26 January 2022


In the wake of recent revelations that Joss Whedon is even worse than we knew, I have been in some lively conversations on Facebook, including one inspired by a post proposing an interesting Firefly reboot. I have muttered about picking up where we left off in animation, so that special effects and aging actors are not a problem, but this is more interesting.

you get rid of Mal completely and Zoe is the captain [so the] story now centers around a Black woman who escaped the Confederacy-analog and is trying to make a living in a hostile world

I will second my friend’s comment on how central it is that Whedon wanted to do a Western, and inherited the need for something like the US Civil War in the backstory, and just did not reflect deeply enough on the particulars:

It’s because the Confederate-soldier-as-traumatized-cowboy thing is endemic in the whole Western genre — I mean, look at Clint Eastwood’s filmography alone. So many considered-classic Westerns have Confederate veterans as sympathetic characters and use it as a shorthand for “he got used up and had something to run from and is trying to find a new kind of identity.” (I wonder how much of that is an attempt to translate the emotional dynamics of ronin characters in Westerns adapted from samurai stories.) As someone fond of Westerns, it sucks.

All that is to say, I can see why someone thought translating that thing for a space Western was a good idea. The fact that they then went through with it instead of stopping right there speaks to who didn’t have voices or power in the writer's room, and who did.

And also I have a belief, informed by many of Whedon’s comments about the show, stuff we know about the production, and evidence in the show itself, that the original intent was that the Browncoat Independents, and most of the Serenity crew, and Mal in particular would be bad guys, with the Alliance as good guys. Not kinda sorta. In a committed way.

You see it in things Whedon has said about grappling with what he needed to find respect for in The Other Side of the US culture & politics split. (Recall that this was the early 2000s.)

You see this in how repugnant a figure Mal is in the pilot episode. I find it very telling that he goes out of his way to be rude to a priest and a prostitute; given the way that W’s cultural politics rhyme with my own, that is specially galling. I mean, the show will later point out in the text that the name “Mal” means bad.

You see this in how feature film introduces the crew to unfamiliar viewers with Jayne saying “let’s be bad guys” right before they rob a bank.

You see it in hints of how Book was a black ops spy before turning to the priesthood.

You see this in how much muttering we got from W and others involved about how early plans for the show were “much darker”.

But there was Network Meddling, of course, and that’s not just W justifying himself (though of course it is also that). One of the big things was that they demanded that Mal & the Serenity crew needed to be “more likable”, and on reflection it is clear that the suits were kind of right. The charms of the show we got, the things most fans love, are unmistakably illuminated by that turn.

Had W really held full control, as he did with Dollhouse, I imagine that it would have been a lot like … Dollhouse: dark and strange and gutsy and perverse and morally upsetting and full of W’s poisons, with Mal clawing his way to some kind of strange Whedon-y redemption over several seasons. I imagine that the fan reception would have been similar. Even most Whedon fans dislike Dollhouse, for very good reasons.

But this change also gave us a Broken Aesop. Mal and his crew and the legacy of the Browncoats are played too much as Lovable Rogues With Hearts Of Gold for their position and backstory to make sense, narratively or morally. So there is a very weird tension in these characters being Big Damm Heroes.

Plus speaking from a long history of being a Relative Whedon Apologist ... remaining one even now, as I insist that Whedon must be understood both as a monster and yet also in an important way despite that, yes, a feminist ... and even being willing to make a spirited defense of Dollhouse as an unholy creation bathed in Whedon's poisons but nonetheless possessing some significant virtues for which we must credit Whedon ... let me say that:

  • Inara’s characterization is probably the most unforgivable, indefensible unforced error in the whole of Whedon’s oeuvre, which is saying a lot
  • River is the Whedon Waifish Badass who works best; he has said that the idea behind River was that she would be the Hero, the Damsel, and the Monster all at once and hey, there is something powerful in that, but he got those moves dialed in by letting his personal kinks bring him back to the Crazy Waifish Badass well so damm many times that … ew

24 January 2022

Wilhoit’s Axe

One of the best comments on politics on the web is a comment on a blog post. Slightly less astonishing since the post — good in itself — is on Crooked Timber, one of the one of the few websites where the people running it have cultivated a comment section which is often even more intereesting than the posts.

The key bit is much-quoted ...

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

There must be in-groups whom the law protectes but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

... but the whole comment is very illuminating, so I am reproducing it here for convenience:

There is no such thing as liberalism — or progressivism, etc.

There is only conservatism. No other political philosophy actually exists; by the political analogue of Gresham’s Law, conservatism has driven every other idea out of circulation.

There might be, and should be, anti-conservatism; but it does not yet exist. What would it be? In order to answer that question, it is necessary and sufficient to characterize conservatism. Fortunately, this can be done very concisely.

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

There must be in-groups whom the law protectes but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

There is nothing more or else to it, and there never has been, in any place or time.

For millenia, conservatism had no name, because no other model of polity had ever been proposed. “The king can do no wrong.” In practice, this immunity was always extended to the king’s friends, however fungible a group they might have been. Today, we still have the king’s friends even where there is no king (dictator, etc.). Another way to look at this is that the king is a faction, rather than an individual.

As the core proposition of conservatism is indefensible if stated baldly, it has always been surrounded by an elaborate backwash of pseudophilosophy, amounting over time to millions of pages. All such is axiomatically dishonest and undeserving of serious scrutiny. Today, the accelerating de-education of humanity has reached a point where the market for pseudophilosophy is vanishing; it is, as The Kids Say These Days, tl;dr . All that is left is the core proposition itself — backed up, no longer by misdirection and sophistry, but by violence.

So this tells us what anti-conservatism must be: the proposition that the law cannot protect anyone unless it binds everyone, and cannot bind anyone unless it protects everyone.

Then the appearance arises that the task is to map “liberalism”, or “progressivism”, or “socialism”, or whateverthefuckkindofstupidnoise-ism, onto the core proposition of anti-conservatism.

No, it a’n’t. The task is to throw all those things on the exact same burn pile as the collected works of all the apologists for conservatism, and start fresh. The core proposition of anti-conservatism requires no supplementation and no exegesis. It is as sufficient as it is necessary. What you see is what you get:

The law cannot protect anyone unless it binds everyone; and it cannot bind anyone unless it protects everyone.

This piece is one of the key resources from the American Conservatism section of my Understanding American Politics index.

Hat tip to Jeff Miller for the perfect term “Wilhoit’s Axe”.

20 January 2022

Xander Harris

Capturing a comment of mine about the character of Xander from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, from a discussion of the article about Joss Whedon which revealed that his misconduct is even worse than previously known in public.

The new interview drops something into place which I think many of his critics, as well as relative apologists like me, missed in trying to understand both his life and his work. It reveals Whedon as more deeply narcissistic than was publicly evident before.

So I strongly disagree with suggestions that the Buffy character reflecting Whedon is Parker Abrams, the fella who seduces Buffy shortly after her arrival at college by pretending to be a stand-up guy but then coldly dropping her immediately after they sleep together. Parker is deliberately deceitful and manipulative. That is a villain Whedon can comfort himself in rightly thinking is very different from him. Whedon’s poisonousness is not cold and calculating; it is, instead, deeply felt and rationalized.

Nor do I think the geeky, villainous Trio are quite the key example of Whedon Telling On Himself which critics of his have long suggested. There is a lot to be said for that reading, and how the reading of them which Whedon was trying to invite — there but for the grace of feminist sensibilities go I — was always a smokescreen.

But I differ from many critics of Whedon who see his professed feminism as nothing other than a deliberate trick. I read Whedon and Buffy — much as I still love Buffy, in spite of it all — as often poisonous and misogynistic and yet also sincerely feminist. That is not a defense. It is an indictment; Whedon had reason to know better, and failed. Alas, Whedon is hardly the only person to mix poison with feminism.

I think that Whedon’s narcissism makes Xander his analogue. Genuinely committed to caring for other people, and often successful at it … but also so far up his own ass that he at least as often deeply hurtful to his friends and lovers, over and over again … with the show expecting us to forgive Xander for these being innocent, honest mistakes … despite the insincerity of his remorse and his failure to make recompense, because he is always prioritizing his own feelings. The quotes from Whedon in the the new article reveal the same pattern in him.

So I think that it is far from accidental that Whedon constructs Xander with his boneheadedness to superficially seem as different from himself as possible, despite this core similarity. That is not simply a smokescreen for us, it protects Whedon from seeing himself.

Similarly, it is often suggested that Xander is meant as a point-of-view character for fellas watching the show, and seeing him as a projection of Whedon’s particular toxicity supports that reading … but that is not quite my own take.

I prefer to focus on Xander being the Token Ordinary Guy, and a dip into how the core characters are designed in light of what we now know about Whedon makes Xander an even more unwholesome figure.

One can think of them this way:

Buffy bold brawn Kirk
Willow anxious brains Spock
Xander steady heart McCoy

This structure reveals a lot about Whedon’s sensibilities in action.

There’s the Feminist Inversion in which we have the token “heart” figure as a fella and the commonly male-coded archetypes as women. The Feminist Inversion move has serious limits & problems, which much more insightful people than me have described at length ... but it is easy to forget how much life and value there was in it 25 years ago.

Significantly, Xander is relentlessly brave, never hesitating to put himself between danger and the others in the Scooby Gang. The show never points to this directly, but it is a constant in his characterization and part of why it expects us to count him as heroic. But it very often makes him a liability. Whedon has talked about how when all else failed, they could motivate the plot (especially in early seasons) by putting Willow in danger … but if you think about it, Xander’s bravery is also often used to create plot complications because repeatedly facing danger when he is outmatched is a liability, forcing the other characters to set aside their goals to rescue him.

Which brings us back to my original point that Xander is an asshole who creates a trail of wreckage with his shortsightedness and egocentricity, and the show expects us to simply forgive him because he quips and means well and has Feelings. But astute watchers of the show tend to say Xander Is The Worst because he is dangerously irresponsible both as a Monster Fighter and in relationshipping. Dude is an asshole, and the voice of the show really does not seem to register it.

And I must also observe that wow does the show work hard to get Xander laid. Gross once you notice it. Doubly so when you consider what a hurtful person he is. Trebly so if you read him as reflecting Whedon’s personal dreams. Ew.

10 January 2022

Irritable mental gestures

I need to keep this quote handy from Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imaginination (1950):

In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

Trilling of course neglects to distinguish liberalism from leftism there, which frustrates leftists (including me). The Left do not lack for an intellectual tradition; if anything, the Left is plagued with too much intellectual tradition. But I forgive Trilling since his turn of phrase is so vivid and I imagine him offering a vigorous argument that in 1950 there was no meaningful American Left to talk about.

I learned this turn of phrase from a long essay which is perhaps the single most clarifying thing I have had about the intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism in the US, talking about conservative David Frum’s book Dead Right (1995).

What Frum has got, to repeat, is just a feeling that the kids these days are getting a bit soft. Everyone feels this way sometimes, of course – since it’s true. But some people have thoughts as well as feelings about this attendant effect of civilization. And so it turns out Lionel Trilling was maybe not such a poor prophet after all, when he wrote way back in 1953: “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition;” for the anti-liberals do not, by and large, “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Irritable mental gestures. Yep. Frum.

OK. Trilling too strong. I do concede there are serious conservative thinkers and intellectuals. I make a point of reading – and I quite enjoy reading - quite a number of quite conservative writers and thinkers, and I hope I am smart enough to learn from them when I should. But it is seriously easy to pretend you’ve got a conservative philosophy when really you’re armed with nothing but irritable gestures.

(Frum has acquitted himself surprisingly well as a Never Trump’er, and his reward has of course been estrangement from the conservative movement and the Republican Party.)