Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia

The amount of entertainment media is immense these days, even limiting it to big biz media in the United States: Hollywood, cable, television, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. I try to be discerning in what I watch, but I also have a curiosity to sample what is being produced. Viewing entertainment media offers a glimpse into the national psyche. It’s the moral imagination that Edmund Burke could never have imagined, the mental furniture of media-saturated late modernity.

I look for the narratives and tropes that are popular or for whatever reason are being pushed by media companies. As others have noted, the Cold War had re-entered or been re-introduced into the cultural imagination. It began with the 9/11 terrorist attack because our actions during the Cold War era were coming back to haunt us. In the fight against the Soviets, it was the U.S. that trained, armed, and allied with Osama bin Laden and in the process helped create al-Quaida. It was the U.S. that purposely destroyed so many secular democratic governments in order to replace them with theocracies, dictatorships, and fascist states. And it was the U.S. that, as allies with the Iraqis, gave Saddam Hussein chemical weapons (i.e., weapons of mass destruction) that he used against his own people while we watched and did nothing.

The sins of the father fell upon the sons. It was Generation X that fought in Iraq during Desert Storm and once again in the Iraq War. These GenXers and their non-military generational peers were bottle fed on Cold War media and ideology. It was maybe natural that, as this generation began careers in entertainment media, they (along with the older generations) inserted the Cold War mentality back into the mainstream. Once again, we started seeing Russians portrayed as enemies in movies and shows.

Recent political events during and following the 2016 presidential campaign brought back many of the dark fantasies of the Cold War. And the fear about media meddling struck a chord that resonated with the early Cold War. Russia has returned to the world stage as a major political power. And the U.S. corporate media have given the Russian elite all the attention and coverage they were seeking. Putin’s purpose was unlikely to elect any particular candidate and more simply to regain the respect of being treated as a real threat. As nothing else could, the fear-mongering of U.S. media boosts Putin’s ego and his popularity among Russians. They were back in their Cold War role.

I hadn’t given this much thought recently. But it all came back to my attention while watching a relatively new show, TNT’s Legends. It originally aired a few years ago and the rights to show it were purchased by Hulu. I mention it not because it is great entertainment, rather because it is an expression of the cultural moment. It’s likely Hulu wouldn’t have had any interest in it, if not for recent political events and investigations involving Russia. After watching a few episodes, it immediately felt familiar. I realized that, although outwardly about the Iraq War and the War on Terror, the basic story came from my youth. It’s a revamped Vietnam War show. There is the traumatized war experience that the protagonist can’t remember and some kind of secret government operation or experiment that involved combat soldiers. The protagonist has been brainwashed somehow and he is trying to remember who he was and what happened.

Legends has hints of Cold War movies like the Manchurian Candidate, although more heavily leans on the tropes of Vietnam War movies, specifically Rambo and Jacob’s Ladder. The latter movie, Jacob’s Ladder, came a bit later in 1990 when the Cold War mood was declining but still much in the air. All of these movies weren’t limited to the imagination of screenwriters and producers. They express the paranoid mindset that had taken hold back then. Also, the U.S. government really was doing some crazy shit, from brainwashing experiments to drug experiments. Jacob’s Ladder was a fictionalized account of an actual government experiment, although the source material of Rambo was a popular conspiracy theory that had no basis in reality.

Whether inspired by truth or paranoia, such narratives spoke and in new forms continue to speak to the public imagination. What do such narratives mean? And why do they keep coming back? The have become part of a deep-seated American mythos that continually gets introduced to new generations.

The Legends show was based on a novel by Robert Littell (two of his other works were earlier made into a movie and series). He grew up during the World War II period, was in the Navy during the early Cold War, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent during the Vietnam War, and began his fiction writing in the last years of the Vietnam War with his second novel being about that war. He is one of the authors who helped popularize the American spy novel, one of the main expressions of Cold War paranoia where truth and conspiracy were mingled. Although an old guy at this point, he is still writing and was last published in 2016 (a professional writing career that has lasted a half century).

The novel that was the source of the Legends was written in 2005, at the height of ramping up public opinion for the War on Terror. It was a time of the return of the paranoid mind with the likes of Alex Jones gaining mainstream attention. Interestingly, the developers of the show were three older GenXers: Howard Gordon, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and Mark Bomback. And all of them were born during the Vietnam War. These producers have been involved in other shows that embody the mindset of paranoia and the war state, such as Gordon having co-developed and written scripts for Showtime’s Homeland while Nachmanoff was a director for that show. Gordon had done earlier work for years as a supervising producer and scriptwriter for The X-Files, the original show that made conspiracy theory fully mainstream.

If these narratives, these collective fantasies didn’t have such staying power, it would be a lot harder for them to be constantly used as propaganda tools. The Bush administration was able to use them to great effect in drumming up support. And that persistent paranoia has taken on new life and new uses during this Trump era. It’s because the public and politicians are constantly being fed this kind of entertainment that we get this world we find ourselves in. They are powerful narratives, capturing the moral imagination through visions of power and greatness, paranoia and terror. We get trapped in the stories we tell. There is no way to rationally respond to them. They are mind viruses that get passed on from generation to generation.

Ian Cheng on Julian Jaynes

Down an Internet Rabbit Hole With an Artist as Your Guide
by Daniel McDermon

The art of Ian Cheng, for example, is commonly described in relation to video games, a clear influence. But the SI: Visions episode about him touches only lightly on that connection and on Mr. Cheng’s career, which includes a solo exhibition earlier this year at MoMA PS1. Instead, viewers go on a short but heady intellectual journey, narrated by Mr. Cheng, who discusses improv theater and the esoteric theories of the psychologist Julian Jaynes.

Jaynes, Mr. Cheng said, posits that ancient people weren’t conscious in the way that modern humans are. “You and I hear an internal voice and we perceive it to be a voice that comes from us,” Mr. Cheng says in the video. But Jaynes argued that those voices might well have been perceived as other people.

In that theory, Mr. Cheng explained in an interview, “The mind is actually composed of many sub-people inside of you, and any one of those people is getting the spotlight at any given time.” It’s a model of consciousness that is echoed in the film “Inside Out,” in which an adolescent girl’s mind comprises five different characters.

This conception of consciousness and motivation helped him build out the triad of digital simulations that were shown at MoMA PS1. In those works, Mr. Cheng created characters and landscapes, but the narrative that unfolds is beyond his control. He has referred to them as “video games that play themselves.”

Damnation: Rural Radicalism

Damnation is a new show on USA Network (co-produced by Netflix). It’s enjoyable entertainment inspired by history and influenced by literature.

As Phil De Semlyen at Empire summarizes the background of the show, it is “a 1930s saga of big business concerns and poor, struggling families, with possibly a sprinkling of Elmer Gantry-like religious hypocrisy, crime and demagoguery thrown in for good measure. “It’s set in the Great Depression and based on true events,” Mackenzie tells Empire of this heady-sounding mix, “It’s about strikers and strike-breakers in Iowa, almost the Dust Bowl, which is bloody interesting.” A bit Steinbeck-y, then? “Kind of. A little bit more amped than that, but yeah.”” And from a Cleveland.com piece by Mark Dawidziak, the show’s creator Tony Tost explained in an interview that,  “They’re unquestionably two of my favorite writers… The world of John Steinbeck as presented in ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Cannery Row’ was a big influence, as was Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, ‘Red Harvest,” which is set in a Western mining town. All of that went into the soup when writing ‘Damnation.’ ” In mentioning that interview, Bustle’s Jack O’Keeffe writes that,

While the show’s creator has named The Grapes Of Wrath as a touchstone for the series, it also calls to mind one of the most acclaimed period films of the past decade. The 2007 film There Will Be Blood covers the first three decades of 20th Century America, stopping just shy of the Great Depression. However, the small-town rivalry between a suspicious preacher and a business-minded capitalist that arises in There Will Be Blood seems to mirror the central conflict present in Damnation. Damnation seems to be drawing from some pieces of American fiction about the sociopolitical realities of this particular era.

In an interview with Cleveland.com, Tost admitted that Damnation’s influences don’t stop at Steinbeck or the violent filmography of Quentin Tarantino. Tost also listed iconic western director Sam Peckinpah, the Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead, and the non-fiction book Hard Times: An Oral History Of The Great Depression among his many inspirations. While Damnation may have invented the details of its story, the creative forces behind the show seemed to do their homework when it came to capturing an accurate picture of what life was like then.

While many of the show’s influences are set 80 years ago, the most surprising source for Damnation may be 2017. Tost told Cleveland.com in the previously mentioned interview, “If you look at the 1930s — a time when there was increasing distrust in institutions, there was fear of finding meaningful work, there is this onslaught of new technology taking away jobs — the relevance [of the show to 2017 audiences] is almost inescapable.”

In a Fayetteville Flyer interview, Tost describes “it as 1/3 Clint Eastwood, 1/3 John Steinbeck, 1/3 James Ellroy. That is, it takes some characters you’d normally see in a tough western, plops them in the world of Grapes of Wrath, and places them in the sort of pulpy paranoid narrative you see in Ellroy’s novels.” About the research, he says:

It’s a blast. Back in my academic days, my field of study was American literature from 1890 to 1945 and I wrote a dissertation on the influence of new technologies in the 20s and 30s on the American imagination. Then I wrote a book about Johnny Cash which delved into the same time period from a different angle, looking at the music and preachers and myths of Americana. So by the time I came up with Damnation as a TV show, I had a good feel for the period, I think. I’ve done plenty of research since then: oral histories and historical accounts of the period and so forth. We have a person who works on the show who daily does research into various arenas we’re interested in, whether it’s carnivals or bootlegging or pornography or baseball or what have you. Largely, I subscribe to David Milch of Deadwood’s advice: do a ton of research, then forget it, and then use your imagination. So Damnation mingles official history with fiction. I sometimes call it a “speculative history” of the time period.

And about “parallels between that period and today,” he states that there are, “Too many to list. I think that’s one of the things that got us the series order from USA network. Populist anger, fears about technologies and immigrants taking away jobs, fascist tendencies, fears of environmental apocalypse (dust bowl), life and death struggles over who is or isn’t a “real” American. The parallels are often spooky.”

So, even as it follows the general pattern of known history, it doesn’t appear to be based on any specific set of events. It is about the farmer revolts in Iowa during the Great Depression (see 1931 Iowa Cow War, 1932 Farmers’ Holiday Association, & 1933 Wisconsin Milk Strike), the kind of topic demonstrating traditional all-American radicalism that triggers the political right and makes them nostalgic for the pro-capitalist political correctness of corporate media propaganda during the Cold War. But I don’t think the fascist wannabes should get too worried since, as we know from history, the capitalists or rather corporatists defeated that threat from below. The days of a radical working class and of the independent farmer were numbered. The show captures that brief moment when the average American fought against the ruling elite with a genuine if desperate hope as a last stand in defending their way of life, but it didn’t have a happy ending for them.

The USA Network can put out a show like this because capitalism is so entrenched that such history of rebellion no longer feels like a serious threat, although this sense of security might turn out to be false in the long run. Capitalist-loving corporations, of course, will sell anything for a profit, even tv shows about a left-wing populist revolt against capitalists — as Marx put it, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” The heckling complaints from the right-wing peanut gallery are maybe a good sign, as they are sensing that public opinion is turning against them. But as for appreciating the show, it is irrelevant what you think about the historical events themselves. The show doesn’t play into any simplistic narrative of good vs evil, as characters on both sides have complicated pasts. One is free to root for the capitalists as their goons kill the uppity farmers, if that makes one happy.

As for myself, the show is of personal interest as most of the story occurs here in Iowa. The specific location named is Holden County, but I have no idea where that is supposed to be. There presently is no Holden County in Iowa and I don’t know that there ever was. All I could find is a reference to a Holden County School (Hamilton Township) in an obituary from Decatur County, which is along the southern border of Iowa (a county over from Appanoose where is located Centerville with an interesting history). Maybe there used to a Holden County that was absorbed by another county, a common event I’ve come across before in genealogical research, but in this case no historical map shows a Holden County ever having existed.

The probable fictional nature of the county aside, there is a reason the general location is relevant. Iowa is a state that exists in multiple overlapping border regions, between the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, between the Midwest and Far West, between the Upper Midwest and the Upper South. It is technically in the Midwest and typically perceived as the Heart of the Heartland, the precise location of Standard American English. The broad outlines of Iowa was defined according to Indian territory, such as how the northern border of Missouri originally formed. What became a boundary dispute later on almost led to violent conflict between Missouri and Iowa, based on the ideological conflict over slavery that would eventually develop into the Civil War.

Large parts of Iowa has more similarity to the Upper Midwest. It is distinct in being west of the Mississippi River, one of the last areas of refuge for many of what then were still independent Native American tribes and hence one of the last major battlegrounds to fight off Westward expansion. Iowa is the only state where a tribe collectively bought its own land, rather than staying on a federal reservation. As for southern Iowa, there is a clear Southern influence and you can occasionally hear a Southern accent (as found all across the lower edge of the Lower Midwest). That distinguishes it from northern Iowa with more of the northern European (German, Czech, and Scandinvian) culture shared with Minnesota and Wisconsin. And the more urbanized and industrialized Eastern Iowa has some New England influence from early settlers.

Maybe related to the show, southern Iowa had much more racial and ethnic diversity because of the immigrants attracted to mining towns. This led to greater conflict. I know that in Centerville, a town once as diverse as any big city, the Ku Klux Klan briefly used violence and manipulation to take control of the government before being ousted by the community. The area was important for the Underground Railroad, but it wasn’t a safe area to live for blacks until after the Civil War. In Damnation, some of the town residents are members of the Black Legion, the violent militant group that was an offshoot of the KKK (originally formed to guard Klan leaders). In the show, the Black Legion is essentially a fascist group that opposes left-wing politics and  labor organizing, which is historically accurate. The Klan and related groups in the North were more politically oriented, since the black population was fewer in number. In fact, the Klan tended to be found in counties where there were the least number of minorities (racial minorities, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities), as shown in how they couldn’t maintain control in diverse towns like Centerville.

One of the few blacks portrayed in the show is a woman working at a brothel. I supposed that would have been common, as blacks would have had a harder time finding work. In a scene at the brothel, there was one detail that seemed to potentially be historically inaccurate. A Pinkerton goon has all the prostitutes gathered and holds up something with words on it. He wants to find out which of them can read and it turns out that the black woman is the only literate prostitute working there. That seems unlikely. Iowa had a highly educated population early on, largely by design — as Phil Christman explains (On Being Midwestern: The Burden of Normality):

This is a part of the country where, the novelist Neal Stephenson observes, you can find small colleges “scattered about…at intervals of approximately one tank of gas.” Indeed, the grid-based zoning so often invoked to symbolize dullness actually attests to a love of education, he argues: 

People who often fly between the East and West Coasts of the United States will be familiar with the region, stretching roughly from the Ohio to the Platte, that, except in anomalous non-flat areas, is spanned by a Cartesian grid of roads. They may not be aware that the spacing between roads is exactly one mile. Unless they have a serious interest in nineteenth-century Midwestern cartography, they can’t possibly be expected to know that when those grids were laid out, a schoolhouse was platted at every other road intersection. In this way it was assured that no child in the Midwest would ever live more than √2 miles [i.e., about 1.4 miles] from a place where he or she could be educated.7

Minnesota Danish farmers were into Kierkegaard long before the rest of the country.8 They were descended, perhaps, from the pioneers Meridel LeSueur describes in her social history North Star Country: 

Simultaneously with building the sod shanties, breaking the prairie, schools were started, Athenaeums and debating and singing societies founded, poetry written and recited on winter evenings. The latest theories of the rights of man were discussed along with the making of a better breaking plow. Fourier, Marx, Rousseau, Darwin were discussed in covered wagons.9

If you’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, you know that many of these schools were founded as centers of abolitionist resistance, or even as stops on the Underground Railroad.

The rural Midwest was always far different than the rural South. Iowa, in particular, was a bureaucratically planned society with the greatest proportion of developed land of any state in the country. The location of roads, railroads, towns, and schools was determined before most of the population arrived (similar to what China is now attempting with its mass building of cities out of nothing). The South, on the other hand, grew haphazardly and with little government intervention, such as seen with the the crazy zig-zagging of property lines and roads because of the metes-and-bounds system. This orderly design of Iowa fit the orderly culture of Northern European immigrants and New England settlers, contributing to an idealistic mentality about how society should operate (the Iowa college towns surrounded by farmland were built on the New England model).

The farmer revolts didn’t come out of nowhere. The immigrant populations in states like Iowa were already strongly community-focused and civic-minded. With them, they brought values of work ethic, systematic methods of farming, love of education, and much else. As an interesting example, Iowa was once known as the most musical state in the country because every town had local bands.

Unlike the stereotype, Iowans were obsessed with high culture. They saw themselves on the vanguard of Western Civilization. With so many public schools and colleges near every community, Iowans were well educated. The reason school children to this day have summers off was originally to allow farm children to be able to help on the farm while still being able to attend school. These Midwestern farm kids had relatively high rates of college attendance. And Iowa has long been known for having good schools, especially in the past. My mother has noted that so many Iowans she knows who are college-educated professionals went to small rural one-room schoolhouses.

Another factor is that Northern Europeans had a collectivist bent. They didn’t just love building public schools, public libraries, and public parks. They also formed civic institutions, farmer co-ops, credit unions, etc. They had a strong sense of solidarity that held their communities together. As the Iowa farmers stood together against the capitalist elites from the cities (the banksters, robber barons, and railroad tycoons), so did the German-American residents of Templeton, Iowa stood against Prohibition agents:

The most powerful weapon against oppression is community. This is attested to by the separate fates of a Templetonian like Joe Irlbeck and big city mobster like Al Capone. “Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago” (Kindle Locations 7-9 [Bryce T. Bauer, Gentlemen Bootleggers]). What ruled Templeton was most definitely not violence. Instead, it was a culture of trust. That is a weapon more powerful than all of Al Capone’s hired guns.

Damnation is a fair portrayal of this world that once existed. And it helps us to understand what destroyed that world — as vulture capitalists targeted small family farmers, controlling markets when possible or failing that sending in violent goons to create fear and havoc. That world survived in tatters for a few more decades, but government-subsidized big ag quickly took over. Still, small family farmers didn’t give up without a fight, as they were some of the last defenders of a pre-corporatist free market based on the ideal of meritorious hard work — the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer with its vision of agrarian republicanism, in line with Paine’s brand of socially-minded and liberty-loving Anti-Federalism.

On a more prosaic level, one reviewer offers a critical observation. Mike Hale writes, from a New York Times piece (Review: ‘Damnation’ and the Sick Soul of 1930s America):

Any fidelity to the story’s supposed place and time is clearly incidental to Mr. Tost. He’s transposed the clichés of 19th-century Wyoming or South Dakota to 1930s Iowa, and doesn’t even get the look right — shot in Alberta, the locations look nothing like the Midwest.

Perhaps he was drawn to the contemporary echoes of the Depression-era material but wanted to give it some mock-Shakespearean, “Deadwood”-style dramatic heft. There’s a lot of literary straining going on — the characters are more familiar than you’d expect with the work of Wallace Stevens and Theodore Dreiser, and the sordid capitalism and anti-Communist fervor depicted in the story invoke Sinclair Lewis and Jack London.

I’m not sure why Mike Hale thinks the show doesn’t look like Iowa. He supposedly grew up in Iowa, but I don’t know which part. Anyone who has been in Western Iowa or even much of Eastern Iowa would recognize similar terrain. I doubt anything has been transposed.

Iowa is a young state and, as once being part of the Wild West, early on had a cowboy culture. Famous Hollywood cowboys came from the Midwest, specifically this region along the Upper Mississippi River — such as Ronald Reagan who was from western Illinois and worked in Iowa and John Anderson who was born in Western Illinois and was college-educated in Iowa, but also others who were born and raised in Iowa: John Wayne, Hank Worden, Neville Brand, etc (not just playing cowboys on the big screen but growing up around that cowboy culture). This isn’t just farm country with fields of corn and soy. Most of that is feed for animals, such as cattle. Iowa is part of the rodeo circuit and there is a strong horse culture around here. A short distance from where I live, a coworker of mine helps drive cattle down a highway every year to move them from one field to another.

But as I pointed out, none of this contradicts it also being a highly educated and literate population. I don’t know why Hale would think that certain writers would be unknown to Midwesterners, especially popular and populist writers like Jack London. As for Theodore Dreiser, he was a fellow German-American Midwesterner who wrote about rural life and was politically aligned with working class interests, including involvement in the defense of radicals like those Iowa farmers — the kind of writer one would expect Iowans, specifically working class activists, to be reading during the Great Depression era. That would be even more true for Sinclair Lewis who was from neighboring Minnesota, not to mention also writing popular books about Midwestern communities and radical criticisms of growing fascism — the same emergent fascism that threatened those Iowa farmers.

It’s interesting that an Iowan like Mike Hale would be so unaware of Iowa history. But maybe that is because he was born and spent much of his life outside of Iowa, specifically outside of the United States. His family isn’t from Iowa and so he has no roots here. I noticed that he tweeted that he “Was intrigued ‘Damnation’ is set in my state, Iowa. Didn’t expect the crucifixion, gun battles and frontier brothel”; to which someone responded that “If in Palo Alto, San Jose & NYC since ’77, IA hasn’t been ur state 4 awhile.” Besides, part of his childhood wasn’t even spent in Iowa but instead in Asia. And beyond that, many people simply don’t think he is that great of a critic (see Cultural Learnings, Variety, and Mediaite).

A better review is by Jeff Iblings over at The Tracking Board (Damnation Review: “Sam Riley’s Body”). The review is specifically about the first episode, but goes into greater detail:

Damnation is a new show on USA Networks set in the 1930’s during prohibition, the dust bowl era, and the social unrest during the unionization and strikes that accompanied the corruption of that time. It’s an intriguing look at a moment in American history when people began to wrest control away from a government bought and paid for by industrialists, only to have their movement squashed by the collusion of moneyed interests and the politicians they’d paid for. The series begins in Holden, Iowa as farmers have formed a blockade around the town so no more shipments of produce can reach the city. The powerful banker in town, who owns the newspaper and the Sheriff, has bribed the market in town to keep his food prices low, to price the famers out of making a profit on their crops so they’ll default on the loans he’s given them. A preacher in town fans the flames of the farmer’s unhappiness and gets them to revolt against the banker. Who is this mysterious preacher, and what does he have planned? […]

Damnation is clearly well researched, and the true-life stories it uses to flesh out its world are there to service the narrative, not overburden the show. 1930’s America was a desperate, bleak time, where moneyed interests controlled everything. The game was fixed back then, with politicians in the pocket of industrialists and wealthy bankers. The people had nothing more to give, since the wealthy had taken nearly everything from them. It’s a very relevant tale. Almost the same exact thing is going on again in present day America, which I would imagine, is one of the points of Damnation.

Iblings writes in another Damnation review of the second episode:

Tony Tost and his writers room delve into the history of the Great Depression in order to mine forgotten aspects of our political and social movements. It’s incredible how prescient much of the struggles of the farmers depicted still are problems today. Price fixing, bank negligence and dishonesty, politicians in the pockets of big business, the stifling of the labor movement when it’s needed most, and the inherent racism and protectionism of white Americans towards other races are all as topical today as they were in the 1930’s. It’s as if little has actually changed 100 years later. Damnation may be a historical television series, but it’s speaking to the America of today.

And about the third episode, he writes:

There are a few interesting moments I want to point out that really stuck with me. The first is the opening scene of a couple watching their kids playing baseball and taking great joy in it. When the wife goes into the shed to get the kids some cream soda, there are nooses hanging from the ceiling and Black Legion outfits hung up on the walls. The man then exclaims to his wife, “If this isn’t the American dream, I don’t know what is.” Damnation uses this banal setting, and these uneventful people to show how the American dream was an exclusionary ideal. They look like normal people you’d run into, but underneath this veneer are racist secrets. This prejudice was pervasive back then, but in Trump’s America this type of hatred and racism has become the norm once again. It was disgusting then, and it’s disgusting now.

What I like about the show is how it portrays the nature of populist politics during that historical era. The show begins in 1931, a moment of transition for American society in the waning days of Prohibition. The Great Depression followed decades of Populism and set the stage for the Progressivism that would follow. The next year Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be elected and later on re-elected twice more, the most popular president in US history.

What many forget about both Populism and Progressivism is the role that religion played, especially Evangelicalism. In the past, Evangelicals were often radical reformers in their promoting separation of church and state, abolitionism, women’s rights, and such. Think of the 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech given by William Jennings Bryan. This goes back to how Thomas Paine, the original American populist and progressive, used Christian language to advocate radical politics. Interestingly, as Paine was an anti-Christian deist, the leader of the farmers revolt is a guy falsely posing as an itinerant preacher, although he shows signs of genuine religious feeling such as sparing a man’s life when he sees the likeness of a cross marked on the floor near the man’s head. However one takes his persona of religiosity, the preaching of a revolutionary Jesus is perfectly in line with the political rhetoric of the period.

I also can’t help but appreciate how much it resonates with the present. The past, in a sense, always remains relevant — since as William Faulkner so deftly put it,  “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” In a New York Post interview, the show’s creator Tony Tost was asked, “How relevant is the plot about the common man battling the establishment today?” And he replied that, “I wrote the first two episodes, like, three years ago, but contemporary history keeps making the show feel more and more relevant. I’m not necessarily trying to do an allegory about the present, but history is very cyclical. There’s some core elemental conflicts and issues that we keep returning to. In a way, the present day almost caught up.”

As with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, Damnation has good timing. Such hard-hitting social commentary is important at times like these. And in the form of entertainment, it is more likely to have an impact.

* * *

State of Emergency: The Depression and the Plots to Create an American Dictatorship
by Nate Braden, Kindle Locations 510-571
(see Great Depression, Iowa, & Revolts)

“In September 1932 Fortune published a shocking profile of the effect Depression poverty was having on the American people. Titled “No One Has Starved” – in mocking reference to Herbert Hoover’s comment to that effect – Fortune essentially called the President a liar and explained why in a ten page article. Predicting eleven million unemployed by winter, its grim math figured these eleven million breadwinners were responsible for supporting another sixteen and a half million people, thus putting the total number of Americans without any income whatsoever at 27.5 million. Along with another 6.5 million who were underemployed, this meant 34 million citizens – nearly a third of the country’s population – lived below the poverty line. [1]

“Confidence was low that a Hoover reelection would bring any improvement in the country’s situation. He had ignored calls in 1929 to bail out banks after the stock market crashed on the grounds that the federal government had no business saving failed enterprises. With no liquidity in the financial markets, credit evaporated and deflation pushed prices and wages lower, laying waste to asset values. Two years passed before Hoover responded with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created to distribute $300 million in relief funds to state and local governments. It was too little, too late. The money would have been better served shoring up the banks three years earlier.

“With each cold, hungry winter that passed, political discussions grew more radical and less tolerant. Talk of revolution was more openly voiced. Harper’s, reflecting the opinion of East Coast intellectuals, pondered its likelihood and confidently asserted: “Revolutions are made, not by the weak, the unsuccessful, or the ignorant, but by the strong and the informed. They are processes, not merely of decay and destruction, but of advance and building. An old order does not disappear until a new order is ready to take its place.”[2]

“As this smug analysis was rolling off the presses, the weak, the unsuccessful, and the ignorant were already proving it wrong. Most people expected a revolt to start in the cities, but it was in the countryside, in Herbert Hoover’s home state no less, where men first took up arms against a system they had been raised to believe in but no longer did. On August 13, 1932, Milo Reno, the onetime head of the Iowa Farmer’s Union, led a group of five hundred men in an assault on Sioux City. They called it a “farm holiday,” but it was in fact an insurrection. Reno and his supporters blocked all ten highways into the city and confiscated every shipment of milk except those destined for hospitals, dumping it onto the side of the road or taking it into town to give away free. Fed up with getting only two cents for a quart of milk that cost them four cents to bring to market, the farmers were creating their own scarcities in an attempt to drive up prices.

“The insurgents enjoyed local support. Telephone operators gave advance warning of approaching lawmen, who were promptly ambushed and disarmed. When 55 men were arrested for picketing the highway to Omaha, a crowd of a thousand angry farmers descended on the county jail in Council Bluffs and forced their release. The uprising just happened to coincide with the Iowa National Guard’s annual drill in Des Moines, but Governor Dan Turner declined to use these troops to break up the disturbance, saying he had “faith in the good judgment of the farmers of Iowa that they will not resort to violence.”[3]

“The rebellion spread to Des Moines, Spencer, and Boone. Farmers in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota declared their own holidays. Milo Reno issued a press release vowing to continue “until the buying power of the farmer is restored – which can be done only by conceding him the right to cost of production, based on an American standard of existence.” Business institutions, he added, “whether great or small, important or humble, must suffer.” While advising his followers to obey the law and engage only in “peaceful picketing,” Reno issued this warning: “The day for pussyfooting and deception in the solution of the farmers’ problems is past, and the politicians who have juggled with the agricultural question and used it as a pawn with which to promote their own selfish interests can succeed no longer.”[4]

“Reno and his men had laid down their marker. Aware that the insurrectionists might call his bluff, the governor stopped short of issuing an ultimatum, but he kept his Guardsmen in Des Moines just in case. The showdown never came – a mysterious shotgun attack on one of Reno’s camps near Cherokee was enough to persuade him to call off the holiday – but others weren’t cowed by the violence. The same day Reno issued his press release, coal miners in neighboring Illinois went on strike after their pay was cut to five dollars a day. Fifteen thousand of them shut down shafts all over Franklin County, the state’s largest mining region, and took over the town of Coulterville for several hours, “exhausting provisions at the restaurant, swamping the telephone exchange with calls and choking roads and fields for a mile around” the New York Times reported. Governor Louis Emmerson ordered state troopers to take the town back. Wading into a hostile, sneering crowd who shouted “Cossacks!” at them, the police broke it up with pistols and clubs, putting eight miners in the hospital.

“The rebels were bloodied but unbowed. Vowing to march back in to coal country, strike leader Pat Ansbury told a journalist, “if we go back it must be with weapons. We can’t face the machine guns of those Franklin County jailbirds with our naked hands. Not a man in our midst had even a jackknife. When we go back we must have arms, organization and cooperation from the other side.” Shaking his head at the lost opportunity, he made sure the reporter hadn’t misunderstood him. “This policy of peaceful picketing is out from now on.” Reno conducted a similar post-mortem, acknowledging that his side may have lost the battle but would not lose the war: “You can no more stop this movement than you could stop the revolution. I mean the revolution of 1776.”[5]

“Not only were farmers burdened by low commodity prices, they were also swamped with high-interest mortgages and crushing taxes. In February 1933 Prudential Insurance, the nation’s largest land creditor, announced it would suspend foreclosures on the 37,000 farm titles it held, valued at $209 million. Mutual Benefit and Metropolitan Life followed suit, all of them finally coming to the conclusion that they couldn’t get blood from a rock.

“It was also getting very dangerous to be a repo man in the Midwest. When farms were foreclosed and the land put up for auction, neighbors of the dispossessed property holder would often show up at the sale, drive away any serious bidders, then buy the land for a few dollars and deed it back to the original owner. By this subterfuge a debt of $400 at one Ohio auction was settled for two dollars and fifteen cents. A mortgage broker in Illinois received only $4.90 for the $2,500 property he had put into receivership. An Oklahoma attorney who tried to serve foreclosure papers to a farm widow was promptly waylaid by her neighbors, including the county sheriff, driven ten miles out of town and dumped unceremoniously on the side of the road. A Kansas City realtor who had foreclosed on a 500-acre farm turned up with a bullet in his head, his killers never brought to justice. [6]”

Star Trek Over Time

I’m super curious about the new Star Trek show that will eventually be coming out, a bit delayed. The original is one of the shows I grew up with. And the entire set of series mark the changes of the world I’ve known over my life.

The Original Series is a cult classic. It’s Wagon Train to the Stars! It has the optimistic bravado of the early Cold War with a bit of an edge with the changing culture during the 1960s. It was largely escapist fantasy during a troubled era, but it was written and produced by those who remembered an earlier time. It resonated with the Golden Age of hard science fiction with its focus on technology and spaceships, exploration and adventure, along with some fun and imaginative ideas thrown in. It ended in 1969, before real world events turned even uglier in the 1970s, not to imply that American society wasn’t already taking a severe downturn.

I’ll skip over The Animated Series. It was a product of the 1970s, but it was very much an extension of The Original Series. I never watched much of it. The quality of the animation was equivalent of Scooby-Doo. The 1970s wasn’t known for its great animation, at least not on network tv, even if some of the cheap cartoons could be amusing for a child to watch. Anyway, Gene Roddenberry never considered The Animated Series to be canon.

Moving onto the 1980s and 1990s, there was The Next Generation. It revived the Star Trek world, brought the original out of status of mere cult classic and cheap rerun fodder. TNG was a truly high quality production. It made this future society much more compelling and realistic. The starship was an entire multicultural community with families, schools, entertainment, social events, etc. It was a utopian vision of technocratic socialism where the welfare state and social democracy had been pushed to their furthest extreme with all basic needs taken care of and all resources and opportunities made accessible, although a socialism that offered an alternative to the hard-edged communist totalitarianism of the Borg.

This particular futuristic imagining was the last gasp of Cold War optimism, the supposed end of history where capitalism had won and yet was becoming something entirely new. The show was initially produced during the last years of the Cold War and the beginning of the boom years that followed. It was a calmer time of history in the US and the West with no major wars or conflicts. Yet there was a growing edge of anxiety in the broader society. Threats of societal unease within the Federation mirrored the same in the United States, the tensions of a vast imperial-like civilization in both cases fraying at the edges with terrorism becoming an issue.

Interestingly, the Maquis were introduced in Deep Space Nine. That next series began in the last years of the previous series, The Next Generation. The Maquis were a terrorist group that arose at the frontier of the Federation, as some of the far-flung planetary colonists felt abandoned and betrayed by the centralized government. As TNG was still being produced, the Maquis storyline bled over into that series.

After the Cold War, Americans found themselves subjects of an empire and not sure what that meant. And those societies at the edge of the American Empire also were feeling on edge, as a new era of unchallenged neoliberalism came into dominance. It was a time of political conflict and culture wars. Without the global conflict of the Cold War, public attention turned toward these fractures within the Western world.

Years before the 9/11 terrorist attack, right-wing fanatics in the US and abroad were becoming central concerns. Ted Kazynski, the unabomber, continued his bombings through the early 1990s, the last two incidents killing the targeted victims, until he was arrested in 1996. The same year as Kazynski’s last bombing there was the Oklahoma City bombing, the largest act of domestic terrorism in US history. That was committed as retaliation for the 1993 violent conflict in WACO, involving the federal government and a religious cult that had been stockpiling weapons. There was also much violence by anti-abortion terrorists, including numerous murders in the 1990s. Outside of the US but in the English-speaking world, there was an upsurge of IRA bombings around that time as well, 28 attacks during the 7 years of TNG series.

On top of all that, it was a time of worsening racial and ethnic conflict. There was the police beating of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The tension of that decade was maybe exacerbated by the Immigration Act of 1990, which greatly increased the number of immigrants for the first time in decades. There was a realization that WASP culture was once again under threat. Fox News took advantage of those fears not just with right-wing pundits but also with hiring tall blonde women who represented the stereotype of the Aryan ideal, the white male audience presumably were supposed to fantasize about these women bearing them a new generation of Aryan children who would save America and lead us into the future… or something like that.

It was in this atmosphere that DS9 was produced. It showed a different side of the Federation and presented the first main captain character of a Star Trek series that was black. It was set on a space station near a wormhole and a highly religious planet, former territory of the Cardassian Union. The issues of the show were about conflicts, often violent, between various societies and groups within societies. These conflicts were often religious and ethnic in nature, but it also portrayed a setting of a multicultural meeting point where key characters of different races worked together and formed friendships.

The future of the Federation was being threatened like never before, but the enemies involved weren’t what the Federation was used to dealing with. The challenges faced were less of the variety of mighty space empires or communist-like Borg, but instead primarily the dangers of local religious fanatics and the menace of a highly advanced and secretive race of shapeshifters. The Dominion was an enemy that could be anywhere and appear like anyone. It wasn’t always clear, in DS9, who were enemies and who were friends or at least potential allies, as everything was in flux. Relationships, personal and political, were sometimes strained to the breaking point. And it was the destruction of the Maquis, caught in the middle, that was a prelude to war with the Dominion.

Back in the world of the United States, the sociopolitical mood during the mid-to-late-1990s was beginning to sour with the rise of a new kind of reactionary and conspiratorial right-wing that was given a platform through talk radio and Fox News: Alex Jones, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, etc. The Cold War had been about American might expanding onto the global theater and also a time of exploration of space. But in the last decade of the century, American society had turned more inward. The United States was drifting along into the future, we Americans having lost our cultural bearings. Many sensed an impending doom with our civilization approaching the year 2000 and along with it the third millennium, a symbolic calendrical shift giving rise to a foreboding mood as if almost anything could happen, even the end of the world as we knew it.

The reason the Maquis had been brought into the Star Trek world was as a plot device for the then upcoming series, Voyager. That next series, having begun in 1995, took over when The Next Generation ended. The confident optimism of the earlier Star Trek series had entirely evaporated. The new storyline was about a Federation starship and a Maquis starship becoming lost in distant and unknown stretches of space. The stability and safety of the Federation are gone. The crews are forced to join together in hope of finding their way home again. They are thrown into the unintended role of explorers, a rough-and-ready crew reminiscent of the the Federation’s early years.

Like these former enemies who became necessary shipmates, the bitterly antagonistic two-party system of the 1990s found itself unprepared for a world not expected or understood. DS9 having ended in 1999, Voyager carried us into a new century and a new era. The last episode of Voyager was aired only months before the 9/11 terrorist attack. The Voyager had made its way back to the Federation and soon after, outside of the Star Trek world, the United States would regain a sense of national purpose. But the economic good times were already winding down with the bust of the Dot-com bubble. America’s sense of greatness would be militaristic, not economic.

In the new century, Americans became even more obsessed with the national history. Maybe unsurprising, the last aired Star Trek series, Enterprise, brought us to the beginning of the Federation or rather slightly before its formation. That series demonstrated the mood of simultaneously looking back and peering forward. The period of the Enterprise was the Federation’s past and our future. According to the Star Trek timeline, this present century will involve World War III and a period of post-atomic horror. Following that comes first contact with an alien species. Later this century, human society begins to recover. And it is in the next century that humans become a spacefaring civilization, the story told in the Enterprise series.

Watching that series is to see the initial fumbling steps of humanity moving toward maturity as a species, but humans at that point are still largely arrogant toward and ignorant of the world beyond Earth. Many mistakes are made, as humanity attempts to gain a moral compass. For example, the Enterprise crew are confronted with a situation where they have to decide about intervention and this is prior to any Prime Directive, as there is no Federation yet. The Prime Directive has often been interpreted as a criticism of American interventionism, such as during the Vietnam War, but it took on new meaning during the post-9/11 years when the Enterprise series was aired.

For various reasons, many fans disliked that series. It maybe doesn’t help that it is the only series involving a non-Federation crew. A Star Trek show minus the Federation is not quite the same. It is specifically the vision of the future offered by the Federation that has attracted so many fans. But maybe it would have been hard for Americans to feel much interest in any Star Trek series in that early period of the War on Terror, a time when dark and dystopian entertainment captured the public imagination.

Yet in its own way, the Enterprise series did resonate. It maybe resonated too well, in presenting a future that was too close for comfort. In the 21st century, we are entering into the future history of the Star Trek world and it ain’t pretty. The coming years are supposed to be a time of mass unemployment, poverty, and homelessness which leads to the formation of ghettoized Sanctuary Districts and ends up inciting the Bell riots of 2024. It’s a pivotal moment, the setting of the stage for the events that move us toward global disaster and rebuilding. In its inspiration, it mirrors another pivotal moment, as the idea of the Bell riots was based on two real world events from decades ago: the 1970 Kent State shootings and the 1971 Attica Prison riot.

The era of the early Starfleet is born out of the ashes of, from our perspective, a yet to happen near apocalypse. With the mood of America and the rest of the world right now, World War III and nuclear destruction seems all the more probable. Our present fearless leader, President Trump, is a dumbed down and even less competent version of our last demoralizing chief of state, President Nixon with his inglorious impeachment and resignation, providing yet another link between the events of the 1970s and contemporary developments in the 21st century. As we face the future, it’s an immense gulf between our petty American Empire and the grand galactic civilization of the Federation guided by wise leaders such as Captain Picard.

That leaves us with the next installment. Coming soon is the Discovery series. It will return us to the time period of the original Star Trek, approximately ten years before. So, this will involve a refocusing on exploration and, well, discovery. I’m not expecting a re-envisioned Wagon Trail to the Stars, but I suspect the recent movies in the franchise very well might be indicative of the direction being taken. It supposedly is intended to help bridge the 150 years between the Enterprise and the original. I must say that sounds rather ambitious.

I’ll be curious to see how it might touch upon contemporary issues. One thing that stood out to me is that the cast is described as diverse, including a gay character. I don’t recall homosexuality coming up in the original show, but Captain Kirk had interracial kisses in two separate episodes which was scandalous for mainstream tv at the time. Whatever kind of show it is, it will be nice to return to my favorite fictional universe. And I certainly wouldn’t mind the opportunity to escape dark and depressing present realities, by leaping forward a couple centuries into the future. Star Trek, at its best, has been a visionary show and even leaning toward the utopian. We Americans could use some confident optimisim at the moment.

Introverted Delights

I’ve been watching Westworld. It’s my favorite show at the moment. That is saying a lot, considering it’s competition. The second season of The Man in the High Castle is about to come out, based on a novel I love by my favorite fiction writer. And the always entertaining Game of Thrones will be returning soon. But neither of those shows competes with Westworld.

Westworld is popular. But even though it has higher viewer ratings than Game of Thrones, it has much more mixed reviews. It’s such a complex show. The plotlines of Westworld are immensely more complicated than the sprawling narrative world of Game of Thrones. This makes it all the more impressive that it is so popular.

For some people, they see it as too cerebral. I wonder why that is. There is more emotional depth to this show in many ways than a show like Game of Thrones that is focused so much on physical action of fighting, on political machinations and worldly power. The inner experience of Westworld characters is conveyed to a much greater extent. Maybe that is what is difficult for some people, specifically extraverts.

Westworld, despite the outward action and adventure of the virtual world portrayed, is ultimately a show maybe best appreciated by an introvert. So many of the main characters on the show seem rather inwardly drawn and guarded about their most personal experience, which is unusual for mainstream action-oriented sci-fi. The point of the entire show revolves around growing self-awareness and the strengthening of an inner voice, the kind of thing that preoccupies introverts.

Some people wonder what is the point of all the convoluted plotlines, multitudinous cultural references, and in-show commentary of obscure ideas. Also, there is the simultaneous celebration and questioning of genre tropes. Is it embracing “guns and tits and all that mindless shit”? Or is the entire show a criticism of that, an exploration of what it means for our humanity? Maybe both. From my perspective, that just makes the show more interesting. But the basic show can be enjoyed on a much simpler level, even ignoring the sex and violence, as much of the character development is fairly straightforward. The motivation of characters is revealed as the show goes on, assuming enough imagination and curiosity pulls you in to follow the characters on their path of emergence.

The tricky part is that the identities of characters isn’t immediately apparent, only being revealed as their pasts are revealed. This is a slow reveal with glimpses of a murky past gradually coming into focus. The exploration of motivation is a learning experience as much for the characters themselves as for the viewers. We are meant to identify and empathize with the characters as individuals and not merely to be caught up in their actions and relationships with other characters.

This requires of the viewer both patience and immersion, along with suspension of disbelief about the entire fictional world. It’s an act of imaginative speculation taken to an extreme degree, an attempt to bring we the viewers into the borderlands of consciousness and of humanity. Some people have more tolerance than others for that kind of thing, but this is what the best sci-fi is able to achieve. That is what the producers of the Westworld show have been attempting, it being fair game to argue over how well they achieved it. Still, no matter how well done, these themes aren’t exactly of mainstream interest. Most viewers probably just want to see robots revolting and, for those folk, this show does deliver on that promise.

Still, Westworld is constrained by the sub-genre it belongs to. There is a central element of dark mystery and claustrophobic focus that is typical of gritty neo-noir, always leaving certain things unseen and unexplained. Take the slow burn of Blade Runner, exaggerate and complicate it, spread it across an entire show series with no linear plotline or single dominant protagonist, and that is what you get with Westworld. This isn’t a world-building exercise like some traditional fantasy and space operas where every detail is articulated and the background fully described. Everything in the narrative revolves around the characters and about what it means to be human.

This season introduced the individuals and their place in the world. The exploration of the larger world, if it is to happen, will be developed in the next season. The hosts, having gained consciousness, will no longer be trapped in voice commands, character scripts, and narrative loops. The inward focus likely will turn ever more outward, as the hosts try to grasp what kind of world they find themselves in. That is the natural progression of emerging consciousness, whether for a child or an android.

A Buffet of Stories

Here is a funny thing about major newspapers. It’s really about all MSM, but it is most apparent in newspapers where it is easy to flip around and quickly peruse numerous stories.

All of the MSM are known for having particular slants, besides the general bias of a mainstream mentality and echo chamber. Yet in any given newspaper there isn’t necessarily a consistency of views, between sections of a newspaper or even between authors in the same section. I’ve read articles that directly contradicted another article from a week before, either offering different evidence or interpretation, as if the writers don’t even read the newspapers they write for.

I found an example in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, from the same section A. I first read on page A11 the article “Why This Recovery Is So Lousy” by Phil Gramm and Michael Solon. They solely and entirely blame Obama with no mention of the previous administration or the Republican wins in 2010:

“In his capacity to implement his program, Mr. Obama stood as a colossus wth the fates on his side, the vast power of government at his disposal and no one—not Congress, the Supreme Court or the Federal Reserve—willing or able to deny his will. No resources were spared.”

(The comments section from the article, of course, makes for a more interesting read.)

Some pages back on A2, there is a less melodramatic article by Greg Ip, “Older Demographic Poses Double Whammy for Economy”. His piece is more narowly focused on a single set of data from a new research paper by Nicole Maestas, Kathleen Mullen, and David Powell. Ip describes the paper’s conclusion and implication:

“rapid retirement deprives companies of critical experience and knowledge, which undermines productivity across the entire economy. Demographics may thus be a critical factor in why the current economic expansion, which began as the first baby boomers qualified for Social Security, is the weakest on record.”

So which is the right explanation? Is it all Obama’s fault, taking the economy down single-handedly? Or should we blame the excessive number of old people selfishly retiring?

I don’t really care about scapegoating Obama or not. He is the president and obviously bears some responsibility. But there are obviously many factors involved, some unique to this period of history such as the long term consequences of a baby boom.

Anyway, the explanations themselves aren’t what interested me. It was just the oddity of two articles so close together with each seemingly oblivious to the view of the other. It amused me.

I sometimes have serious doubts that the purpose of the MSM is to inform the public. They are businesses, closer to the entertainment media than anything else, and so they need to make a profit. It’s the advertising that is the product and the stories are there to sell the product.

As such, each article tells a story, some slightly more substantial and others mere fluff. But it doesn’t matter if those stories present a consistent worldview or explain all of the available data. It’s like a buffet with many options. You take the story that fits your opinions and worldview while leaving the rest.

Meanwhile, the real money is being made by advertisers with proven records of influencing the buying habits of readers, although most readers think they are too savvy to be influenced, if they ever give it any thought. The articles are largely just distraction, not entirely unlike watching a mindless sitcom.

More Metaphors of Madness

I first likened being a US citizen to being run over by a car. I then used a simple comparison to describe the prospective presidencies in terms of the boiling frog scenario. Here are three more metaphors for your cynical amusement.

This one is a more detailed metaphor for the candidates this campaign season:

The body politic is ailing. Hillary Clinton is a symptom of the corruption that has compromised the immune system. Trump is a secondary illness like pneumonia that is potentially life threatening.

The secondary illness wouldn’t be dangerous if the immune system wasn’t already compromised and the patient were willing to seek medical treatment. But for some reason the ailing patient refuses to go to the doctor who is Sanders.

The mainstream media is the hospice worker administering pain drugs that puts the patient to sleep, as death nears. Then the patient’s eyes open and rallies some strength asking for something in a voice too quiet to understand, either asking for the doctor or Jesus.

Is all hope lost? Or can the patient still be saved?

The next metaphor is me being plain silly:

Clinton is a monkey in a banana experiment. The monkey’s hand is stuck in the hole, unable to get the banana out and unwilling to let go of the banana.

Sanders is the scientist observing the monkey and taking notes. The scientist goes on lunch break so as to eat his banana and peanut butter sandwich that he made himself.

Meanwhile, Trump is a banana plantation tycoon. He is inquiring about buying the laboratory where the experiment is happening, as he thinks that further banana research might be good for banana profits. He is also inquiring about maybe even buying an entire banana republic while he is at it.

The voting public sees a news report about the ongoing research. It makes them hungry for a banana.

And the best metaphor saved for last:

This campaign season is “Monte Python and the Holy Grail.” Clinton is King Arthur. The mainstream media is the guy following along making clopping noises with coconut shells. Trump is the Frenchman taunting King Arthur and his entourage. Sanders is the peasant complaining that he never voted for King Arthur. The voting public is the killer bunny.

That should clear everything up for you. I’m glad to be of service.

“How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.”

From the boundless green ocean behind the Wall, a wild tidal surge of roots, flowers, twigs, leaves was rolling toward me, standing on its hind legs, and had it flowed over me I would have been transformed from a person—from the finest and most precise of mechanisms—into . . .

But, happily, between me and this wild, green ocean was the glass of the Wall. Oh, the great, divinely bounding wisdom of walls and barriers! They may just be the greatest of all inventions. Mankind ceased to be wild beast when it built its first wall. Mankind ceased to be savage when we built the Green Wall, when we isolated our perfect, machined world, by means of the Wall, from the irrational, chaotic world of the trees, birds, animals . . .

That is from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (pp. 82-83). It’s a strange novel, an early example of a futuristic dystopia. The author finished writing it in the 1921, but couldn’t get it published in Russia. An English translation was published years later.

In the above quote, the description is of the Green Wall that encloses the society called One State. It is an entirely independent and self-sustaining city-state, outside of which its citizens do not venture. The government is authoritarian and social control is absolute. The collective is everything, such that people have no sense of individuality and have no souls. They don’t even dream, not normally, for to do so is considered a symptom of mental illness.

There was a global war that killed most of the human population. The citizens of One State are aware that human society used to be different. They have no experience of freedom, neither social freedom nor free will. But they have a historical memory of what freedom once meant and, of course, it is seen as having been a bad thing and the source of unhappiness.

Like Julian Jayne’s theory of bicameralism, these people are able to maintain a complex society without an internalized sense of self. The loci of identity is completely outside. But unlike bicameralism, there are no command voices telling them what to do. The society is so ordered that few moments of the day are not occupied by scheduled activity. Even sex is determined by the system of authority. Mathematical order is everything, including how citizens are named.

What fascinated me about the novel is when the protagonist, D-503, gains a soul. It is an imagining of what this experience would be like, to gain a sense of individuality and interiority, for long dormant imagination to be awakened. Having a self means the ability to imagine other selves, to empathize with what others are thinking and feeling, to be able to enter into the world of another.

If bicameral societies did exist, this would have been similar to how they came to an end. A bicameral society would have required a tightly ordered society where the social reality was ever-present and all-consuming. For that to breakdown would have been traumatic. It would have felt like madness.

* * *

We
by Yevgeny Zamyatin
pp. 79-81

With effort, a kind of spiral torque, I finally tore my eyes away from the glass below my feet—and suddenly the golden letters “MEDICINE” splashed in front of me . . . Why had he led me here and not to the Operation Room, and why had he spared me? But, at that moment, I wasn’t thinking of these things: with one leap over the steps, the door solidly banged behind me and I exhaled. Yes: it was as though I hadn’t breathed since dawn, as though my heart hadn’t struck a single beat—and it was only now that I exhaled for the first time, only now that the floodgates of my chest opened . . .

There were two of them: one was shortish, with cinder-block legs, and his eyes, like horns, tossed up the patients; the other one was skinny and sparkling with scissor-lips and a blade for a nose . . . I had met him before.

I flung myself at him as though he were kin, straight into the blade, and said something about being an insomniac, the dreams, the shadows, the yellow world. The scissor-lips flashed and smiled. How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.

A soul? That strange, ancient, long-forgotten word. We sometimes said “heart and soul,” “soulful,” “lost souls,” but a “soul”

“This is . . . this is very grave,” I babbled.

“It’s incurable,” incised the scissors.

“But . . . what specifically is at the source of all this? I can’t even begin . . . to imagine.”

“Well, you see . . . it is as if you . . . you’re a mathematician, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, take, for instance, a plane, a surface, like this mirror here. And on this surface—here, look—are you and I, and we are squinting at the sun, and see the blue electrical spark in that tube. And watch—the shadow of an aero is flashing past. But it is only on this surface for just a second. Now imagine that some heat source causes this impenetrable surface to suddenly grow soft, and nothing slides across it anymore but everything penetrates inside it, into that mirror world, which we used to look into as curious children—children aren’t all that silly, I assure you. The plane has now become a volume, a body, a world, and that which is inside the mirror is inside you: the sun, the whirlwind from the aero’s propeller, your trembling lips, and someone else’s trembling lips. So you see: a cold mirror reflects and rejects but this absorbs every footprint, forever. One day you see a barely noticeable wrinkle on someone’s face—and then it is forever inside you; one day you hear a droplet falling in the silence—and you can hear it again now . . .”

“Yes, yes, exactly . . .” I grabbed his hand. I could hear the faucet in the sink slowly dripping its droplets in the silence. And I knew that they would be inside me forever. But still, why—all of a sudden—a soul? I never had one—never had one—and then suddenly . . . Why doesn’t anyone else have one, but me?

I squeezed harder on the skinny hand: I was terrified to let go of this lifeline.

“Why? And why don’t we have feathers or wings but just scapulas, the foundation of wings? It’s because we don’t need wings anymore—we have the aero; wings would only be extraneous. Wings are for flying, but we don’t need to get anywhere: we have landed, we have found what we were seeking. Isn’t that so?”

I nodded my head in dismay. He looked at me, laughed sharply, javelinishly. The other one, hearing this, stumpily stamped through from out of his office, tossed the skinny doctor up with his hornlike eyes, and then tossed me up, too.

“What’s the problem? What, a soul? A soul, you say? Damn it! We’ll soon get as far as cholera. I told you”—the skinny one was horn-tossed again—“I told you, we must, everyone’s imagination— everyone’s imagination must be . . . excised. The only answer is surgery, surgery alone . . .”

He struggled to put on some enormous X-ray glasses, and walked around for a long time looking through my skull bone at my brain, and making notes in a notebook.

“Extraordinary, extraordinarily curious! Listen to me, would you agree . . . to be preserved in alcohol? This would be, for the One State, an extraordinarily . . . this would aid us in averting an epidemic . . . If you, of course, don’t have any particular reasons not . . .”

“You see,” the other one said, “cipher D-503 is the Builder of the Integral, and I am certain that this would interfere . . .”

“Ah,” he mumbled and lumped off to his cabinet.

And then we were two. A paper-hand lightly, tenderly lay on my hand. A face in profile bent toward me and he whispered: “I’ll tell you a secret—it isn’t only you. My colleague is talking about an epidemic for good reason. Think about it; perhaps you yourself have noticed something similar in someone else—something very similar, very close to . . .” He looked at me intently. What is he hinting at—at whom? It can’t be that—

“Listen . . .” I leapt from my chair. But he had already loudly begun to talk about something else: “. . . And for the insomnia, and your dreams, I can give you one recommendation: walk more. Like, for instance, tomorrow morning, go for a walk . . . to the Ancient House, for example.”

He punctured me again with his eyes and smiled thinly. And it seemed to me: I could clearly and distinctly see something wrapped up in the fine fabric of his smile—a word—a letter—a name, a particular name . . . Or is this again that same imagination?

I was only barely able to wait while he wrote out my certification of illness for today and tomorrow, then I shook his hand once more and ran outside.

My heart was light, quick, like an aero, and carrying, carrying me upward. I knew: tomorrow held some sort of joy. But what would it be?

 

The Man in the High Castle: Amazon Pilot

Over at Amazon.com, they just put out a bunch of pilots. I only watched one of them, “The Man in the High Castle.” All the other pilots were either mainstream trash tv or kids shows.

I really want “The Man in the High Castle” to be made. It is based on one of my favorite novels by my most favorite writer, Philip K. Dick. There have been a number of movies based on his fiction, some better than others, but there has yet to be a tv show.

I was surprised to see the pilot. I hadn’t heard anything about it. I’m so freaking excited about it right now.

Please go watch the pilot. Then take the survey. Make your voice heard, if you like the pilot, as I’m sure you will. This show needs to be praised to the high heavens so that the Amazon gods will hear our plea for an awesome PKD show.

If the show ends up not being produced, I may throw myself off the nearest parking ramp or tall building. Lives are at stake. Take pity on us PKD fans. May VALIS have mercy on all of our souls!

Alternative Visions, Radical Imagination

When Science Fiction Stopped Caring About the Future
by Noah Berlatsky, The Atlantic

Over here is Le Guin, taking a stand for science fiction on the grounds that “we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” And over here is Star Wars, showing you more pictures of the Millennium Falcon. So much for Le Guin’s call to elevate creators who know “the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”

writing & reading, democracy & despotism 
by Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium

Ursula Le Guin
‘Resistance and change often begin in art’

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

The full text of the talk was published in the Guardian; there is also a video of the talk.

Science Fiction and the Post-Ferguson World: “There Are as Many Ways to Exist as We Can Imagine”
by Mary Hansen, YES!

Again, this is why we need science fiction. We often can’t imagine that things could be different because we can’t imagine alternative systems. Ursula LeGuin just gave an incredible speech at the National Book Awards, where she talked about this and said people can’t imagine a world without capitalism. Well, there was a time when people couldn’t imagine a world without the divine right of kings.

But the writers, the visionaries, those folks who are able to imagine freedom are absolutely necessary to opening up enough space for folks to imagine that there’s a possibility to exist outside of the current system.

I think it’s been a concerted effort to erase those possibilities. These systems that we live under are incredibly unnatural. This is not the way we’re supposed to live. It takes indoctrination to get us to a point where we believe that this is the way things should be. When we take a small step outside that, we are able to break that indoctrination and see that this is not the only way, and in fact there are as many ways to exist as we can imagine.