, plus my laptop, tablet, and Kindle. I always keep it close enough to grab, and it fits on my lap if necessary. It has my neck pillow, blindfold, dorky mouth-and-nose mask, noise cancelling headphoneswater bottle and electrolytes — convenient-format caffeine, melatonin, drugs, spices, and wipes — a plain white shemagh — and all my cables, batteries, and power converters. With a mini extension cord which turns one plug into two outlets, I can ask someone to let me cut in if they have taken the only available power outlet somewhere. Plus I leave a little room to tuck in some snacks: manage that blood sugar!

The carry-on has my clothes and other stuff that I only unpack on arrival. At this point my entire travel wardrobe is made of technical fabrics or merino wool that hold up to a beating and wash & dry easily. That makes it easier to travel with a small wardrobe with confidence.

(Update: a friend was surprised that I did not mention my enthusiasm for packing cubes. Packing cubes are a godsend. They make it easy to pack tight without your bag exploding when you open it. I usually take the cubes out of the bag and just lay them in the hotel dresser, still packed. I am particularly fond of two-chamber cubes that pack clean and dirty clothes into the same tidy space.)

In theory one can do ultralight travel and get it down to One To Wash And One To Wear but that means never ever skipping a day from being too tired or whatever. Better to have a buffer, but not too much because that means traveling with more kit and facing the dangerous temptation to not Always Be Laundering. Handwashing laundry in a hotel room it is hard to do more than two changes at once, so one can easily end up with a dirty laundry deficit that is hard to pay off. I pack four days of clothes and wear one, which gets me through a normal work week. But my kit always contains a clothesline, washbag, and soap. One can just do laundry in a hotel sink but having a Scrubba bag helps a lot. The instructions show a person agitating the bag with their hands but it is a million times easier to set it in the shower and stomp it for a few minutes with your feet.

One travel garment I strongly recommend is a middleweight zipper cardigan that zips all the way open or all the way up into a turtleneck-like arrangement. You can wear that under your jacket and be warm enough in pretty cold weather and it is easy to regulate temperature with the zipper. If real cold weather is a possibility, a light hooded puffer jacket layers nicely and covers a lot of situations while packing small. And whatever the weather I always pack a light rain jacket / windbreaker.

Aside from kit, you have to get your head right. When doing this kind of travel it is very easy to succumb to FOMO. “I have this one chance tonight to see a little of Chicago!” But on the long sojourn, the enemy is Creeping Exhaustion. Your first priority must always be taking every opportunity for rest you can get. It is 100% legit to hide in a hotel room or a host’s guest room. You will see and do more in the long run if you jealously guard your energies.

Getting to sleep in a strange bed, fighting jet lag, can be tough. I knock myself out with a cocktail of Benadryl and sublingual melatonin; melatonin forces the body clock but I find that if I don't fall asleep when it first makes me drowsy I end up with insomnia, so the Benadryl forces me to zonk out enough that the melatonin can take hold.

And never forget the ABC of travel: always be charging.