Wednesday, August 26, 2020

So I Just Read Les Misérables

 

This regards the 1987 Signet Classics edition of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, complete and unabridged, translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, based on the original French to English translation by C.E. Wilbour. All spoilers to follow.

I'd tried reading Les Misérables several years ago but quite honestly got tired with Hugo's overwrought prose somewhere in Volume II. Since the world is ending and I ran out of library books, I figured this was a good time to give it another go. I'm glad I did because while Hugo doesn't get any less wrought as the story grows, it's both a fascinating exploration of 19th Century society in the shadow of revolution and an insight into the psyche of the time, still wrestling with old aristocratic habits and new republican ideals.

But having said all that - and planning to say more - what really defines this gargantuan novel is a morality play, centered on the character of Jean Valjean. Imprisoned for stealing bread and kept for four times his original sentence because of repeated escape attempts, he is both sympathetic while being hardened and cunning enough to be a compelling hero. Some might be attempted to call him Byronic but rather his turn from a life of wickedness - or what society deems wicked - to the good is much more religious. Embittered and alienated from all humanity at the start, the kindness and forgiveness of a provincial bishop sets him on his path to redemption at the start to which he pursues with as little regard for the mores and norms of society as when he was a criminal but with rather with a focus on compassion and relieving the suffering of others.

Valjean finds his project of human betterment embodied in the orphaned Cosette. Orphaned by his own charitable machinations in his guise as Monsieur Madeleine, the benefactor from nowhere who builds up the factory town Montreuil-sur-Mer. A factory that employs - and degrades and throws away - Cosette's martyred mother Fantine. But before he can swoop in and save the poor orphan, Valjean's past catches up with him in a morality play within a morality play.

Enter Inspector Javert, Hugo's embodiment not of Good but of Order. Javert's commitment to law and authority is tautological - it must be obeyed because it is law and authority - and he takes visible pleasure in subjecting others to the law's severity. At first suspecting the beloved Mayor Madeleine of being the convict Valjean, he later recants his theory as some poor dolt in a neighboring town is arrested for stealing apples and roundly accused of being the infamous Valjean. Real name Champmathieu, he is subjected to a Kafkaesque trial in which his insistence upon his true identity is proof of his guilt.

This play within a play serves to illustrate Hugo's larger point about the society of his day and law and order. How stealing bread or simply mistaken identity can condemn someone to lifelong ignominy, the old feudal castes persisting under different names, as further demonstrated when "Monsieur Madeleine" storms the trial to proclaim himself the true Jean Valjean, to which everyone reacts with incredulity. He can't possibly be a convict because he is a respected mayor and businessman.

However, as much as Hugo challenges these lingering ideas of inherent goodness and wickedness, of castes assigned either success or misery for all time, he still cannot break free of the essentialist view of human nature. This Great Man theory is a constant theme through Hugo's novel, often in tension with his professed republican ideals. For all his focus on the dignity and suffering of the lower classes, it's only through the superiority of Mayor Madeleine - the reformed Jean Valjean - that uplifts the community of Montfermeil. When he surrenders himself to the law to save Champmathieu, the whole town goes back to seed.

The long digression on the Battle of Waterloo further cements this paradox in Hugo's thinking. Hugo talks glowingly of Napoleon, of how his incredible successes had to be ordained by Providence, and contrasts this with the dull and offensively un-brilliant Wellington. But the dull guy won.

To go on my own brief digression - and Hugo would approve, having dedicated an entire chapter to the history of the sewers of Paris - this Great Man theory so enraptured the French post-Napoleon that it arguably led to their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The Grand Armee had long been accustomed to being the instrument of their supreme commander's genius, but where Napoleon III proved timid and dejected the mid-rank officers of the Prussian forces quickly exploited every opportunity to drive the fight across Europe and back to Paris. Not through any particular genius but rather through disciplined efficiency.

Speaking of the siege of Paris and glorious Great Men getting ground under by forces of history, the tension between Hugo's conflicting ideals also manifests in the dichotomy between Enjolras and Thenardier. The former a young republican idealist and leader of a sort of proletariat salon of downwardly mobile intellectuals styling themselves revolutionaries, the latter an unscrupulous thief and con artist always striving after a new payday. Thenardier appears first in the narrative, he and his wife nominally accepting Cosette into their home to care for her while Fantine works herself to an early grave to provide for the little girl. Thenardier naturally makes the little girl a Cinderella-like slave, while constantly demanding more and more payments from Fantine, citing the many expenses incurred raising Cosette. Which is a blatant lie.

When Valjean escapes the chain gang yet again and comes to rescue Cosette - his coat sewn up with bank bills from his Madeleine fortune - Thenardier lets the little girl go for a song and a mere 15,000 Francs. He's got a good grift going with a tavern at the time, where his wife gets to lord it over everyone and his own daughters get to play with dolls and a kitten. But when this family appears again, they are fallen much lower in circumstances and are living in a squalid boardinghouse. Thenardier is left to composing fraudulent letters begging well-to-do Parisians - or who he thinks are well-to-do - for a little remittance here and there, while quite literally whoring his own daughters out to his criminal contacts. As much pains as Hugo goes to in portraying society beating down the "good" scoundrels like Jean Valjean, here he offers no such compassion for low and grasping people in a chapter even named "The Noxious Poor."

Contrast with the impoverished in matter but not in spirit Enjolras and his coterie. At first secondary to the bildungsroman of Marius that makes up the second half of the novel, they represent the boiling political radicalism that claimed descent from the Revolution but doesn't have much to show in terms of concrete plans - at least as presented by Hugo. They have plenty of noble airs and when the uprising of 1832 comes, they all take up arms and man the barricades gladly, but they have no real plans beyond dying gloriously for "the cause."

Really, the particulars don't concern Hugo so much as Progress. Like Hegel, he sees a deliberate direction to history, rising from the barbarous Ancien Regime into the glorious Republic of freedom and reason. And in service of this Progress, the violence of the barricades is completely warranted. Enjolras feels morally empowered by his ideals to kill not just the gendarmes mobilized to suppress the uprising but also to execute those whose rebellion is too sloppy and undisciplined. He even plans to execute a police spy within the barricade - the long absent from the narrative at this point Inspector Javert - but is bamboozled by Jean Valjean who arrives to rescue not just his nemesis Javert but also Marius, who is due for a wedded ever after ending with Cosette. In the process, he manages to assist the barricade without taking a single life - allowing Hugo to maintain Valjean's sainthood while also indulging in the thrill of revolutionary violence.

In the midst of all this bloody climax though, we get to see an unintentionally more compelling character. Eponine, daughter of Thenardier whose arc takes her from playing with a kitten in the Thenardier Inn to walking barefoot and broken through the slums of Paris illustrates how society fails the unfortunate. She descends through the lower strata of acceptable morality not out of any personal failings or even mistakes, but rather from the misfortune of birth. Her father - and mother, to a lesser degree - are the few truly wicked in Hugo's novel and their vulgar machinations drag their daughter into ignominy, poverty, and an untimely death. A better illustration of how society fails the less fortunate than the transcendent sainthood of Jean Valjean.

All of this being said, I can appreciate how much of a classic Les Misérables is but I wouldn't recommend it as a quarantine read. You'd have a better time with George Eliot's Middlemarch, which offers a more digestible prose style and greater psychological depth. But if you've read that already, you should give Hugo's magnum opus a go.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Darkly Through a Mirror: 2020 to 2030


Elections are the least of your worries.

Climate change is on track for maximum damage in the next decade. Barring a catastrophic global war - not impossible - emissions will not be reduced, arctic ice will continue to melt, and this global hot house will get a lot hotter. So let's speculate on what's gonna get worse and what you can do to survive.

1. War is Coming Back in Style.


Whether or not the Beltway insiders get their longed for conflict with Iran or if all the armchair fascists will have to content themselves with border bush wars, the trend in militarizing American culture is due to accelerate. Trump already telegraphed this, unintentionally as he's more autistic Cassandra than Machiavellian schemer, packing his first season White House with generals. Democrats enable this, being just as if not more deferential to the brass than the GOP. When the Pentagon launches its coup on a President Sanders, plenty of professional liberals will cheer them on.

Meanwhile, regarding those border wars, they’ll be fed as much by climate migration as the full blown fascism of white suburbanites. The National Guard will eventually get involved which, depending on who they’re ordered to side with and who they actually side with, could kick off a hot civil war that all the alt-right violence has presaged in the past couple years. What will surprise all the MAGA-sucking chuds is how it doesn’t break down along a clean Mason-Dixon line or even the expected Democrat and Republican divide  but between urban and suburban/rural. The rurals will make good fighters but they’re commitment to the small business tyrants calling the shots will wax and wane with the seasons. And as the parched and mismanaged countryside fails to keep the supermarkets stocked, the suburbanites will realize their error and start scrambling for the cities – though not after they’ve tried to ethnically cleanse every cul de sac.

2. The New Feudalism.


The cities are where it’s at, for better and for worse. Already logistically integrated for delivering food, power, and most important of all water they will be able to outlast the dying howl of the suburbanites. They’ll also win every straight out battle as they have just as many guns as the NRA pickup truck squadrons but more people to man the barricades. War comes down to people and American cities have them to spare.

Once the Y’allqaeda attacks cease, the cities can benefit from real green innovations in solar power and rooftop gardens. They won’t have to defer to the hippie-hating Reaganites in the retirement exurbs and as anyone who’s spent real time in Brooklyn or Philadelphia can tell you, urban conservatives are much more agreeable to welfare programs and public works than their nominally ideological cousins haunting the outer strip malls.

But it won’t be all wine and DSA roses. These same cities also host the financial and corporate powers that brought us to this wretched state of affairs in the first place. So while you should flee to a city now, you should be very careful about which city. Some of them are just broken: Baltimore, Gary, Milwaukee – all ravaged by opiates and austerity. You’d stand a better chance tramping it with the rurals – who won’t all be white nationalists, as that’s a strictly suburban middle class phenomenon. Others will be too technocratic and oligarchic to be livable, especially New York City which will let Brooklyn drown in the rising seas as it extracts Brooklynite taxes to build a wall around Lower Manhattan. Wall Street is too sure of its own importance to consider moving, even as the waters come in. And the promise of all that wealth trickling down will keep a steady stream of migrant workers flowing into ever more cramped proletariat blocks and squats, their simmering rebellion kept in check by an NYPD that would already qualify as a standing army. Imagine the Mega-City One of Judge Dredd, just with trash everywhere and worse humidity than Atlanta.

3. Socialism and Barbarism.


The worst of both worlds will be SoCal and Denver. Not because they’re saturated with old money power but because outside their respective downtowns it’s all suburbs and strip malls. This will be where the bloodiest battles will be fought, along explicitly racist lines throughout SoCal and in a nihilistic war of all against all in the Mile High City, which already leads the nation in mass shootings. Boulder might survive, being more left than San Francisco and more armed than Texas.

The best – all things considered – will be the Twin Cities and Great Lakes. Beyond escaping the worst of the rising temperatures, these regions boast generous fresh water (I can’t emphasize water enough), much more leftish leanings than the East and West Coast sprawls – especially Minneapolis – and get you closer to the true mid-century goal: Canada. This is not to idealize the Great Northern Frontier – you’ll find just as many reactionaries polluting the Toronto and Vancouver suburbs – but northward is the only sensible option as the Colorado River runs dry, hurricanes batter down even New England, and fires spread from California into the Pacific Northwest. Get there now, before they militarize their own border!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Empire Strikes Out

Last week, the American Empire ended. It was short lived, as empires go, but managed to cover the most square miles across the globe with military bases and go directly from savagery to debauchery without any of that pesky civilization in between. Unless you still think the Eisenhower era wasn’t monstrous.

It may not look it, especially with Trump and his chickenhawks insisting no Americans – meaning nobody who mattered – died in Iran’s ballistic missile strike. Iran is saying 80, so by the rules of warfare body counts, we can estimate about a dozen US or US-allied casualties. None of whom compare strategically to Soleimani, but that’s not the point. The point is Iran, a supposedly third world backwater theocracy fired not one but two dozen missiles from their country across the border into another. Two dozen missiles demonstrating the capacity for more – if they spend this many in a choreographed show of force, how many can they call up if under direct threat by the US military? – as well as demonstrating the grit and determination to engage US forces on open military terms, rather than just through deniable proxies or the other impoverished peasants the American war machine has battled across the Islamic world for the past two decades. A serious and technologically capable opponent.

And Trump blinked.

A decade ago, even under Obama, a foreign nation launching missiles – not car bombs, not IEDs, actual weapons of war – at US troops would precipitate a thunderous response. Since the Clinton Pentagon of full spectrum dominance, the US military has cultivated a vast and vicious arsenal of scaleable mayhem. Nuclear capable artillery is just one of the reasons Americans can’t have cheap insulin. There’s also fleets of space age aircraft that cost whole congressional districts and even got to be deployed in a real fight on the night of the missiles. They didn’t engage Iranian aircraft but may have shot down a civilian jetliner – not a first for US air forces over Iran. But rather than deploying any of its hugely expensive arsenal, the American Empire waited out the missiles and, once the dust cleared, put on a dog-and-pony press conference to insist they didn’t just totally get their shit kicked in. For all his swagger and bluster, Trump is thankfully terrified of a real fight.

Thankfully, because while the US military could still win a battle with Iran, they would lose the war. And not the way they’ve lost to the Taliban or Iraqi insurgents but in hard material ways that would impact the American homefront – not because Iran is so formidable an opponent but because American hegemony has been collapsing.

Let’s assume Trump didn’t wimp out last week. Let’s assume he took the reins off all the conventional and “special” forces the US has deployed throughout the Gulf. There are even mid-rank officers chomping at the bit to go after Iran, because they blame Iran for the failure in Iraq and aren’t that bright. All of these elaborate, advanced, and very expensive weapons and troops the US is poised to use would immediately run into the one thing they haven’t experienced or expected in generations: an actually serious military opponent. Iran has the hardware and manpower to stop any US advance in its tracks, thanks to the shallow draught of the Gulf, the mountainous geography of the Iranian plateau, and the incredible vulnerability of American sea power to the sort of ballistic missile attacks just carried out.

Even once American forces could penetrate Iran’s defenses – likely after calling up reinforcements like Rumsfeld was forced to do for the much smaller and weaker Iraqi defenders in 2003 – any attempt at occupation would collide with a population universally opposed to a foreign presence on their soil. “Regime Change,” that idiot dream of neoconservatism, would immediately give way to conquest, which would need to be fought block by bloody block. Already popular American opinion has refused to rally around the flag for Trump’s assassination of Soleimani and the Iranian’s retaliatory fireworks show. The sinking confidence in official institutions ushered in by the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crash would quickly spiral into a popular disconnect, protests devolving into riots, and martial law being instigated by a police culture all too eager to murder their own neighbors. In defeating Iran, America would turn itself into a failed state and international pariah.

That’s not even counting the impact Iran can have beyond the immediate battle with an American invasion force. All the allegations of Iran terrorizing oil shipments through the Persian Gulf confess the reality that they really can disrupt the biggest oil export line in the world. The same missiles and irregular attacks that will sink an American carrier can shut down the Strait of Hormuz, causing enormous economic damage worldwide. Hezbollah and other Iran-friendly militias have already made it clear they will go all in against Israel just for a retaliation to last week’s Iranian retaliation. The American neoconservatives and their evangelical fellow travelers will finally get the crusade against all Islam they’ve desired since 2001 - and will quickly see they are outnumbered across the whole Middle East. Every day will be Benghazi.

That’s still a good scenario. When faced with such a serious, implacable foe and with a cruel dunderhead like Trump at the helm the inevitable question is “What about nukes?” The US has them and despite all the propaganda to the contrary Iran definitely does not. Once Marine battalions are retreating back to the shores of the Gulf, even the “reasonable” people middle class rubes have placed their hopes in might be arguing for a nuclear strike. A limited one, of course, at least at first. Limited to the battlefield or targeting Tehran and other population centers, two outcomes are certain: First, Russia and China will not launch in retaliation, no matter how friendly they are now with Iran, because mutually assured destruction would then be in effect. Beijing is too busy plotting out its Chinese Century to fall for that and the Kremlin – while being more cavalier on tactical nuclear deployment – isn’t looking for a kamikaze strike on their geopolitical rivals either. Second, and more important, nobody has to nuke the US back to retaliate over the ravaging of Iran.

Even if the nukes never enter the picture, the US launching a wildly unpopular war on the regional power most responsible for defeating ISIS could trigger the actual doomsday scenario of the United States Dollar being dropped as a reserve currency. It’s not the massive and massively expensive American armed forces ensuring imperial power so much as an international demand for dollars. Oligarchs from Russia to China to France can’t get enough of them and it’s how the US has managed to remain a top global economy despite hollowing out its own manufacturing sector. But abandon that reserve currency – something that’s already in the works – and the whole house of cards collapses. The mortgage crisis will look like a slow afternoon in comparison, the Great Depression merely a rainy day. And it won’t just wreck the financial markets and the suburban small business clowns – without that inflation-proofing granted by dollar hegemony, all the grand plans of DSA and the Sanders campaign really will be impossible to pay for.

So it’s for the best Trump blinked and we should all hope he keeps blinking. His whole existence was always an argument against the American system and it’s appropriate he be the one to preside over its final dissolution. Post-imperial life can be positive for nations, it’s how the Brits managed to finally do good things like the NHS and Monty Python. By not following through on his bullying, Donald Trump can end the era of Pax Americana and then Americans can have some actual peace in their lives.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Fiction Friday: The Crapper Study

Because Babbling of the Irrational is now a dead link, "The Crapper Study" has been reposted here for all the world to continue to see.

Imagine a public bathroom. Not pristine, though certainly not what one would find at a gas station, just a run-of-the-mill facility with toilets/urinals and toilets, sinks, and the occasional dull vulgarity scribbled on the interior of a stall.

Now imagine Individual A enters -- Individual A can be male or female, it is inconsequential. A has a great desire to relieve himself/herself -- as would be expected of anyone entering the previously described facility -- and looks forward to promptly being done with the whole process for whatever reason -- e.g. going to a meeting/appointment, catching a bus/train/plane or getting home to watch his/her favorite TV show that is only ever on for a short time of the year, as a matter of fact the rerun season is two-thirds longer than the season proper and there is an overarching storyline that requires meticulous viewing of every single episode in sequence to gain the fullest satisfaction possible -- only to find Individual B already present and attempting to relieve himself/herself1.

Individual A and Individual B need not be familiar with each other. Ideally, this would be their first meeting, but any form of not-being-familiar-with-each-other will suffice.

Now imagine Individual A has a personal “quirk” that prevents him/her from doing his/her “business” while in close proximity to another human being. This can be for whatever reason, from simple concerns for privacy, to red-faced embarrassment at the “business” done, to such personal shame and revulsion at the necessary “business” as to feel foolish and unclean should there be any audience to the act.

Now imagine Individual A’s first instinct will be to flee the facilities and seek relief elsewhere. However, he/she has already been well inside the facilities for several seconds and to walk out now would look silly and foolish. For the situation, we will dictate that A’s well-cultivated self-image requires he/she never look silly or foolish around anyone, even Individual Bs with whom A has no prior familiarity.

So Individual A must remain. He/she takes up position in a stall or by a urinal, depending on his/her needs and physiological disposition.

Now imagine Individual A has decided to “hold it” -- i.e. refrain from doing his/her “business” -- until Individual B completes his/her (B’s) “business” and vacates the facilities. It would be a sound enough plan if not for one serious problem: Individual B is not doing his/her “business.” As a matter of fact, B is not doing a fucking thing! He/She is just standing/sitting there like an exposed bump on a log!

Now imagine the strain this would place on Individual A. He/She (A) is mightily uncomfortable from the get-go, what with “holding it” and all, and now this stubborn Individual B refuses to complete his/her “business” in a timely fashion. How shall Individual A ever get to his/her “business” anyway with an audience present? And what a tasteless audience: to “hold it” as A “holds it” in the blatant attempt to force A to do his/her “business,” despite how shamefully filthy it all is!

Now imagine Individual A coming to a highly unpleasant realization: by “holding it” through all of the above, and what is now a ridiculously long time, he/she has generated an aura of near supreme foolishness. Having set out not to look foolish, he/she has behaved even more foolishly for this damned Individual B’s entertainment. These factors combined with the physical discomfort of “holding it” and the subsequent realization that the aforementioned favorite television show has already begun make for a very disgruntled Individual A.

Now imagine Individual B, a human being in his/her own right with as meaningful an existence as A. As a matter of fact, from B’s perspective, A has just come barging in on his/her (B’s) “business” without any warning. Anyone who has ever been in B’s situation should be able to sympathize -- the shock of some clown stomping in on one while one is doing one’s “business” can be so disruptive as to actually halt said “business” immediately and uncomfortably. Perhaps one never consciously thinks of these things, but it was certainly Individual B’s reaction to that damn A’s intrusion.

Now imagine Individual B has a personal quirk not unlike A’s -- Again, Individuals A and B need not be familiar with each other despite similar psychological dispositions and again the ideal situation calls for complete unfamiliarity. In Individual B’s case, he/she too finds the doing of “business” in the presence of another most unappealing. This, as above, could be due to any factor from an unpleasant toilet training or previous embarrassing situation or from his/her (B’s) mother locking him/her in the bathroom and warning that he/she (B) had better use the potty and not his/her pants again or else he/she would have a pink bottom by the end of the night and it was all empty threats as Little B’s wretched bitch of a mother would forget about the incarcerated child on the porcelain behemoth and go off to poker night which had the unforeseen consequence of conditioning Little B (and subsequently Individual B) to be incapable of doing his/her “business” except in complete solitude.

Now imagine Individual B elects to “hold it” until such a time as he/she is alone again in the facilities -- This could be the first or fiftieth time such a situation has occurred, it is unimportant. So Individual B proceeds to “hold it” in hopes this troublesome Individual A will get on with his/her (A’s) business and then kindly fuck off. However, as earlier explained, Individual A has gotten it into his/her head to do the exact same thing, i.e. “hold it” until Individual B completes his/her (B’s) “business” and exits. Hence, having been copied in stubbornness, Individual B is made to stand/sit uncomfortably -- very uncomfortably, as he/she was cut-off in the middle of his/her “business” -- while that silly bastard/bitch A just stands/sits there not doing a fucking thing!

Now imagine the confusion of Individual B at the strange -- not to mention profoundly annoying -- behavior of Individual A. Who in their right mind storms into any facilities anywhere just to stand/sit there all exposed like a Little B while mommy works on a straight flush? Individual B might run through a mental checklist of why on Earth he/she (A) might refuse to get on with his/her “business” -- Perhaps some physical ailment causes A difficulty or maybe A had no need to do any “business” in the first place or maybe A is some spy/gangster/other secretive character and is only pretending to do any “business” as a cover for meeting another spy/gangster/other secretive character or maybe A is from the planet Quaxilon where bodily waste is invisible. Any of the above would make for an unnerving situation for any Individual B.

Now imagine Individual A and Individual B. The former experiencing a great deal of frustration over the backfiring of his/her plan to not look foolish by “holding it” until left in peace due to some infuriating Individual B following the exact same tactic, thus making him/her (A) look profoundly foolish. The latter driving himself/herself (B) to paranoid schizophrenia in contemplation of A’s intentions while the specter of a card-shark mommy hangs over his/her head, making sure he/she (B) does his/her goddamn business properly.

Question: Who goes first?

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Bleeding Kansas 2.0

Let's talk about Bleeding Kansas.

In the 1850s, while they were still territories being Incorporated into the United States, it was a hotly debated question whether Kansas and Missouri would be free or slave states. The planter class of the deep south and Tidewater states wanted to expand slavery, as it would reinforce their own base of power. Slavery was explicitly rooted in white supremacy, because this both rationalized the bondage of other human beings and served to maintain the political power of a very small, very well-to-do elite in a place and time with widespread rural poverty.

The different factions that set up shop in these Border States spent the better part of a decade engaging in the sort of bloody partisan ambushes seen within living memory in Syria, Iraq, and the Balkans. While everyone remembers the great big Blue vs. Gray battles of the Civil War, this is where that war really began, years before the slave states marched their uniformed forces on Fort Sumter. The planter class gave tacit approval to the pro-slavery partisans in Kansas and Missouri because their terrorism served to frighten away abolitionists who might vote to remain free and also for the grim reality that a dead abolitionist is one less voice calling for abolition.

There are clear parallels we can draw today between the pro-slavery gangs in the Border States and the spree shooting terrorism of the Trump era. Like the hand-wringing over citizenship and borders, slavery was built on an ideology of white supremacy. Because without that sense of superiority, too many people might recognize how the current economic system benefits only a few at the very top - the planters then, the billionaires now. During the Civil War proper, this ideology collapsed in on itself with the rebel soldiers finding their superior whiteness no match for the superior industry and logistics of the Union Army, especially while their families starved back home due to 1) Confederate inefficiency and 2) an explicit system of superiors and inferiors, where the plantation master in his family were always well-cared for but anyone not born into this de facto aristocracy had to scrape by. Had they not had the satisfaction of being white, and therefore the better and more civilized race, they might too quickly have turned on the very planters whose economic system debased free labor.

However - and this is the big difference between then and now - the abolitionists engaged in politically motivated killing just as enthusiastically as the pro-slavery partisans. Most famously, John Brown engaged in ambushes and outright mass murder before leading his ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry. Despite the pundit class always spinning scare stories, Antifa has not killed a single person. Bleeding Kansas 2.0 is - so far - entirely one-sided. And worst of all, there's no real opposition to this terrorism within the nominal government. Where America of the 1850s had a fractious but dedicated political culture of abolitionists and Know Nothings and Radical Republicans all vying for the soul and future of the country, the modern United States has a few social deomcrats unwanted by their own party on one side and craven careerists making up the other much larger side. And then there's Trump, a more incompetent narcissist than even Jefferson Davis.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Quiet Life

You're not allowed to live quietly and without ambition in America. Everyone must be Up and Doing, all day, every day, to preserve an instrumentalist delusion. That your circumstances not only may be changed for the better but that You are the agent of that change. Also, it should be changed for the better, no matter how satisfied you are now.

This is the pathology at the root of the American dream. Alexis de Tocqueville saw it some two centuries ago, how Americans of every class were perpetually buying and selling. No sooner did some Ohio Valley burgher purchase a horse or a butter churn then he was trying to sell it again at a profit. One nation under the side hustle.

Even if you think you're getting into a profession - or at least a day job - that will afford you some peace and quiet, you will soon find this not to be the case. As the economy moves more and more away from actual production and into the exponential bureaucracy of managerial feudalism, even the most innocuous activities become charged with a production for production's sake mania. You have to crush that PowerPoint, demonstrate enough can-do spirit to single-handedly build a pyramid, or you run the risk of appearing as a layabout. Not a doer. An un-person, unworthy of friendship or love or your middling office job - where a dozen others also compete in who can best present the simulacrum of productivity.

Because without that job, you're nothing. Without any job, you're worse than nothing. The less America spends on welfare, the more it resents those dependent on such public assistance. Poverty is the one unforgivable sin, so better look busy.

Friday, September 21, 2018

As Above, So Below

Ever since their founding, the American suburbs have been the subject of bitter criticism. We should all be critical - suburbia birthed every wrong-thought from libertarianism to LARPing - but the bitterness is because, even in the wake of financial collapse, the suburbs won. There is no escaping them and half the 20th Century is choked with books and films and records born of resentment at this crushing normality.

He Digs A Hole by Danger Slater is an heir to this anti-suburb philosophy, at least on the surface. Harrison Moss is an average decaying man in an average decaying cul de sac who rebels against this dreadful state and tries to find a way out. So far, so standard. Even the splatter-horror approach is more cosmetic to the story, with Moss shearing off his own hands and replacing them with garden tools. So he can dig his hole and get away from his depressing house and vacuous neighbors.

Except that's only half the story. Literally, as Moss and his wife Tabitha descend down the hole halfway through the book, emerging in a negative universe beneath. A place populated by monstrous horrors and walking worms, but curiously still ordered exactly as the post-industrial hell above. A different, deeper hell but a hell all the same.

This is where Slater's book diverges from the well-worn path of the suburban doldrums tale. It's not a matter of escape so much as transcendence, breaking free of the rut by breaking free of one's own apathy and alienation. This part of the narrative isn't even carried through by Harrison but by Tabitha, who was always the stronger of the two - an excellent twist on what is often a masculine escape and power fantasy. The Mosses do not break free of the hells within hells through more striving - striving just leads back to the cul de sac where this all started - but through each other. For all the grotesque madness of spleen fruits and zombie garden parties, He Digs a Hole is a strangely uplifting book. Even with the world consumed and the sun blotted out, as long as Tabitha and Harrison have each other they have hope.