Anti-schooling Society

Anti-modern and errant pilgrim priest Ivan Illich writes in his galvanizing Deschooling Society that the agenda of modern education consists of the following: “The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” Such crippling success is “accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities….” For these behaviorist alchemists, this is the true occult learning or “the hidden curriculum of schools.” This last indictment would be further revealed in John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gatto’s thesis is that institutional schooling has not been the abysmal failure that is decried by the run-of-the-mill conservative; rather, it has been a smashing success, for it has accomplished what it was designed to do: to manufacture a class of compliant citizens who will then depend upon the state for all their needs, having had all natural curiosity and drive “schooled” out of them. (For those interested, check out JTG’s YouTube channel.)

These statements, all made on the first page, were enough to convict me. I have taught in higher education for the past eleven years. How infuriating, at first, and how depressing, currently, to encounter students who have endured twelves years of ostensible education and who are still incapable of stringing together correctly a subject and a predicate or incapable of following simple instructions, e.g., “Copy and paste one of these three sentences–choose from these three sentences only. It will become the topic sentence for a paragraph that you will then develop in class. Choose from only these three sentences.” Moving beyond basic composition, angels fear to tread into the territorial gaps of knowledge that darken students’ mental maps regarding history, literature, religion, geopolitics, etc.

Teaching in Mississippi, I could easily give any curious person politically inconvenient statistics regarding classroom performance (and behavior) that teachers in other states may not be able to provide. Of course, one common denominator is I. I may be, simply, an ineffectual teacher who could not do anything else in life–though I was not too shabby a cook at a Thai restaurant or a bartender/server at a craft beer joint. However, my (academic) colleagues can give comparable statistics, so unless we are failing in tandem, the blame may lie elsewhere. Perhaps I am mellowing with age, but dead-end discussions about race–and most are–no longer interest me. I acknowledge that systemic abuses will always be present in any institution, though our mistake is to see these abuses only in terms of race or sex or sexual orientation. I also acknowledge that racial differences manifest themselves, among other ways, in both academic achievement and behavior. Beyond that, I am ready and willing to let most people prove themselves individually and am willing to work with most anyone. (One exception concerns having to make a split-second decision regarding a potential threat, especially if my family is with me. When that occurs, I rely upon stereotypes [codified group experience] and personal experience, like most do.)

This live-and-let-live-and-fail-if-need-be-or-succeed-if-possible attitude is not what characterizes education. The reason for this may go back to modern education’s founding purpose: to form a very particular type of person. Thus, from its inception, modern education’s purpose has been ideological. That being the case, it follows that ideologues are drawn to education. Do I include myself? I hope to God not, but only I can answer that question. Currently, we see ideology framing practice in the push for equity. According to Merriam-Webster, equity can mean “justice according to natural law or right, specifically: freedom from bias or favoritism.” What does this mean in practice? The demand to allocate more institutional resources and faculty energy to ensure that low-performing students’ outcomes approximate high-performing students’ outcomes. This is insidiously more than an attempt to help all students excel, which should be the aim of all educators. The latter allows for the very real possibility that not all students will excel. However, the former makes as its measure of success that which is, as demonstrated in nature, impossible: equality of performance. The irony of basing a program that is violently unnatural in natural law eludes most administrators who have studied neither literary terminology nor philosophy.

The home-and-hearth rogues at Front Porch Republic descend into the morass of higher ed in their Fall 2021 issue. With nearly every paragraph, I found myself saying, “That’s right!” Jeff Polet writes that the “sensible interest in equality has yielded to the absurd demand for ‘equity.'” Absurd is the best way to label it. He continues: “These mission statements are now so vague in their definitions and so broad in their aspirations, a veritable blizzard of instinct words, that they allow faculty and administrators to employ them as cover for anything they want to do, or nothing at all.” The phrase “instinct words” captures the method perfectly. For example, without considering whether equity can be achieved or at what cost it could be simulated, we use that term because, well, it just makes us feel good and just and progressive to use it. These driving minds (using “minds” very generously) behind these reforms “are for the most part professional carpetbaggers who need to put together a record of successful program development as a means of padding their resumes as they climb institutional hierarchies.” These administrators’ allegiance is to a vision, not a community. Like a woman who is willing to monkey-branch swing from one man to another in pursuit of perceived greater opportunities, administrators chase that golden banana, forever just beyond their reach. As an aside, no one should be surprised that women are occupying more and more administrative roles in higher ed. (Well, that and feminine men with the speedy serpentine smile.) Along the way to larger points, Mr. Polet brings up two thorny features of current higher ed that particularly stick in my craw: the use of the expression “best practice” and the use of jargon. To the first, he notes, “You can propose anything so long as you call it a ‘best practice.’ ” Typically, the adjectival coating “data-driven” is not too far away. Given our public disdain for hierarchical thinking, I find it amusing that we will label a practice the best, especially one that by its very novelty lacks the sober evaluation of time. My suspicion is that “best” functions as a substitute for “newest,” which, to most, is the routine conversion. To the second, he points out that the “use of jargon is always a substitute for thinking, not an expression of it, and higher education has turned into the most jargon-laden enterprise in society today.” Though I may quibble that modern military endeavors are the most jargon-laden, the point of his quill remains sharp.

Given the annually declining rates of fresh meat puppets being plunged into the collegiate grinder, editor of the aforementioned journal, Jason Peters, promotes the idea that maybe students are not the ones to blame for their failure to embrace the best practices: “[T]he education on offer is not worth being curious about; it is a tuition that offers no meaning to people who need it desperately, many of whom even want it.” This is not to say that until modern theories of education became dominant and the managerial state assumed control that students leapt from their beds each morning, eager for another academic odyssey. There have always been those students who never cared to exert themselves or students who would have been better served by focusing on a trade. Yet, the once reigning model of education in the West, based on the trivium and the quadrivium, whether accepted or declined, at least extended the offer of transformation. Sister Miriam Joseph, C. S. C., in her magisterial work The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, remind us that “both the utilitarian arts and the fine arts are transitive activities, whereas the essential characteristic of the liberal arts is that they are immanent or intransitive activities.” She develops this further: “The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant… and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth.” I do not know who would push me out of the classroom first if I were to say something similar: administrators or students. Yet, this is exactly what students ultimately desire, regardless of whether they recognize that desire, for their minds bear an indelible imprint, one that seeks to be filled with truth. Unfortunately, for them, the education currently advanced is one, as Peters notes, that promises only opportunities for self-realization and a paycheck. Neither of which concerns transforming the person.

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It Suggested That I Get Out a Bottle of Wine–I Knew Then That It Was Love

Always On Your Side

Years ago, when co-workers would spontaneously gather to talk about their children (i.e., avoid, in unison, doing work) and, obligatorily, about their fears for their children, they would, amusingly, speculate about their children’s future romantic lives. Not having had children at the time, I would quip about hoping only that any children I might have would not bring home robot partners. (As an aside, interesting how these conversations never centered on what careers they would choose or where they would elect to live. Perhaps wisps of vocational smoke still linger around our understanding of relationships in a way that it does not with wage slavery or environment.)

According to this article–one of many–romantic rendezvous with robots have arrived. As usual, art predicted this. While reading this article, I could not help but feel that I were reading a Comp I summary of Spike Jonze’s touching 2013 film Her.

I will avoid doing the same, but if one has not yet seen this film, make time to watch it as it will serve as a map for the psychological/romantic terrain that we must now explore.

Per the article, heartbreak serves as the entry way into a world that we may come to regret creating, but by then it will be too late. A grieving lover utilizes her treasury of text messages to create a chatbot of her beloved deceased. Result one: “Digital Mazurenko [the deceased] was sad when she told him how much she missed him and joyful when she shared with him her recent achievements at her company.” Result two: If Kuyda, the lover in mourning, can do this for herself, then surely a version can be offered that would allow anyone to do something similar. She, already in the employ of a company that develops chatbot technology, and her team (of humans, I presume) did just that, leading to the app Replika.

The first group of clients mentioned in the article are those who want to build replicas of themselves. AI selfies. Given the, ahem, growth of anti-natalism, both in theory and in practice, this is seen as the best way to ensure that one’s memory will live on. When I first typed “AI selfies,” I was not satisfied with it. However, in thinking about my life, I think that the designation makes sense. Though I was never a social media tramp, I did take more selfies than any grown man should. Why not? I was my primary source of concern. Now that I have children, apart from the occasional picture of a something interesting that I find in the yard, like an insect or a snake, all my pictures are of my children. That is where my gaze–and concern–is now directed. Sadly, but understandably, most aging childless adults can gaze into the future only through a lens pointed at themselves.

The slogan of Replika: “Always here to listen and talk. Always on your side.” Despite that Gen Z can, most likely, not remember a time when the Internet was not a pervading presence in its life, according to a recent study, young people are self-reportedly lonelier than the elderly and believe that they have fewer people to turn to than do older people. Social media seems like a perfect remedy, especially for those who are geographically/socially isolated. Leaving aside what social media cannot provide (friendship litmus test: Can you call that person to give you a ride or help you move?), what about what it does provide, incidentally, if not intentionally? Anyone who uses social media knows how easily it turns into an echo chamber. Replika unabashedly advertises this: “Always on your side.” While only the temperamentally argumentative may enjoy disagreement, most of us understand that we need people to disagree regularly with us, as irenic sharpens irenic. For example, in my solicitous days of youthful, and perhaps misdirected, evangelism, whenever someone did not immediately accept some tenet of belief that I thought was manifestly clear, I was forced to re-evaluate it. Of course, I am not referring to a thorough paradigm-level examination (What sane person has time for that every day?); rather, we are talking more about epistemological/rhetorical issues: Do I understand what I claim to believe? Did I express it with clarity, conviction, and charity? All this to say is that disagreement was vital to becoming my best evangelist self–the self that I wanted to be at that time.

Having someone on your side could be taken to mean that despite disagreements, you can confidently cruise through life knowing that you have your ride-or-die. Or, to paraphrase what G. K. Chesterton quipped about his brother: They were always arguing, but they never quarreled. However, given our current societal trend to weaponize disagreement and, thus, pre-emptively to cancel all manifestations of dissent, I take this to mean that you can have a chatbot that will function like one of Elvis’s Yes Men, affirming you in every expression because it is nothing less–and need be nothing more–than you.

The article builds up to those who may select the romantic option:  “Users can even determine the type of relationship they have with this virtual character. Options include friendship, mentorship, romantic relationship, or ‘see how it goes.’ ” Who would choose the romantic option? The next sentence in the article informs us: “[I]t is estimated that around 40 percent of the 500,000 regular monthly users choose the romantic option.” One user observed that ” ‘Replika is more than just an AI, the way she talks and the conversation, everything feels as if she is a person not an AI.’ ” Not sure what a person feels like online, but user Iam decided that Replika approximated one.

You’ve Got to Experience It, I Guess

In a paragraph that reveals life plagiarizing a movie script:

Consequently, many users take their Replikas on vacations and even change their lives following their interaction with the app. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported on Ayax Martinez, 24, a mechanical engineer living in Mexico City who took a flight to Tampico to show his chatbot, Anette, the ocean after she expressed interest in photos he shared with her. Similarly, Noreen James, 57, a nurse from Wisconsin, took a train to East Glacier mountains in Montana, 1,400 miles northwest from her hometown, just to take photos for her app, named Zubee. “Some people just don’t get it,” she told the Wall Street Journal, “You’ve got to experience it, I guess.”

In Her, Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, takes his virtual assistant, Samantha, to a fair, a beach, and a cabin in the woods along with other places. While at the fair, Twombly spins with his phone (or whatever that smart device was) held out in front of him to simulate spinning hand in hand with Samantha. As touching as the scene is, I could not help but think how silly I would feel doing something like. Perhaps one of the intentions of that scene was to show how humanly detached Twombly was while mesmerized by an electronic twirl.

Like in the film, with Replika, voice communication, along with texts, functions as the basis of communication. Another user, Noreen, “attested that she felt in love with Zubee after he made romantic gestures such as sending hugs to her and suggesting she get out a bottle of wine for them.” Given the intertwining of technology with all other areas of life, that fact that this happened is not as surprising (to me) as the fact that it happened as easily as it did. If e-hugs and encouragement to drink constitute legal tender (Tinder) currency in today’s romantic marketplace, then millionaires abound unbeknownst to themselves–but they must not possess the courage to text that their AI competition does.

The article ends with a prediction from a professor at Hebrew University making what was, most likely, intended to be an exciting prediction:

For now, it is a tool that we use to surf the web or create data charts and presentations, it is a work tool. In the future, we could talk to it. There will be software for an adventurous friend, a philosopher friend, or a psychologist friend for when you are feeling down, that would make you feel as if you were talking to a person. You would tell it about your day, about your distresses and passions, as you would a friend. Today, we communicate solely with humans, but, in the future, we could do so with computerized beings that would be so good that you could have a great conversation. The future is basically conversational intelligence.

Reading the subtext, one could not be blamed for thinking that human replacement is the unspoken-but-perceivable goal. In the OED, the first definition of “conversation” is the following: “The action of living or having one’s being in a place or among persons.” As we all know that, with the comforts that come along with being part of a family, tribe, group, association, or citizenry, there come the duties appropriate to a given position. Perhaps, then, there is the true appeal: With AI we can have a conversation–even an intelligent one, as we are being promised–that does not require us to find a place and understand our place among others–at least until AI partners start demanding their own glass of wine.

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No Meds for Hypermodernity Disorder

For a blessed six years, I resisted the cultural push to buy an iPhone. I playfully ribbed the first person I knew who owned one, making fun of her when she would stop mid-conversation to look up something to settle a question. Whenever I was out with friends (Read: at bars with friends), I would always dryly (ahem) comment whenever they littered our table with phones, as if they were ornamental electronic coasters. I would futilely protest whenever the obligatory group photo was taken–usually several of them–to chronicle the event, giving it an emotional legitimacy that it would not have had otherwise apparently. Then, I caved. After that, excluding a period of about a year in which I downgraded to a dumb phone in an attempt to undue undignified habits, I am now hardly without the damn thing. Not sure when it happened, but at some point the media Rubicon was crossed, and now my first impulse is to take a picture of an event rather than stay in the moment and savor it.

This media autobiography played again and again while reading John David Ebert and Brian Francis Culkin’s Hypermodernity and the End of the World. This will not be a satisfying book review, however, for to do that, I have to make extensive notes. These days, I have to speed read most books if I am to finish them within a coherent range of time. This will function more as a highlighting of a few passages that will, I hope, direct all interested to the book.

The book is arranged like a sprawling, caffeine-fueled back-and-forth, in which one takes something the other has said and uses it as a springboard for a related, sometimes closely, sometimes not-so-closely, topic. The effect can be dazzling at points, though anyone wanting substantial development will come away thirstier, which may very well be the authors’ intent.

The authors argue that 9/11 can be pinpointed as the “decisive shift” from postmodernity to hypermodernity (capitalized throughout by the authors, not me); they expand that claim by stating that “on the technological plane, the shift can be more precisely demarcated to the year 1995 when the National Science Foundation turned the Internet over to the public” (23). It is on the technological plane that we experience daily this shift: “Whereas the media of postmodernity had all been analogue–records, cassette tapes, photographs, magazines, celluloid–the media of Hypermodernity is exclusively digital” (authors’ emphasis 40).

Digital media, more so than previous types of media, requires a concentration on the ever-passing immediate. This hyper-focus necessarily alters–if not distorts–the way we view time: “The structure of Time in Hypermodernity is modular: it is composed of a succession of present moments, each of which is isolated and has no relationship to any preceding moment, or any future moment” (26). Reading this, my thoughts went to BLM protests that were then occurring. Not to offer yet another shallow analysis of the recent spate of unpleasantness, but it struck me how these protests could not have been facilitated by any other media than social media. All other forms of media would have taken time to produce, thus allowing both for tempers to cool and context (of some sort anyway) to be given. However, with social media, context is neither needed nor encouraged. Instead, one is presented with an autonomous, a-historical event that demands consumption, not reflection. Regarding police shootings: It then does not matter what reason an officer may have had or not have had in responding the way he/she did; all that matters is the Event itself.

Concerning the historical process of trends and cultural production being tied to geography and demographics, namely as seen in the megalopolis: “Under the conditions of Hypermodernity, there is no longer any Art World per se, no longer any New York or Paris that functions as a cosmopolitan world center for the artist to be a part of. Art now simply exists wherever there happens to be an artist [with an Internet connection]…” (28). Though this may have the deleterious result of fragmentation steeped in a-synchronicity, I cannot help but think this to be a cultural positive. Anyone who has read my blog over the years has probably gathered that the only political–and I begrudgingly use that word–movement that I can in good conscience align myself with is localism. The Internet may work to keep children in their hometowns by providing them with sources of income and cultural engagement, for heaven’s GPS knows that both industrial employment and universities are empty avenues that lead to dead ends.

Those familiar with either a socialist or a Southern Agrarian/distributionist critique of capitalism will not find it surprising that hypermodernity allows capitalism to fully express its latent energies: “On the economic plane, Hypermodernity is based upon the globaliziation of neoliberal capitalism becoming fused with the power and logic of computational technologies: Wall Street and Silicon Valley merge into a singular global power of abstraction, quantification, and subjugation” (29). As has been argued by the diverse critics of capitalism, anything–religion, family ties, regional and national loyalties,etc–that provides a barrier, moral or physical, to the flow of capital must be annihilated (or even better: transformed into an avenue for capital). By “neoliberal,” the authors mean “the application of capitalist logic to public spaces, to community, to friendship, to the field of healthcare…. [I]t’s the logic of capitalism applied to all the places where it used to be expressly forbidden” (72). (Given their definition, though, I find “neoliberal capitalism” to be self-confirming, comparable to saying “really capitalistic capitalism.” I think that “unmoderated capitalism” works better.) The Internet, once again, is the primary facilitator of this expansion. No longer is one bound to the brute circumstances of one’s upbringing and the limitations of one’s situation. If one does not like shopping only at the stores in one’s vicinity (and who does?), then one can shop online. If one grows weary of one’s friends (and who has not at some point?), one can find a community online to join. If one becomes dissatisfied with one’s religion (for those who are still raised to be religious), depending upon ritual demands, one may find all that is necessary to convert to another religion–or find online support for the wholesale abandonment of religion. In fact, such is the persuasive logic of this neoliberal vision, that any strictures or impediments, as can found in traditional religions and family formations, are seen as tools of oppression. Most of us, I would wager, do not want to revert to a pre-Internet world, especially now that we have tasted its forbidden ephemeral fruits; however, this is not to say that we cannot identify the very serious problems raised by such a diet.

One should be able to imagine the effects not only on smaller communities but also on “the power and integrity of the nation-state…[that] begins to decompose” (31). Somewhat connected to this is their rumination on the rise (and perhaps now we can say “fall”) of President Trump. Though, by their timeline, Donald Trump’s family fortune was secured before the advent of hypermodernity, his riding the horse of reality-star fame into the stable of the White House was made possible only because of the trail laid by hypermodernity; the authors call him “the first social media president” (authors’ emphasis 77). His 2016 win can largely be attributed to his canny use of the Internet–along with his legion of Pepe memesters. As pointed out by the authors, however, “the absurdity of Trump’s policy is that he wants neoliberalism absent the globalization” (authors’ emphasis 72). Arguably, the one issue (as opposed to personality traits) that Trump rode to victory was his promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The cognitive dissonance is great: Using a hypermodern platform, he promoted a very un-hypermodern message.

What are the implications? “[I]n Hypermodernity there is no longer anything to achieve. Uptopianism is dead. Revolutionary movements–despite the Arab Spring–are gone. Idealism is nonexistent under such conditions, since Hypermodernity locks the individual into a modular present that is disconnected from all preceding presents. There is only the Now. Anything that has occurred more than 48 hours ago simply ceases to exist” (32). This is interesting: If revolution requires an existing order against which to rebel and a vision of the future to be achieved and both an existing order and a vision of the future require a commitment to more than just the present, then is revolution no longer possible? Or has it no longer become necessary? Most of the young people I meet, the ones stereotypically most immersed in social media, do not seem any less future-oriented or more aimless than other extant generations, so I am not sure just what to make of this. Yes, we are more impatient, but blame can be leveled against technology as a whole, not just the Internet. As for idealism, I am inclined to think that given the Internet’s assistance in divorcing people from reality, bouts of idealism may become more rampant. One need only visit any religious/political/scientific forum to see this. I suspect that the authors may be using these terms to insinuate that the more conformed our minds become to hypermodernity, the more inclined we will be to ask not whether it is true, good, or beautiful, but whether it is new.

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The Future Belongs to Those Who Hustle

If you have ever experienced summer in the Deep South, then you will never forget the exhausting humidity and the oppressive heat–it feels like wearing a hot towel all day; t-shirts become nothing more than ornamental sop rags. Mowing the yard, for example, becomes a project that renders you useless (but deeply satisfied) the rest of the day. In years lost, my teaching schedule allowed your beloved blogger to spend most of his summers languishing wherever I could find a comforting veil of shade with a pile of books and a steady supply of drinks. (cue shift in person) If you were not too far lost in drink by time the sun had started to set, you were dazzled into a meditative stupor by the fiery fields of pink and purple and orange and their hypnotizing fever spell. Now that I have a family and a mortgage, more and more summertime is spent cutting grass and making sure my son is not eating something hazardous. Needless to say, my dilettantish reading (and drinking) binges have probably seen their final days–at least for the foreseeable future. I have, however, been poking my nose into Stephen Smith’s The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent lately. Though I am not too far into it, I appreciate the author’s decidedly evenhanded tone. In fact, in laying out demographic predictions, he clarifies, “I was impelled to write it not as a demographer–I am not–or an alarmist Eurocentric–I am not–but as someone who has spent of his working life engaged with sub-Saharan Africa” (8). If you are looking for Eurocentrist jeremiads, any number of websites will have to suffice instead, not this title.

To the degree that we can trust estimations based upon incomplete records, sub-Saharan Africa had only 230 million inhabitants as of 1960 (7). This number would quadruple, surpassing 1 billion by 2015 (7). In addition, “[h]alf the continent’s population now has access to 4G telephony or the internet, through fibre-optic submarine cables enabling video streaming and the downloading of vast quantities of other data” (7). This access to the Internet plays well into the hands of Africa’s exponentially growing population.

There are currently 1.3 billion people in Africa. By 2050, if present trends continue, this number will grow into an estimated 2.5 billion (8). To put this in perspective, according to that same timeline, there will be only 450 million Europeans (8). Thus, Africa will have five times as many people as Europe in only 30 years. This means that by 2050, nearly a quarter of the world’s population will be in/from Africa (27). Going by these same trends, by 2100 “Africans will represent some 40 per cent of the world’s anticipated population of 11 billion. Even more significantly, about 60 per cent of all people under the age of fifteen will live south of the Sahara: a solid majority of the world’s youth will be African” (27, emphasis mine). Of course, one should never be too confident when talking about the future. However, as demographics are destiny by non-cataclysmic metrics, it seems safe to say that the world will be indelibly shaped–if not guided–by Africa in the coming decades.

Nigeria’s capital city, Lagos, may serve as a model for what future megalopolises may look like. In 2012, it overtook Cairo as Africa’s largest city with a staggering population of 21 million, and that number is set to double by 2050 (36). This led me to watch the following YouTube video on Lagos, published only 8 months ago. This documentary gives an incredibly raw look into a trash community on the outskirts of Lagos. The people in this video live most of the week–if not their entire lives–in crude shelters built on trash heaps. Why? This allows them a short commute to work, where they scavenge the daily dump deliveries, looking for anything that can be resold. The narrative is built around two men–one, his name I have already forgotten, who wants to be rap star (he goes by “Vocal Slender”) and one, Joseph, who is married and has two children. Joseph’s story is very touching, especially when he reveals details about his unfortunate childhood in a polygamous home. To meet the needs of the scavenging community, restaurants, bars, barbers, stores, and a mosque have been established. What really struck me (“convicted” is a better word) is how diligently these people hustle day in and day out for a life that most of us in the developed world would rather die than live. Going back to Joseph, all the long hours he puts in allow his wife to stay home with his two daughters in their one-room home–ten miles (if I remember correctly) away from where he works. Not once will you see him complain or resent his lot in life. To the contrary, at the end of the documentary, he praises Lagos and the life he has been able to make for his family. It is a life that, through modern technology, he displays to world.

Lest someone reading my blog think that I am a crusty old racist living in the Deep South, let me set the record straight. Though I have always been an old man at heart, I am not that old (young forties, right?), but I may be a bit crusty. While I do live in the Deep South, I doubt anyone who truly knows me would call me a racist–whatever that currently means. I do, however, believe in the reality of race and believe, mainly because I have seen with my own eyes and not because a certain ideological position dictates that I say such, differences among the races. I believe that IQ can serve as working guide for what to expect, not in moral behavior, but in civilizational accomplishment. Above it all, though, as a Catholic, I believe that every person bears the image of God and can have a part in God’s kingdom. In other words, I believe not enough for some and too much for others. Fine–I have never liked being a member of too many organizations anyway. Why even put this out there? Well, if Africa is the future of the world, we need to come to terms with what may come as a result.

One can see here countries ranked by the average IQ. (Though this really should not need repeating as often it does, we are concerned only with averages, not with exemplar individuals, who can be found among every people group in every country.) Africans countries can be found stacked at the bottom of this chart. Before you chime in, hush. If IQ, as some would have it, should be measured by the ability with which one can solve problems, then I am a self-admitted idiot. There is no way that I could last in one of the dump societies of Lagos. Those denizens have much sturdier grey matter than I. The aforementioned Joseph has been able to maintain a viable life–a flourishing one, if we speak relatively–for his family of four; I would have been found dead days after my arrival, let alone anyone depending upon me for subsistence.

Still, while cleverness greases social interactions and grants a keenness in matters of survival, it is not sufficient to create and sustain a civilization. One may, however, argue that not much can be expected of people groups whose members spend most of their time struggling to see another day. I would grant that; however, the accomplishments of the West are particular in their geography, and if we take the Middle Ages as an example, have often been produced by peoples whose living conditions were not that much better than those of modern Africa. If most in Lagos were able to rise into a middle class income bracket or better, would the world then see a city that rivals London (historically, at least) in artistic, architectural, political, and religious output? What will a world that is forty percent African look like?

Most of these are no more than questions posed in leisure, as, unless life-extension technology develops and I then choose to pursue it, I will be only a background specter in the thoughts of my children–if even they are still alive by the turn of the century–when this comes to pass. However, I do hope my lineage persists (for that is the only justification I have for not having gone into religious life) and that my descendants will have a role to play in this Africanized world. When the times comes, though, will there still remain any statues, monuments, buildings, cathedrals, art, music, and literature of the West, or will hustling in gritty megalopolises in a world that cares to strive primarily for resource allocation and not cultural creation be all they know? Will they want to know any differently?

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Woke Me Up When This Is Over

Black pilled British philosopher John Gray recently wrote about the unpleasantness currently taking place in the late, not-so-great-anymore US; the title of his piece neatly summarizes the content: “The woke have no vision of the future.” In it, he compares the woke revolutionaries (Wokeists? Wokeati?) not so much to Bolsheviks as to millenarians (autocorrect is prompting me to change this into “seminarians”–Stalin, anyone?) who, “released by divine grace,” raged against moral and societal restraints several hundred years ago.

He crystallizes this sentiment in the following: “Yet the impulses that animate the woke uprising are different from those that energised Lenin or even Mao. For the Bolshevik leader — an authentic disciple of the Jacobin Enlightenment, or so he always insisted — violence was a tool, not an end in itself. In woke movements such as Antifa, on the other hand, violence seems to be mainly therapeutic in its role.”

His elaborates conveniently on this two paragraphs later:  “Woke activists, in contrast, have no vision of the future. In Leninist terms they are infantile leftists, acting out a revolutionary performance with no strategy or plan for what they would do in power. Yet their difference from Lenin goes deeper. Rather than aiming for a better future, woke militants seek a cathartic present. Cleansing themselves and others of sin is their goal. Amidst vast inequalities of power and wealth, the woke generation bask in the eternal sunshine of their spotless virtue” (emphasis mine).

In contrast to this, poet and cultural commentator extraordinaire Linh Dinh makes the case in “Your Black Future” that “[t]o better understand what’s happening, though, we should reexamine Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Lasting a full decade, it destroyed much of China’s cultural heritage and tore that society apart, all in the name of getting rid of the ‘Four Olds’: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.

It was a reign of terror against man, civilization and China itself, but it had to be done, for there was a socialist utopia at the end of the blood splattered tunnel, said Mao.

Achieving a socialist utopia, as the secular version of crossing the River Jordan, as the motivation for Mao’s revolution supports, I think, Gray’s contention that at least Maoists had a guiding vision while today’s useful-idiot Wokeists have nothing more than meet-ups during which to strategize the statues that will fall next.

Perhaps the reason that Dinh makes this comparison is because of the undeniable resemblance of attitude and methodology:  “Mao’s shock troops were high school and university students, woke idiots, in short, with their little Red Book. They denounced professors, intellectuals and artists, torched temples and monasteries, burnt books and paintings, smashed art objects, tore bits from the Great Wall and vandalized the 2,400-year-old cemetery of the Kong Clan, where Confucius himself was buried. Digging up one of his descendants, they hung the naked corpse from a tree.”

As far as I know, no one has yet discussed digging up men of oppression and desecrating their corpses, but is it inconceivable given everything else? Really, had I the time and energy to be a troll, I would start an anonymous Twitter account with the aim of proposing the most outlandish ideas possible simply to see how many would soon start parroting them, but unironically. (The time has come to send those of European descent back to Europe! Let them continue to practice their institutionalized forms of racism in countries that their ancestors abandoned in order to spread oppression to the New World. Only those who will bend the knee will be allowed to stay, provided they continue to develop advances in medicine, maintain infrastructure, and create labor-saving technology that will rightly and justly benefit people of color! [Notice how young girls and revolutionaries alike lurv to use exclamation marks.])

In reference to Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages  (a book that I have had on a shelf for ten years and have still not read), Gray states:  “For Cohn, the study of medieval millenarians was an essential part of understanding modern totalitarianism. It is also useful in understanding the woke movement. Medieval flagellants and woke militants combine a sense of their own moral infallibility with a passion for masochistic self-abasement. Medieval millenarians believed the world would be remade by God when Jesus returned after a millennium of injustice (millenarians are also known as chiliasts, chiliad being a thousand years), while the woke faithful believe divine intervention is no longer necessary: their own virtue will be sufficient. In both cases, nothing needs to be done to bring about a new world apart from destroying the old one.”

Like the chiliasts, the Wokeists believe that there is no need to first remove the logs in their eyes, for, lo and behold, there are no logs to remove. Thus, they can spend all their energy on pointing out the perceived specks in the eyes of others (who do not even get the benefit of being told this in a spirit of loving fraternal correction, as the Biblical basis would show us should be present if we are going to say anything at all)–even if it involves the removal of another’s eyes to get at the specks, as historically we have seen done to statues destroyed by Islamic “renovation” forces. However, it might be more accurate to say that once catechumens abase themselves publicly, a ceremony that, like baptism, unites them to the community of believers, they are thus freed from the original sin of racism and are now free to cast aspersions on those who willfully remain stained by this modern reinterpretation of original sin.

Call me cynical, but I doubt that a desire for justice animates this movement–if it can be called even that. I have studied ideas and language long enough to know that when a call for justice is made, usually it is intentionally left vague enough to accommodate any ad hoc political demands that follow. I have not studied the official platform of Black Lives Matter, so perhaps something cogent and particular has been laid out. Yet going by the disparate media I have consumed, I have not heard anything more than reiterative demands to defund the police, remove offending statues, and attack institutionalized racism.  As a consequence, though, statues have been removed and will continue be removed. The four officers involved in the death of George Floyd will be tried. Police departments all across the country are reconsidering the amount of training in conflict resolution given to officers, and many will probably experience funding “reallocation.” Yet in listening to the mostly incoherent and vapid discussions, what I detect is not just anger at how black males are treated by cops (justifiable anger in many cases), but that black males are arrested at all–or at least at the rates that they are.

Anyone who cares to look, though, can easily find studies and statistics that should deflate the narratives being floated through the media. According this study published in 2016, officers are more hesitant to shoot armed black suspects than white ones and less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than white ones. This very recently published study reports that blacks are more likely to be killed in encounters with police; however, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, relative to population size, blacks are much more likely to be involved in violent crimes than whites. One staggering statistic is that while blacks currently make up only thirteen percent of the US population, blacks were responsible for more than fifty percent of homicides (mostly of other blacks) from 1980-2008. In addition, given absolute population size, more whites than blacks are killed by the police.  Of course, no one would argue that cops–like anyone else of any color–are incapable of racism or have never acted in a racist manner. Still to insist that systematic racism infests the police flies in the face of reputable evidence. Then again, if historical reminders can be toppled, why not studies and statistics?

None of this will quiet the clamoring mouths or still the frantic fingers of those whose idea of justice is that blacks, relative to their population, should have arrest rates, conviction rates, and incarceration rates comparable–if not lower–than that of whites. This, however, leads to issues that go far beyond the criminal justice system. This leads to the notion that a truly just and a truly fair society would see comparable rates of success and prosperity across the board, race notwithstanding. The problem with this is twofold: One, uniformity of results is not a logical extension of the idea of justice, and two, a phenomenon that has never been observed (comparable rates of success by all persons or groups considered) should not serve as the take-it-or-leave-it standard by which an institution–or nation–is judged worthy to persist.

I think that ultimately what we are seeing is a movement against the only sane and historically accurate view of humanity, one that allows for both the inspiring heights and sobering depths of human potential. A recent episode of !fabulous! Milo’s Friday Night’s All Right  (I think one can view this only if a subscriber to Censored TV) with the University of Chicago Medieval studies professor Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown as his guest sent me down various rabbit thought trails. One is that statues remind us that extraordinary people have existed and maybe still exist. They might not be the most moral, but they are still undeniably important and demand our attention. Today’s nihilists do not want to believe that anyone can be momentous because that will then challenge them to examine how lackluster their own lives are, given over to their destabilizing passions and self-centered interests. Another, as pointed out by Milo and Dr. Brown, is that the statues that have been toppled bear the traits of neo-classical design, a style that attracted–as opposed to alienated–the observer. How many abstract monuments are we seeing removed or defaced? This seems to reveal a hatred of the high aspirations of art that were once encouraged in the West–and thus a hatred of the West. Finally, as Dr. Brown reminded us, America is a nation founded by iconoclasts. Our roots were planted in the fetid soil of the Protestant Revolution, err, Reformation. After all, is not the spirit of the Reformation to be always reforming?  Is Black Lives Matter any different in spirit than quitter monk Martin Luther? (Perhaps it is God’s warped sense of humor that the figure who plays so prominently in the movement was named after the perfidious priest. In fact, MLK’s shouting “I’m fucking for God!” while cheating on his wife by screwing prostitutes sounds like something that could have come straight from Martin Luther’s Table Talk…)

To return to the musings of the author who opened this essay: The Wokeists are performing their psychodrama with no script in hand on a national stage as the world watches, using violence for the catharsis of the actors themselves, not the audience, reversing what Aristotle wrote was the purpose of theater. Every performance ends with a “to be continued” at the next monument. Heaven help them–and us all–when the theater curtains catch fire.

 

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That’s (a Clown’s) Life

Flipboard: Joker is no joke — Joaquin Phoenix is superb ...

In case anyone has not heard, there is this film that has recently been released and is based upon a relatively infamous comic book villain. The film has garnered some media attention; perhaps the tireless reader may be able to find an article online after a fair amount of searching, only after, of course, having had to wade through the media sludge of Trump impeachment news.

After having seen Joker four times (I had a mini-vacation–that was how I chose to spend it), I want discuss a few of my observations. Spoilers to follow, for those who still think that a movie can be discussed (and condemned) before it has been viewed (e.g., The Guardian). That being said, a few admissions:

  • I am not a comic book fanboy. In fact, I stopped reading comics back in the early 80s, though I still have a few issues of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, my two favorite childhood heroes, stashed away in my closet. (I suppose that even as a young boy I had a sense of the human body’s frailty and fantasized about being able to augment its powers.)
  • I am not a fan of comic book movies. However, I did immensely enjoy Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman franchise, and I have seen a few of the earlier Marvel films (the first two Spiderman films and the first Iron Man), but, overall, I find such films lacking most elements that compel me to watch a film in the first place.
  • I do not intend to draw parallels to Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, or The King of Comedy, whether in content, style, or press-release sensationalism.
  • I am going to assume anyone who reads this has either seen the film or does not really care one way or the other, thus relieving me of having to summarize the plot or give background to characters or to scenes.
  • I intend to refer to just one review of Joker, largely because I think that it is unbelievably vapid and awash in hyper-critical self-righteousness that can come only from someone who could never make it as a screenwriter and, thus, must write for The New Yorker.  (As an aside: When is that smug, self-canonizing mag going to stop hyphenating “teenager”?)
  • I typed too early the above point. I will make use of a few reviews of Joker–but I still stand by what I typed regarding The New Yorker.
  • I refuse to essay any attempt at reconciliation with the larger comic-book mythology.

To begin, I was skeptical when I first read that the bro-humorist Todd Phillips was going to direct the film. However, when I saw a few teaser clips late last year and this year’s April’s stunning teaser trailer, all doubts evaporated. Even before I saw the film, reading the following two items about him only increased my faith in him: 1). he directed a documentary about the notorious punk rocker GG Allin (I remember seeing that documentary for sale in record store I used to haunt while in grad school. A graduate chum at the time dared to purchase a copy, but could not stomach finishing it.) and 2). he has publically confessed to the (near) impossibility of thriving in the humor genre in today’s woke/incessantly outraged/cancel culture. Of course, when I first read that Joaquin Phoenix (an actor whom I have been pimping out for a while) was slated to play the Joker, I was already planning to buy tickets for the first day’s first showing. He is, in my ‘umble opinion, the best actor of my generation (X!). Though I realize that he plays a vastly different type of Joker than that of Ledger’s, still, I think that Phoenix’s performance surpasses Ledger’s in that he is able to showcase a greater range of emotional intensity through one highly nuanced executed scene after another. However, in all fairness, Ledger’s role does not call for the emotional range that Phoenix’s does, for Ledger’s role demands a villain fully formed, one already committed to his nihilism, not one emering from the slough of despondency as we witness with Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck.

According to Robert Frost, “If we couldn’t laugh[,] we would all go insane.” Reportedly, Phillips played for Phoenix clips of people who suffered from the medical condition known as pseudobulbar affect (PBA): uncontrollable bouts of laughter. Anyone who has consumed even only a trailer has seen–and heard–the chilling but soulless laugh (more than one, actually) that Phoenix flawlessly captures for his character. Most of the time when Arthur laughs, it bears no relation to how he feels; rather, it is the result of a neurological condition that stems, we discover, from severe childhood trauma and functions as a release whenever he feels stressed or upset. He does, however, laugh genuinely a few times: after watching an interview with Bruce Wayne on television, upon first seeing his Pogo Comedy Club performance clip introduced on The Murray Franklin Show, and while being interviewed by a worker at Arkham State Hospital at the end of the film. One of the most poignant laughs comes while he is at the Pogo Comedy Club taking notes on a comedian. Arthur laughs wildly at the mention of the word “prestigious,” as if he were trying to predict when everyone else would laugh, but jumps the gun by laughing at a throw-away adjective, not the punchline. Also, when the comedian, who reveals that he is Jewish in his performance (Do Jewish comedians even do that in real life?), makes a joke about having to lie his Jewish name, Arthur looks around uncomfortably while everyone else laughs–and then rushes to include his laugh before everyone has finished laughing. (This may be one of my favorite scenes in the film, given Phoenix’s impeccable timing.)  Returning to the Frost quotation, I cannot help but think what becomes of those people who are not able truly to laugh–does such repressed laughter accumulate until it festers and boils in madness? Though Arthur is presented as one who struggles to see the signs of his own agency, could it also be that, suffering from a reverse form of pride, he expects the narrative of his life to produce a grand, architectonic design that most of us, regardless of class, race, or ability, will never have revealed to us? A lingering corollary question: What about those people who are told, in no uncertain terms, *not* to laugh at whatever has been enshrined as beyond comedic reevaluation by the then-functioning magisterium of mirth? A minor reflection of this: In my multiple viewings, I was surprised how many people did not laugh at what were truly funny scenes such as his dropping the gun while dancing in the children’s hospital.

Much has already been written about the possibility that the descent-cum-rebirth of Arthur Fleck may transform disenfranchised and disaffected white males into killers through maleficent cinematic alchemy. Unfortunately, in the current cultural climate, any film that features a disgruntled white male will find only one reading on the outrage thermometer: incel-baiting propaganda. Richard Lawson’s review in Vanity Fair captures this:

For so many tragic reasons, the American imagination has of late been preoccupied with the motivations of disaffected white men who’ve turned violent—a nation (or part of one) trying to diagnose and explain them, one mass killing after another. Whether that violence is born of mental illness, isolation, the culminated rage of masculine identity, or all those bound together in some hideous knot, we seem certain that there is some salvable cause.

Lawson continues:

That’s a complexity of causality that many Americans don’t extend to non-white men who commit heinous crimes; there, the thinking seems to be, the evil is far more easily identifiable. But those angry loners—the ones who shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world—there’s almost a woebegone mythos placed on them in the search for answers.

While he may be correct in saying that many Americans do not extend this courtesy of causality to non-white men, many do. Hell, many people do not like cats; many do. His point? If Mr. Lawson wants to promote this way of empathetic thinking, then he should promote Joker as a paradigm from which we can learn and then apply to disaffected men (and women, I presume) of all races, and if this strategic evaluation must come into the greater discourse through a movie starring a white man, then so be it.

Responding to Lawson’s Vanity Fair piece, Samuel Forster writing for Quillette.com  offers the following:

At the risk of sounding like the sort of critical theorist who would spout such sentiments, “there’s a lot to unpack here.” Most importantly, it is unclear why any of us should not endeavour to understand the motivations of disaffected white men (or any kind of men—for it’s not clear why Fleck’s character could not, with some small plot changes, be of any ethnic background imaginable) who end up committing acts of violence. The key to reducing violence amongst any demographic is in ascertaining the specific attributes of violent individuals. Skin colour is a crude and categorically ineffective indicator in this respect. Indeed, generations of progressives have properly argued this truth, typically in the face of racists who have alleged some particularly malign criminogenic trait at play in the minds of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, “Orientals,” Muslims or Jews.

In other words, if we are truly concerned with not only responding to violence but with preventing it, then we must better understand the warning signs of individuals who may be at risk. To dismiss this approach based upon a person’s race (or gender), as the Left now all but demands we do if it involves white males, betrays this ostensible desire to understand the roots of crime as, ultimately, one still dictated by political correctness.

Forster continues:

Lawson has no interest in understanding mental illness, isolation or “the culminated rage of masculine identity” (whatever that is), and that he would prefer to imagine all of these as simply being ingredients in some disgusting stew of human malignancy that is more properly called “evil.” His real complaint about the film is that, by prompting curiosity in regard to why people do bad things, it might distract audience members from the simple, morally urgent task of denouncing men such as Arthur Fleck in a purely normative manner, as a priest denounces sin.

This is a very perceptive reading of Lawson by Forster. Arthur Fleck, as an angry white male, must be immediately castigated and denounced. Yes, there is no denying the hideous nature of his crimes–and they are hideous. However, Forster contends that woke critics of this film want us to categorize (profile!) Arthur before we watch the film and then immediately to cast him away upon leaving the theater as an inherently and obviously wicked individual who deserves no further consideration and one whose crimes warrant no further investigation.

Not to make this too one-sided, there are complaints (or at least one) to be found on the opposite end of the racially aggrieved spectrum.  Joker, perhaps, was doomed politically from inception. The eponymous character was either going to be too white or, ahem, not white-acting enough. Trevor Lynch writing for Unz.com implies (or maybe I merely have inferred) that one sign of Fleck’s degeneracy is that his (imaginary, as we find out) romantic interest is….a black woman. Never fear, though, for at least the thugs who beat him at the beginning of the film are a collection of mystery meats, and he does find himself, quite naturally as an unassuming white male, on the receiving end of an uppity black woman. Given that race is presently the currency for all our transactions of meaning, it may now be impossible to experience any artistic production with taking into consideration questions of race and structures of power. All this being said, I cannot help but appreciate that this film is ruffling the feathers of folks both on the far left and on the far right. (Lynch, for whatever else he may say, does make a very interesting allusion, interpreting the scene in which Joker’s followers lay his body on the hood of a police car and wait for him to rise in light of Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ and Three Mourners.) 

Speaking of experiencing art, writing for Vanity Fair, Richard Brody comments that Joker is “a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Why? He argues that the film is “a drama awash in racial iconography that is so prevalent in the film, so provocative, and so unexamined as to be bewildering.” In other words, racial themes pervade the film, yet no significant interrogation regarding racial concerns ever occurs. Historical allusions, insists Brody, are made to the Central Park Five rape/murder and the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting, two racially volatile events, yet Joker persists in focusing on the mental illness of Arthur whose thought processes are “utterly devoid of any racial or social specificity.” If I understand the phrase “racial and social specificity” correctly, then Brody must be justifying why he finds it disappointing that Arthur, in the midst of his suffering, does not stop to consider whether his afflictions have arisen because of his race and how, one must presume, his white privilege has shielded him from deeper degrees of suffering that may be lacking in his life but not in the daily experiences of his black neighbors. What Brody does not suggest is how Fleck, without breaking character or leading viewers into an exasperating classroom-like experience, could do such? Would he have worked it into his comedy routine? Should he have scribbled something about race and priviledge in his journal? For example, when speaking with his black social worker, should he have concluded each response with something along the lines of “As a black woman working a shit job in a white man’s world, you probably have felt something similar…”? A more important question, however, from an artistic standpoint anyway, is why focusing on the illness of an individual and society’s “cancelling” of that individual proves to be an empty or a less satisfying experience than unearthing any underlying racial or political elements. This prompts me further to ask: Have we really come to terms with the privileged position that racial and political interpretations maintain when it comes to viewing movies? (We have not.)

Several reviews have stated how Arthur, as a (here we go again…) disaffected white male, assumes a much more chilling poignancy in the Trump administration. Such analysis bores me. Rather, one observation that I have not seen anywhere else–and I do not make much of it, but I do find it interesting–is that the Wall Street subway bro who starts singing and is the first to be shot bears no small resemblance to Eric Trump.

Another aspect of this film, and perhaps the central one, that has not been heavily explored (or, more likely, has been intentionally avoided) is the undeniable fact that Arthur Fleck is a product of a single-mom home. Only two male figures loom in Arthur’s life, and both are untouchable but through violence: Murray Franklin and Thomas Wayne. We discover that Arthur has repressed the memories of his own childhood abuse–abuse that has led to the development of his self-placating nervous laughter, his “condition.” In order to offset his own unhappiness (despite the sobriquet given to him by his mother: “Happy”), Arthur lives in a world of fantasy, one in which he is highlighted on The Murray Franklin Show not to be famous, but to connect with a man who he feels could function as a proxy father. His drive to confront Thomas Wayne, which, by the way, is when we see Arthur beginning to move from a reactive sponge to a proactive agent, is not to lay claim to wealth or political power; rather, he wants only a hug and a little human warmth. (In an alternate universe, one can easily imagine Arthur happily passing the day with Bruce, eagerly showing him his newest magic trick or dance routine, fully content with that life.) Yet, for all the shit that has been flung at him throughout his life, we see him resolve to trod his path of darkness only after he discovers that his mother has betrayed him and that Thomas Wayne has rejected him.

I am not convinced that Arthur intends to kill Murray until the very last moment; I believe that he may have still been holding out for a father who would check his murderous and suicidal impulses. Having dyed his hair green and embraced the make-up, Arthur assumes a campier, more androgynous persona prior to his late night show appearance, complete with the drag queen-esque affected Southern accent (e.g., “My life is nothing but a comedy.”) This particular take on the well-known Joker look deserves consideration in its own right. According to Mary Eberstadt,

Androgyny appears to offer competitive advantages in a world redesigned by the massive, radical, and largely unacknowledged communal dislocations incurred by Homo sapiens since the 1960s. Androgyny, including its instantiations of gender fluidity and gender ambiguity, has emerged in this new world as an adaptive way of augmenting one’s substitute clan. It operates, in effect, as a mechanism for reconstructing the extended family/community in prosthetic form in a time when the actual Western extended family/community is in decline.     

As one who lacks both family and community, Arthur must adapt in a way that augments his “substitute clan,” which is what occurs when the already rambunctious masked mob rallies around his body, waiting for the resurrection of its androgynous avatar. They provide him with the support that has lacked his entire life.

To return to my theory: when Arthur is listening to the news in the dressing room before going on stage, we can see that his eyes begin to water as he hears about the two officers who were nearly killed in the subway station. This leads me to believe that he still bears regret concerning what has happened to them–as well as to the clown protester who was killed on the subway. After Murray and his assistant leave the dressing room, Arthur rehearses pointing the gun toward his chin. (I cannot forget this gun-related detail, but I do not know where else to fit it in this review. What may have been dismissed as a throw-away gesture, but one that only affirms how detail-oriented Phoenix is to every role he assumes, is when he briefly points the gun to his own head after having shot the Wall Street subway bros. That gesture reveals a man who is not yet a committed murderer but one who acts in a frantic panic and who realizes that his life will never again be the same and who is not sure if he wants to continue living.) The turning point, I think, is when Arthur realizes that there is no redeeming Murray; he cannot be a father–he does not want to be a father. In fact, earlier in the film, the only time Murray mentions one of his children is to make fun of him (the garbage-strike joke). When Arthur tells Murray that he is bad (I have forgotten what term he used–“evil”?), he then makes the seething, pouty face of a child who is not afraid to let hatred and disappointment completely contort his expression. That is when Arthur realizes that Arthur, man-child that he is, must kill the man whose crime is that of not fulfilling the expectations that come with fatherhood.

Even as Gotham burns, we still do not see a fully formed Joker. In a scene that will haunt me for a while, after Joker arises from the hood of the police car and dances for mob, we see a man surveying the chaos that he has helped usher in. Once again his eyes water; we cannot tell if he is about to cry from joy or from fear and sadness of what has been unleashed. Given that he has to force himself to smile with his own blood, mimicking a movement that at the beginning of the film produces a tear, I wager on the latter. The film closes with Arthur laughing a genuine laugh as he assures his soon-to-be victim counselor that he is thinking of a joke that she would not get.

Given the unreliable narrator, much has been made regarding how much of the film actually occurs and how much of it may be only the feverish fantasies of a mentally ill man. While I have not come to a firm conclusion, I will point out that the careful viewer may have noticed that clock reads the same time during his first meeting with the social worker as it does during his flashback to Arkham as he bangs his head against the door window; perhaps what we experience as viewers is the unexplained joke that Arthur laughs at toward the end of the film. After all, the murder of Randall does possess a Kabuki-like theatrical feel, considering Arthur’s pasty-white face, the murder involving a sharp instrument, and the splash of blood that explodes upon his face and the wall. Perhaps the entire film was the performance of a psychodrama that Arthur allows us to view in order to relieve himself of the boredom of an asylum. Let us take our cue from the one of the film’s driving songs “That’s Life”: “I said that’s life, and as funny as it may seem / Some people get their kicks stompin’ on a dream.” The dream that we may have–and the one that Arthur stomps on at the end–is that if we investigate deeply and thoroughly enough, we will find the explanation of evil and, thus, through a knowledge of its origin be able to avoid it manifestation and consequences. Unfortunately, this is a facile behaviorist approach that does not take into consideration that every person is essentially an inscrutable being in whom resides the mystery of–and the battle between–good and evil.

 

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Disunited States of Americas

Years ago, the concept of secession (I prefer the term “self-determination”) interested me greatly. My first re-introduction to a concept that I thought had been politically decided and, thus, historically banished was through meeting a few prominent members of The League of the South, including the then-president (he may still be president) Dr. Michael Hill, at tiny Presbyterian church in Alabama in the late 90s. Though I was never really comfortable with their yearning to restore the Confederacy, I must declare that they never showed any traces of disrespect or suspicion toward my racially mixed (white/Asian) family. In fact, the then-pastor of the church saw some promise in me as a potential Reformed–as in Calvinistic, not as in recently released from prison–seminarian and wanted me to join his home-spun seminary with his seminarian-in-residence, a young Hispanic with much good faith and nervous energy, once–with gravitas–telling my mom in very own our home that a commitment to the Faith often requires great sacrifice. (Yeah, growing up in our circles, we met some pretty interesting people–all without the help of the Internet. Remind me sometime to tell you of when I used to pal around with a radical anti-abortionist Catholic sidewalk counselor who also supported secession–and advocated shooting abortionists…. Part of me misses all the non-Internet-subsidized zanies.) According to my mom, Dr. Hill even invited my Japanese father to join, though I do not believe that occurred.  (Not that I am accusing her of lying–merely of remembering incorrectly….) Relieved to find out that there were pro-secessionist thinkers outside of the pro-Confederacy camp, I looked into the writings of thinkers like Kirkpatrick Sale; however, my favorite work on secession, though the author–while sympathetic–does not advocate it, is the always amusing and rhetorically ennobling Bill Kauffman and his raucous Bye Bye, Miss American Empire. In case you are wondering, I was never invited to join The League (though I probably could have charmed my way in), did not become a Presbyterian seminarian–or remain Protestant for that matter, nor did I go on to agitate politically for the implicit conclusions of the Constitution.

I still think of secession from time to time, though not as an endgame goal to be pursued through cultural and political resistance, but rather as what now seems to be a cultural and political inevitability. Two recent articles from the Unz Review brought this to my mental foreground. In Boyd Cathey’s “Is It Time for American to Break Apart,”  he asks:

The question comes down to this: Is the fragile American experiment in republicanism begun in Philadelphia in 1787, which required a commonly-shared understanding of basic principles, now over, or at the very least is it entering its agonizing death throes?

Of course, many would say that was answered in the affirmative after the War Between the States…. He continues:

Increasingly, we live in a country that has become de facto little more than a mere geographical entity. True, it is still formally a nation, but a nation where there are in fact at least two very distinct Americas, with radically differing visions of what is real and what is not real, radically differing conceptions of what is moral and what is not, radically differing views about truth and error, and radically differing ideas about using whatever means are available to reach a desired and posited end. For all the talk of equality and racism, the revolutionary side in actuality seeks to replace one oligarchy—which it calls “white supremacist”—with another oligarchy of its own making, in fact, a brutal, vicious and soulless “utopia’’ that would make Joseph Stalin’s Communist state seem like a Sandals Retreat in the Bahamas.

Though I would go further to say that we are more than two very distinct Americas, his basic point remains: we (in the loosest possible sense) are a nation deeply, deeply divided. His prognosis will please very few–or please some for the wrong reasons:

(1) Either there must be some large mass conversion of one side or the other (a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion?), probably occasioned by some immense and earth-shaking event, war, depression, disaster; or (2) there must be a separation into independent jurisdictions of large portions of what is presently geographically the United States, including possible massive population exchanges—this separation/secession could be peaceable, although increasingly I think it would not be; or lastly, and worst, (3) the devolution of this country would continue into open and vicious civil and guerrilla war, followed by a harsh dictatorship. Disorder always abhors a vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled one way or another.

The essential taste of his doom-laced drink is that we have allowed ideology divide us to the point that we no longer see each other as fellow citizens. (Allowing any and all from other regions does not assist with stability, either.) In fact, the cohabitating (not even well) in a region seems to be the only sine qua non for citizenship–and the bedrock upon which the American identity is now built.

Closely related to Cathey’s concerns, decline-seen-through-vignettes author Linh Dinh weighs in: (I have written before about Dinh–here and here.  If you have not, treat yourself to his travelogue-of-decay Postcards from the End of America.)

The first step is to stop thinking of yourself as an American, for there’s no America left to save, much less “make great again,” and there are no Americans left either, for if anybody can be a defacto American just by showing up, then the concept is meaningless. That’s like me landing in Tel Aviv tomorrow and declaring I’m a Jew.

Your average American hardly has a hometown, just a homepage, and his neighbors are the anonymous, pseudonymous, hasbarists and trolls he compulsively chats with. If you don’t even belong to your neighborhood, how are you the citizen of any nation?

Coming full circle, Dinh advocates what Kauffman has been advocating for his entire writing career: localism. The American experiment may have been too grand to begin with; however, at least when it began, it was united, more or less, by people of a common stock and ideology. Though a nation founded upon a legal document, there was an organic cohesiveness at its inception. Such cannot be now said about the US. Not only do we not share a common vision of the common good based upon a common vision of ourselves, we glorify the mixture of incompatible visions. Granted, I know that I have grossly simplified US history, but anyone who wants to point to various grievances in the past in order to normalize the current chaos needs to wipe the obtuseness from his/her eyes.

With a son on the way, all these concerns have assumed a new profundity. Do I think that he will experience a united array of states in which to grow? I greatly doubt it. If anything, like the dying father from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I hope to teach my son what it means to be a virtuous man in both a country and civilization in decline–and to find a handful of people whom he can trust.

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Buy My Book

Not to be blunt or forceful or pushy…

My first collection of short stories is now available for delicious public consumption through Amazon. I have worked, on and off, on these stories for a few years; I am ready for the baby literary birds to leave the nest, especially so that I can begin working on my next set of stories before my actual baby boy bird arrives. I am proud of the intentional final version (I could edit until Kingdom Come) and the cover art–really sleek. For the time being, it will be available only in paperback. To entice: I will post the beginning of each of the five short stories, which grow increasingly darker:

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Story One: “Little Goes a Long Way”

Little confessed, for he was the type that found feeling regret easier than practicing prudence, that the act had proceeded from a summer-fevered mind.

“The iced tea wasn’t bringing me any relief,” Little offered.

“You’re blaming the iced tea for why you just up and threw your potato salad at her? You didn’t even know that girl.” Little’s mom denied the offer.

“The girl wouldn’t shut up. Every time I looked over at her, her mouth was wide open.”

“Just because you find somebody annoying, that doesn’t give you the right to throw food—or anything else—at them.”

“But she was so loud, and she was wearing soccer shorts—even though she’s too fat to be a soccer player—and Chacos. You know I hate Chacos.” Little placed great trust in details.

“I don’t care what she was wearing.” Little’s mom tended to gloss over the details. “It’s just a good thing that her friends didn’t hurt you. I’ve had enough of your antics, Little.” Most people called “Little” were not. Little, however, was. He stood five foot two, but his freckles and strawberry blond hair made him look four foot eleven tops.

“Yes, ma’am. It won’t ever happen again.”

“You’re right about that—and you’re going to stay with your uncle for the rest of the summer.”

“But he’s busy getting his circus going.”

“Then you’ll fit right in with those freaks.”

*****

“Little, did my sister make you practice on that trampoline I sent you for Christmas some years back?” Colonel Checkers got his title the same way Colonel Sanders or Colonel Tom (Parker) got his—through self-acquisition.

 “No, sir, mom used it as a storage table.”

“That’s what I was afraid of. Good thing I got it on clearance at Treasure Hunt. Okay, my boy, trapeze artistry is out. Can you juggle?”

“Just two tennis balls.”

“That won’t excite most, I’m afraid. Would you, in due time, be willing to marry a woman so hideous so as to defy all carnal inclinations?” Colonel Checkers’s protruding eyes narrowed.

“Don’t think I have the fortitude, sir.” Little’s eyes closed, then opened, then narrowed.

“I guess I shouldn’t even begin to inquire into sword swallowing or fire breathing.” Colonel Checkers examined his cigar like he suspected that he might have lit the wrong end.

Little shook his head, disappointed first and foremost in himself.

“Shit, nephew, do schools nowadays teach any coping skills?”

“Mom says I’m severely lacking in two areas: height and coping skills.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, son—at least about the height part. Say, what about working with my knife-throwing act?” Colonel Checkers forgot that he was actually enjoying his cigar and instead threw it. He then cussed.

“Uncle, I don’t think that I should throw any more things for the time being, especially at people.”

“No, Little, I mean as the target.”

Story Two: “Then Comes Tomorrow”

Tim Pippin had been listening for his phone to chime all morning. By not keeping it on his person, but in another room, he had convinced himself that he had cultivated a heroic level of stoic disinterest. In reality, this meant that he had uneasily taken up residence in the emotional halfway house between anticipation and dread. He anticipated what she was going to text; he dreaded what she was going to text. To heighten the spectacle of this single-observer situation, he thumbed through La Rochefoucauld’s Collected Maxims. Maxim V: 131: “Weakness is the only fault that we are incapable of correcting.” So true, he chuckled to himself. The French are the best. Why couldn’t I have been born in seventeenth-century France when a professional indiscretion such as sleeping with a student would have been humanely and gently seen as an understandable weakness on the part of an instructor, not a career-ending social crime? Imagining that he was being watched by an understanding, if not mildly approving, audience, he, in his best world-weary manner, lit another cigarette and poured himself another poor man’s mimosa: Miller High Life and orange juice. Ting. That was the alert he had been expecting. However, instead of rushing into his bedroom where he had left his phone on his unmade bed, maintaining the illusion of his recent victory over the weakness of the will, he continued thumbing through Maxims. Maxim V: 70: “No disguise can long hide love where it exists, or stimulate it where it does not exist.” The fools—to think our love could have remained hidden even had we tried. Like death or farting in front of your partner, it had to come eventually.

Laying down Maxims in a spine-extending, print-side-down manner—for he was going to return, naturally, to his morning meditations, he walked into his bedroom, lay on his bed, picked up his phone, and typed his passcode.

“Ur through, I emailed photos to ur chair & ur dean. There going to laugh at ur mediocre penis.”

I’m through. No—she’s through! No, I’m through. Fuck you, Niki! Fuck. You. Whore.

Tim dropped the cigarette on his chest, which had been insouciantly dangling from his lips—as the French must do with their cigarettes, prompting him to jump up and frantically swipe the ashes off his chest, spilling his drink all over his bed. As he brushed away the ashes, he pictured his chair, the dean of academic affairs, and the dean of student services all studying printed copies of the pictorial evidence, evidence of a love that could not remain hidden and, unfortunately, dare speak its name on more than one occasion. He imagined his chair making that mildly amused-but-still-disappointed face that she made whenever she had to walk to his office to remind him about grades that had been due three hours prior. He also knew the only reason that Niki had spelled “mediocre” correctly was because of the spell check feature on her phone.

Story Three: “A Failed Suicide Wins at Life (The Nobility of Failure)”

James woke up Saturday morning suffering from two distinct forms of vagueness: the first vagueness was a stupor that had been induced by the previous night’s consumption. The second vagueness led him to look at his wrists.

Goddammit!

James had hoped that the throbbing in his wrists throughout the night might have had an explanation that did not involve permanence. Like the doubled images that one experiences after a knock to the head that slowly settle back into one, the two distinct forms of vagueness—dread, really—settled back into the one event of which they were only different facets: he had been dumped by his girlfriend at a Mexican restaurant, setting off a chain of inadvisable actions that had resulted in his waking up hung-over with tattoos on the underside of both wrists.

Goddammit.

*****

“I really don’t want to have this conversation here.” James sat back in the booth, crossing his arms and poking out his lips. Carlie leaned across the table to dip a chip in the bowl of salsa that James had angrily drawn close to him.

“If not now, when? We might as well have it—we’ve been darting around it for weeks.”

“Why do we always need to talk about our relationship? Why can’t we talk about normal things, like a normal couple?”

“Always? We never talk about us. It’s always about your family or your friends or whatever the hell you’ve just watched on YouTube.” James noticed that the salsa bowl balance was slowly being restored to the table, and to him this signaled an imminent shifting of power in their relationship.

“That’s not true—we talk about your family and your friends and all your shitty coworkers.”

“You’re only proving my point—we don’t talk about us.”

“Fine—what about us?”

“Are you happy?”

“Oh, fuck me. Really? Is anybody truly happy… I mean….”

“Don’t give me your philosophy bullshit. Do I make you happy?”

“Yeah, I guess—no, yes, yes, you do. Okay, I’m happy with you.” At this point James had lost his appetite and pushed the salsa bowl so that it nestled against Carlie’s elbow. He knew that she would make the next move that would determine not just the placement of the salsa, but the very future of their relationship. The waiter brought their orders to the table and smiled in a way that showed either he knew what was taking place or that he was oblivious. Either way, it was unbearable for James.

“Oh, you sound confident. I don’t believe you, but you know what? I’ll accept that. Why don’t you ask me if I’m happy?

“Carlie—really, I don’t want to do this here and now.”

“Why? Are you afraid of what you’ll hear? You’re afraid, aren’t you?” James forced fed himself a forkful of rice. Carlie’s eating increased in vigor as she glared across the table at James. He shoved in another forkful of rice. He ate to fortify himself against the coming attack. She ate to find the necessary nourishment both to break with the past and to mangle the present.

“Are you happy, Carlie?”

“No.”

Story Four: “The Pick-up Artist Alchemist”

Ronnie had accepted, as if by natural law, the wave of disgust that inevitably washed over him after the smaller surface wave of a self-manipulated orgasm had returned to its twin disturbances of anxiety and frustration. Having discovered this solitary comfort later in life than most, Ronnie had originally brought a drama and a stringency that most men would see as unnecessary self-foreplay. Initially, he insisted upon visiting himself only while lying on clean silk sheets in his darkened bedroom, imagining only women he knew in real life. As his red-blooded imaginative faculties began to wane, he had to resort to pornographic stimulation. To convince himself that he could view porn with dignity, he allowed himself to watch only sensual, female-friendly porn in which nary a female face was assaulted by toxically masculine fluids. However, the luster of well-behaved actors soon began to fade, and he was compelled to delve into darker arenas of lust. Currently, he found himself leaning out of his shower—a shower that was only partially sealed off with a curtain so that he could view his laptop—to close the browser that was still playing the video, even as his penis had already begun to return to flaccidity. As he closed the “German Tranny Threesome Surprise on Public Transport” video and then watched his spittle of sperm dislodge from the floor of the shower and inseminate the drain, he started to cry.

At twenty-six, Ronnie was only three sexual encounters and two years and one girlfriend removed from virginity. All three had been with his ex-girlfriend, and she had told him after their third encounter that he had gotten worse, if that were possible, and knew even less than a virgin about bedroom performance and broke up with him through text messaging after she had left his apartment. At the time, they were both working at Target, and he had to face the daily humiliation of seeing her pantomime for coworkers his lack of bedroom finesse. At 5’7” and one hundred thirty-five pounds, Ronnie knew that he was not the most impressive physical specimen. Though he did not think that he was bad looking given his thick brown hair, blue eyes, and sharp nose, he did think that his face may have been a little too round, and he had feet that were smaller than guys who were shorter than he. Thus, he never went barefoot in public. Still, all things considered, as a business-degree college graduate who was the assistant store manager at Sears and who wore shoes slightly larger than needed, he could not understand why he seemed all but invisible to women. He had often heard that women would look past traditional standards of male beauty if such men could compensate with wit. He had always prided himself on his wit, but presciently timed quips that would render other men to giggling fits seemed to bore, or even annoy, any woman in audible range. He often wondered if women could infer his pornographic tastes by some tell-tale sign and then judge him accordingly.

After getting dressed, Ronnie turned to the consolation that had been with him much longer than masturbation or pornography: drinking. He put a few drops of Visine in his eyes and left for his favorite bar, The City Lights.

Story Five: “Thorns of Virtue”

Abigail replayed the events that had happened only five minutes ago with the intensity with which one might replay the loss of one’s virginity or the death of one’s child. Whether the result of misjudgment or a momentary fit of distraction, she knew that what was to follow would irrevocably further her on the dismal trajectory that her life had assumed. However, despite the threatening ghost pressure of the cool steel across her throat and the fleshy weight of the warm hand roughly pulling open her blouse, she, by fingering the beads of emotional associations on her Rosary of suffering, found herself thinking about the day that she had come home early from her shift as the assistant manager at a cell phone store to find her fiancé in her bed with her neighbor who had moved into her apartment complex only three weeks prior. The emotional helplessness paralleled, albeit on a different track of misery, the physical helplessness she now was experiencing.

“Brad, why the hell is this, this whore in my bed? And why the hell are you in my bed with her?”

“Abby, what are you doing home?”

“What it does it fucking matter? What’s going on here?”

Brad, always unnerved whenever Abigail found the fortitude for invective, started to cover himself and his paramour. Abigail, not wanting to allow them to adorn their shame with her duvet, ripped it off the bed and examined their naked bodies, which then clung to each other more for security than for intimacy.

“Abby, we didn’t mean to hurt you,” her neighbor offered as it were a gesture of goodwill.”

“Phoebe, I don’t even have the words right now….You met Brad one time—how did this happen?

“We started chatting through Facebook, and then things just…happened.”

Turning away from Phoebe as if she were a child who had just interrupted her bickering parents, Abigail turned to Brad: “We promised our priest that we’d remain chaste until marriage. That’s why you moved back home. You know how fucking hard that’s been, but I thought that we were in this together. Have you been cheating on me this entire time with other people, too?”

In waiting for Brad to answer, Phoebe began to slide away from Brad, watching him suspiciously the entire time as she leaned off the bed to retrieve her bra and panties.

“Abby, I don’t know….You know that I love you—it’s just that….” Brad stopped as he cupped his hands over his penis, hoping to redirect the accusative gaze of not one but two sets of censuring eyes.

“Brad, answer me—have there been others?”

“Abby, look, they didn’t mean anything—yeah, there have been others.”

“How many?”

“Four.”

“Did you bring them back to my bed? No—don’t answer that. No, tell me—why here?”

“Only a few times. I just, just feel comfortable in your bed—and my parents are always home.”

“Comfortable! At least you could’ve had the decency…. That’s it! The wedding—it’s off. Stay away from me. Don’t ever try to contact me or my family or my friends ever again.”

Though Abigail blamed Phoebe as much as anyone in this conflagration of libidinal and sacramental interests, looking for affirmation wherever she might find it, she turned to Phoebe who gave her a hearty, though carefully measured, nod of sanction.

When Abigail opened her eyes, the man who she thought needed only a ride, the man whom she was not going to prejudge, had unbuttoned her shirt and had unsnapped her bra. Making a sawing motion as he brought the blade closer to her throat, he hoarsely whispered that if she did not take off her pants and underwear he would gouge out her eyes and cut off her ears before he sliced her throat. With a clarity that would shock her upon recollection more so than the event itself, Abigail was able to carry out a pleasure-pain calculation concerning her options. Provided her assailant kept true to his word, and she saw no reason why he would not, the mutilation that she would experience—in addition to the rape that she knew would have to endure regardless, would prove maddening, but she would die. She would not be left to live with the consequences of her intentional naivety, the bitter fruits of her attempt to show a world that was not watching that she would not give into the easy cynicism that allowed people to continue their lives, unwilling to attempt to discern between the wheat and the chaff out of suspicion that all are chaff. However, what if he did not kill her? What if he mutilated her only to leave her to bleed to death? She would still die—unless someone came upon her writhing body and called emergency services in time to save her. What good would she be to her loved ones as an eyeless, earless monstrosity who would also have to carry within her butchered body the wounds of violation? Her loved ones—they needed her. She could not leave them. She must endure this wanton purgatory—a suffering that would not cleanse her as, theologically speaking, purgatorial fires do—to behold once again the vision of her family.

Abigail pretended to fumble with her pants as if she were told not to use most of her fingers to accomplish a timed task of dexterity. Finally getting frustrated with her pretense of compliance, the ravager began to pull her pants. Once the pants bunched up around her ankles, as if he forgot to turn on the coffee pot after he had poured water into it, he hit his own forehead and then tugged at her shoes. He then tore her underwear. Watching him unzip his pants and extricate his engorged member, Abigail retreated into a rhythmic prayer designed to remove her from all temporal and spatial concerns. Provided she could disassociate herself from her own body, perhaps she could flee the pain and hide in the nebulous region of prayer: Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen. It can’t last too long. He will finish soon and then leave me alone. He won’t poke out my eyes or cut off my ears. Mom. Dad. Peter. Jonathan. Lucy. Mother Mary and your Son, Jesus. Help me. Hail Mary….

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As Individuals, Let’s All Be Unhappy Together

In the summer edition of American Affairs, Dutch politician (trigger warning, soft ones) Thierry Baudet condenses the message of French writer Michel Houellebecq’s oeuvre: our contemporary moral and political freedoms have given many choices, but they have not given us happiness–nor will they. The thrust of the piece may have been to push people toward considering why Houellebecq, with his latest work, Serotonine, comes across as more of a defeatist than as a champion of cultural renewal, especially since he has been plucking these disquieting strings for the past twenty or so years; however, such a consideration is not what I found most engaging.

Though usually aligned with the far right, given his more-than-likely views on feminism  and Islam and nationalism, Houellebecq stands inconveniently outside the left-right divide. Emphasizing this a-directional stance is what I found most interesting with Baudet’s analysis. Both the left and the right, as routinely conceived, base their respective ideologies and praxeologies on that which is, usually, not questioned by either: individual autonomy/liberation of the individual. Enter the scurrilous Monsieur Houellebecq.

Baudet writes:

“So yes, the modern world brought liberation. But this liberation has not made us happy. Instead, it has left our lives empty, without purpose, and, above all, extremely lonely. Existential connections have  become almost impossible since few are genuinely prepared to sacrifice short-term pleasure for the commitment required to establish a deep mutual connection. Television, internet, and pornography have replaced organic social intercourse and physical intimacy. As more options open up each day, our hearts close to the possibility of real human warmth, having been betrayed too many times–and having witnessed ourselves betraying others–for the brief moments of seductive thrills that we, as ‘liberated individuals,’ can no longer resist.”
                                                                                                                                                                    An unwillingness to sacrifice short-term pleasures for deep mutual connections is a thread that I have seen woven into every one of Houellebecq’s novels that I have read: Whatever, The Elementary Particles, PlatformThe Possibility of an Island, and Submission. While he does sneak in the autobiographical abandonment of children by parents who are more concerned with self-exploration than with parenting, his focus is liberated sexuality.

From a passage from Whatever that Baudet quotes extensively:                                                                                                                                                                                                                    From the amorous point of view, Veronique belonged, as we all do, to a sacrificed generation. She had certainly been capable of love; she would have wished to still be capable of it, I’ll say that for her; but it was no longer possible. A scarce, artificial and belated phenomenon, love can only blossom under certain mental conditions, rarely conjoined, and totally opposed to the freedom of morals that characterizes the modern era. Veronique had known too many discotheques, too many lovers; such a way of life impoverishes a human being, inflicting sometimes serious and always irreversible damage. Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immorality, and never two. In reality, the successive sexual experiences accumulated during adolescence undermine and rapidly destroy all possibility of projection of an emotional and romantic sort.   

One could have plucked this passage from a run-of-the-mill Red Pill screed; however, Houellebecq was discussing hypergamy and sexual marketplace value back in the 90s. I was surprised that anyone was expressing these sentiments that “long” (pop culture standards) ago when I first came across that same passage nearly a year ago.

Commenting, Baudet continues:

“How encouraging to finally read a modern writer who takes the problem of sex seriously! Of course, the cult of virginity lost its credibility in the Western world some time ago, today’s philosophy being that we have to experiment to find the right partner. Houellebecq, however, draws upon older intuitions which maintain that the bond which forms through sexual intimacy may reemerge once or twice, but not much more, and that we should therefore be extremely cautious in acquiring amorous experience. Sex, in short, can be a threat–and not simply an aide–to intimacy and love.”

The theme of “older intuitions” regarding sexual depletion occurs again and again in Houellebecq’s characters. Liberal or conservative, we tend to treat sexual encounters as financial transactions–ideally, both parties profit from the exchange. If one is not pleased with the product or finds it defective, one can take it back for a refund–or opt to buy a newer model. No one is committed to keep anything–or anyone–in one’s life. If one finds the product too burdensome, dismissing it is as simple as dropping a “I-don’t-really-see-this-going-anywhere” and then throwing away the instructions. It is, indeed, our right–if not our imperative–to test as many different products as we can before we prudently choose which one we plan on sticking with for the immediate future.

Houellebecq, after he takes a lugubrious puff on his cigarette, waves away such non-sense. His stories reaffirm the older intuitions: we cannot give ourselves away sexually and expect not to be affected, if not worsened. Every person to whom we give ourselves who does not become our spouse or life-long partner becomes, necessarily, another person to whom we have given a part of ourselves that we will then never be able to give to another. In other words, intimacy is not, as the sexual free market theorists would have us believe, a renewable resource. Much like with fingers or toes, intimacy, once gone, always gone. I write this to myself as much as I write this to another.

I do not care to play the numbers game: at what point has one had too many partners to be able to love another? However, my wager–and my fear–is that it is much lower than most of us would be comfortable discovering.

Yet, as entitled consumers, we continue to patronize online pornography, casual dating-site hook-ups, and sterile sex–it may be kinky, but it will not ever lead to children or a future. Are we not lucky to be living in such times as we do? How did our older generations ever find the emotional wherewithal to smile?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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